A fellow American I met at Euston Station in London recently assured me that she never does group tours. Even though this was her first time in Europe and she was traveling alone, she had deliberately avoided a hop-on, hop-off bus tour because, "I don't need someone to tell me that's the Tower of London. I know it's the Tower of London."
What made her pronouncement interesting is that we were both waiting to embark on a group tour, namely the guided Making of Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studio Tour London.
Unlike a canned group excursion, this one appealed to her (she was a millennial, as were most of the other people on the tour) because it offered an enhanced, insider experience that she felt she wouldn't have been able to duplicate on her own.
The tour, which debuted this spring, is offered through City Wonders, a global tour operator, and lasts about half a day, although participants are free to stay until closing. A guide meets the group at the Euston Tube station in central London, accompanies members by train to Watford Junction and gives out return tickets with instructions on how to return to London when the tour is through. A second guide meets the group at the Watford Junction and leads members to a shuttle that whisks them to the studio.
Because anyone can arrive at the shuttle bus on their own, the real value of the tour doesn't kick in until you actually enter the studio and bypass the massive lines at the entrance with your guide. And while the movie sets, costumes and artifacts are entertaining in their own right, our guide offered insider anecdotes and behind-the-scenes information about the directors, the sets, the actors and the films themselves that greatly enhanced the experience.
Highlights include the Gryffindor common room, Diagon Alley, Hagrid's Hut and, of course, the original Hogwarts Express train and the famous Platform 9 as well as a stop for a complimentary butterbeer.
At the end of the tour, we were given priority re-entry to go back and spend more time at any of our favorite exhibits before returning independently to London by train.
The tour, including the transportation and guide, costs about $165 per person vs. about $45 for just the entrance fee.
The next day I tried another half-day, special interest group tour, this time an Eating London East End Food Tour and found myself once again among a small group of people who "never do tours."
The appeal of this one was that it offered a dine-around experience in a charming and lively part of London apart from the traditional city sites like Big Ben and the London Eye. Our young guide, a moonlighting actor, walked us to a whopping eight eateries including bakeries, pubs and restaurants where we sampled one signature dish from each.
She peppered the tour with stories about this rapidly evolving neighborhood, with its colorful graffiti, food markets and art galleries, all the while exhorting us to try the curry in Brick Lane, the bacon sandwich at St. John Bread and Wine and the fish and chips at Poppies, just to name a few.
The other tour participants were from the U.S. and Canada, and all professed a desire to not only try new foods but experience what they saw as the real London. At tour's end, the consensus was that the tour was a roaring success, so much so that a few inquired about the company's Twilight Soho Food Tour, which adds cocktails to the dine-around experience.
The East London food tour is priced at about $88 a person, and the company offers similar experiences in Prague, Amsterdam and three destinations in Italy.
The moral of the story for travel agents putting together a European tour for their clients who "never do tours" might be, never say never.