Ruth Marr’s travel business was facing an existential crisis, because it’s impossible to socially distance in a rowboat.
The founder of Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Rowing the World sends groups around the globe to steep in sculling and culture, matching up customers in two- and four-person boats.
“It became clear that travel would be restricted for a bit, and most of the places we operate have social distancing requirements,” Marr said. “Well, in a rowboat, people are 1.2 meters apart. You can’t social distance in a boat. We needed a workaround.”
Marr had previously run a tour company focused on self-guided tours in Europe, Canada and the U.S., and she began to work on a line of self-guided itineraries.
“It just seemed like a natural fit, allowing people to be very independent,” she said.
Rowing the World had already seen a good number of solo travelers on its tours, but this was the first time they had offered private itineraries. After launching in June, Marr saw immediate interest from solo travelers, especially for trips to remote regions in Michigan and Maine.
And, as other tour companies and travel providers discovered, the solo traveler has proven more resilient and adaptable than other segments during the pandemic. Operators have quickly augmented inventory with solo travel options and, happy to have found what looks like a silver lining in a down market, are wooing solo travelers with abundant deals. And flexible cancellation policies. And lower or no single supplements. And individually catered itineraries. And an expanded selection of options.
Opportunity & savings
Tours and services catering to solo travelers were already booming in the past decade, and the scramble for new customers is sparking innovation and what may be the foundation for a true surge in this market. The Covid-19 crisis has poured accelerant on an already rising niche.
At Intrepid Travel, half of all customers are solo travelers.
“It’s a massive market for us,” said chief customer officer Leigh Barnes. “Some are looking to travel alone but also connect with like-minded people, some want [a greater] level of comfort, confidence and safety. It’s an especially cost-effective way for solo travelers to do some of the more challenging trips that don’t get a high volume of traffic, like Antarctica or the Galapagos.”
Janice Waugh has been an avid traveler since she was a teenager, but after her husband died in 2006, she began to again venture off on her own. By 2009, she turned her passion into a new vocation, launching Solo Traveler, a website and community for those who love to travel alone.
“The growth since I started has been amazing,” Waugh said. “Even the term ‘solo traveler’ wasn’t part of the common parlance and few operators really catered to solos. Since then, I’ve watched it expand year over year over year. Options for solo travelers have grown by leaps and bounds.”
Ten years ago, Waugh said, it was typical for a single supplement to be 100%, meaning a solo traveler paid double for their room. Today, a 30% to 50% supplement is much more common, and some companies have eliminated it all together. Additionally, as demand has risen, tour operators are carving out additional space on their trips for travelers on their own.
The pandemic has brought a new surge of solo customers. At Audley Travel, the percentage of all new bookings that are solo has doubled, to 18%, since March, according to head of sales Marc Dolman. Given lower travel demand in general, Audley is looking at popular destinations and experiences that would typically be packed with tourists but today offer a rare opportunity to see them without crowds.
“There is a plethora of special offers out there from airlines and suppliers on the ground,” Dolman said. “They’ve just gone through a period of no revenue and are keen to get people back and traveling. Short term, there will be great value.”
Solo travelers are more likely to be flexible. Without the need to coordinate with family and friends, they often can travel on short notice, and in the pandemic, can more easily deal with changing health regulations and quarantines.
To stimulate sales, cancellation policies have become looser than ever, with many companies shortening the cutoff date by half, or even shorter. But tour operators know that financial considerations and flexibility aren’t enough for many travelers.
“With Covid, people’s confidence is down and we had to find a solution to raise confidence when it comes to safety,” G Adventures U.S. sales manager Jeremy Brady said, echoing many other tour providers. “We’ve looked at a range of things. We’ve reduced group size, we’re using all private transportation, we’re offering more flexibility in accommodations and providing individual rooms.”
Travel advisors, too, see opportunity, leveraging their skills to take care of last-minute changes, cancellations and rebookings. Solo travelers, who may not have companions to help them face problems that could arise on the road might become especially reliant on advisors.
“Travel advisors are absolutely crucial at this time,” said KC Hoppe, director of industry partnerships at California-based Backroads. “Dealing with airline and tour operators for refunds and credits when you book online is grueling and time-consuming. Policies change weekly, and having an advisor there to assist you and be your advocate is critical.”
Riviera River Cruises caters to solo travelers, offering roughly 40 sailings in the coming year with no single supplement. The company also does not advertise directly to consumers, relying on travel advisors. If a client does come to them directly, Riviera matches them with an advisor who receives the commission.
“Our tours will appeal to people who don’t want to worry about social distancing,” said Marilyn Conroy, Riviera’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, North America. “We have vessels built for 169 passengers, but are taking only 88 people.”
Waugh said she expects solo travelers to benefit even more in 2021 as travel companies adjust, adapt and reboot.
“I expect to see companies that did not previously target solo travelers marketing to the niche next spring,” Waugh said. “After the 2008 crash, in the spring of 2009, I started to see changes to singles supplements and other incentives.”
Innovation, options galore
At Rowing the World, Marr has been pleased with the popularity of her new self-guided offerings.
“People like the flexibility to choose when they travel,” she said. “They like the idea that they aren’t dependent on there being a specific number of people booking to make the tour happen. If there’s one person, it’s a go. They control all their own decisions, where to stay, how to get there, who to row with.”
Now Marr is considering expanding her self-guided trip offerings from her current options in Michigan, Maine, Seattle and Sarasota, Fla., to add tours in Greece and Italy.
In addition to new health and safety protocols, tour companies are also making Covid-conscious decisions that will improve the overall experience after the crisis. Itineraries may become more flexible yet, giving solo travelers all the benefits and resources of the group, but with as much or as little interaction with others as they like.
At Backroads, where traditionally European excursions have formed the bulk of their inventory, resources were shifted to launch U.S. tours at the end of June, including Yosemite and Grand Tetons itineraries. The group tours offer different biking and hiking routes of varying length and difficulty each day, and participants can, for the most part, go at their own pace and spend as much time with the group as they like.
“That’s one of the biggest draws; it’s a group trip without the group trip,” Hoppe said. “You can do what you want, but you still have that guardian angel of our guides looking after you, so if Jane Smith goes out for an extra five-mile hike and is late coming back, someone will know to go out and look for her.”
Backroads reduced its single supplement in 2019 to be more competitive, Hoppe said, and it is not pairing solo travelers together in shared rooms for the remainder of 2020. The maximum size for group tours has shrunk, and Backroads is also designing private itineraries for groups as small as six, something that previously required a minimum of 10 people.
“For people itching to travel, we can accommodate them,” Hoppe said. “We have beautiful itineraries in national parks, and you don’t have to figure out lodging, or transport, or what trail to take. Backroads does all the legwork for you.”
Tour operators of every variety are tweaking existing tours and trying out new things. With air travel a tough sell, Intrepid Travel launched a series of U.S. trips targeting domestic travelers.
Audley Travel has partnered with a home-rental company to provide customers even more controlled accommodations for their tailored trips.
Paragon Guides, based in Vail, Colo., has long offered hikes and multiday excursions that include llamas to carry supplies and gear. Now, for the first time, customers can rent a llama starting at $100 per day and head out on a trek alone.
“Travel companies are adapting in so many ways right now,” Waugh said. “It’s a huge challenge, especially for larger companies, but it really has accelerated innovations and adaptation. It’s an extraordinary period of creative growth and problem-solving.”