Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

InsightIt was clear after this year's annual U.S. Tour Operators Association Conference and Marketplace in Scottsdale, Ariz., that the tour operator industry is alive and thriving.

"This is still very early in the booking cycle, but all the indications are that escorted tourism is making a comeback," Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Tour Operators Association, said from the USTOA conference floor.

So how are they doing it? How is this classic, age-old form of traveling keeping up with all the changes and innovations in travel and with the unending competition from ocean and river cruise lines and independent travelers?

Michelle BaranWell, they're changing and innovating too.

In fact, I just got off the phone with a company that is a perfect example of the kind of modernization and adaptation it takes to keep the tour industry breathing.

Convertible Caravans of Europe is offering up a slightly different twist on escorted touring by allowing passengers to drive their own cars through Europe along a predetermined itinerary, with routes preprogrammed into their GPS, stopping along the way to gather with their small group of between eight and 20 fellow travelers for wine and cheese tastings and to stay in smaller boutique hotels.

And traditional tour operators are getting creative and modernizing their models too. This year, a number of them started introducing WiFi on their motorcoaches to help passengers stay connected during those long, scenic drives.

And they're paying attention to consumer trends. They know that many travelers are looking for more intimate, smaller group experiences and are continuing to create product for these smaller group sizes with more immersive and authentic experiences built into the itineraries. They're having to work harder and dig deeper into the destinations and the product to search for ever more unique and interesting sites, eateries and accommodations to showcase to travelers.

But their work appears to be paying off, at least somewhat. We're heading into 2014 in a world where tour operators remain relevant and don't seem to be showing any signs of becoming less so.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.

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