Last week I traveled to Italy to join Tauck's Roman Holiday Event. Organized around five daily themes rather than proximity to attractions, it was as much about access as it was about content. It used scale in ways that leveraged both large-group buying power and small-group intimacy. (Click here for a slideshow of photos from Arnie's trip to Italy.)
It demonstrated how far tours have evolved since Arthur Tauck Sr. first drove paying passengers around in his car to see fall foliage 90 years ago. It also revealed how expectations for leisure travel have outstripped the vocabulary used by the industry to describe itself.
Note first that this is among a small handful of city offerings Tauck tags as "Events," its top-tier product, described as "once-in-a-lifetime experiences."
Labeling throughout the Tauck website is evocative, but you have to do a bit of reading to fully appreciate the distinctions among immersions, voyages and journeys (among other descriptors).
Indeed, most escorted tour operators and wholesalers have been running away from the word "tour" for at least a decade, since the dawn of experiential travel. As our Michelle Baran noted last week, Kuoni's new brand, Brite Spokes, doesn't even list destinations on its site -- just experience categories, such as "Adrenaline," "All in the Family" and "Eat, Drink and Be Merry." (See "Startup tour ops' itineraries tout independence, experiences.")
It really hit home during the Tauck event how dated once-common industry terminology has become.
What bearing do star ratings have in a world of lifestyle hotels, other than to signal how much guests can expect to pay relative to other local properties?
There are self-described luxury cruise lines, but what shorthand can be used to describe the mass-market ships that also offer suites and private areas with service, amenities and food designed to create a womb of exclusivity and luxe?
Rating systems are often calculated from an inspector's checklist, but time and again in Rome last week, I wondered how experiences I was having could be classified.
For example, Tauck arranged for us to visit the private home of Princess Boncompagni Ludovisi. You might remember her as Rita Jenrette, wife of John Jenrette, the South Carolina congressman who was convicted of taking bribes in the Abscam scandal of 1980. She subsequently provided a provocative interview, with accompanying pictorial, to Playboy.
Villa Aurora, her current prince-husband's inheritance, is just off Via Veneto. It has a possible Michelangelo statue in the garden and a certified Caravaggio painted on the ceiling of one room.
The quality of the art on the walls would, by itself, make the villa a worthwhile stop, but having Jenrette as hostess/tour guide makes it priceless. She has turned name-dropping into high art, telling anecdotes about past visitors, ranging from Galileo to Henry James to Woody Allen to Madonna, adding asides about visiting popes and royalty and -- well, the structure hadn't been built yet, but there is good reason to believe that Julius Caesar wooed Cleopatra on the site.
What's the calculus to evaluate an experience like that?
(Tauck events manager Brenda MacKellar said that next year, the company hoped to have the farewell dinner of its "World Cities -- Rome" tour at Jenrette's villa.)
Similarly, the group was duly impressed with a private tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, followed by dinner in a room of the museum that is typically closed to visitors.
The dinner was what most guests talked about afterward, but I was astounded that we could break the no-talking, no-photos rules in the Sistine Chapel. Having a knowledgeable guide stand next to you and interpret the ceiling, panel by panel, with no crowds or pressure to move along quickly -- is there a shorthand classification for this experience?
There were other highlights -- a tour of the Vatican gardens, entrance to the Scala Santa's Sancta Sanctorum, a walk through an underground neighborhood beneath San Giovanni, a farewell dinner on a movie set of ancient Rome -- that are not exclusive to Tauck but are not commonly or easily seen.
I mentioned that Tauck had taken advantage of scale in an unusual way. The group was divided into four subgroups of about 23, each with its own guide for themed daily experiences ("Geniuses of Rome," "From Romulus to the Caesars").
These groups were small enough to be accurately described as intimate, but each evening, we'd attend functions that wouldn't have been economically feasible for small groups: a designer fashion show, the private Vatican dinner, the movie-set event. In addition to four local tour guides, there were seven Tauck staff in attendance to coordinate logistics and ensure things ran smoothly, an expense that couldn't have been justifiable with a smaller group.
What's missing at this moment in time, I believe, is a universal vocabulary whose texture is rich enough to describe the flowering of truly special products from tour operators, hoteliers, cruise lines and travel advisers. Perhaps it's my recent exposure to Rome that has me thinking in these terms, but it seems to me that the industry is in the midst of a renaissance of sorts. I see an explosion of creativity across segments.
The word "curated," alas, has lost all of its power. It once implied expert judgment, but it has been rendered meaningless by overuse. I expect any day now to hear that McDonald's has curated a new Happy Meal, one that uses only the finest greases and salts.
Is it possible for the industry to come up with descriptors that are as rich as the experiences on offer? What we have now is worse than outdated; it has become nonsensical, fuzzy or simply meaningless. The question is whether products have become so rich that to categorize them is to limit them.
Perhaps we don't need new shorthand if it's not also elegant. For the time being, perhaps we just drop the old classifications without feeling much pressure to replace them.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.