The line between emerging and not ready for prime time can be a thin one that luxury operators must walk.
Luxury operators have old standards that will never go out of style — Paris, Tuscany, and the like — but like any other provider they are constantly tweaking existing products and launching new ones.
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Butterfield & Robinson focuses on high-end hiking and bicycling tours. As trips cover large swaths of territory, Kathy Stewart, Butterfield & Robinson’s director of planning for Western Europe, says company tour designers are looking for a decent level of established infrastructure in a region, along with a few good luxury hotels. In cases where an area has only two luxury properties, notes Stewart, that third hotel has to be pretty special in order for a trip to be given the go-ahead.
Stewart says all tour companies have to navigate a delicate balance between being first to a destination versus riding in too soon. She cites Romania as a place that Butterfield & Robinson entered too early — about 10 years ago. The company pulled out, but tour designers kept their eyes on developments there. Next year, Romania comes back into the fold. “Sometimes, all it takes is one more hotel to boost a place into a luxury destination,” according to Stewart.
Among Butterfield & Robinson’s new destinations are Northern Greece, introduced this year, and Georgia, coming in 2018. The company is currently exploring possibilities in Bulgaria and Montenegro.
Warren Chang, the chief operating officer of the American arm of luxury tour operator Cox & Kings, says his company looks to what’s unique. Then, if the infrastructure is developed enough to support the needs of the luxury traveler, Cox & Kings is in. Chang also notes that, in some cases, ideas for new destinations come from travelers themselves.
Chang says the company has seen increased interest in Madagascar and in the poles of the earth. Along with offering new options for Antarctica, Cox & Kings has its eyes on the Arctic region, particularly northern Scandinavia. That area, notes Chang, is perceived as safe and the infrastructure is of the highest quality.
While the U.S. arm of Cox & Kings is luxury-focused, the company is best known in Great Britain as an operator of upscale group tours. Many times, the American-based bespoke group takes its lead from its British cousin. For example, upscale Cox & Kings group tours to Chad and Sudan have proven popular enough that the company is now offering trips to those destinations to individual luxury clients. According to Chang, “In these cases, the infrastructure is not as developed as we would like, but the luxury traveler is still yearning to go.”
While many tour offerings put new countries on the tourism map (that’s you, Chad and Sudan), others introduce the well-traveled to lesser-known regions of familiar countries. For example, while most of France and Italy have been “discovered” by now, luxury tour operators still look for the quiet corners. Both Stewart and Chang point to Puglia as a novel place for clients to dive deeper into Italian terrain.
Chang adds that Cox & Kings travelers to Japan are wandering away from Tokyo and Kyoto and going over to Hokkaido. In China, more remote regions are gaining traction, including Shanxi Province, home of the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO site featuring fifth- and sixth-century Buddhist cave art.
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Photo credit: A trip through Northern Greece is a new addition for luxury tour operator Butterfield & Robinson. Butterfield and Robinson