It used to be that tour operators' product development teams would travel the world to find appealing suppliers (a well-situated hotel here, an experienced transfer company there) with which they could contract attractive group rates that would in turn help them develop competitive tour packages.
Of course, that's still a critical component of the job. But in recent years, an increasingly consuming element of product development has been finding local experiences to incorporate into itineraries.
As travelers have become more savvy, better-traveled and more in tune with the idea of what is real and what is not, they have been keeping tour operators on their toes and in search of more intimate, truly local encounters.
Trafalgar, which introduced its "Insider Highlights" program in 2011, says it now has 1,460 insider experiences on offer among all its itineraries, including a combination of "Be My Guest" experiences in which travelers dine with locals; "Local Specialties," which introduces travelers to local industries; local experts who speak with guests; and any of number of hidden local treasures.
I recently ran into Trafalgar CEO Gavin Tollman, who was touting the sheer number of local experiences the company is working to integrate into its product, and he recognized that it's an exciting trend for the industry. It means going out and finding unique vendors who can work with guests and that ultimately increase guest satisfaction.
He joked that the one drawback in going more authentic and local is that those vendors might not always be set up for regular visits from group travelers. Maybe they don't hold regular business hours, or perhaps they don't have a way to take credit card payments from either the tour operator or travelers hoping to purchase their wares.
Nevertheless, the desire to see and experience the family-run winery, the local chocolatier, a quirky regional museum or any sort of unique experience is definitely there.
Last month, Globus released the results of a "Happiness Study," for which the tour operator partnered with psychology researcher Shawn Achor to survey 414 global travelers about the relationship between travel and happiness.
According to the study, one of the four main ingredients to have a happy travel experience is making a local connection.
On their best trips, 78% of travelers knew a knowledgeable friend in the destination or met with a local guide.
"When you meet up with a local guide or someone you know, you are better able to connect with the destination. And creating a connection with people and places, cultures and histories, allows us to open our minds and increase our chances of experiencing happiness," Achor said in a release about the study.
All of which leads me to this question: How are tour operators finding all these real, local connections? I'm envisioning a much more in-depth product development process that is forcing itinerary scouts to dig deeper into the destinations themselves as they work to bring travelers closer to the people and culture of these places.
In my mind, it's almost like a scavenger hunt, with product development teams sneaking around the towns and cities they all bring their clients to, trying to find a hidden gem -- and then once they do, hoping the competition doesn't stumble upon it too.
I'm sure it's a little less cloak-and-dagger than I'm picturing it, but the outcome is hopefully travel that is ultimately more interesting for everyone involved.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.