The day-tour business is undergoing a renaissance, with travelers increasingly seeking intimate and in-depth local experiences. But there appears to be a significant gap between what travelers want in a guided tour and what they get, according to new research firm Arival.

"The Future of Touring" report, which was produced for Context Travel, found that 59% of U.S. travelers booked a large group tour on their last vacation, while the overwhelming majority, 84%, said they want a more intimate or private experience on their next vacation.

There are likely several factors behind the disparity, the report asserted, including availability and price point.

"The profound mismatch in what travelers want versus what they do indicates a clear gap in the market," the report stated, adding that travelers not only want intimate experiences but also those that are led by true experts working for companies with strong brand standards.

"How these gaps will be filled -- whether by some of the many emerging multimarket, branded tour companies; by some of the growing online travel agency brands; or by some new startup yet to make its mark -- remains to be seen," the report stated. "But the demand for a new type of tour experience is clear. Travelers are ready and waiting."

That spells good news for companies like Context Travel, which offers private and small-group cultural and educational excursions in more than 50 cities.

Indeed, while more and more conventional tour operators have expanded into the private tour arena in recent years, they are focused primarily on multiday trips, rather than on add-on excursions. Day tours have more traditionally been led by destination management companies offering larger group excursions.

Context CEO Evan Frank said the survey of 1,001 travelers conducted last August was the first by Arival for Context, so there is no earlier data for comparisons. It was commissioned, he said, to help the company better understand what travelers want while it works to raise brand awareness in a marketplace "that has undergone incredible change."

Among other findings: Tours play a significant role in overall trip spend by U.S. travelers, with tour takers, on average, spending 25% of their trip budget on tours.

It also found that travelers who are younger than 35 and older than 55 are more likely to take tours overall, with younger travelers driving the growing interest in thematic or experiential tours, such as those focused on food, outdoor adventures or cultural themes. 

One distinguishing characteristic of the sector, the study said, is the lack of established, well-understood brands and clear standards.

"The future of tours will be tied to addressing both the mismatch between consumer preference and product offering and the absence of service-level standards," the report said. 

Frank said the study underscores the need for companies like his to build well-known, global brands that consumers can turn to and trust when looking to book tours on their vacations.

"Context has been the best-kept secret for the last 16 years," he said. "We are trying to become less of a secret."

While Context has always worked with travel advisors, he said, the company has in the past year focused more aggressively on outreach to agents, including becoming a preferred provider for both Virtuoso and Signature.

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