SAN FRANCISCO -- Bicyclists traditionally book their own trips with the dozens of specialty operators offering tours by bike, but more travel agents are getting into the act and making up a greater percentage of the operators' business, according to several specialists.

At Backroads, the Berkeley, Calif.-based biking and hiking tour firm that is the industry's largest, agent bookings continue to rise, now producing 20% of its $40 million in annual sales. Of the firm's 15,000 passengers a year, about half take biking trips, the rest take walking or multisport tours.

Butterfield & Robinson, the 35-year-old Toronto-based firm that is the industry's oldest biking operator, reported that 40% of its clients use a travel agent for booking their trip. Of Butterfield & Robinson's 6,000 annual passengers, 60% take biking trips, the rest walking tours.

The two companies are the largest bicycling tour operators of the estimated 300 or so biking specialists, the vast majority of which are "mom-and-pop" operators that focus on one destination.

The two are also the most recognized brands among agents and, unlike most of the other firms, offer a broad array of programs on several continents, backed with the resources to undertake a large distribution of brochures, advertising and agent marketing programs.

The result of their efforts has been a surge of interest by agents in bicycling tours.

"An awful lot of travel agents have customers who take these types of trips," said Helen Nodland, who leads adventure travel seminars for tour operators. "Five years ago, most agents didn't book them, but now a lot are, and there are even some who are putting together groups and leading bike trips."

Tom Hale, president and founder of Backroads, conceded that when he started the firm 21 years ago "we questioned the wisdom" of marketing to travel agents.

"But we spent a lot of resources on working to be travel-agent-friendly, and it's paid off. It's very important business to us today."

Backroads, like many other active-travel companies, does not arrange air or pre- and post-trip stays for clients, so there is a natural role for a travel agent, he said.

"A good travel agent can [provide] a very important service," Hale said.

Kelly McKinney, Butterfield & Robinson's director of sales, said his firm's agent business has grown steadily "as agents feel the loss of revenue from the airline commission cuts."

Both major companies also are working to stay on top of customer demands, tweaking their programs to keep them fresh and interesting.

While there is strong interest in biking, both see a trend toward multiactivity trips that aren't strictly bicycling, for example.

Backroads' Hale said his firm is looking at combining activities.

"The migration to multisport trips has been great because it allows us to put the best trip together based on what an area has to offer. You don't have to say this will be solely a walking trip or solely a biking trip."

Hale said people don't want "so much an active trip as a rich, rewarding and deep experience. Riding around in a bus is not for these people."

And McKinney said, "We see cooking and learning becoming more important, so we are including more guest lecturers and cooking classes on the trips."

Both are concerned with the impact of aging on the baby-boomer generation, now making up the bulk of the bicycling tour participants.

"Biking is growing, but walking is growing at a faster pace," said McKinney. "Eventually, these people will slow down. So, we're doing things like adding a cruise on the end of a biking trip."

Hale said adding information on culture and history is more important than ever.

"We're not a biking company per se; we're a company that wants to give travelers a sense of place."

The other change in biking tours is greater independence, another accommodation to baby boomers, who are typically independent-minded.

"On our trips, in the middle of the day you may find yourself biking through the countryside alone. We are working very hard to educate guests that they can make our trips work for them, so if they want to get an early start or linger over breakfast, that's possible.

"We provide group fun and a spirit of camaraderie, but people can get away from the group, as well."

Cyclists tend to be loyal clients

ATLANTA -- Martha Gaughen can vouch for the popularity of bicycling tours. An agent for 18 years and co-owner of Sterling Travel here, Gaughen takes bicycling vacations herself and promotes them to her clientele.

The $8 million agency's business is 40% active and adventure travel, much of it in African safaris, but biking trips comprise a growing percentage, she said.

Gaughen said she built her cycling clientele by the word-of-mouth promotion of loyal, satisfied clients.

"Once you serve these people well, they are bonded to you," she said. In addition to giving the agency a high repeat factor, those interested in bicycling tours are buying a lucrative, upscale travel product.

Gaughen's agency is a member of Virtuoso, and she is a certified adventure-travel consultant through a program conducted by the agency network.

Not only does Gaughen sell individual bike tours, mostly through Backroads and Butterfield & Robinson, which are Virtuoso preferred suppliers, she also arranges customized biking vacations for groups.

"The bicycling companies started out going direct, but in the last few years have spent a lot of money in developing relationships with the agency community," she said.

"Now they'll even refer clients to agents because they [the operators] can't handle the air and the pre- and post-trip arrangements."

Gaughen said both Backroads and B&R are "excellent," with Backroads' programs favoring the more avid bicyclist and B&R more upscale in its accommodations and meal choices.

Gaughen said there is a lot of opportunity for agents to sell bicycling tours because "people, even seniors, want to be active. The time when vacations meant going to the beach for two weeks is over."

Experts offer tips

What do travel agents need to know to make sure they're booking the right kind of client on a bicycling trip?

Here are a few tips from the biking companies, agent Martha Gaughen and adventure-travel expert Helen Nodland:

  • Look into the fam trips and training that most companies offer. If an agent hasn't done any biking, it may be difficult to sell the trips. Education is the key, said Nodland.
  • Interview clients carefully to find out what level of physical activity they do in their daily lives. Gaughen said, "You can put people on a bicycling trip who've never been on a bike," and they'll enjoy it -- if they are in shape.
  • "The better condition they're in the more fun they're going to have," she said. Make sure they exercise several times a week and can do the minimum recommended by the bike company.

  • Set up a three-way conference call between the tour operator and the client to discuss any unanswered questions, said Nodland.
  • "There are questions that the tour operator would ask that the retailer would not know to ask, and agents will learn a lot that way," she said.

  • Ask clients if they need pre- and post-trip arrangements. Most bicycle tour participants extend their trips, and the stays can be lucrative for the agent and a value-added service for the customer.
  • Remind clients to bring padded shorts on the trip to make sitting on the bicycle seat more comfortable -- and to bring padded bicycling gloves to cut down on blisters and numbness.
  • Those who are worried about soreness should also consider the new gel seats that have come on the market -- or ask the tour operators if gel seats are available with the bikes used on their programs.

  • Make sure clients feel comfortable riding on their own and following maps and directions in a foreign country, if that is their destination.
  • Determine how much biking and how much down time clients want from a trip and make sure the itinerary allows for their desires -- or that the biking tour firm allows participants flexibility in making itinerary adjustments each day as needed.
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