Increase customer satisfaction, drive repeat business and generate referrals with this in-demand vacation trend.

Today’s travelers do not want a cookie-cutter experience. From strolling through castle gardens with a duchess to a private dinner at the Vatican, research shows clients are seeking vacations that are as unique as they are. In response to the evolving wants and needs of travelers, guided vacations do just this, bringing guests deep into the heart of the destination while taking care of all the logistics—so guests can focus on what truly matters. With flexible itineraries, local dining options, authentic accommodations, expert in-destination knowledge and consistently high customer satisfaction ratings, guided vacations are going above and beyond the typical vacation.

“Americans are hungry for fresh experiences that expand their horizons and give them a new perspective—they really want to see a destination from an insider’s point of view,” says Chris Wommer, senior travel product representative of The Auto Club Group, in Dearborn, Michigan. “With a guided vacation, you’re seeing the destination from the inside out, such as dining with a Parisian family in their home or taking a private black cab tour of Belfast’s murals while hearing personal stories about what life was like during the Northern Ireland Troubles. These are the kind of rich experiences guided vacations offer, and you simply won’t find them on your own.”

Travel agents are uniquely poised to enable their clients to experience everything they are seeking through guided vacations, even if clients might not have thought of this as an initial option. By introducing them to the concept, as well as to the full range of guided vacation options, agents can meet—and exceed—their clients’ vacation desires. Savvy travel agents are recommending this lucrative niche, providing a win-win for both their clients and their own business by giving clients what they want (and knowing it will be delivered) with a seamless and easy-to-plan vacation experience. Plus, these satisfied clients will turn into repeat business and provide referrals—along with healthy commissions. Read on for a look at selling points, customer responses and marketing tips.

Making Connections

According to the 2018 “Virtuoso Luxe Report,” today’s travelers are driven by a desire for experiences that foster genuine human connection. Rather than checking a number of tourist attractions off a list, travelers seek an understanding of the culture and people in a destination, a chance to fully immerse themselves in the destinations they are visiting along with genuine personal interactions. They are also, according to the report, using travel as a way to connect with family in deeper ways. Similarly, the “AARP Travel Research: 2017 Travel Trends” report finds that most baby boomers are looking for a laid-back and relaxing trip that will give them the opportunity to spend quality time with friends and family.

Guided vacations deliver those experiences that today’s travelers seek, and more. Genuine human experiences? Check. Cultural immersion? Check. Time to relax and connect with loved ones? Check!

This summer, for example, Melissa da Silva, president of Trafalgar USA, traveled to the U.S. national parks on a guided vacation with her family, a decision she had made prior to joining the Trafalgar team. Ease of planning, a well-developed itinerary and experienced guides allowed her and her family to truly experience the wonders of the parks.

“We just had the most relaxing time because every detail was taken care of,” says da Silva. “I could not imagine doing the trip on our own, driving around with my two daughters directing me on Google Maps, researching which restaurants we’re supposed to eat at that night and trying to figure out exactly what we were supposed to know about the geothermal activity in Yellowstone. Instead, our Travel Director told us about all the highlights of the day, and we met with local experts everywhere we went, so my kids got a much deeper understanding of the culture and destination.”

The nature of a guided vacation also allows travelers to focus on what’s really important—the travel experience and each other—without being distracted by planning and travel details, which are seamlessly incorporated into a guided vacation. Da Silva, for example, says, “It allowed connectivity because I didn’t have to stress out about anything at all. At the end of that trip, even though we were traveling from one place to the next for eight days, I don’t think I’ve ever come away feeling so refreshed or connected to my family.”

In addition to allowing family members to focus on each other and learn about what makes the destination unique, guided vacations also allow clients to connect with like-minded travelers who are seeking similar experiences.

“On the first day of our trip, my daughter made friends with a young girl from Australia, and they became inseparable, sitting on the coach together every day and eating dinner together at night,” says da Silva. “And it’s not just kids who make connections. Many different family units become friends with other families. That doesn’t happen when you’re traveling on your own, and I think people crave these connections.”

Great Experiences at Great Value

With guided vacations, it’s not just about the great experiences that clients will enjoy while traveling, but also about the great value of this travel style. Because packages are negotiated in bulk, guided operators have the buying power to secure powerful deals. Travel agents trying to replicate the experiences of a guided vacation by booking all the components individually would find higher price tags—and only after hours of research and planning. In a time-deprived world, how you can put a price on that? Additionally, many of the unique experiences guided vacations have become known for are not available to the public, like after-hours access to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s famed home in Memphis, Tennessee. With exclusive access to experiences like these, value extends beyond the price tag.

Rene Schneeberger, manager of travel marketing and operations for AAA NCNU in Emeryville, California, thinks guided vacations are so appealing to a wide range of travelers because they provide the perfect mix of best experience and best value. “There is a cost benefit to the client, as many guided vacations are 25 to 30 percent less expensive than an FIT at the end of the day,” he notes. “And the benefits to the agents are many. It’s one reservation, instead of 15 or 20 components in an FIT, and one commission check. And most importantly, all of our partners have really put a lot of effort into quality assurance and customer service, making sure that what they’ve promised in the catalogues and on their itineraries is delivered to the highest quality standards. And that’s paid dividends to us.”

The range of possible experiences and destinations means that guided vacations offer just the right experience for any kind of traveler interests and a wide range of demographics—opening up the sales potential to many different kinds of travelers.

“Guided vacations are great for singles since you have the security of traveling in a group. They are also great for girlfriend getaways and for anyone who wants to do a two- to three-night stay in a city,” says Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer of Travelsavers. “I can think of every demographic and find a great guided vacation for them.”

According to Schneeberger, there is rarely a circumstance in which a traveler needs an FIT program. “I personally believe that a guided vacation is for everyone,” says Schneeberger. “If I look at my top sales agents, the conversation they have with a client almost always begins with an FIT program but ends with a guided vacation that meets all of the client’s needs.”

A Win-Win for Clients and Agents

Guided vacations align perfectly with the in-demand travel experiences customers are looking for, and because of this, agents are seeing a surge in both new and repeat business. The appeal of repeat customers and referrals is one reason why travel agents have embraced the concept of guided vacations, but surely not the only one. Formerly a travel planner herself, da Silva of Trafalgar USA points out the ease of selling and planning guided vacations, as opposed to the complexity of creating an itinerary from scratch and the gravity of being the only point of contact if something were to go awry.

“I’m not saying that a great travel agent can’t put together a phenomenal experience. They absolutely can. It’s just a lot more work for not as much return,” she says. “It would take dozens of hours to put together the same kind of vacation that Trafalgar can arrange because we’ve been doing it for so long and for so many passengers. Your commissions are higher when booking a guided vacation, and if you look at the amount of time it took you to get that commission, it’s a much more profitable way to do business.”

Commissions on guided vacations often depend on the type of vacation an agent sells. If the trip price is somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,600 per person, a travel planner might walk away with a commission check of up to 18 percent commission, depending on consortia affiliation. Preferred partners receive additional benefits of marketing support, insider training and opportunities for partners to join sales calls with clients so that customers can better understand the benefits of guided vacations (and help agents close the deal). Fam trips are also important perks of selling guided vacations, whether an advisor is experiencing the vacation with customers or as part of a dedicated fam.

“Our goal is to get all of our agents on a guided vacation so they can have a first-hand account and be extremely knowledgeable and passionate when they speak to clients,” says Mazza of Travelsavers. “We then want them to use all of the different social, video and other marketing tools that are available to them.”

Schneeberger agrees that education is the best way to sell guided vacations. “You’re leaving money on the table and you’re making it extra hard on yourself if you’re selling FITs, so join a guided vacations fam and stay current on the travel experience,” he suggests.

When a travel advisor can share the meaningful personal experiences they’ve had on a guided vacation, it proves that they’re not only an expert but someone who believes in the quality of the guided vacation experience they’re selling. That confidence and first-hand knowledge can go a long way with potential customers. After all, what are travel planners if not storytellers?

To that end, after taking a guided vacation in Cuba, Schneeberger came back with numerous personal stories and experiences that affected him along the way—creating both his own personal memories and a framework for helping clients envision what they might experience.

“I truly felt like I was part of Cuba for the 10 days that I was there, and that’s what consumers are looking for nowadays,” says Schneeberger. “For example, our local expert challenged our group to shop in a market with the equivalent of one dollar—the amount that households have to spend per day on food per their Communist government-issued ration book. It triggered the creative aspect of figuring out what you would actually cook based on what you found at the market, and each person in our group of 12 created a completely different menu.”

Schneeberger points out how the activity sparked discussions about daily life back home and kept the group talking and learning from one another, long after the shopping experience was finished. And in the end, the organizers donated the group’s purchases to a women’s shelter.

“It was such a well-thought out experience,” he says. “These type of experiences can really change your vacation and bring the world around you to life.”

By listening to the wants and needs of travelers, guided vacations have become increasingly relevant and continue to grow in popularity. With this surge, travel agents have a huge opportunity to build their portfolio and grow their business.

For additional insights on selling guided vacations, please join the leader in guided vacations, The Travel Corporation, for a live webinar on January 30. Click here to sign up.

This is the first in a series of Thought Leadership pieces exploring guided vacations. Keep a look out for additional thought leaderships to better understand and sell this lucrative segment.

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