While new technology and customized experiences are du jour in leisure travel right now, some traditional tour operators are sticking to an established formula.
For Tauck, which was founded in 1926 and granted the first U.S. tour operator license in 1933, a focus on enriching experiences hasn’t changed.
The company has expanded its river cruise product offerings in recent years, offering a wider variety of educational and athletic experiences for guests. It’s also branched off into exotic journeys and small ship cruising, in addition to more differentiated land journeys tied into its brand partnerships with Planet Earth and Ken Burns’ films.
Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck, still thinks that the human element is the most crucial when it comes to designing and executing guided tour vacations that enrich the lives of vacationers. Hand-crafted journeys still have the greatest potential to create unforgettable experiences for travelers, even in a time of unprecedented commoditization in travel.
“We will always have people involved in the experience,” said Mahar. “That’s a real difference as you try to segment Tauck. We don’t want to sell just entrance fees or hotel rooms, we want to sell complete experiences.”
Mahar spoke to Skift about embracing Tauck’s roots, the importance of family travel in the tour operator space, and why tour operators like Tauck aren’t going to sell their products on online booking sites like Kayak any time soon.
Skift: What sort of trends do you see globally when it comes to the tour experience?
Mahar: There’s an arms race occurring in all the hotels, and a lot of the physical infrastructure all around the world. That is all improving, and thankfully it is.
That, I think, is a wonderful opportunity for us all, but at the same time the thirst for a deeper, more enriching experience has increased at the same rate or if not even more. That is again where we can play a role in delivering that to the customer.
Skift: You’ve been working at Tauck for 20 years, which as a company is almost 100 years old itself. Over the last two decades, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the tour operator space?
Mahar: Customers today are more resilient. That’s a major change from 20 years ago. I think they’re just more aware of the world, and I’m not talking about terrorism, but effect of natural disasters. That’s by far the bigger issue in our world today, but I think they’re more resilient so where 20 years ago if there’s something happening somewhere people won’t travel, today people are still traveling.
Our customers were always interested in the experience, but I think they are more knowledgeable and more desirous today of a deeper, more enriching experience than what they were 20 years ago. I think it’s their accumulated travel knowledge. I think it’s their own thirst for authenticity, to strive to get deeper experiences.
I think the quality expectations have increased, as well. By that I mean not only the bricks and mortar quality, which certainly increased, but the service and how they want to be treated all through a journey. Understanding what’s important to them, and then delivering on that across all the different touch points that occur with a guest, that importance just keeps increasing.
Skift: How important are brand partnerships to Tauck’s products and marketing? I’m thinking your work with Ken Burns and PBS.
Mahar: This is not a partnership to get access to some different demographic or other countries. We look for people that can add value to guest experience.
We consider ourselves to be storytellers, that’s at the core of what we do. We take our guests different places around the world. In North America, the United States in particular, you know Ken Burns tells stories through his films and if probably the preeminent storyteller through films of the story of the United States.
It was a great fit because he doesn’t take people [on vacation]. We don’t develop films, necessarily, but his stories can compliment our stories and deliver a deeper experience for our customers. That was Ken Burns. Same exact thing with Plant Earth people. They have built the number one market position in natural history and have built the greatest film library of videos and storytellers for natural history. We can share those stories, share the experiences, share some of the people that they know to our own customers to compliment all of the things that we already do. That’s our strategy there.
Skift: Family travel is a major trend, and Tauck was one of the first major tour operators to embrace family travel in a big way. How has that progressed for Tauck and looking forward what are you doing to keep those trips fresh?
Mahar: Family travel is very core for us, and again we were first in 2003, so we launched this new category. We did it for a couple of reasons. One, we saw that parents and grandparents want to give their kids experiences. They realized the global world they’re growing up in, they realized the benefits of having experiences and that is to inspire kids to pursue whatever their own dream is. If they’re meeting a park ranger in Grand Canyon, not necessarily that they want to become a park ranger, but it may inspire them wherever they want to go.
The second thing is, the parents want more time with their children. Kids are busier than ever, you know sports are year-round, clubs, activities, etc. are year-round. It’s just getting harder, so travel’s the perfect antidote to provide time for shared enrichment. Shared enrichment is what was the core for our entry into the family travel market, and it still guides us today.
We do not have [trips where] parents go here and kids go there. We create all those itineraries to bring people together through travel and one of the great things that helps us that we craft all these experiences for people to experience, but then we also take care of all of the logistical challenges so people are free to have that experience, while they’re traveling.
Skift: How do you assess the impact of mobile technology on your trips? Some tour operators are embracing smartphone use while others encourage travelers to avoid it.
Mahar: We actually send out a letter that we discourage the use of phones during the experience times. You’re welcome to use them in the hotel rooms or somewhere else, but we want parents and children, first of all, to bond, and then we want them collectively to bond with the destinations. To have the experience without being distracted. That’s really at the core of what we want to do. There are lots of different ways we could grow, or maybe serve more families, but this let’s us do it in a way where we can deliver that experience and somehow enhance their lives individually and collectively. That’s what motivates us.
There’s two things, it’s where you are and who you are with, and I think there are many benefits of technology, and technology can help our business in a variety of ways, but it can’t deter from our customers ability to connect with a destination, connect with those that they’re traveling with.
Skift: On the same note, how do you deal with vacationers who want more control over their trip? Consumers are sort of trained by online booking sites to want to choose specific experiences for themselves. On the same note, are you seeing travelers continue to plan trips with a travel agent or are more looking to book directly with Tauck?
Mahar: I think it’s the marriage of meaning and ease. I think our customer are now secret explorers, they want to learn while they travel, but then they want people to remove some of the logistical challenges. That’s the sweet spot. When you can do that for people, a transformation can occur for people and that’s what we seek to do. I think it all comes down to providing access to experiences. The choice of experiences, and the removal of the logistical challenges so that they can be free to immerse in those destinations, individually within their travel.
The customer is paying, and he will decide. I do think there’s a role for travel agents, and there will continue to be in the future because they do bring added value to the planning and experience decisions that their customers will make. I think there definitely will be travel agents in the future and they’ll be great partners of ours.
Skift: Kayak recently announced it will experiment with selling tour experiences online. What do you think about the phenomenon of tours being commoditized online like flights or hotels?
Mahar: That’s the business they’re in. If you’re involved in more point-to-point travel, if you’re just selling or interested in buying components, and kind of thing, then you’ll probably go to the internet or that will be more of a direct sell. We’re an experience provider, and that takes people to deliver it, and it takes people every step of the way to assist the customer in finding an experience for them.