Each day,10,000 Baby Boomers hit retirement age. As college kids, they were the backpackers who Eurailed, biked and thumbed their way across Europe. Travel is part of who they are. They pride themselves in their independence, sense of adventure and their appreciation of travel as a journey of self-discovery and engagement with other people and cultures.
At 67 years old, Trafalgar Tours also has hit the age when the escorted tour company could qualify for Medicare. In its nascent days, it catered to travelers who wanted everything arranged and were content to "sightsee" through a bus window rather than engage.
Over these past four years, Trafalgar has been reborn, in a sense - reengineered its escorted tour product to appeal to today's Baby Boomers and family travelers, alike, who, truth be told, like retirees before them don't mind someone else figuring out the best hotels, best travel routes, best attractions to see while still making possible those unique, in-depth experiences, those the serendipitous encounters that are the essence of travel and produce those lifelong, life-changing memories.
The solution that Trafalgar has found are Inside Experiences that are built into the itinerary - Be My Guest dining experiences with local families on farms, vineyards, in private homes and small family-run restaurants; visiting Hidden Treasures; and Insider programs conducted by locals, experts and "characters" with a personal connection to a place.
"It's a generational shift in attitude about what people want when they travel. People used to travel to 'see' Eiffel Tower. Now they want to connect more deeply with a destination," said Paul Wiseman, Trafalgar's US President.
"We transformed the entire company from the way prior generations experienced escorted tours to baby boomers who were independent travelers, who are experiential and want unique local experiences. We reengineered the entire company."
The newly designed escorted tours include exclusive Insider Experiences that provide an authentic and enhanced vacation experience - that means the events and venues that are not commercial or open to the public, but are specially arranged.
The elements of the Insider Experiences program include:
• Be My Guest – where special dining experiences with local families have been arranged;
• Local Experts – specialists in the cultures and landscapes of the area you’re visiting who have a particular expertise;
• Local Guides – passionate locals who entertain you with stories of their hometown, who have a particular connection to the place and are interesting characters
• Local Specialties – visits to see locals at work, learn about their craft and sample their wares
• Hidden Treasures – surprise sights and experiences, revealed by the Tour Director, that are off-the-beaten tourist track
• Unique Insights – visits to places of particular cultural significance
New for 2014 are Authentic Accommodations: stays with unique local significance, such as Seville’s Las Casas de la Judería, created from two palaces, and the Dilek Kaya Hotel, a restored home adjacent to a historic rock castle, in central Turkey.
The trips incorporate the best of an escorted tour: access, expertise about what is important about a place, and (face it) convenience of not having to research lodgings, attractions, travel routes and fares for an itinerary that spans multiple cities.
You don't just get admission to a museum exhibit, you get VIP access, such as being able to visit the Fine Arts Museum in Venice or the Royal Collection at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, before they open to the general public).
Even the classic "Grand Tour" has been restructured to be mindful that today's travelers want more meaningful, in-depth experiences. That means spending more nights in a destination - something you can't even get with a cruise, which typically spend a matter of hours in a port.
Many of the Trafalgar land-tours are designed to connect with cruises. There are 21 itineraries in Italy, alone.
Trafalgar's Product Development Director – Europe and Britain, Liesa Bissett, joined Trafalgar four year ago with an aim to transform the concept of guided vacations. "They were boring, passe. We want the guest to experience soemthing enriching. We changed the way we looked at and experienced a destination – we look for unique experiences."
Born in Harare, Zimbabwe, Bissett says she was brought up with one principal philosophy thanks to her wanderlust parents: “Travel is the school of life.”
She has spent the better part of four years roaming through Europe, stopping in local pubs and venues, literally finding interesting people to become hosts for Trafalgar's groups.
"In Scotland I asked around in a pub where we could take people to meet local people and there I met Fergis who has a farm, sheepdogs, and the barn where Rob Roy McGregor had his coming of age party. People come away with bragging rights when they get home.
"In Cambridge, I approached the university union and got students who earn pocket money punting (rowing the flat bottom boat) on the Cam River and telling stories of studying at university.
In Belfast, where a bus tour is standard fare, Liesa took the challenge of creating a local experience -so now 3-4 guests get in a black cab with a cabbie with the gift of gab. "They all come back with different stories, experiences."
"In Spain we go to where they raise the bulls for bullfights and have al fresco dinner."
In America, one Be My Guest experience is a BBQ with "Happy Pappy," a former Hollywood stunt double who now lives on a ranch in Montana; guests arrive in an interesting way – robbed by a cowboy.
Other new Insider Experiences include a Be My Guest dinner where guests meet the Inauen-Dorig family at their dairy farm in the Swiss village of Appenzell; sampling Tempranillo wines of Northern Spain with a sommelier; and experiencing Sarajevo’s war tunnels with a Local Expert.
Another aspect of the trips are "Hidden Treasures" - places that you might have serendipitously found if you were traveling on your own and had the luxury of time to really explore, but unlikely.
In Moscow, Russia, you're taken to a bridge that has become a pilgrimage site for Muscovite newlyweds. The couples leave a padlock bearing their names and wedding date attached to the bridge as a symbol of their wedded bond.
You also have the benefit of local guides who are experts in their field, and VIP access to the most popular attractions.
Another feature of the Insider Experience are the local guides - experts, insiders and interesting characters who guide the group. In Liverpool, England, the Beatles expert was a friend; in San Francisco, there is a fellow who has lived in Haight-Ashbury since the 1960s.
The guided tours of attractions are, led by leaders who are experts in their field, but instead of shouting above a crowd, they have "whisper" or Vox system wireless headphones so you don’t have to huddle in a group around the leader and have more freedom to move around and still hear the commentary. "You don’t feel herded, or look foolish following a flag."
The trips also accommodate today's travelers by providing WiFi on the coaches and in the hotels.
And the trips are designed so you don't spend more than 2-3 hours on a bus without a break to visit something or arrive at your next destination.
Even the classic "Grand Tour" has been structured to be mindful that today's travelers want more meaningful, in-depth experiences That means spending more nights in a destination - something you can't even get with a cruise, which typically spend a matter of hours in a port.
The land-based tours jibe well with ocean cruises, as well. For example cruises which end in Venice can pick up a Trafalgar tour (it offers 21 itineraries in Italy alone).
Asked how she manages to gather these authentic experiences, she says, "With difficulty. I find them by word of mouth." For the most part, these are not commercial establishments and typically are not open to the public. It may be a local farm or ranch, or a home.
The programs often enable a family to keep their ancestral home or farm which they might not otherwise be able to afford - this is in the best tradition of ecotourism, which provides an economic underpinning that helps communities preserve their heritage, rather than migrate to urban centers for jobs, for example.
"Three families in York were able to keep their ancestral home," Liesa said. "It's transformed their small community." The hosts are "generously" compensated for preparing the food and hosting the group.
The maximum group size is 50, though our groups are more typically around 40, she says. "Our environmental footprint is small."
The groups bring together English-speaking guests from around the world US, UK, Australia. The commentary is in English.
The tours provide daily breakfast daily and around half of all dinners (the rest give you the opportunity to explore on your own).
In most cases, the per diem rate - averaging $275 per person for US trips; (in NYC per diem is $275) and around $250 in Europe - is not more than you would payout of pocket if you made all the lodging, transportation, dining and attractions arrangements yourself.
Trafalgar prices in US dollars and absorbs any differences due to fluctuations, so you know what will spend
And if there is a problem in the locality, there is someone there to help. For example, Wiseman says, "when Egypt suddenly erupted, Trafalgar immediately got its passengers to the airport and gave them the option to return home or travel someplace else - 80% went to Greece instead."
Trafalgar tours are 4-star (accommodations) – and some “authentic” hotel experiences
Contract air fares may be available which can provide a 10-15 % discount over regular airfares.
2014 Europe & Britain Program
Trafalgar, which offers 230 itineraries in 67 countries , has just released its 2014 Europe and Britain vacations. The updated offerings include 140 enhanced Europe itineraries, five new trips, and an expanded set of Trafalgar’s Insider Experiences.
Additionally, Trafalgar is joining forces with Celtic brand Brendan Vacations to offer the most extensive collection of Ireland and Scotland vacations available, now sold and represented by Trafalgar.
“With the Homecoming in Scotland, England’s royal family remaining in the spotlight, and the 70th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day landing during World War II, we expect some of our strongest demand ever for European experiences next year,” said Trafalgar U.S. President Paul Wiseman. “The hallmark of Trafalgar continues to be our ability to deliver unique, exclusive experiences for each of our guests, taking them beyond the expected, no matter where they travel globally.”
Trafalgar’s updated 2014 vacations across Europe and Britain include:
Europe and Britain: 104 customized itineraries, including five new travel experiences, across several popular travel styles, including multi-country discoveries, in-depth regional exploration, family experiences, and leisure
Brendan Ireland & Scotland: 16 guided vacations and customized independent offerings
CostSaver Europe: 36 budget itineraries featuring more optional experiences and urban hotels, priced at 30% less compared making independent arrangements
Family Experiences: 19 customized vacations for vacations across Europe, North and South America that maximize family time
At Leisure: 32 relaxed-paced trips in Europe, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Asia featuring more free-time, longer-night stays in each destination and later start times
New Europe itineraries include:
12-day Northern Spain, the first guided vacation for Trafalgar’s guests across the region
8-day Swiss Delight, a condensed guided vacation of top destinations across Switzerland
14-day The Balkans & Venice, Trafalgar’s first guided vacation within the Balkans, which includes Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and Croatia
18-day Wonders of Europe, an at-leisure itinerary across the UK, Italy, France and Switzerland, and
10-day Delights of London & Paris, in-depth guided experiences across both cities
Trafalgar has introduced a dedicated family program which also incorporates authentic Insider and Be My Guest experiences, as a way to introduce kids to the diverse cultures and traditions of Europe, the United States, Canada, and South and Central America.
For example, Gladiators, Gondolas and Gold is a family trip to Rome, Venice and Florence with three nights in each city. Insider experiences include Gladiator training school. (11-days, 2 countries, from $2485 pp/twin).
European Wonderland is a 14-day family road trip from London to Rome through 5 countries, Insider experiences include spinning fresh pizza dough with an expert Italian chef in Rome. while in Venice, the family learns to make carnival masks. (From:$3650 pp/twin, includes: 12 nights’ accommodations (6 hotels), 12 breakfasts, 6 dinners (including Kick-off Party, Regional Meal, Rome pizza demonstration and Farewell Dinner) and land transport).
In contrast to the escorted tour image, “Tuesday this is Belgium?” Trafalgar has created an "At Leisure" program, where you spend 3-6 nights in one place, and the sightseeing is more hub-and-spoke. For example, the "Rome & Tuscany Highlights" itinerary spends six nights in Tuscany; the Rome, Florence, Venice itinerary spends three nights in each city.
Trafalgar will carry 250,000 passengers this year, on 3400 departures of trips.
Trafalgar is owned by The Travel Corporation, a family owned company that also owns Uniworld, Contiki, and Red Carnation hotels (which just bought the fabulous Ashwood Castle).
There is a 10 percent early payment savings of up to $1,700 per couple when booked and paid in full by January 15, 2014.
For more information, visit www.trafalgar.com
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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