John Stoll, Crystal Cruises' director of land programs, spends half the year traveling the world looking for the most unique African safaris, the best guides for private tours of the Catacombs in Rome and ways to visit India's Taj Mahal while beating the heat and the lines.

Whether it's the Internet or the Discovery Channel effect, passenger expectations and demands have increased dramatically when it comes to shore excursions, making Stoll's position more central to the cruise lines as they, and private tour operators, scramble to offer the most unique, exciting and hottest tours the seven continents offer.

"Our guests are more likely to look for a more specialized, boutique experience which caters to a specific interest without the large crowds," Stoll said. "This is very different than 20 years ago, when tours were more basic and geared for large groups."

Stoll counts among his staff hundreds of people in ports around the world that he communicates with every day about new developments and opportunities. His travel includes site inspections and research on various destinations.

Darius Mehta, Stoll's counterpart at Regent Seven Seas Cruises, said that due to customers' changing tastes and expectations, Regent is thinking about renaming excursions "shore experiences."

"People do their own research and have more knowledge before they start, so we need to be that much ahead of them," he said. "Guests are much more discerning and much more intelligent. It makes our job very challenging, in a good way."

Regent, he said, is the only cruise line with an onboard concierge that specifically arranges customized, small-group excursions.

"It might be a sumo wrestling match in Tokyo or taking a Yangtze River cruise, " he said. "Ground operators tell us that other cruise lines ask them what we are doing because they know that we push the envelope."

Directors of land programs are not only competing with each other but with a host of private shore-excursion companies that pay commissions to travel agents.

"More and more, savvy agencies have relationships with destination specialists around the world," said Susan Reder, president of Altour/Classic Cruise and Travel in Woodland Hills, Calif. "We sell our expertise. If the client wants that personal and private service, they're very grateful we can provide that service for them." 

Reder said an advantage of being a member of the Signature Travel Network is that it constantly adds to an already plentiful selection of tour operators that are certified, insured companies with solid reputations.

Jerry Davis of Alice Travel in Fairfield, N.J., an Ensemble Travel member, concurred.

"It's a wonderful addition to the amenities [Ensemble on Location offers] because tours on the cruise lines are becoming increasingly expensive," he said. "And you get people who don't want to be with a group."

The Ensemble on Location program puts clients on unique, individualized excursions.

Cruise Holidays agents often use Boutique Escapes, an Ontario-based company that offers private, customized excursions in Europe and South America and nowhere else. 

"If we haven't been there, we don't do it," said Boutique Escapes co-owner Sandy Velikonja. "[Other operators] can say a hotel is in central Rome, but I can say that it's five minutes from the top of the Spanish Steps or 10 minutes to the Trevi Fountain or, for the kids, right near the Hard Rock Cafe."

She added that travel agents look better using her because they are able to give more information, and as a private company specializing in these tours, she pampers her clients.

"Our phone is on 24/7," she said. "They can call us anytime. We offer a lot of hand-holding for high-end clients. We're going to call and see how their day is going. We're touching base so they know someone is following what's going on."

The cruise lines responded that the financial model of shore excursions won't allow them to pay commissions. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that private tours will return in time for the ship's embarkation. The cruise line will wait for its own tour. Cruise lines also argue there's no guarantee of safety.

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity's vice president of onboard revenue and entertainment, recalled the bus plunge in Chile last March that killed 12 Celebrity passengers who used an unlicensed, uninsured operator rather than a Celebrity tour. Booking outside the cruise line, she said, is not worth the risk of accident or tragedy.  

"It's such a small issue relative to what they earn commission on," she said. "They really should take advantage of what we offer, and their customers should, as well. We spend a lot of time and attention picking the right people at the destinations."

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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