Sell a more in-depth destination experience for immersion and adventure.
Where once travelers sought to pack as many of a country’s sites as possible into a whirlwind visit, the trends of local immersion and authentic experiences are encouraging visitors to explore new destinations in a deeper way. Instead of hopping quickly from major highlight to major highlight, some clients are slowing their travel experiences, preferring to focus on a single region where they can leisurely mingle with locals and discover a true insider’s experience. And travel agents are uniquely poised to add value to this kind of travel with destination expertise and contacts that travelers can’t easily access on their own.
Lynda Schumacher, president of Let’s Talk Australia and Let’s Talk Travel & Cruises, LLC, based in Portland, Oregon, has found that taking the time to truly get to know a destination is a priority for many travelers—and a regional trip can be a great way to accomplish those goals. Among the benefits of regional travel, she lists the “slower pace” at “the top of the list,” as it gives travelers the chance to really “be present” and feel like they are experiencing the activity or destination, not merely seeing it at a glance. “The experience becomes 3D, if not 4D. A spiritual level is added in,” Schumacher adds.
Matt Knowles, CTC/DS, owner of Sea Escape Travel in Folsom, California, agrees with Schumacher that one of regional travel’s top appeals is the ability “to slow things down, immersing travelers more deeply in the culture and the ways of life for that particular area.” He adds, “When in a local region with more time to be immersed, we can meet people and get to know them better. We can feel things that otherwise would not have been felt, and see and do things that would not have been possible. Sometimes clients are in such a rush on a ‘time-starved limited vacation’ that they can’t take the time to stop and enjoy the smaller things.”
Encouraging a Deeper Look
Regional travel offers a variety of unique opportunities that are currently of great interest to travelers, according to recent research.
In Virtuoso’s 2018 Luxe Report, “Top Travel Motivations” include exploring new destinations, seeking authentic experiences and personal enrichment. Virtuoso advisors go on to say that one of the “must-take trips for 2018” is to “be a traveler rather than a tourist,” stating that “immersive experiences not found in a guidebook or brochure, opportunities to meet locals, wandering neighborhoods and making spontaneous discoveries are the best ways to experience a destination.”
Other travel pros are seeing similar trends. “Travelers are focusing more on immersing themselves in their vacations, thus booking regional trips that allow them to truly explore the nooks and crannies of destinations” confirms MMGY Global's executive vice president of business strategy, Craig Compagnone. “We know that there are several benefits of this type of immersive travel that have grown in interest among U.S. travelers,” he continues, pointing to statistics from MMGY Global’s Portrait of American Travelers 2017-18, which found that “the motivation among travelers to seek exploration on their vacation has increased from 62 percent in 2014 to 78 percent in 2017,” and “the desire to experience different cultures on vacation has increased from 57 percent of all travelers in 2014 to 72 percent in 2017.”
In addition to being ideal for immersion and exploration, regional travel is a prime option for adventure-seeking clients, as many of the goals of these two travel trends overlap. In fact, The Adventure Travel Trade Association’s (ATTA) 20 Adventure Travel Trends to Watch in 2018 lists “being local as the ultimate adventure”—and one of the main benefits of taking a regional travel approach is the opportunity to feel like a local.
As Christina Beckmann, director of education and research at The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), puts it, “Adventure travel is very well linked to regional travel. From our research, we know adventure travelers are seeking mental and physical wellness, novel and unique experiences, challenge—whether physical or cultural—and ultimately, transformation. They want to have a meaningful experience, a unique experience and one that is emotionally powerful. When you focus on a specific region and take the whole experience approach instead of the ‘bucket list’ approach, the trip is more impactful.”
Casey Hanisko, president of Adventure 360, ATTA, has found a similar overlap between these two industry trends. “Travelers are interested in experiencing destinations like a temporary local, seeking out personal connections and spending more time in an area. Regional travel, which focuses on one particular area, allows adventure travelers to experience a variety of activities and stay in a smaller area, giving a slower sense of pace and opening up the opportunities for creating relationships and engaging in local activities.”
As an example of how a single region can offer a diverse mix of adventure activities and local opportunities, Hanisko offers up New Zealand’s Central North Island. “New Zealand offers many of the top activities adventure travelers participate in and will continue to seek, like hiking, and the Central North Island region is unique in that it also offers stand-up paddle boarding, visiting historical sites and getting to know the locals, which round out the top activities adventure travelers are looking to participate in.”
Selling Regional Travel
When it comes to selling strategies for regional travel, there are a few important factors for agents to keep in mind.
In terms of the types of clients who might be interested in regional travel opportunities, advisors should keep an open mind. In fact, Schumacher points out, “Age or income really has nothing to do with it.” She adds that this type of travel is for “people who are interested in making a sincere connection to the land and people, and many, many people feel this tug of the heart.”
Another key part of selling regional travel is balancing booked activities with free time to explore. “I always build in free time,” says Schumacher. “There are so many hidden treasures that I want my travelers to discover on their own: mom and pop cafes, scenic pull offs, waterfalls. This makes the vacation their own.”
Opportunities to discover attractions in both planned and spontaneous ways is a big reason why self-drive vacations are the choice for “most of these immersed regional travel experiences,” according to Knowles. For example, in the Central North Island of New Zealand, he often sends his clients on a self-driven itinerary along the Pacific Coast Highway as a way to way to experience immersive regional travel. The scenic route passes through diverse attractions such as beaches, wineries, an active volcano, friendly towns and Maori historical sites.
Schumacher recommends specific highlights for her clients in this same region, such as visiting Ruakuri Cave with a Maori guide who “sings you a traditional song that reverberates to your core,” and experiencing New Zealand’s famed geothermal activity. “When you stand within feet of bubbling new earth, you feel how our planet is alive, and it’s humbling,” she says.
However, Knowles points out that driving isn’t the only option for immersive regional travel. “If travelers don’t want to drive, they can fly into regional airports, stay local and have day tour operators take care of them quite nicely,” he says. “They might miss out on some of the things ‘in-between,’ but overall will still be quite immersed in the local scene.”
Regardless of how clients want to get around, agents’ knowledge of a destination is key to crafting top-notch regional travel.
“It’s really important that travel consultants know what to advise their clients on in terms of maximizing their exposure to the culture and countryside,” says Phil Kennedy, owner of Aussie World Travel in Surprise, Arizona. “There is no point sending people through a town if you don’t know what exists in this town. It’s really important that you talk to clients from a base of confidence.”
Knowles also suggests working with “a fantastic wholesaler who also cares about the localized regions, and not just the bigger picture,” as well as attending sponsored travel agent events and training from regional tourism groups to better book this type of travel. “Attend webinars and seminars,” adds Knowles. “You’ll get information and learn things every time that just make you a better source and more knowledgeable.”
“Agents need to work with experts in the destination,” says Jeff Adam, director of sales for tour wholesaler Down Under Answers/Africa Answers/Asia Answers. “Travel agents need to give clients experiences that they cannot find themselves—and if the travel agent doesn’t know the destination, then it’s hard to make suggestions.”
Knowledge of the destination can become even more critical when a destination suddenly appears on travelers’ radar. This winter, for example, New Zealand’s Rotorua, in the Central North Island region, was featured as one of “52 Places to Visit in 2018” by The New York Times.
While the piece highlighted geysers, mineral-rich hot springs, mud games and massages, as well as the Redwood Treewalk, clients wouldn’t know about the many other interesting experiences nearby without the advice of a travel advisor or tour operator specializing in the region.
“Rotorua is the center of the Central North Island experience,” says Adam. “And the Central North Island is an amazing collective of quintessential New Zealand experiences.” Among the region’s many “immersive local experiences,” are opportunities like “cycling through the vineyards of Hawkes Bay while gaining insights from the locals.” He adds that advisors can recommend a slew of unique adventure activities in the region, including taking a “float plane over the emerald green countryside and landing on Lake Rotoiti, where after kayaking you slip into thermal pools while a barbecue is cooked nearby.”
Schumacher notes that specializing is important to help agents stand out among the competition and also to best position regional travel. To get that local edge and offer an immersive and authentic experience to travelers, Schumacher says that you need to “invest your resources, your time, energy and money to truly know the area. Visit the country and know it three-dimensionally. You need to be willing to invest if you want your clients to do the same.”