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Ultimate Adventures: Expedition Travel

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An agent’s guide to understanding and selling the growing expedition travel market. 

Throughout history, people have been fascinated by explorers’ tales of unknown cultures, exotic animals and fantastic scenery. Today, they can be the explorers, thanks to travel providers and opportunities that allow them to see with their own eyes what only a few people have experienced in the past.

With growing desire for experiential and immersive exploration of the world, expedition travel is the answer for an increasing number of travelers, especially those who are also interested in trends like sustainability and adventure tourism. Further fueling the niche’s rise are concerns about global warming, adding urgency to the desire to see some of the more remote spots of the world—so it’s no wonder that the sector is seeing dramatic growth and the promise of much more to come.

The Adventure Travel Trade Association reported in June that adventure travel and tourism expanded from an $89 billion industry in 2009 to a $683 billion industry in 2017, accounting for around 30 percent of global tourism spending.

The strength of the expedition travel trend has generated the investment of billions of dollars by the cruise industry, for one, which has ordered 28 new expedition ships for delivery between June 2018 and the second quarter of 2022—and there will likely be more, according to the 2018 Cruise Industry News Expedition Market Report.

But when it comes to defining and selling expedition travel, there is often confusion about what the term actually means and which clients are right for this type of travel. Understanding these nuances can mean big business for agents—read on to learn more about this valuable niche and how best to sell it.

Understanding Expedition Travel
Although “expedition” and “adventure” are sometimes used interchangeably when discussing travel, it’s important for agents to understand the difference between the two.

Allied Market Research’s recent analysis defines expeditions as “exploration or travel to remote exotic areas…in which travelers interact with local populations and connect with their core values,” and adventure travel as “a kind of niche tourism, which includes numerous activities such as caving, climbing, cycling, hiking, hunting, rafting and others.” Colby Goodman, director of sales and marketing for veteran expedition travel companies Zegrahm Expeditions and International Expeditions, further notes that expedition trips allow for the flexibility to respond to the environment, wildlife and other trip factors. He quotes an expedition leader who once described the experience as “letting the trip take you, rather than you taking the trip.”

This is a segment where an agent can shine, and marketing can bring a stream of first-time clients into the database. Keely Crowder, owner of Travel Like a Diva in New Orleans, Louisiana, says many of her expedition clients have never used an agent before. “Many times, my job involves a great deal of hand holding and letting them know what an agent can do,” she adds. Crowder’s biggest source of bookings is word of mouth, and she sees a substantial amount of repeat expedition business, even to the same destinations. “I was surprised to find many of these locations are not once in a lifetime, but maybe once every five years. And they also go on to explore other destinations—it’s addictive,” she says.

Ryan Hansen, president and COO of Bon Voyage Travel in Tucson, Arizona, agrees that expedition travel is a tremendous opportunity for agents, and cautions against making demographic assumptions in identifying potential expedition customers.

“Just as there were 10 years ago with river cruising, there are now widespread misperceptions about expedition travel,” Hansen says. “We need to explain the range of the new expeditions and reassure people that you don’t have to be a triathlon champion to explore the world in this way. You can really find an expedition trip for almost every traveler. It’s a great position for the agent, a much broader net for all sorts of travelers.”

Who’s Ready for an Expedition?
A recent Travel Agent Cruise Industry Outlook Report from Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) supports Hansen’s assertion that there is widespread interest in this sector across all age groups. More than a third of agents reported that travelers ages 30 to 39 and 40 to 49 have expressed increased interest in adventure travel, defined in its broadest sense, over the past two years. Thirty-four percent of agents are seeing an increased interest from cruisers ages 50 to 59 and 24 percent from ages 60 to 69. And expedition travel may be even more accessible for these age groups, as it appeals to many of the same desires, often with less physical demands.

“The types of activities that happen on expedition trips don’t require the highest fitness levels or the most mobility,” says Goodman. “In fact, there are many travelers in their 80s who are able to get along just fine on an expedition because it isn’t about hiking for miles or climbing rock faces. Guests might spend a few hours sitting in a zodiac observing wildlife or meandering through a jungle village and mingling with locals.”

The other end of the age spectrum is also important. Crowder comments, “There are certainly patterns and target segments of the market—like the Galapagos for families, and Arctic and Antarctic cruises that attract older, retired people—but I was amazed by the number of 20- and 30-somethings who take these trips.”

For Crowder, the indicators that a client would be interested in expedition cruising fall more into psychographics: a high level of curiosity and adventurousness, or valuing experiences over luxury (although they don’t have to choose between the two in today’s market). She urges agents to experience expedition travel and sell from their own passion. “You tend to sell best what you are passionate about,” she says. Herself a former civil engineer specializing in water resources, she finds that expedition travelers tend to be protective of the environment and look for sustainable travel.

Hansen sees prospects among those who are widely traveled and/or have visited destinations several times. “You can show them how they can experience Alaska, for instance, differently, or encourage them to consider going to the Galapagos or Antarctica,” he explains. “The client who has never traveled internationally is probably not a top prospect, although you never know what their dreams are. Significant events, like birthdays and anniversaries, are indicators that any traveler may want to embark on a bucket-list experience.” 

Combining land and cruise elements is also a useful tool for agents, according to Hansen, as doing so gives traveling two very different, but complementary, kinds of access—especially on an expedition journey, which are often further from home. “If you are celebrating a special experience and going so far, why wouldn’t you extend it?” he asks clients.

Daniela Harrison, a travel consultant at Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Arizona, finds expeditions huge with her Boomer clientele. She provides customized expedition trips and, with some repeat clients, arrives at a point after a few years where they give her a free hand, saying, “You know me and where I want to go, so go ahead.”

Harrison says some of these clients move back and forth between land-based trips and cruises, while others combine them for maximum access to a particular region. She also sees a pattern age-wise, with older clients gravitating more to expedition cruising, although this is an individual decision depending on each person’s level of physical fitness.

For example, she had older clients come in to book a Greek cruise who, in the course of their conversation, mentioned future plans that included a gorilla trek and extensive exploration of Machu Picchu. She persuaded them to schedule those trips sooner, while they can be comfortable doing them. “In these situations, you have to be very candid, and they appreciate it,” she says.

Other Planning Factors
Age and fitness level are far from the only considerations when it comes to expedition travel. Factors includeing cost and overall goals can be just as important, and long-term planning can be beneficial to both clients and advisors.

Helping clients plan ahead is central to Harrison’s work, and helps her build a program to channel repeat business. She encourages her clients to consider a five-year plan, where they can work out the most efficient and cost-effective way to visit the series of destinations on their list.

“We work with their financial advisors and make a pro-rated budget for travel,” Harrison says. “Some years they splurge; in others we make more modest arrangements to balance spending. With advance planning, we can get them early-bird rates and back-to-back discounts. We can book one set of flights to see more than one exotic destination on a bucket list, which can save them thousands of dollars.” She promotes the five-year plan with editorial in local newspapers, appearances on a local radio programs and live presentations.

Harrison points out that the same people who appreciate authentic experiences and unusual destinations also value personal service. “Agents shouldn’t stop after booking,” she advises. “Tell your clients things that keep the relationship strong and show you are looking out for their interests.”

For example, in Flagstaff, it’s hard to find gear out of season. For her own travels, she discovered a big sale and looked for clients going to similar destinations. She let them know how to take advantage of the sale, right down to the fact that they would not see the items displayed but would have to ask for them.

Just as expedition travel goes far beyond a getaway to a life experience, agents who go above and beyond to plan this type of travel will earn the trust and loyalty of their clients, as well as whet their appetites for more exploration—and secure a widening net of serious, repeat clients out to discover the world in exciting and meaningful ways. 

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