For most of Travel Weekly's readers, "independent travel" means prearranged, nongroup travel that is, in fact, dependent on arrangements made by a travel counselor (who in turn makes arrangements with hoteliers or tour operators who handle FIT business).
But there are millions of true independent travelers out there who don't intersect very often with the travel industry, except, perhaps, to buy an airline ticket at the cheapest rate they can find on the web. They may stay in local inns, a B&B or a vacation rental home. They'll eat in no-name restaurants or perhaps grab a meal at a street kiosk, shoulder to shoulder with locals.
It could be argued that true independents spend less and get more of what some industry-assisted travelers pay a premium for: authenticity.
Before "experiential travel" became an industry buzz phrase, it could be said, fairly, that the more one spent, the more likely one was to move further from an authentic experience. The affluent bought a cocoon; they chose to be pampered within the confines of beautiful properties, their only tie to their destination being the locally sourced ingredients in the spa's body wraps or scrubs.
But then the pendulum began to swing the other way, and "authenticity" came onto the menu for even the very wealthy, industry-assisted traveler. Early "experiential" travel didn't exactly mean you had to fend for yourself among the locals; more likely, it entailed re-created emblematic moments of local life, such as a cooking class that began with a group walk down to the market to buy fresh ingredients.
I wrote earlier this year that it appears a new traveler is emerging who rejects the symbols and trappings of old-guard status symbols. And one way this has impacted travel is that the young and affluent don't want to wall themselves up in the iconic, classic hotels that their parents aspired to inhabit, and they aren't satisfied with only tokens of local color.
In the past few weeks, I spoke with two veteran luxury tour operators who have also sensed the change and are creating new products that recognize the evolution of travel styles.
For decades, George Butterfield, a founder of Butterfield & Robinson, has produced bicycle tours in regions synonymous with the good life: Provence, Tuscany and some areas farther afield that can satisfy his active, upscale clientele. His company's tours have always blended an up-close look at the scenery with Michelin-star restaurants and five-star lodging.
He has now added a more casual option, dubbed "Bistro Trips." For these, he has sought inns that are "more quaint than grand." On a classic B&R tour, guests might dine with a contessa; on the Bistro tour, a farmer.
Part of its appeal, Butterfield said, is that "people want to discover places other people don't know about."
The other operator I spoke with was George Morgan-Grenville, former managing director of Abercrombie & Kent and founder of a new upscale operation called Red Savannah.
"I want to create trips that are not formulaic but cater to the sophisticated 21st century traveler, those who have moved beyond materialism and conspicuous consumption," he said. "It's not about what category hotel you stay in; it's about the character of the hotel and the experience of the hotel."
Morgan-Grenville said that agents selling upscale trips that are nonformulaic must have a different conversation with clients than they are accustomed to having.
"You're not selling glitz," he said. "You have to understand what it is you're selling and sell it as it is. You need to empathize [with today's traveler] and screen out those who don't really want an in-depth experience."
Behind the shift in travelers' consciousness, Morgan-Grenville senses a rejection of ubiquity.
"When you watch the film 'Casablanca,' the nightclub has a very specific, Moroccan feel," he said. "Inside most clubs today, you could be anywhere. That feeling of ubiquity permeates the travel experience today. I see the same 'local' souvenir, made in China, sold in countries on opposite sides of the world."
Indeed, the move toward "authenticity" might in large measure be a reaction to globalization. When foreign landscapes are decorated with familiar brands, travelers might wonder why they bothered to travel in the first place.
And, ironically, it might now require, in some cases, the assistance of the travel industry to point consumers in the direction of authenticity.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.