The future of touring, unique experiences vs traditional tours

Xinyi Liang-Pholsena

Experiences has become a buzzword of late in the travel industry, with many tour suppliers and operators slapping the term on every possible activity and tour. Douglas Quinby, Arival’s co-founder and CEO, attributed to the popularity of “the ‘E’ word” to Airbnb, which launched its Experiences arm two years ago.

But what exactly constitutes a unique experience? For TakeMeTour’s founder Taro Amornched, ‘experiences’ in the tours context means connecting travellers with locals who share their expertise, passion or hobby in a destination, giving the example of a local banker leading jogs around Bangkok’s Lumpini Park followed by a street-side breakfast by the park’s edge.

Or are experiences – according to Airbnb’s definition – about discovering Berlin’s forests and lakes with a professional dog walker or learning to make fake sushi with sampuru (sample food) expert in Tokyo?

But do travellers always want to ‘live like a local’ wherever they go, seeking in-depth interaction experiences with local hosts and communities? While industry predictions suggest that group tours are out and that one-of-a-kind, authentic experiences are now de rigueur, especially among the millennials, I believe the reality lies somewhere in between.

A core group of travellers probably still want sightseeing tours, whether it’s hop-on, hop-off buses, city tours or attraction visits, especially when visiting a new destination. Most first-timers to a city still want to check off the must-see spots and iconic attractions – a reason why Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building or Angkor Wat continue to see surging numbers of visitors year after year.

Renato Domini, CEO, Panorama Destination, believes there will always be interest in classic sightseeing tours, but thinks the delivery of tours and activities has to keep up with changing market preferences and competition. The onus, too, is on DMCs to offer creative products or special touches in tour programming to remain “specialists” of the destinations, he maintained.

The rise of experiential travel is also leading a new breed of package tours, one that strikes a balance between personalisation and independence. For example, attraction pass provider Leisure Pass Group has rolled out the Great Cities Passes for travellers to ‘mix and match’ the in-destination attractions, shared the company’s vice president of product Asia, Ivy Chee.

Ultimately, it’s about tour operators and suppliers knowing the market and matching the right product to the right customer. Just as Polaroid shots or drone videos to guests provide upselling opportunities for an Instagram tour, it would also make sense to pair chefs and restaurant owners with foodies looking to savour a destination’s culinary heritage and offerings on a food tour.

While Airbnb has outlined its ambitions of being an end-to-end travel seller (see page 9), the sharing economy giant’s foray into the experiences and adventures segments is unlikely to turn the tour operating business into a zero-sum game.

The global travel population is getting bigger each year, and within the colossal market of 1.4 billion travellers worldwide surely there is room for every type of player to carve out their niche.

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