For years, much of the industry has been almost laser
focused on "experiential" travel. This year, the new buzzword is "transformational"
travel. Call it what you will, the fast-rising demand for unique and highly
personal experiences is transforming the tour operator business.
From adventure outfitters to ultraluxe travel planners, tour
operators say they are seeing a steady increase in demand for custom, private
itineraries, whether to a less-traveled corner of Yellowstone National Park,
far-flung islands or other remote locales that most people have never heard of.
Those in the business of private travel cite many factors
behind the demand that is driving the healthy growth of more private
business-to-business travel advisers, including a steady rise in wealth, more
sophisticated travelers, the rise in multigenerational travel, more luxury
development in previously inaccessible locations and, of course, millennials
"Instagram has been a huge help for our industry,"
said Cameron MacMillan, Africa specialist for Heritage Tours, who cited the
case of Giraffe Manor, a once virtually unknown, 12-bedroom, 17th-century
estate-turned-inn in Nairobi, Kenya, where you can eat breakfast alongside
With just one guest post, he said, it went from being an
unknown property to so popular that it's now booked years in advance.
Catherine Heald, CEO of the Asia private tour operator
Remote Lands, agreed. "Younger people don't care about stuff," she
said. "And because of social media, it has created demand for travel in a
very big way. It's OK to brag about where you've been. It's not cool to brag
about your watch."
Likewise, she said, the internet has made today's younger
travelers more confident to venture out beyond traditional comfort zones.
"Millennials don't do group travel," he said. "Millennials
think they know everything. Because of their confidence in themselves, because
of the power of the internet. This has brought a huge rise in private travel."
Experts agree that multigenerational travel also plays a big
role in the rise in private tours. George Morgan-Grenville, CEO of U.K.-based
Red Savannah, said older couples who traditionally began traveling in groups
after their kids went to college are now being influenced by their kids and
grandkids, "who are saying, 'Wait. Don't go off on one of those dreadful
group tours. Wait for the school holidays, and we'll go with you.'"
These changing travel dynamics are also driving both
traditional tour operators and those who do exclusively private travel to
increase their offerings. For example, Remote Lands just announced a series of
itineraries to less-traveled spots in India that have become more easily
accessible by air.
"From natural parks boasting Bengal tigers, remote
safari drives and majestic waterfalls to Unesco World Heritage Sites, peaceful
temples and an iconic festival celebration, Remote Lands' newest itineraries
provide immersive, cultural and adventurous experiences that allow travelers to
escape the crowds and experience a new side of India," the company said in
a news release.
The increasing demand for such private experiences is driving
growth across the sector.
Just last week, JG Worldwide, which owns the private travel
companies Heritage Tours and Revealed America, announced the purchase of
adventure operator Discover Outdoors, which is planning a major expansion with
new offices in the Pacific Northwest, Northern and Southern California and the
"Increasingly, travelers are looking to connect more
deeply with the people and places they visit," said Jena Gardner, founder
and CEO of JG Worldwide, which also owns the travel consultancy and public
relations firm JG Black Book.
"Our investments in Discover Outdoors, Heritage Tours
and Revealed America, some of the travel and tourism industry's most respected
tour operators, allow us to provide travelers with the meaningful experiences
they desire while delivering on our mission to promote tourism as a means
toward a more connected and peaceful world."
Discover Outdoors founder Kirk Reynolds said he started the
business 14 years ago by offering day trips like hiking and kayaking in New
York. He then expanded with trips to national parks and international
destinations like Peru and Africa and is increasingly working on private trips.
Moving into private itineraries, he admitted, wasn't initially a strategic
"We got pulled into it by [client] request," he
Now, he said, the company plans "everything from
corporate team building locally and abroad to friends' getaways and family
"We just did a bachelorette weekend," he said. "They
didn't want the party scene, so they did a hiking trip with whitewater rafting
and then stayed at a beautiful cabin in the mountains."
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Likewise, Brian Pearson, founder of the South American
adventure operator Upscape Travel, said he started his company in Chile 15
years ago offering daytrips. But the business quickly grew to private
itineraries that include everything from tented camps in the most remote parts
of Patagonia to tours of small wineries that include lunch with the
In England, Morgan-Grenville said the compounded annual
growth rate of his now 7-year-old company is 33%, compared with an overall
3.8% for luxury travel. A lot of that, he said, is driven by a rise in
high-net-worth individuals, or those with liquid assets of more than $1
million, which is his target clientele.
"We typically target clients age about 40 to 70,"
he said. "That is our sweet spot. If you look at the U.S., there were 4.8
million high-net-worth individuals in 2016, that's up 7.6% from 2015. So you're
seeing more people with more money coming into the market."
Traditional tour operators are also responding to the
Luxury Gold, for example, now offers private itineraries to
Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique,
Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. It
just announced it will be adding Greece for 2019.
Luxury Gold president Jon Grutzner said, "Many of our
clients have traveled previously on standard guided trips and are ready to try
a more luxurious, tailored style of journey. They may only have a couple weeks
of vacation a year, and they want to do it right, so they are increasingly
choosing the luxury bespoke option."
Likewise, National Geographic Expeditions has said it
expects continued expansion of its private itineraries program, which Nancy
Schumacher, senior vice president of tour operations, told attendees at
December's International Luxury Tourism Marketplace has grown by 100% each year
since it was launched in 2015.
And Abercrombie & Kent said it is seeing double-digit
increases in its Luxury Tailor Made Travel program, which spokeswoman Jean
Fawcett said is now a major focus for the company.
Correction: Red Savannah launched in 2011; an earlier version of this article included incorrect information.