Preview 2021: Tours

Smaller groups. Private tours. Wide-open spaces. 

Those are themes that have dominated the talk of travel throughout the pandemic, and ones that promise to reshape the tour sector  at least temporarily  as operators that have been largely shuttered for 2020 look to a gradual restart of international travel in the new year.

Most guided travel companies say they are confident people will eventually return to more traditional group travel. But the trend toward more intimate tours  which was already underway before the pandemic  has spread quickly, with most tour operators using the travel pause to reshape their 2021 and 2022 products to provide social distance and more options for guests to create their own travel bubbles.

Collette, which was one of the few major tour operators running trips this year, reduced its maximum capacity for the near term, said Jeff Roy, executive vice president. And most other major operators say they expect smaller groups to be the norm, at least initially.

Likewise, most tour operators are expanding their small-group tour lines. The Globus family of brands, for instance, has expanded its small-group departures across virtually all of its guided itineraries next year, meaning guests will have the option to travel in groups that average 24 people rather than the standard size of about 40.

The Undiscovered tour series from Globus and affiliate Cosmos features off-the-beaten-path adventures.
The Undiscovered tour series from Globus and affiliate Cosmos features off-the-beaten-path adventures.

Many have also transformed their traditionally escorted group trips into customizable products.

For instance, Elizabeth Crabill, CEO of CIE Tours, said that her company, which has for nearly 90 years specialized in escorted and group tours, has created three or four different options for most of its popular core itineraries.

"They could be taken as a scheduled tour with a driver and guide, they could be taken as self-drive or they could be taken with a private driver just for the group," she said.

Perillo Tours has also launched private touring for groups of 12 or more, as have the Travel Corporation's Trafalgar, Insight and Luxury Gold brands.

Many tour operators scrambled during the pandemic to add or expand on domestic tours and destinations with wide-open spaces. And while those are expected to be popular in 2021, a recent survey of USTOA members shows Europe remains the top destination being booked through its members. And those members have consistently reported, throughout the pandemic, that travelers rebooking 2020 trips are mostly sticking with their original destination.

So while the pandemic certainly accelerated demand for private travel pods and more outdoor destinations, Jeremy Palmer, executive vice president of Tauck, predicts those trends will eventually dissipate.

"I don't think it's forever," he said.

Ray Hourani, director of travel air operations for Club Adventures by AAA Exclusive Vacations, which developed its first domestic itineraries this year, agreed.

"In the long term, I think we are going to see people going back to cities," he said.

"There's been a lot of talk in the short term that people are going to be looking for open spaces. But eventually people are going to go back, wanting the nightlife, fine dining, to enjoy the street life of major international cities."

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