In America we still have debates about biological evolution, but no one doubts social evolution. Looking back to the ‘80s, ‘70s, ‘60s and ‘50s or a hundred years before, the changes are too dramatic to deny. One field of activity that is particularly affected by the restless winds of change is travel.
Much social evolution is driven by technological innovation, such as the invention of the iPhone, the personal computer, the car, electricity or the passenger jet. But much of it is just because people have experiences and are changed by them. When that happens en masse, that is social change, and it certainly applies to travel.
The travel industry is now seeing a boom in authenticity, experiential travel and cultural immersion. In the last decade or so, the traveling population has been seized by an urge to experience travel destinations in depth, to have real interaction with the natives and get to feel what it is to live there.
Show Me How You Live
Authentic travel can mean a variety of things. People don’t just want to drive by the “must-see sights” anymore. Sightseeing is passé. Travelers don’t want just a postcard view. They can experience more than that watching the History Channel or the Travel Channel. Now they want to get in deep, behind the surfaces.
In the early days of mass travel of Americans to Europe, a tour operator might have considered that it had fulfilled its lunch function by just providing a time and place to eat. But then that was no longer enough. People wanted each meal to be an integral part of the experience of the destination. A meal became not just a meal, but a culinary experience in a culturally rich local restaurant, a learning experience about local culture.
And travelers continue to evolve. Now eating local cuisine in a culturally rich establishment is no longer enough. Now people want the chef to teach them about cooking. Tour programs offer tastings with experts on wine, whiskey, tequila or local cheeses. A chef may take you to a local market and show you where they get their daily produce. You may ride the range with a real cowboy who will share a glimpse of his life.
Tour operators have reduced the size of groups that facilitate more intimate contact with tour guides and local people as well as with other guests. Smaller groups can go places and do things that would be off limits to large groups.
Tour operators are knocking themselves out to come up with the best new ways to experience a destination more deeply and authentically than anyone ever thought of before. The competition is stiff, and the fortunate result for travelers is a plethora of choices.
Ancient Trade Routes
Tour operators have had to redefine themselves over and over. It is a process that is as ceaseless as the incessant drive of people to experience the new.
Today’s travel industry is the modern version of one of the oldest practices of civilization: providing accommodations and assistance to travelers. This may have even preceded the establishment of civilization itself, because human beings were nomadic before they had fixed settlements. Travel and trade has always been a major part of human civilization, and will continue to be, but always changing with the times.
Our modern travel industry reflects the ways and means of the iPhone era, far into the jet age to a point where the rise of television is ancient history. The process of change is more accelerated than ever before.
The Death of Production Line Tours
At the dawn of the jet age a tour operator industry grew up in response to the need for assistance arranging travel. In the ‘60s and ‘70s the “If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium” tours established their place in history.
But as travelers became more experienced, they grew out of that kind of travel, and tour operators had to evolve along with their public. Today that evolution has proceeded so far that the word “tour operator” is no longer adequate to describe the service they provide.
The various terms used to label the practice, tour operator, vacation packager, destination manager, are all inadequate. The tour industry hasn’t come up with a commonly accepted name for what it is today. The industry has evolved faster than its vocabulary could accommodate. It’s almost easier to describe the industry by comparing it to what it isn’t.
The profession has a lot in common with various other fields, including theater, entertainment and event production. It even draws comparisons to military science, because tour operators must be masters of the logistics of moving numbers of people in order to accomplish objectives.
If I try to distill it to its basic essence, the closest I can come up with is that they are experience facilitators. Over decades they have developed the craft of setting up the circumstances that will produce great experiences that will endure as rich memories.
In the brave new world of 2017, the old tours that claimed to pack all of Europe into a two-week trip are obsolete. But with the drive toward authentic experiences, tour operators have become more important than ever before as the local experts in coordinating and facilitating a deeply enriching experience of a destination.
The authenticity boom has forced tour operators to reinvent who they are and what business they are in. Tour operators are no longer in the business of offering “sightseeing.” The word is obsolete. Now people want action, immersion. They want to get behind the scenes, experience what goes on under the surface. And to get that effectively and efficiently within the short time people have for vacation requires professionals with the most finely tuned skills and highly developed networks.
Traveling with Insiders
To get behind the scenes and learn how people live, you need contacts, and that is a major part of what a modern tour operator provides: professionals who know the destination and its people and can arrange the opportunities for the in-depth experiences travelers today seek.
There will always be times to travel independently, for specific purposes, in familiar places or when you have few requirements. But if you really want to experience the destination and you don’t have friends there, you need a reliable support system so you aren’t just floating aimlessly. The best way to experience a destination authentically is through a tour operator that has contacts at the destination and knowledge of how to make things happen.
Today tour operating is an art that each tour operator develops in its own specific style for the purpose of giving customers the most authentic and culturally immersive experience possible, on top of the basic requirements of comfort, safety, pleasure and the convenience of having someone else take care of hassles for you.
For example, on various tours, Tauck includes an after-hours visit to the Sistine Chapel without the crowds; a dinner with Winston Churchill’s granddaughter; a culinary presentation by Princess Diana’s personal chef; an “Imperial Evening” with dinner and music at a Viennese palace; and a private visit to Claude Monet’s house and gardens in Giverny during the hours when it’s closed to the public.
One must have the connections. I can’t do these things on my own and have no wish to try. I’ll leave that to someone who can.
The authenticity boom has changed the shape of travel. When we talk about tour operating today, we are talking about travel itself, the basic elements of making it happen, helping others to have a better time than they could have without professional assistance.
I wish for you the most authentic experiences and the richest memories.
Your humble reporter,
A. Colin Treadwell