Guided vacations go beyond traditional sightseeing so guests can truly connect with the local culture.
In today’s ever-accessible world, the number of travel options available to your clients are about as vast as the places they can go. So how do you know where to start to ensure your clients have the travel experience of their dreams that will keep them coming back to you again and again?
Let’s start with what we know. We know travelers are seeking more from their vacation experiences than ever before. Where once simply seeing the iconic places that were on their bucket list was enough, now they want something more meaningful and immersive. They want to go beyond a superficial experience and get to a place of connection with the culture and people in the places they visit.
So what does cultural connection look like in a travel experience? For more and more travelers, the answer is guided vacations.
“We’ve transformed guided vacations to give travelers a deeper, richer experience of the places they visit,” says Melissa DaSilva, president of Trafalgar, one of several guided vacations brands of The Travel Corporation, which also includes Insight Vacations, Luxury Gold, Brendan Vacations, Contiki and Costsaver. “Years ago, we started to see the change in traveler desires and challenged ourselves to elevate our experiences to give them what they didn’t even know they wanted yet—true culture connections, the ability to go beyond the surface of a destination or venue, and in such a way that it’s pure joy and easy as can be for the traveler.”
Here’s a look at how guided vacations offer an incredible cultural travel experience for your clients.
No Worries, No Compromises
While many people are up for, and even enjoy, a good challenge, travel is not something people like to do the hard way. All of the researching, planning and executing of details is certainly laborious if one is trying to go it on their own, but there is an easier option—one that doesn’t sacrifice anything in the process.
“I have a lot of travelers who don’t want to worry about anything on their vacations—they want to show up, see beautiful things, meet interesting people and have fun,” says Julia Matheson, owner of Travel Julia’s Way, an independent affiliate of the Gifted Travel Network and a Virtuoso member agency in Hickory, North Carolina. “For those people, guided vacations can be ideal.”
With targeted qualifying questions, she digs in to discern how easy her clients want a vacation to be, how much guidance they might want along the way and their comfort level in traveling on their own. “My job is to understand what a client is seeking and expecting,” she says. “And then I can make recommendations that go beyond that.”
Among the highlights of guided vacations, she talks about special access to historic sites, museums and other popular tourism sites that most people can’t achieve on their own. “Special access is a huge bonus,” she says. “You want your clients to be able to see everything quickly and easily without having to wait in a long line and waste time. And once they get inside on a guided vacation, they have an expert who can take them through the site and explain the history and stories in a way that’s very interesting.”
She also notes that guided vacations often include excursions “that my clients wouldn’t even know were possible so that’s a really cool bonus for travelers.” As an example, she cites a guided vacation she enjoyed in Peru. “We got to have cocktails at an artist’s house, meet the artist, walk around his studio, explore his house, which was so full of interesting items—there’s zero chance a client could ever do something like that on their own.”
Similarly, she says that most clients don’t know they can make cultural connections like dining with a local family, but “they love the idea when they hear about it and it’s always a highlight of a guided vacation. The food experiences are extra-special and one of the best ways to learn about a culture.”
For many travelers, another bonus of a guided vacation is that they don’t have to worry about getting themselves from one place to another. “Sometimes the only way to move from one place to another is by driving,” says Matheson. “If you do it yourself, the drive can be long, tiresome, tricky—and you don’t really get to enjoy the scenery. On a guided vacation, you chat with others, rest, just watch the world go by… Plus, they know the best places to stop, little gems that most people would go right past if they were on their own.” For multi-country trips, she also notes that “border crossings can be scary if you’re on your own.”
Whether it’s connecting with a local, seeing a hidden highlight or moving from one destination to another, Matheson says, “Companies like The Travel Corporation have been arranging and planning guided vacations for many years. They know how to combine details efficiently, leave free time to explore on your own and have travel directors who add insight to experiences and can give personal recommendations about things to do when you’re on your own.”
When checking out any itinerary for her clients, Matheson pays close attention to the dining options. “Does it say dinner in a hotel or dinner at a local’s home? Food is such a cultural touchstone—how people eat, what they eat, even when and why they eat. And the chances to interact with local people over their local foods are what make a trip extra-special.”
On a Trafalgar trip to Spain, for example, she says, “I was obsessed with the Be My Guest experience at an olive oil farm in Andalusia—I enjoyed it so much that I really wanted my clients to have the same experience. I’m so excited that I have clients who are now taking the same trip and will get the chance to explore the farm, learn about the olive oil and enjoy a dinner with the owners.” Or in Sarajevo, she remembers one of the highlights of an Insight Vacations trip: “We got to eat in an apartment with locals and it was so eye-opening to see how they lived, learn more about their country and the effects of the war, and engage with them as real people.”
DaSilva is not at all surprised when travel advisors and guests name Be My Guest as a highlight of any Trafalgar trip. “What better way to get to know locals than to break bread with them?” she asks. She notes that Trafalgar now features more than 100 Be My Guest experiences throughout the world, ranging from foraging and story-telling in Ireland to dining with a top chef in her own home in Natchez, Mississippi to tasting homemade limoncello from the Esposito sisters’ lemon farm in Italy—the original Be My Guest experience that started as an experiment 10 years ago. “No one was taking guests into people’s homes then,” DaSilva says. “But that became our highest rated trip and we knew we had a winning concept.”
Willie Montano, vice president of marketing for Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, agrees that Insight’s Dine-at-Home experiences are always very popular with guests. “We have an extensive network of local connections and also partner with EatWith in some cities to bring our guests into people’s homes so they have a chance to enjoy a meal in a private and unique setting. Breaking bread with locals and the personal connections make these experiences extraordinary.”
Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold offer several ways to get up close with local people and culinary traditions, adds Janet Anderson, vice president of sales for the two brands, including “hands-on cooking classes, like at Tuscany’s Villa Dianella, once the country home of the Medicis, where guests learn to make handmade pasta with ingredients picked from the villa’s garden.” TTC’s youth travel brand Contiki also features interactive cooking classes, such as collecting ingredients from the bustling market in Chiang Mai to use at the Best Thai Cooking School or making traditional paella in Spain’s Valencia.
And for those who want to savor an upscale dining experience, Anderson notes that Luxury Gold often features evenings at exclusive, high-end restaurants, where access is limited and reservations are hard to come by. Just a sampling of what’s on the menu: Hungarian delicacies at Gundel, one of Budapest’s most renowned restaurants for over a hundred years; Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru, named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world; and Dublin’s Michelin-star L’Ecrivain, where seasonal Irish ingredients transform traditional French recipes.
Up Close and Personal
Speaking of exclusive, would your clients like to mingle with an Austrian princess or a British duchess at their castles? Sip bourbon and swap stories with Grammy-award winning country music star Charlie McCoy in Nashville? Chat with a marchese over lunch and sample local wines at the second oldest winery in Italy, set amid Marchese Franceso Mazzei’s Tuscan estate?
These experiences are all part of the very exclusive Luxury Gold’s Chairman’s Collection, available only on select departure dates to whisk a privileged few into a world that most of us can only dream of.
And these are the kinds of experiences Matheson makes sure to point out to her clients. “When we’re looking at different guided vacation itineraries, or deciding between individual travel and a guided vacation, these are experiences I make sure clients are aware of,” she says. “They’re not going to be able to have dinner with a countess unless they choose a guided vacation that features that.”
“The trends our guests are looking for revolve around unique experiences—being able to do things and meet people that others simply cannot do on their own,” agrees Montano. “The average person cannot book these encounters directly, but TTC can, because we have teams around the globe that specialize in curating these one-of-a-kind experiences.”
In many cases, the experiences are exclusive to guests on a guided vacation. “At the Vatican, for example, Insight Vacations guests enjoy a private tour of the Bramante Staircase—an area of the Vatican that is off-limits to the public—with a local expert who tells the story of the staircase,“ says Montano. Luxury Gold puts its own spin on a visit to the Vatican with private entry to the Sistine Chapel before it’s open to the public and fast-tracked entry to the Vatican Museums. Meanwhile, Trafalgar offers guests the option of taking a special train from Vatican City to the Pope’s summer palace for lunch. “It’s extraordinarily special, quiet and very different,” says DaSilva. “Strictly speaking, the train ride is not unique to Trafalgar, but it’s the kind of thing clients wouldn’t even know about to book on their own.”
Anderson notes a similar phenomenon with the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. “Every night after the Tower of London closes, the Beefeaters turn off the lights and illuminate the lanterns, then perform a ceremony to lock the Tower. This traditional ceremony has been taking place for more than 700 years and you can really feel the history and grandeur,” she says. “This is an experience very few travelers will have the opportunity to witness and while it could technically be booked directly, there is extremely limited capacity and reservations would need to be made many months in advance. With Luxury Gold, it’s included, and guests don’t have to think twice about it.”
Be a Local, not a Tourist
While it’s always fun to step into lifestyles of the rich and famous and go behind the scenes of iconic sites, today’s traveler also seeks a better understanding of the everyday people who live in the destinations they’re visiting as well as insights into unique cultural hallmarks.
“When travelers book on their own, they get the typical run of house tour,” says DaSilva. “But at The Travel Corporation, we have the contacts and experience to create experiences that are exclusive to us. We create experiences that pull back the curtain and allow our guests to see something different, to get a deeper understanding of the why, not just the what and how, and to understand the impact of the history and people in any given destination.”
“It’s everyday people doing what they do,” she continues. “In Switzerland last year, I joined a Trafalgar Connect with Locals experience to visit with a family who owns a dairy cow farm—we joined them as they fed and milked the cows, showed us about making cheese and sampled the 17 different cheeses they make. The farm isn’t a tour destination—the only way to visit is through a guided vacation.”
Travelers can make such connections throughout the world: On a Contiki trip to Peru, for example, they can meet traditional farmers, fishermen and weavers of the Uros floating reed islands, while an Insight guided vacation to Ireland includes meeting hurling players in Kilkenny.
“In the past, a guided vacation in Ireland might have included going to a factory to see how the hurling stick or the sliotar ball is made,” says Montano. “Now we take people right onto the field to learn how to play this ancient Gaelic sport with friendly locals.” Or for 2019 into 2020, Anderson says that one of her favorite Insight Experiences is the chance to meet Trine Lyrek on a Northern Lights of Scandinavia trip. “She’s a breeder of huskies, and our guests get to meet the huskies and learn about the challenges of raising them and competing in dog sled races. It’s fun and fascinating.”
In addition to excursions, DaSilva notes that hotel choices can go a long way towards immersing guests in a destination. “In some destinations, Trafalgar features Stays with Stories—anyone can book a nice hotel, but these hotels allow guests to truly experience the fabric of a destination.” Just a few examples: Salzburg’s Schloss Leopoldskron, best known as the exterior of the Von Trapp house in The Sound of Music; Hotel las Casas de la Juderia, a collection of 15th-century Andalusian townhouses in Seville; and the grand 12th-century Ashford Castle in Ireland, featuring such traditional pursuits as falconry at Ireland’s oldest falconry school, clay pigeon shooting or horseback riding through the ancient forest.
“Our product development team is on the road most of the year, gathering recommendations and meeting with people to see what’s the best fit for our guided vacations,” says DaSilva. “We also get recommendations from our Travel Directors, who are very familiar with their destinations, and even at industry events, travel professionals will make suggestions. Our biggest criteria is that we are looking for people and experiences that are unique, that are exclusive, that are local, and that are real—not fabricated. Our guests want to be a real part of the places they visit.”
“These are the kinds of things that my clients love,” says Matheson. “And it’s what I highlight when I’m talking about guided vacations, especially with anyone who thinks they might want to travel individually instead. We can look at the nitty-gritty of the itinerary and see what kinds of included experiences will give them the best access to the people and places they’re visiting.”