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TRAVEL INSIDER

Group Tours Targeting a New Breed of Vacationer

'More sight-doing and less sightseeing' is the mantra for tour operators updating their image and meeting changing needs.

April 15, 2001|NAEDINE JOY HAZELL | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Like time shares and 1970s fashions, group tours are back. "New and improved" is the message broadcast by longtime tour operators hoping to lure travelers who have overlooked or avoided them. As a result, group travel is booming. It was an $8-billion business in 1999, carrying 10 million passengers.

Wary travelers may ask: "New? How?" Travel planners say that today's itineraries offer much beyond the traditional European capitals, less drive-by bus touring and more experiential travel.

Skeptics may ask, 'Improved in what way?" The experts respond that there's less regimentation, more opportunity for personal 'aha!" experiences, more mixed tour groups.

"There's more sight-doing and less sightseeing," says Robert E. Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Assn.

Today's tour takers want to see where they're going up close and personal; forget the 12-countries-in-12-days routine.

"People want more hands-on experience," says Marc Kazlauskas, director of worldwide sales for Tauck Tours of Westport, Conn., a 75-year-old company at the top of the group-tour food chain. "They want to learn more. They want to be part of it. They want to be off the beaten track, [but] they want it done for them. They want to be treated like individuals, even though they are in a group."

Meeting those challenges has meant creating more tours that offer expected comforts without being commonplace and excursions that fascinate without frightening.

So nowadays, travelers on tours to, say, Italy and France come home with stories and photos of "that wonderful little bistro in Umbria" and that "charming pension we stayed at for a few nights in Provence" instead of the stock Big Ben-Eiffel Tower-Berlin Wall stuff.

Because group touring has broadened to embrace groups as small as six and as large as 50 to destinations ranging from London to Laos, shopping for the right trip is more important than ever.

"Not all Italy trips are the same," says Janice Sentivany, who coordinates travel and custom departures at the American Automobile Assn. in West Hartford, Conn. "Will you be driving by [Rome's] Spanish Steps, or getting out and seeing the Spanish Steps, or are you going to have a guide there telling you about the history of the Spanish Steps?"

AAA offered 60 to 100 tours when Sentivany started there about three years ago, she says, but that number has decreased to 15 to 30 annually. "Instead we're doing much more customizing," she says, noting that travelers want itineraries geared to their interests.

Travelers have kept up with the nuances that distinguish one type of tour from another, says William Levy. He has been coordinating and leading tours from Manchester Community College in Connecticut since 1975 and has seen a world of change.

"I think the sophistication of the traveler has changed," Levy says. "They know there is a world outside the United States. They look at the [college tour] catalog, call their travel agent, look at the Internet and then they come back to us."

Group touring has grown up, becoming more refined and mature and more adventurous too, says Levy, chairman of the college's psychology department.

Despite the make-over, reasons for taking a group tour haven't changed much. It's easy (the traveler does no planning); it's less expensive (economies of scale); and it's less stressful (someone else understands the money and exchange rate, plans the sightseeing, speaks the language, finds the restaurants and so on).

"I would advise a first-time traveler [to a foreign country] to start with a group," Levy says. "Don't walk into a country without some things being planned."

Levy, who offers more than 50 tours a year (but leads only one or two), thinks time-stressed travelers are well served by a tour. He tells of a recent trip to Venice in which his group landed, ferried over to Venice, took in a glass-blowing demonstration and settled into their hotel, all before dinner on the first day.

As some members of the group headed out to dinner that night, they ran into an exhausted couple who had landed that day as well and had spent the afternoon getting to Venice and looking for a hotel.

On a tour, "You'll probably experience more and see more than you would if you are doing all your own plans," he says.

Of course, for some travelers, the unknown, the road less traveled-perhaps the road that's not even on a map-holds the greatest promise. The risk, the rolling with whatever happens, is the fun part.

Independent travelers "don't want to be on a bus, off a bus," says Sentivany at AAA. "They don't want to be told they are eating at noon, that they can't order off the menu" or that they can't choose to stay instead of moving on.

The idea of independence, more identified with baby boomers than with previous generations, shook up the group tour industry a decade ago. There was an unfounded fear that the industry would die when the older population did, says Whitley at the U.S. Tour Operators Assn.

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