Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

How and whether touring -- one of the most classic forms of travel -- can or should modernize is often a subject of much debate in the tour operator industry. There are those companies that believe that escorted group travel in its purist sense (a group of people traveling together with a tour director) has been and always will be a sought-after way to vacation for a certain segment of the population, and they are likely right. It's something of an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it approach.

Then there are those that feel that touring needs more flexibility, that it needs to adapt to travelers' changing tastes and interests. The Globus Family of Brands' Monograms brand falls squarely into this category -- a product that offers independent travelers many of the conveniences and assurances of group travel (airport transfers and a local host, for instance), but minus the group.

When looking at the next generation of travelers, those coming of age now and starting to spin the globe with curiosity, it isn't often entirely clear whether and what kinds of tour products will resonate with them. A company like Contiki, which offers tours to 18-to-35-year-olds has all but debunked the theory that young people don't do group tours, as have the numerous tour operators that report that younger travelers (often traveling as families) are booking with them in greater numbers.

But for the tech-savvy traveler of tomorrow who is willing and wanting to go-it-alone armed only with a smartphone and some downloaded apps, the idea of connecting them to individually selected tours, bookable online and on-the-go, is an interesting one. A recent Travel Weekly article ["Tech startups target tour guides, operators," Feb. 16, 2015] explored a handful of companies trying to do just that.

The question is: should more traditional tour operators eyeing this space be worried? Could the Airbnb-style model of booking travel components directly through locals ultimately become a preferred way of buying tours for a growing segment of the population?

Time will tell whether companies like AnyRoad and Xola that were featured in the aforementioned tour tech startup story will have success, but it is worth noting that these companies also introduce another interesting concept -- that of the individual tour guide as an independent entrepreneur enabled by online and mobile marketing and booking capabilities.

That in and of itself opens up the competitive playing field. If these sites and services continue to develop, individual tour guides could start to gain popularity -- and business -- through positive reviews and recommendations. While it has traditionally been difficult to find reputable tour guides other than through the reputable companies they work for, this model gives independent tour guides potentially greater exposure of their own.

The tour operator industry may or may not be significantly disrupted by these advancements. And ultimately the traditionalists that wave off any threats to their way of doing business might have the right idea, maybe there quite simply is a slice of pie for everyone, and the latest piece being cut is for this new tech-driven approach.

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