The term ‘experiential travel’ is somewhat perplexing. For some, it might conjure up notions of obscure, harrowing activities in far-flung regions of the world where the idea of smartphone connectivity and wi-fi are entirely alien concepts.
While the true definition of experimental travel - selecting destinations, tours, and activities on a whim that are most commonly off the beaten path - does contain some elements of daring, today’s experimental traveler (much like today’s adventure traveler and somewhat akin to the millennial traveler) seeks unique, culturally relevant, and personalized travel experiences that are often booked on short notice - sometimes only a few hours beforehand. It’s an emerging, growing sector in today’s travel industry, and it’s one tour operators are capitalizing on and leveraging to remain viable and competitive.
The rise in experimental travel is something of a recent phenomenon.
According to travel industry publication Skift, tour operators have seen a significant increase in what they term experimental travel bookings in the last six to twelve months, where travelers have booked vacations in more remote, alternative locales much closer to their departure date than in years prior. In helping to refine our definition of experimental travel, it’s important to note that time and when a trip is booked is a key part of the equation.
For example, tour operators have seen standard booking practices with regards to European vacations for the last twenty or so years. Paris, London, and Rome were some of the more common destinations and these trips were often booked at least four to six months in advance. Tour operators created and promoted static packages were activities and excursions were curated to the letter and often included traditional activities like museum visits or guided cultural or historical tours.
However, with the rise of experimental travel - in part due to the shifting demographics of today’s traveler and the ease and affordability of visiting and experiencing new markets - tour operators have seen a fairly seismic shift away from the well-planned European vacations of the past in favor of more exotic destinations often booked at what amounts to a moment’s notice.
Paris, London, and Rome have been replaced by new European destinations like Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and other Central or Eastern European cities, not to mention destinations outside of Europe like Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Cuba. Trends also show travelers booked their trips much closer to their departure date, sometimes with only 45 to 60 days lead time.
The convergence of these two trends has resulted in a curious paradox for tour operators. On the one hand, traditional tours and activities once completed booked months ahead of time now have vacancies for much longer than before, which can be a source of stress for tour operators as they struggle to compete with online and digital applications for curating travel experiences - mobile apps, online travel agencies, travel review sites, and more. Top destinations, which tour operators have long viewed as they bread and butter, are now becoming difficult to fill as the modern travelers eschews tradition in favor of the new and next.
But on the other hand, tour operators have begun to leverage the lackadaisical nature of experimental travelers as a method of fostering the eclectic, personalized travel experience many of today’s travelers desire. Rather than created densely-packed tour packages or itineraries, tour operators have started to pull back and let travelers breathe and take in their destination, allowing for impromptu activities and bookings to take place. This strategy calls for complete agility and depth of scopes in terms of the activities tour operators must offer, but at the same this flexibility is a positive value proposition in terms of appealing to today’s younger, more open-minded traveler.
This method of ‘on the ground’ products and services provides tours operators with a number of benefits in gaining a larger foothold in the experimental travel market.
First, it allows for tour operators to forge productive business relationships with the communities in which they operate - providing whim-based, unique travel experiences means knowing the traditions and cultures of the destination you’re selling, and working knowledge and relationships with community is the only way to achieve this level of intimacy.
Secondly, in conjunction with use of today’s mobile and digital technology, tour operators can tweak or adjust tours and activities in real-time based on needs, constraints, or conditions. Because the experimental traveler is booking somewhat off-kilter destinations close to departure dates, tour operators are no longer beholden to the fixed parameters of traditional tours, giving them the leeway they need to operate in a lean, agile manner - two characteristics often attributed to the experimental traveler.
Finally, as we discussed earlier, experimental travel is based primarily on exploring new and emerging markets. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, tourism in emerging markets will grow to about 57 percent of the world market by 2030. These emerging markets are fertile ground for experimental travelers who want to experience new sections of the globe in unique, innovative ways, and tour operators who adopt this ‘on the ground’ strategy will be well-positioned to offer the kind of loosely-curated, of-the-moment travel destinations associated with this way of experiencing the world.
The conversation about tour operators in the modern travel industry landscape often centers on how they’ve worn out their welcome or are slowly slipping into irrelevancy with the rise of the internet and other digital technologies. But as we’ve seen with the rise of experimental travelers and a host of other new segments of the travel industry, tour operators are constantly reinventing themselves in order to stay in the game and provide value and service to the industry and those who interact with it.