Smaller does it for today's tours

horter, more focused and leisurely paced itineraries are the predominant trends cited by tour operators to Europe this year.

According to the operators, two factors are behind the trend: People want to relax more when they travel, and they want to experience more.

"They're looking for the places that they would not know," said Mark Kazlauskas, director of worldwide sales at Tauck World Discovery.

"We're taking them to the smaller areas and showing them more of the cultural side" of European destinations.

Kazlauskas pointed to new Tauck tours such as A Week in Champagne, Burgundy and Paris, a seven-night program limited to 24 guests. It visits small towns, with stays in boutique hotels, among them Hotel Le Cep in Beaune, "a small [56-room] hotel that is much more in tune with the culture and destination than one of the larger city hotels."

France's Burgundy is featured on one of Tauck World Discovery's new escorted tours. Smaller groups and stays in less tourist-trodden hotels and towns are also high on the agenda for General Tours, so much so that the operator now limits all groups to 20 and has repositioned its entire product line as Intimate Journeys.

Escorted travel, said Bob Drumm, president, is where the change is most distinct.

The change from prior group sizes of 30 to 48, is "very responsive to what we have heard from passengers," said Drumm. "They want more individual attention. That's why a smaller group is important because it's only 20 people hanging on the words of an escorted-tour manager."

Smaller groups, Drumm added, allow General Tours to book smaller hotels like those belonging to the Baglioni chain in Italy.

Similarly, with dining, he said, "a group of 20 can be much more welcomed at a small, interesting restaurant than a group of 48 people."

Drumm said touches that bring guests "deeper into the cultures" of other countries include a dinner at Tuscany's Enoteca Marucci cooking school in Piertrasante, Italy, on the revamped eight-night Venice, Tuscany and Rome tour.

Another example Drumm gave is a full-day visit to the Czech Republic's oldest and best-known folklore festival in the southeastern village of Straznice, a stop possible only on the June 17 departure of the eight-night Bohemian Countryside tour.

Tuscany, above, is part of new programs by several escorted operators this year. The festival, Drumm said, is "very crowded, primarily with Czechs, and it's very hard to secure accomodations during this period."

Visiting Straznice provides tour-takers with the "wonderful flavor of eastern Europe that you can't do when you have large groups," Drumm said.

Summing up the escorted market, Drumm said, "Customers want more and more tailored services, freedom to do things on their own, to get outside the coach and not to stay at consistently similar hotels" during a tour.

"They want to get closer to the societies they're visiting, and that was one of the key issues for us in limiting the size of the groups."

As for the demand for less rigid, jam-packed itineraries, "people are often leaving a very hectic life behind them, whether they are retired or working," said Heinz Niederhoff, president of Lawrence, Kan.-based Maupintour.

"They want a more leisurely vacation. They don't want to get up at the crack of dawn necessarily. They want a leisurely breakfast, to do some shopping and see the museums, but they don't want to be rushed, either.

"That's a trend that has been developing over the last two to three years," said Niederhoff. "People want shorter, more focused tours, staying two to three nights in each city and covering a more focused territory."

All six of Maupintour's new tours to Europe visit a single country, and the majority concentrate on a specific region of that country.

A program that is representative of the trend includes Maupintour's Italian Lakes & Tuscany, which stays at four hotels in eight nights, and the English Yorkshire & the Lake District tour, which stays at three hotels in seven nights.

Although Maupintour's England's West Country tour changes accommodations relatively frequently, five times in nine nights, the farthest it ventures from London is Land's End, about 200 miles southwest of the capital.

Particularly hot European products for Globus & Cosmos, said Scott Nisbet, the firm's executive director of marketing, are vacations that combine cruises with land touring and its LesuireStyle Vacations, "which are slower paced, shorter in duration and have more free time."

LeisureStyle Vacations include four of the 13 new Europe products for Globus & Cosmos. Combined cruise and land-tour vacations account for three others.

At Trafalgar, a third of the new tours are additions to the Europe at Leisure hub-and-spoke series, which was introduced last year and has doubled in number from five to 10.

"We've had leisurely paced tours for a number of years," said Gavin Tollman, Trafalgar president and chief operating officer, but the Europe at Leisure series sets that type of vacation apart as its own brand "for the passenger who does not want to be packing and unpacking for several nights. "

He added that the series is "geared toward the younger market -- people who want the convenience as well as flexibility to do what they want."

The market for escorted travel does appear to be a bit younger, on average.

Tollman said Trafalgar's highest passenger growth for the past two years is in the 45- to 55-year-old market segment, "which outsells the 65-plus."

"If you go back 20-odd years ago, 65-plus was probably our biggest market segment," Tollman said.

Another trend Tollman noted is an increase in family travel, across several generations.

"Three-generational travel [grandparents, parents, grandchildren] has become extremely popular with escorted vacations," he said, describing the family market as a perfect match to the "hassle-free" nature of escorted travel.

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