Multi-day tour operators — largely shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic — have come back in force by resuming and revitalizing tours this year. And in many cases doing so with new offerings, they prepared during the pause. Indeed, several tour operators used their forced hiatus to devise strategic and creative partnerships with other entities — collaborations that have created numerous new trips and expanded clientele. One example is Insight Vacations teaming up with Anneka Manning, the Australian author and founder of Australian cooking school BakeClub, to launch a food-themed tour of Tasmania this October. “The idea came out during the pandemic when we were thinking outside the box and looking at new and different opportunities and partnerships,” said Ulla Hefel Bohler, the CEO of Insight Vacations, a company that had not actually conducted tours of Australia prior to the pandemic.
How did the collaboration come about? It certainly helps that Manning and Insight Vacations’ Australian managing director Karen Deveson are friends, Bohler said. “They realized they could benefit greatly from collaborating to create a bespoke premium journey for both Insight guests and BakeClub, providing them an opportunity to embark on a close to home foodies adventure.” “Insight Vacations, as well as Anneka Manning each, had a loyal following of Australians, so given the impossibility of international travel, the idea was to marry up the premium guided tours the Insight Vacations guests love with some exceptional foodie experiences through Anneka and her contacts and to also give Anneka’s fans an opportunity to travel with her.” Insight Vacations was far from alone in developing new ideas during pandemic-stricken 2020. In a survey of 900 global tour operators and agency owners conducted last year, 41 percent of respondents said creating new products and adjusting the business model were their main measures during the pandemic.
One partnership created during the pandemic urged travelers to do something for the greater good. Tour operator smarTours teamed up with U.S. healthcare company CVS for sweepstakes to encourage vaccinations. Eligible customers who received a vaccination through CVS Health over a six-week period starting on June 1 could enter the #OneStepCloser sweepstakes, which included smarTours providing six international tours for two guests — to either Thailand, Ireland, Peru, Greece, Egypt, or South Africa — to winners. “The partnership came about as the smarTours team was looking at obstacles to post-pandemic growth,” said CEO Christine Petersen. “Widespread vaccination is obviously key, yet vaccination offers of donuts and shared rides seemed to miss the point.”
“We wanted to really think about what people are looking for post-pandemic — to travel and connect with others. It didn’t take long to connect with the right people at CVS and fortunately, they were already in the midst of a White House initiative that we had joined.” While it’s unclear if CVS saw an increased number of vaccinations as Petersen was unable to comment on the matter, “Any time we can help move Americans forward with taking care of their health, we call it a success,” she said. Petersen added the collaboration helped increase smarTours’ visibility as the company saw an increase in organic site traffic.
Although SmarTours could dangle the possibility of international trips to entice travelers, other tour operators have had to focus on developing products to attract local visitors. One prominent company — Contiki — has had to pivot from its large-scale trips that often take groups of at least 20 travelers across multiple borders to something much smaller. “We knew there was still a demand for social group experiences, even if it happens domestically,” said CEO Adam Armstrong. So the company launched a series of excursions this summer with small local tour operators called the Detour Mini Adventures. “The whole Detour Mini Adventures sub-brand was launched during the pandemic,” Armstrong said. Trips in the Mini Adventures include a three-day surf and yoga retreat in the U.K. region of Devon and a four-day hiking and wild swimming excursion in the Cairngorms in Scotland. While Contiki’s product development team developed the concept of Mini Adventures, according to Armstrong, how did the company establish partnerships with small local tour operators?
“Our partnerships with small operators have developed in numerous ways,” he said. “For example, some of the suppliers are past Contiki travelers who approached us once they saw we had launched our Detour Mini Adventure programs, some of our suppliers are ex-Contiki staff who have gone off to start their small businesses and the remainder we sought out after hearing the great things they are doing through word of mouth, trade shows, and our travels.” Armstrong already considers the Mini Adventures to be a success from a business standpoint — “It has allowed us to diversify and enrich our trip offerings,” he said. “Mini Adventures allows us to try out product ideas on a smaller scale before we launch fully into new destinations or trip types.”
Customers are certainly gravitating to Contiki’s new offerings. “For surf and yoga in Devon, we have run two sold-out seasons, 2020 and 2021,” Armstrong said. “For hiking and wild swimming in the Cairngorms, we have two departures with roughly 30 passengers, (and) we have also secured dates for 2022 with both suppliers to come back bigger and better.” “To put this into context, these trips account for about half of everything we have operated in the UK in the past 18 months.”
Not Just a Temporary Offering
Although Contiki developed the Mini Adventures during the pandemic-induced pause, Armstrong definitely believes the company will make the trips a permanent feature in its offerings. “As we know, the way young people travel has changed, and it’s not only two-or-three week-long adventures they are looking for these days,” he said. Contiki has a company working to make a seemingly temporary offering a regular item in its program. Inspired by the popularity of its October offering, which has already sold out, Insight Vacations is taking its BakeClub on the road. “We are currently working on an amazing itinerary in the South of France, which we will again feature unique foodie experiences inspired by Anneka and her connections,” Insight Vacations’ Bohler said. “France is synonymous with food, so (it) was an obvious choice. Italy certainly could be another contender for the future or perhaps Austria with its impressive baking tradition.”