Felicity Long
Felicity Long

Two years ago I had the chance to bond with a great group of U.K. specialists on an ExploreGB Gardens and Gourmet fam trip, and it occurred to me recently to check in with them to learn what, if anything, has changed since the Brexit vote, the latest royal wedding and various international political dramas.

Janet Dudley, a senior account manager at New England-based Tenon Tours www.tenontours.com, put overtourism front and center, calling it "a wake-up call for everyone," travel professionals and travelers alike.

"'Overtourism' is not a just a buzzword, but a reality... The [hotel] availability is truly just not there anymore for certain destinations," she said, citing a recent social media push by local police in Scotland asking visitors not to come to the Isle of Skye unless they have a confirmed hotel reservation.

To counter the possibility of client disappointment, Dudley said she has embarked on "gentle education to change the expectation that Americans can just show up with two weeks' notice in high season and have the pick of everything."
Dudley hasn't seen a bump from the wedding of Harry and Meghan, but she does report an uptick in people wanting to visit Windsor Castle, which hosted the nuptials.

"It was always popular, but it dropped off the radar a bit in favor of ... Highclere [of "Downton Abbey" fame]; now, it's back on people's must-see lists."

While Dudley hasn't seen a notable change in demographics among her clients, "I am getting more people saying, 'I usually love to plan travel on my own, but I just don't have the time, I am overwhelmed by the information on the Internet, and I want someone take the responsibility for planning this trip off my plate.'"

Interestingly, overtourism hasn't stemmed the trend toward last-minute bookings at Texas-based Britain by Choice, according to company president Charlie Newton.

He cites a spike in late bookings, in some cases inside one month prior to travel, as one of three trends he's seeing in 2018.

"Historically our booking window has averaged around six to nine months," he said, crediting the continuing strength of the dollar against the pound as a possible factor in the overall popularity of the destination.

Second, he describes "a substantial increase in requests for private driver guides for families of four to six, visiting areas not easily reached by scheduled tours."

Finally, Newton said clients are spending more time conducting online research and, as a result, they know where they need to go to find the things they're interested in, and they have an understanding of whether these destinations are likely to be accessible via regular tours.

Ellen McNulty, president of Lynott Tours in Mineola, N.Y., has also seen a spike in tours with private chauffeurs for multigenerational and other small groups.

The company's bookings to Scotland rose by 24% this summer over last year, which McNulty described as "astounding. I attribute the  increase to their TV advertising, which has placed Scotland front and center for consumers," she said.

Travel to the Cotswolds and Devon/Cornwall is also up in 2018, according to McNulty, but Wales is lagging far behind, down by more than 10%, she said, adding that, so far, the reason for the dip isn't clear.
"We did not experience any swings from the wedding, or ... [the visit by President Trump], and I am unsure about the Brexit effect.  That seems negligible, too," McNulty said.

Mike Hawe, president of Isle Inn Tours in Alexandria, Va., seconds the notion that last-minute bookings are on the rise.

"I think we can say the booking window is more frequently shorter than ever before, with six to eight weeks not uncommon, and we've even had a few FITs that have come to us a month or less from departure with airfare in hand looking to create a high-end, chauffeur driven tour," he said.

"Perhaps the biggest change for our business ... over the past five years, is a steady move to private drivers and away from self-drive," said Hawe.

"It's a real sign that agents are working with a more high-end buyer," he said, adding that a significant number of these luxury clients are aspirational travelers.

"We're not necessarily getting a customer who always stays in five-star [properties] or drives a luxury car and has a Gucci luggage set, but they're treating themselves (or the kids are treating mom and dad) to a 'once in a lifetime' sort of trip."

Food and unique adventures are becoming increasingly important parts of an itinerary, Hawe said, and the multigenerational segment continues to grow, especially for larger family groups of six to eight members.

As to the royal wedding, Isle Inn Tours hasn't seen nearly the bump caused by "Downton Abbey" or the "Outlander" series, he said, adding: "Our Castle and Manor House itinerary outperforms our other ads on Facebook.

Looking ahead, Hawe predicted that the traditional cookie-cutter tours will continue to be less attractive to a younger demographic, particularly to the U.K., where language is not a barrier to an independent itinerary.

"Our tours are highly bespoke, and we do very well with the 45-to-65 age group.  There is an ongoing challenge to make group travel more unique, immersive, cultural, etc. and the challenge to do so for millennials is even greater."

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