Private and VIP access are common buzzwords in luxury travel these days. But their meaning has gotten a bit blurred as tour operators increasingly incorporate special after hours visits that let guests skip the lines, without necessarily giving them exclusive access.
That muddling of lines is fueling the rise of small tour operators offering unique, truly private ways for travelers to experience the art, history and culture of some of Europe's most visited countries and sites.
Among them is Curated Touring, founded in Austin last year by two art historians, Meagan Labunski and Matt Woodworth. Both have PhDs from Duke University and are using their personal and academic connections to put together small-group tours that most traditional operators could not, including viewings of private art collections and behind-the-scenes explorations of Medieval castles.
"Some of the best art in the world is in private collections," Labunski said. "We are really trying to take it to the next level. There are some places that we can't even publish that we see. That's a hard thing to market because we can't say 'come with us and we'll take you someplace really special, but we can' tell you what it is and you can't put it on social media.'"
Curated Touring founders Meagan Labunski and Matt Woodworth leading a private tour at the Rodin Museum in Paris.
Their itineraries also offer completely off-hours, solitary tours of major sites and collections that include the Vatican and Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar.
Woodworth said they wanted to be sure to include the big places, but with a fresh and truly private lens.
"We shut down a lot of things," he said. "It's completely transformative."
After one group trip that included Rome, he said, everyone had been there previously, but all left saying, "I never really got it before."
They host all of the trips together, offering guests more of what they describe as a "Matt and Meagan" dialogue than a lecture. There is also an on-site tour director working to keep the logistics as seamless as possible.
The company is one-year-old and has hosted three group trips and several private tours. For 2020, they have eight small group tours for up to 14 people scheduled in Italy, France and the U.K. and expect to host four to five private trips, they said.
As the company grows, they say they also have a spreadsheet of experts from across the art and architecture world eager to help host new itineraries.
The business model is similar to that of Uncovr Travel, launched two years ago by former art gallery owner Jason Wertz. The main difference is that he offers what he characterizes as "deeper travel" to lesser known locales in southern Europe, including Italy, Croatia, Sicily, Catalonia and Portugal.
Wertz says he travels the countries himself to find more remote destinations with artists, winemakers and other locals with compelling backgrounds to give his groups, which range from six to eight guests, "their personal perspective of what it means to live in these places."
"The formula is wine, food and art," he said. "So each of the personalities that we highlight I think really have an amazing story to tell that resonates with the visitors. It's more like traveling with a friend than with a guide."
Like Labuski and Woodworth, Wertz hosts the trips personally. His target is 11 to 15 trips a year.
Neither company has a formal program in place to work with travel advisors, but both they say they are open to developing alliances on that front.