Private departures and tailor-made tours are on the rise, but what are their biggest selling points, asks Katie McGonagle.

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Of the many buzzwords coined this year, perhaps the most important for businesses has been the ability to ‘pivot’, shifting your product with the public mood to meet customers’ newfound needs.

We’ve seen gin distilleries pumping out hand sanitiser, gyms offering workouts from home and restaurants doing dinner by delivery. But travel companies have been just as innovative, with many touring operators arranging smaller, more-exclusive trips with new private options.

Some are offering ‘bubble’ trips for the first time, while others have ramped up their private touring ranges after seeing spikes in interest. Intrepid Travel has reported a 120% rise in visits to the private groups section of its site in the past six months.

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Sell… To friends and family

After months of enforced isolation and postponed parties or family gatherings, a holiday is an ideal way to spend quality time catching up. Brian Young, managing director of G Adventures, says: “With many friends and families having been separated for extended periods of time, there is a real desire to get back on the road with loved ones to reconnect and explore together. Bubble holidays are ideal for those who want to spend time with their own group of travel companions, where they can explore and create new memories together, while minimising exposure to other tourists.”

“With many friends and families having been separated for extended periods of time, there is a real desire to get back on the road with loved ones to reconnect and explore together.”

The company released a Book Your Bubble collection in August, offering 80 tours exclusively for private groups, with discounts available: 50% off for the eighth person and free for the 12th group member.

Zina Bencheikh, EMEA managing director for Intrepid Travel, says private groups are “a great opportunity for agents” and suggests focusing on big-ticket itineraries such as Everest Base Camp or reuniting groups for a big birthday. She says: “We are seeing extended families travelling together to celebrate a special occasion with a visit to the Galápagos Islands or the polar regions, for example. In recent months, we’ve seen a marked increase in agents looking to set up private groups, including special-interest groups such as walking, photography or charity challenges. They are also coming in further ahead than usual, into 2022 and beyond.”

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Sell… To new-to-touring customers

Private trips offer a taste of touring for those who have never tried group travel before, but want added flexibility over dates and inclusions. Ben Ittensohn, head of global sales for Explore, says: “We have seen keen interest since launching our private tours a few months ago. My advice for agents would be to familiarise themselves with the benefits of private tours, as they will appeal to a much wider market. Not only to customers who have previously travelled on an organised group tour, but also to customers who have, in the past, travelled more independently.”

The operator has put 31 private tours on sale to start with, and of the bookings so far, nearly 50% have been for long-haul destinations, with Japan, Jordan and Mexico proving popular.

“My advice for agents would be to familiarise themselves with the benefits of private tours, as they will appeal to a much wider market.”

Riviera Travel offers private versions of many of its group tours, travelling by private car and with a personal guide, especially in destinations such as India or Morocco. Channel director Stuart Milan says: “I see the demand for private groups increasing significantly in the coming years, especially in 2021. We’ve had a dedicated groups department in the business for more than 10 years. It’s definitely the right option for customers who are looking for the security of their own group, on a holiday tailored to them.”

Specialist Journeys Group brands Brightwater Holidays and Andante Travels also give clients the choice to follow the itinerary in their own car if they wish, or create a small-group bespoke tour.

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Sell… To special interest groups

Would you know where to start with arranging a bespoke tour for pigeon fanciers? No? That’s just one of the custom itineraries set up this year by the team at Insight Vacations, along with a space-themed tour of the US, a Jewish heritage-focused trip around Europe, and a yoga holiday to northern India.

“We’ll do the hard work putting together the itinerary so our agent partners don’t have to, while still benefiting from the considerable commission-earning opportunities.”

In fact, special interest tours are a lucrative way to attract new business and offer clients something they can’t arrange themselves, according to Rachel Coffey, director of business development for Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, Luxury Gold and Costsaver. She says: “This year has taught us that time is precious, and we anticipate that, more than ever, people will want to combine their interests with their holidays. We’ll do the hard work putting together the itinerary so our agent partners don’t have to, while still benefiting from the considerable commission-earning opportunities. Get to know what your clients are interested in, and actively target special interest groups. You’ll engage customers by reaching out about one of their hobbies and then you can rely on us to piece it all together.”

Cox & Kings managing director Kerry Golds also recommends targeting local interest groups. She says: “A private group may be four friends travelling together or a group of 40 people who are part of an archaeological or photography society, for example.”

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Sell… On value

Private tours can offer excellent value, combining the benefits of group discounts – Exodus Travels offers a 5% discount when six or more people are booked on a trip, or 10% for 10 or more – with the ability to tailor-make a trip.

That could be as simple as tweaking the accommodation to fit your clients’ budget, or remaking the itinerary from scratch to appeal to their interests. Rabbie’s, for example, can tailor-make one-off trips to trace clients’ family roots or link up filming locations from their favourite TV series.

On The Go Tours, which has always offered private versions of its scheduled itineraries, reports an increase in demand this year not only for private groups, but also for tailor-made holidays in 2021 and beyond.

“In particular, we have seen more interest in remote and off-the-beaten-track destinations such as Albania, Georgia and the Balkans.”

To meet heightened demand for private touring, Regent Holidays has released a Cultural Landscapes collection. It features fully- escorted tours that include activities, but are designed for private groups.

Product manager Andrea Godfrey says: “There is always a lot of interest in tailor-made holidays, either for a small group of friends with similar interests or for extended family groups. This year, there has naturally been an increase in these enquiries, mainly because of the social distancing requirements. In particular, we have seen more interest in remote and off-the-beaten-track destinations such as Albania, Georgia and the Balkans.”


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