Tours vs. guided vacations: Debating the semantics

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Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

The Travel Corporation CEO Brett Tollman would like to make one thing perfectly clear: his companies, which include the Luxury Gold, Insight, Trafalgar and Contiki brands, are NOT "tour operators." Rather, they run "guided vacations."

And they don't operate buses. The word buses, he says, conjure up images of Greyhound and yellow school buses. His companies put their guests on modern coaches with comfortable seats and endless legroom, WiFi, outlets, even seams in the tables on their European vehicles to hold guests' personal tablets.

The old school journalist in me wants to respond, "semantics." After all, we news people have always been trained to use the simplest, most common words to describe anything and everything.

But after spending two days recently with Tollman, his executives and a group of travel professionals at Travel Corp.'s annual advisory board meeting, it became clear why they are so sensitive to the various terms as they work to lure a new generation away from the cruise sector and back into their space.

It reminds me of the years-long debate over whether those who sell travel were travel agents or travel advisors. The word advisors seems to have finally won out, and for good reason. For those of us old enough to remember, travel agents were the people you went to just to buy a simple plane ticket. They were travel bookers, not necessarily experts on destinations.

Today, advisors - at least the good ones - are what their name implies: advisors who help guide you to the vacation that is right for you. And Tollman wants them to be sure to learn his product, so they can also guide the right travelers away from mega-cruising and into his more intimate products that emphasize not the journey but the destination.

But, he says, advisors and travelers both must be constantly reminded that in the tour space, particularly luxury, operators have evolved far beyond the types of trips that were popular with the masses 25 or more years ago. They provide opportunities to avoid long lines, gain exclusive access and offer local experiences while interacting with just a small group of fellow travelers - not the thousands that new ocean liners ferry from port to port.

Terry Dale, president and CEO of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, said his group had a huge debate about getting rid of the term tour operator about five years ago. And he expects it will come up again.

"The problem is, the No. 1 word that drives traffic to our web site is tour," he said. "Why would we remove a word that is our biggest generator. I know people want to shake it but I haven't come up with what's the best alternative."

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