Butterfield & Robinson will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. The active luxury tour operator started off by organizing trips for Canadian students then began working with museums and universities and finally found its niche in walking and biking tours in the 1980s.
The tour operator hit its stride during a time when Americans were spending more money on travel and being fit. The boomer generation has remained the tour operator’s primary customer base since that time with about 70 percent coming from the U.S., 10 percent from Canada, 10 percent from Brazil and 10 percent from everywhere else.
“One of the great privileges we have is an extraordinary base of travelers,” Butterfield & Robinson CEO Norman Howe told Skift in a recent interview. “There’s something fundamental about getting on a bike or going for a walk, which makes them more adventurous and more fun — a particularly nice aspect of the crowd.”
Skift spoke to Howe about the evolution of luxury and experiential travel, the growth of multi-generational family travel, changes in travelers’ booking behavior, and branding as an asset. An edited version of the interview follows.
Skift: We’ve seen a growth in interest in local authentic experiences. Travelers really want to experience a destination whether that means eating local produce, meeting locals, or biking to travel closer to the land. How has Butterfield & Robinson adapted to that demand?
Norman Howe: We’ve benefitted from it more than we’ve adapted. A core part of the business has always been on getting underneath the skin of a destination and developing real meaningful relationships with locals. Although we’re at the top end of the market and we have this super affluent crowd, if you ask our travelers what they value most about what we do, it is less about chateaus and Michelin stars and more about that real authentic immersion into a culture.
The activity is really the catalyst for the experience, not the purpose of the experience. Getting onto a bike or going for a walk delivers people into that landscape and immerses them in that sense of place much more quickly than when they’re insulated in the bubble of a bus.
It really feels like the broader market is coming around to something that we’ve been doing for a long time. It’s certainly helping us to grow the business.
Skift: What do you think is driving the broader consumer trend in which customers are turning their backs on big bus tours and hotels in favor of active experiences that bring them closer to a culture?
Howe: People’s understanding of how they perceive and experience the world has evolved into a more sophisticated, more mature sense of where the real magic lies. The early generation post-war travel was all about ticking off highlights and seeing the big sights. This generation is more nuanced in understanding that there’s more magic in some small rural village in Provence than in the more obvious tourism centers.
There’s a more general maturing of what real luxury is. It’s that notion of something powerful, emotional and real. This cycle plays out differently in different markets. There are emerging markets where travelers want trophy experiences, to stay at the George V and eat at big-name restaurants.
The next evolution of the cycle tends to move beyond that into more nuanced experiences. The American market, which has had luxury travel as a part of its history for longer then many of the other marketplaces, is more evolved in that way. Brazil has been an interesting growth market for us because the top end of the customer base really loves celebrating life, having good fun and fun, and being fit. They love getting out to off-the-grid places.
Skift: What are the most popular destinations that you operate in and which destinations are currently seeing the most growth?
Howe: Not surprisingly and by nature of what we do, Europe has been and will stay a dominant destination. It has the local infrastructure to support the kinds of activities we do. You can actually bike or walk from village to village or from chateau to chateau or from Michelin star to Michelin star restaurant. The landscape of Europe is uniquely well-situated to our kind of travel.
France and Italy take turns as the dominant market. Last year France was bigger, but this year Italy is much stronger. Europe, in general, is starting to look surprisingly affordable and that’s helping fuel growth in the European market.
Most of our work in North America is for private clients. Asia has been growing nicely for the past few years. Myanmar was a big destination but is sort of cooling down now and Vietnam is coming back strong. We see a lot of demand for emerging destinations that our customers like to get to first. That helps drive our business.
On the private side of our business, Colombia is really starting to come on the radar now. The Dalmatian Coast has been hot for a while but we see demand for that area down to Greece and Turkey.
Skift: Multi-generational family travel is growing right now. What kind of growth have you seen in that market and how do you adapt products for such a diverse group?
Howe: We originally focused our family travel business on set departures during which we’d have two or three families who didn’t know each other show up. We’d set the category so the children would be the same age and they’d have other children to hang out with. What we’re seeing more of and what we’ve adapted our offering around is the desire to do more small scale, nuclear family travel with one or two generations wanting to have their own unique experience as a family.
We’ve always had the ability to layer different levels of programming depending on the audience. I don’t think that this is new but there’s a real appetite from parents to see enrichment programming, rather than babysitting services, for children. They want the children to have as interesting and deep an experience as they are.
Skift: What are your thoughts on launching a discounted product for the younger travelers? Do you have an interest or plans to attract millennial travelers?
Howe: The interesting thing that we’re seeing is that the millennial audience increasingly wants to travel privately. The boomer, post-war generation with tons of money actually liked the idea of traveling in a group where they would meet other people. There was a social aspect to it and the caliber of other travelers was equally as high.
We find that the millennial generation expects a private, custom experience that is much more focused on them. It’s an interesting shift in how people with money expect to travel. I expect the older generation didn’t have as high of expectations around something being private and custom. They embraced the social engagement and making new friends. That insularity and focus inwards might be a general millennial characteristic.
As for launching a discount product, we’re very careful when it comes to discounting because we’re a high-end brand. We put out a program a couple of years ago in which we created some differentiation based on the hotel character. The category, signature and bistro hotels, was a riff on what Michelin star restaurants do. You have the same creative genius in the kitchen but one side is white linen tablecloth and the other side is more relaxed and accessible.
It’s been reasonably successful and trended much more towards new travelers, which was something that we wanted in order to engage people in the trial phase. The demographic is not significantly younger.
Beyond that, we’re not going back to the days of student travel. We’ve talked about it in the context of a high-end program, maybe a leadership or global citizenship kind of concept.
Skift: Interesting. Let’s talk about marketing and booking for a moment. Let’s start with booking maybe. How have booking channels changed over time? What are your primary, what are the main ways that bookings come through today, and how is that different from maybe a decade ago?
Howe: The phone doesn’t ring as much. That was the primary booking channel for many years, but there’s a lot more quiet typing going on in the office now. Our business is dominantly direct, which has evolved as the agent channel diminishes a bit. The need for agents is weaker that it used to be because people feel comfortable booking their own plane tickers or hotels.
People interact with us a lot more digitally than they used to. The website and the richness of experience that we put out there is totally different. For many years, the brochure was this sort of fetish object that we spent tons of money on. There was a kind of ritual in unwrapping it and making travel plans for the year. The brochures remain an important validation of the brand, but they no longer drive the booking cycle in the way that they used to.
Skift: What role does social media play in marketing today?
Howe: At this point, we look at it as an important place to be having conversations with our travelers and their potential networks. It’s not a sales platform or a booking platform and we’re not sure it’s going to be an acquisition platform for new travelers. Social media is a very visual medium and that’s the aspect that we’re focused on right now.
Within our business, word-of-mouth has really been the biggest driver of growth.
Skift: How does Butterfield & Robinson approach sustainability and minimize its impact on both the environment and local culture?
Howe: For us, sustainability is partly environmental and even more so cultural in terms of respect for the places where we travel and making sure that the engagement with local people is genuine, productive and actually benefits them.
We have what we call a B&R Fund, which we allocate a chunk of our profits to every year. We let our guides decide which projects we supports and we like to find ways to weave them into the trip experience so customers can hopefully be inspired to follow our lead.
The most successful program, which is more of cultural contribution, is in Myanmar where we fund the building of lake houses on stilts. We’ve built about 40 houses and have inspired travelers to build about another 20 houses. We focus on small places where we feel that we can do some good locally in the context of the destinations where we travel and the trips that we run.
Skift: What’s the ownership model for the business in terms of on-the-ground products and tour guides?
Howe: It’s relatively light in terms of capital intensity. Sales and marketing is based in Toronto and there are two operational offices in Europe. We have bikes, vehicles, and warehouses on the ground. There is a pool of about 100 to 150 guides who work for us in various degrees of full-time to part-time work. From an ownership point of view, the most value is in the brand and the intellectual property aspect of the business. It’s not so much in the hard assets. It’s in the soft assets in terms of people, expertise, knowledge and sensibility.
Skift: We’ve seen a growing consumer interest in expert and local guides. How have you integrated this into the product?
Howe: We have a network of people around the world, which started as guides then started doing research and are now our top tier travel designers. We can leverage that network to really build out a trip that designed by someone who is passionate and knowledgeable about the region.
On the delivery side, people are looking for specialized characteristics in their guides. We increasingly find that our trips have a balance between an itinerary guides, someone who we drop in anywhere and is very focused on the hosting and relationship side of the experience, and a regional guide who brings regional color and character to the experience.
Skift: What is the competitive landscape today and how has it changed in recent years?
Howe: We’re seeing more and more competition in terms of active travel as a broader trend.
The focus of us has always been on a culture of creativity and reinvention. There’s a culture that goes along with being original, which is different from competitively chasing other people. I think that’s always going to be the place where we focus our efforts.
There is more competition in the American marketplace than there used to be. There are a few companies trying to do roll-ups again, which played out five or six years ago. Xantarra is buying companies and putting money into this space, which I think is going to change the landscape.
Skift: You mentioned earlier that travelers are more comfortable booking alone than they’ve been in the past. Do you think you’ve lost business as a result of consumers wanted to plan and book their own trips?
Howe: Probably a little bit but you only lose that business. It’s a lot harder than it looks and the experience on the ground is nowhere near as seamless. It may be unique to active travel but orchestrating a great bike trip, pacing it out properly, and having a support structure in place is hard to do it on your own at the high end.
You can do it with a backpack on the back of your bike but most of our travelers just aren’t interested in that kind of experience.
We do see demand for our self-guided trips, which basically leverage the infrastructure, relationships and intellectual property of a B&R trip without the group or the guide. The price is lower and there’s flexibility to do it whenever you want.