Rapid growth of private tours transforms industry

George Morgan-Grenville, CEO of tour operator Red Savannah, kayaking on the Zanskar River in Northern India.

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 and Instagram.

"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 giraffes. 

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 Southwest. 

"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 decision.

"We got pulled into it by [client] request," he said.

Now, he said, the company plans "everything from corporate team building locally and abroad to friends' getaways and family trips."

"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 proprietors.

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 changing demand.

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.

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