Escorted Tours: Soft sell

Escorted Tours: Soft sell

Leave roughing it to the backpackers with Katie McGonagle’s guide to touring in style

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There’s nothing better than snuggling into your favourite spot on the sofa. Like Goldilocks and her porridge, you’ve got it just right: the seat moulds perfectly to your back, the coffee table is an exact arm’s length away, and a dog-eared copy of your favourite book is within reach for a rainy day.

If someone else dared to sit in it, however, they wouldn’t find it nearly as perfect a fit. So clearly comfort can mean different things to different people.

It could simply be an upgraded adventure tour, staying in better hotels or using more modern transport, while essentially still following the same itinerary as standard. Or if it’s a tour that already includes those as standard, it could be adding in all the extras that make life a little bit easier and enhance the experience all-round.

Getting There

The idea that a holiday starts as soon as you leave your front door might sound clichéd, but it’s also true – the stress of getting to the airport can be enough to put some clients off travelling altogether.

Home pick-ups can, therefore, be a real selling point, but the terms vary widely.

Cosmos Tours & Cruises’ upgraded Select by Globus range includes private door-to-door transfers, but only within a 50-mile radius of the departure airport, with any further mileage at a supplement; for Collette it’s up to 100 miles and for Insight Vacations up to 150 miles, while customers of Titan can be picked up from anywhere in the mainland UK, but they’ll probably be sharing that transfer with a couple of other guests.

Even for domestic breaks, getting picked up from home will save clients the fuss of finding their way to a central meeting point. Shearings’ Grand Tourer holidays offer a free Home Connect service from selected postcodes across the country and, of course they’ll be dropped back to their door at the end of the trip.

Grand Tourer Coach

Some operators also provide discounted or free airport accommodation for clients who would rather avoid an early wake-up call. Collette offers its customers a complimentary night at the four-star Renaissance London Heathrow Hotel (or similar) plus free parking and a complimentary shuttle transfer to and from any Heathrow terminal.

Getting Around

It’s not the most glamorous bit of a booking, but paying attention to the type of transport used is especially important for comfort level touring, as it can make a massive difference to the overall experience.

Adventure operators such as Intrepid Travel and G Adventures include more private transport (as opposed to local or public transport) in their comfort-level tours, and might swap any long overland bus journeys for a domestic flight to save time.

For coach operators, it tends to be an upgrade in the quality of the vehicle that offers that added level of comfort. Shearings’ Grand Tourer breaks use a fleet of 15 new Mercedes Tourismo Euro V1 coaches, while Leger Holidays introduced its impressive Luxuria coach on selected routes this year.

The latter seats a maximum of 31 in rows of three, with wide armchair-style seats, extra legroom, seat-back TVs and mood lighting, plus the option of choosing seats that face each other across a table, or for solo travellers, one of seven single seats. Luxuria is available on 36 tours, but is already at 92% capacity for 2015 so bookings for next year are also on offer.

Snazzy Stays

One of the easiest ways to give clients a softer landing is with better-quality hotels, but the end result still depends on what kind of accommodation the tour started off with.

Intrepid Travel uses locally owned and operated accommodation on standard tours, so its Comfort range upgrade tends to be to three and four-star hotels which still reflect the character of the destination, rather than to international chains or five-star properties.

It can vary by destination too – G Adventures finds its comfort-level tours sell especially well in Africa because they offer lodges rather than camping, while Explore’s Premium Style tours use hotels with better facilities and more character, such as the riad-style property and mountain retreats included on its 10-day Moroccan Sojourn.

At the higher end of the market, accommodation upgrades can open up a tour to clients who wouldn’t otherwise have considered it.

The majority of Rainbow Tours’ clients booking the Inca Heartland and Salkantay Trek now choose the luxury lodge option, staying in the Mountain Lodges of Peru where they can make the most of comfortable beds, good food and even the odd hot tub to soak tired feet at night.

Cox & Kings likewise uses four and five-star hotels as standard, but has luxury options available in some of the more popular destinations such as Peru, Mexico, India, Russia and South Africa.

In Peru, that means upgrading to the Belmond Monasterio and Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the only property right outside the ruins of Machu Picchu instead of a 20-minute bus ride away; while in Russia it means staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and Belmond Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg.

Prices for the Classic Russia tour come in at £1,995 on the luxury version, as opposed to £1,195 for the superior tour, both lasting seven nights.

Local accommodation at a three or four-star level is the norm on Insider Journeys’ classic tours, but guests who want to upgrade to gold will be able to choose from five-star properties, including iconic hotels like Raffles Hotel le Royal (pictured below) in Phnom Penh and the renowned Sofitel Legend Metropole in Hanoi, both featured on its gold Cambodia & Vietnam Explorer tour.

Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Cambodia

Those upgrades need not just be on land either: Wendy Wu Tours’ Exclusive Collection favours five-star hotels but also more luxurious ships such as the Victoria Sophia or President Number 8 for Yangtze cruises.

Meanwhile, Insight Vacations’ new Dalmatian Elegance tour of Croatia charters a mega-yacht for its nine-day tour, putting it on a par with other gold tours which stay at luxurious properties such as a luxury country mansion in Mississippi on the Rhythms & Flavours of America trip.

Luxury Included

Practicalities aside, what most clients really want to know is how much more they get in terms of experiences.

Select by Globus, the luxury range from Cosmos Tours & Cruises, includes VIP access and behind-the-scenes tours on some of its routes, such as the food and wine-tasting on its Eastern USA & Canada Discovery, or the Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard excursions on its new nine-day Cape Cod & The Islands tour.

Tauck’s range of ‘Culturious’ tours also offers an extra level of inclusion compared with standard itineraries. Options include olive oil and wine-tasting in Tuscany, or the chance to go inside the workshop of art restoration specialist Bettina Schindler (both part of the Tuscany & Cinque Terre tour, which starts at £2,660 for eight days).

Bettina Schindler Pratesi, Tuscany

And if that’s not enough to earn Facebook bragging rights, then sipping champagne on the Great Wall of China or getting the chance to study tai chi with a master in Beijing certainly will be.

They’re both included in Wendy Wu Tours’ The Best of China itinerary, part of its Exclusive Collection, and also features a lesson in cooking traditional Shaanxi dumplings with local chefs in Xian, a visit to the Terracotta Warriors with an archaeologist, and a chat with panda experts in Chengdu (from £3,490).

Advice from the experts

Caroline Brown, commercial director, Shearings Holidays
“Our premium Grand Tourer programme has gone from strength to strength, with bookings up year on year. Customers think of themselves as more adventurous, and often enjoy new experiences in destinations they’ve not tried before.”

Leila Grochowski, product and commercial manager, Cosmos Tours & Cruises
“Since we launched Select by Globus, interest has grown steadily from customers wanting a premium escorted touring experience in North America, as premium touring lends itself to the long driving distances involved.”

Jackie Garrity, product innovation manager, G Adventures
“Comfort travellers tend to be in their 30s and 50s or 60s. Those in their 30s still want to go on an adventure but perhaps don’t want to rough it anymore, while the older demographic is more confident to travel farther, but they too like a softer landing.”

Simon Grove, head of product, Explore
“The type of client who is more likely to book Explore’s Premium Style tour is usually slightly older and wants to have an off-the-beaten-track travel experience but with comfortable accommodation. The higher-quality hotels are also slightly more expensive, so this style of escorted tour appeals to those with a higher disposable income.”


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