Trafalgar travelers taking a cooking class in Florence.The past few years have witnessed a fundamental shift in the way tours are being imagined, marketed and sold, with operators repositioning their brands as ultimate resources for insider access to a destination.

With travelers increasingly seeking more authentic local experiences and fewer traditional tourist itineraries, operators have been searching high and low to find more bona fide local encounters to inject into their products just to remain relevant. (Click here or on the images for more photos of some of the experiences tour operators are offering.) 

"In 2009, Trafalgar began the journey of what we have called the evolution of guided holidays," said CEO Gavin Tollman. "It was taking the essence of what we did and making it better."

The key to the process, he said, "was our position as local experts, introducing immersive and truly authentic experiences to our guests that were so unique that they simply would not have found [them] if traveling on their own."

In 2011, Trafalgar launched its Insider Highlights program, which includes arranging for clients to dine with a local host family, introducing them to native industries, having local experts meet with and speak to them and adding a wide variety of other inside access-type activities.

Today, the program has grown to include 1,460 insider experiences throughout all of Trafalgar's itineraries.

"Guests were looking for more than just the typical tourist experience and icons," Tollman said. "We looked at the feedback. We knew that our guests and potential guests wanted more immersive options and opportunities to interact with the locals, so that's what we have given them."

Simply put, offering reasonably priced guided tours and group vacations is no longer enough to remain competitive in today's travel market. The packaged travel industry, from tour operators to river cruise lines to custom FIT providers, are under pressure not only to continue to provide the attractive group pricing and convenience on which they built their businesses but to introduce into their itineraries exclusive, up-close-and-personal encounters with the people and cultures that define their destinations.

In March, the Globus Family of Brands released the results of a "Happiness Study," which the operator did in partnership with psychology researcher Shawn Achor, to survey 414 global travelers about the relationship between travel and happiness.

During a Uniworld river cruise in the South of France, passengers have the option to go truffle hunting.According to the study, one of the four key ingredients in having a happy travel experience was making a local connection.

On their best trips, 78% of travelers said they either had a knowledgeable friend in the destination or met with a local guide.

"When you meet up with a local guide or someone you know, you are better able to connect with the destination," Achor wrote in a press release about the study. "And creating a connection with people and places, cultures and histories, allows us to open our minds and increase our chances of experiencing happiness."

In analyzing customer satisfaction data such as this, mass-market tour operators like Globus and Trafalgar have in recent years overhauled their product development and marketing efforts to put a significant emphasis on seeking out, contracting with and promoting smaller, more boutique vendors, such as a family to host a dinner gathering, a local artisan or a family-run vineyard or restaurant.

Since zeroing in on this new strategy about three years ago, Globus has now injected an average of three of what it calls "local favorites" activities into each of its tours. Taking into account planning and scouting time, the activities themselves plus the transportation components, the effort costs the company hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, according to Steve Born, Globus' senior vice president of marketing.

Local favorites can fall into three categories:

  • Tastes of the region, which can include outings such as dinner at a unique local venue, wine tastings, olive oil tastings or a tapas walking tour.
  • Visiting lesser-known sights that offer a more behind-the-scenes view of a destination, instead of just the well-known icons.
  • Various kinds of interactions with local personalities connected to the region.

Travelers "want to be reassured that the experiences and attractions are things they can't just find on their own," Born said. "That's where the branding of these features has increased in recent years."

A growing hunger for authenticity

The trend toward offering more authentic local experiences is not new. In fact, it has been reported extensively in the pages of Travel Weekly over the years. Moreover, tour guides have been doing it in some shape or form for decades, going off-script as curious passengers ask them for more insight into the destinations they are visiting or request an unscheduled stop to see something that has piqued their interest.

In fact, said Richard Harris, senior vice president of operations and product at Abercrombie & Kent, "I actually don't think that there has been a huge sea change in travelers' expectations of authentic local experiences. What I think is key is the way that the travel industry as a whole has recognized this and responded. There has been a greater willingness to embrace them."

Tented camps in Morocco provided by Abercrombie & Kent.According to Harris, A&K travelers have always had a certain expectation that the upscale operator would offer them a point of view about a destination that would be difficult to get on their own. Consequently, A&K has been creating and marketing these kinds of interactions for decades, whether it's offering lectures by regional experts or taking travelers deeper into the African desert or bush by way of tented camps and exclusive encounters.

More recently, A&K introduced a chef's table experience; rather than going to an upscale restaurant, guests are given a cooking demonstration by an esteemed local chef, who shows them how to prepare a dish that was a signature of the chef's parents. On Connections by A&K itineraries, the operator's lower-priced product line, the guide often takes the group on a casual neighborhood walk, providing insights into a nontourist district.

But for the mass market, off-the-beaten-path hasn't been and isn't always the preferred path. There are plenty of U.S. travelers who enjoy, even prefer, simply seeing the traditional touristy sites and who are not at all bothered by tourist-trap shopping situations or seemingly canned performances.

However, demand for that kind of tour appears to be changing gradually as travelers of all income levels and budgets grow savvier. Gone are the days when only the well-heeled could show off their over-stamped passports. Most people today who do travel, have traveled.

What's more, even those who can't or haven't physically hit the road much have access to so much more information about what's going on in the world -- whether through the Internet, TV news or programming about travel or recommendations from their friends through social media -- and they're armed with that information when they're globetrotting.

The informed, savvy traveler is becoming more common, according to Carole Cambata of Greaves Tours, a Travel Leaders agency in Highland Park, Ill.

"More and more, clients are coming in and right off the bat saying that they want to avoid the 'touristy' experiences in a city," Cambata said. "There is always a fine balancing act here. Sometimes things that are touristy they should still see, such as the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum, etc. But the trick is to avoid sending them into 'tourist traps' where their experience becomes cheapened. Travelers today are looking for meaningful experiences and true representations of culture."

For tour operators, recognizing that shift is key to staying alive in a marketplace where they compete with a combination of low-priced cruises and all-inclusive vacations and with the growing number of travelers who think they can go it alone.

A rickshaw ride on a recent Haimark trip through India.Terry Dale, president of CEO of the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA), noted that in the group's 2012 active member survey, experiential travel was rated important or extremely important to their overall growth and sales by 85% of survey respondents.

"In order to stay relevant in today's marketplace, tour operators do need to offer experiential travel focused on the local people and culture," Dale said

In June, the USTOA plans to launch a marketing campaign called "Travel Together," showcasing precisely those experiential encounters that operators are now marketing more heavily, things like learning to weave a carpet with Egyptian artisans, witnessing how polar bears prepare for winter with a naturalist in Canada and creating glass beads from recycled bottles with artists in South Africa.

The campaign will feature on-the-ground testimonials written by correspondents for Afar magazine and a TripFilms video campaign that will capture these live-like-a-local experiences.

An idiosyncratic challenge

Marketing strategies aside, bolstering tour itineraries with unique experiences presents some logistical challenges and considerations.

For one, operators have to actually find all these hidden gems, which means tasking their product development teams, local guides and ground-operations teams to get creative and focus on grassroots elements in their scouting efforts.

Liesa Bissett, product development director for Europe and Britain at Trafalgar, said the operator approaches that challenge in several ways.

"We do as much research as possible before hitting the ground in a destination and knocking on doors and speaking with locals," Bissett said. "Our connections, which have been built up over the years, have been invaluable with putting us in touch with the right people and finding these rich experiences. Word of mouth is definitely a powerful thing."

Viking River Cruises passengers have a meal with a local family in Russia.Once the team discovers something cool, interesting or different that they think guests will enjoy, they have to consider group size, venue and how and whether they can contract with and pay the vendor.

Depending on the group size, certain encounters are harder to pull off than others. For example, you can't ask a local host family to be able to accommodate a motorcoach group of 40 or 50 passengers. Generally, tour and river cruise operators that offer this kind of encounter split the larger group into smaller, more manageable ones.

There are also economies of scale. Perhaps a local artisan is adept at crafting a beautiful product, but they might be used to doing it one by one and in a tiny workshop not amenable to groups. There are workarounds there, too.

"Often we find a traditional artisan that has much to offer our guests and although they may not, for example, have the correct venue to showcase their talent, we work with them and support them in their quest to work with Trafalgar," Bissett said.

She recalled traveling to Croatia looking for a traditional family restaurant that served authentic cuisine using local ingredients. She found a restaurant that fit the bill perfectly; the owner and staff were friendly and had a passion for what they did. But their daughter was the only person who could speak English, and she was getting ready to leave to Zagreb for school.

"So we worked with our contact in their village to find a local student who spoke perfect English to work with the family in the restaurant," Bissett recalled. As a result, "The restaurant had someone to assist our guests and explain the menu in English and the student had found some useful part-time work."

Then, there is the matter of payment.

Beach Travellers sends guests to a community-run camp for rescued and disabled elephants in Thailand.Canadian tour operator Beach Travellers spent the last 10 years building a reputation for exposing young, adventurous travelers to one-of-a-kind experiences in places like Costa Rica and Southeast Asia. But paying some of the independent contractors that offer those experiences can mean getting creative.

On a Skype call from Cambodia, where he and business partner Graeme Barker were scouting ever more adventurous experiences, Canadian operator T.J. Hermiston said, "In terms of our vendors, cash is king. They all want cash. We've had to set ourselves up with local accounts."

The duo launched their business in 2004 on the premise that people want a really local guide to show them the ins and outs and to take them places they either wouldn't know about on their own or wouldn't be able to navigate without a local expert: for instance, a home stay in a remote village in the north of Thailand.

The deeper that tour operators dive into a destination, the more interesting contracting gets. Negotiating with mom-and-pop businesses, community organizations or a local shaman about payments and scheduling is a world apart from traditional tour dealings.

As the experiential trend balloons, an education process is unfolding between operators and suppliers, with operators trying to communicate to people on the ground the fact that the changing tastes of U.S. travelers are increasingly making phony or canned performances and experiences a turn-off.

Native peoples have spent the last several decades learning that certain visitors might not like their food as spicy as they do or that they prefer to see more colorful costumes than their traditional day-to-day garb. Now, a growing number of tourists are telling them that they don't want to eat at the restaurants that cater to Westerners. They want to eat where the locals eat. They want to know how the locals live.

It is going to take time to readjust, but despite the added effort and expense, tour operators are hoping to help bridge the gap.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 

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