When it comes to group travel, small is big in 2020.
Whether on land, river or ocean, said Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president of Tauck Land Journeys, the trend to smaller groups is "our single fastest-growing product across our entire portfolio."
It's a theme that seems to carry across the tour-operator space, whether that entails smaller groups, more excursion options that enable larger groups to break up for more intimate adventures, lesser-known destinations or smaller ships.
Stefanie Schmudde, vice president of product development for Abercrombie & Kent, said smaller groups have been a hallmark that has set the company apart for years. But what is increasingly popular, she said, is personalization.
More and more, she said, the company is taking its "design your day" option from its private-jet journeys and extending it to its small-group journeys and cruises, giving travelers the option to break up into smaller subgroups by offering different activities that enable travelers "to further customize their experience in the destination, whether it's a more active cooking experience or whatever other options make sense for the destination."
A rendering of G Adventures' upcoming adventure yacht, the Reina Silvia Voyager.
Likewise, Steve Born, chief marketing officer for the Globus family of brands, said that while its group sizes haven't changed, every itinerary now includes about three tour options per day, including a local favorite "that is a unique experience that we have curated, developed as a taste, a feel of the local culture beyond the must-see sites. Something that can't be found in a guidebook."
"The other way we've expanded the idea of personalization is we have dramatically expanded excursions that can be prebooked," he said.
The options, Born said, range from family friendly to active and "off the beaten path," which also end up putting guests in smaller groups with like-minded travelers.
At the Travel Corp., which operates brands like Trafalgar and Luxury Gold, Trafalgar CEO Gavin Tollman said the company's fastest-growing brand is Costsaver, which offers basic itineraries with a local guide but also gives travelers a little more free time and lets them build their own activities every day.
"That entire brand is resonating hugely and profoundly with travelers," he said. "So you really have this difference between those customers who want Trafalagar and those who want time to discover on their own with the luxury of knowing that everything is going to be taken care of."
Born said they are seeing a similar trend at Globus with the growth of its Monograms brand, which he described as a hybrid between FIT and tours.
"That continues to do really well," he said. "It's up 10% year over year. I think that's really fitting the idea that travelers want that balance of structure with independence. It's just too hard, takes too much time, money and brain damage to put it all together one's self."
Another fast-growing area for tour operators is small-ship cruising.
"What is really hot for us is our luxury expedition cruises," Schmudde said. "They are certainly not small groups departing but definitely a smaller number than traditional cruises."
She added: "Related to that, in the last few years we've expanded from strict polar cruising into more cultural destinations, from Japan to Greece to Italy. Our newest itinerary is cruising the Baltic Sea. These give people the opportunity to immerse themselves in these culturally rich destinations. They have a lot of insider-access experiences also through special guest speakers who actually join through the duration of the cruise to offer their intimate perspective."
Again, A&K offers its "design your day" personalization options on shore to give the cruises the feel of a smaller group.
Adventure tour operators like Intrepid and G Adventures are also expanding their small-ship sailings.
G Adventures will add a sixth adventure yacht to its Galapagos fleet next year, a 103-foot catamaran called the Reina Silvia Voyager, which it has said will be the most luxurious in its fleet.
Intrepid recently announced that it will officially become a seven-continent operator with the launch of a new program of sustainable small-group Antarctica expeditions on the newly refurbished Ocean Endeavour ship, which will begin sailings in October.