When travelers come to TourMatters, they are looking for ideas, inspiration, and information. And the number one topic they want to know more about? Small-group travel.
Small groups aren’t new. In our ranked list of 73 operators who offer small groups, many have been in business for 30 years or more. What is new is the addition of small-group offerings from large-group operators as they respond to shifts in the needs and expectations of their customers. In Part One on this topic, we’ll review the reasons behind these tours and changes.
Between Boomers and Millennials, both in prime travel stages, the majority of travelers are globally and technically savvy. Unlike earlier generations, they rely on operators less for handling planning and logistics. But, they are willing to pay a premium for the inside track and unique expertise intimate guided tours can provide.
Additionally, solo travelers are gaining strength and influence as a cohort. “We see a surging trend of solo travelers of all ages but especially 40+,” according to Elizabeth Avery, Founder, Solo Trekker 4 U. Avery said small group travel is “a good way for individual travelers to still feel independent but have travel companions in the day time and some time alone in a private room at night.”
Simpler group dynamics also make small group travel more appealing. James Ullrich, a travel writer, teacher, and former guide for Rick Steves’ Europe called it “the psychological/social dimension.” Based on his own experience, Ullrich said, “It is easier to foster an espirit de corps within a small band of travelers than a larger, more diverse one.”
Travel has always been about seeing and learning, but now “small groups have a greater opportunity to interact and get involved with spontaneous local activities,” said Gate 1 Travel’s Marty Seslow, Vice President of Sales and Marketing.
“There’s definitely a trend toward more hands-on, experiential travel, such as taking cooking classes, walking through regional markets or sitting down with a local family for a home cooked meal while visiting another country,” Lael Kassis, Go Ahead’s Director of Product Development explained. “Group travel can be a great way to access these unique experiences, but many of these activities are only effective with a certain, often smaller, group size.”
More than just the travelers have changed. Improved infrastructure has made even remote destinations more accessible. Getting overseas is easier and less expensive than it was even 20 years ago. And our awareness of other places and cultures has grown exponentially under the influence of globalization in everything from business to entertainment.
“Second- or third-time visitors to more relatively mainstream destinations like Italy and France are drawn to unique itineraries offered by [Gate 1’s] Discovery Tours,” Seslow explained. “And more exotic destinations like Mongolia, Myanmar, or Patagonia offer activities and a tourism infrastructure that is more suited for small groups.”
Kassis agreed. “The unique activities and accommodations on our tours to destinations like Guatemala and Botswana benefit from smaller groups so that you can access remote settings and stay in authentic lodging.”
In short: Ullrich summed it up. “With the economy improving and travelers becoming more savvy and more wealthy, they are more interested in paying for a richer, more customized experience with better tour guide service," he said. "Small groups have inevitably become more popular as a way to fulfill that need.”