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The New York Times is growing its tours and activities business as it launches City Tours, based on its popular 36 Hours series, with Urban Adventures this week. The partnership is the latest in a trend of branded experiences as more publishers and travel brands want a piece of the sizzling global tours and activities sector.
City Tours, which will last an average of four hours each and is bookable up to 48 hours in advance, follows the Times’ launch in 2013 of Times Journeys, its multi-day tour product. The tours will be co-branded as New York Times and Urban Adventures tours, and Urban Adventures will handle all bookings and customer service. Nine tours will initially be available in Budapest, Marrakech, New York City, Tokyo, Toronto, Paris, Philadelphia (see sample itinerary below), Prague, and Mexico City, which have all been featured in 36 Hours.
All tours are hands-on, include interactions with locals, and have a behind-the-scenes element, and will be limited to 12 people. “In Marrakech, travelers will get to go into a family’s home and have lunch,” said Victoria Hanson, director of Times Journeys. “In Tokyo, they’ll be interacting with humanoid robots. In Philadelphia, they’ll be stepping behind the grill to learn how to make a Philly cheesesteak.”
While Times journalists typically join Times Journeys tours, Hanson said the scheduling of City Tours could make it difficult for journalists to participate. “With these we want (the tours) to be much more accessible,” she said. “The journalistic involvement is around taking that content that already existed.”
A tour in Paris, for example, will cover about 50 percent of places featured in the corresponding 36 Hours column and will blend elements from both the Times’ and Urban Adventures’ tours, said Hanson. “When you read reviews for people who have taken [Urban Adventures’] trips, they’re very impressed with them,” she said. “Not least because they have trips in more than 90 countries. You can grow really quickly but that can compromise quality. There are synergies because we’re both part of large organizations. I think our audiences are both looking for similar experiences.”
The Times currently has 3.8 million subscribers and 2.9 million (about 76 percent) of those are digital-only. Anyone who books a City Tour gets access to a one-month free trial of the Times with an email and password. Once the trial ends, tour participants get a 50 percent discount off the standard rate.
Tours will be marketed on both the Times Journeys and Urban Adventures’ sites, but if someone clicks on a tour on Times Journeys they’re taken to Urban Adventures to complete the booking. Tours will be offered multiple days a week and multiple times a day, and Hanson anticipates that the majority of bookings will occur within 48 hours of a tour.
The average cost of a tour is around $100 and tours are available for as little as $75, which the Times feels is a competitive price point. “With City Tours, our travel offerings now reflect the entire breadth of our travel coverage and give more travelers the chance to explore cities alongside local guides who live there, with little planning and without having to dig deep into their travel budget,” said David Rubin, senior vice president, audience and brand, The New York Times, in a statement.
Hanson couldn’t discuss the revenue model and contract between the Times and Urban Adventures but said that it’s “clearly a revenue-generating initiative.”
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Urban Adventures, founded in 2010 and part of Intrepid Travel, said business is up 65 percent year-to-date. The company has more than 1,000 tours in 170 destinations worldwide. “We have our APIs plugged in everywhere,” said Tony Carne, managing director of Urban Adventures. “The plan [with City Tours] is to take the product through a multi-distribution framework.”
Carne said the company also runs Google’s experiences program for employees. “Over the last 18 months there’s been a real desire out there for brands you wouldn’t associate just with tourism experiences that are interested in them,” he said.
GetYourGuide, TripAdvisor’s Viator, Airbnb, and Marriott are examples of travel brands that have recently rolled out their own branded tours and activities experiences. Other publishers such as National Geographic and Atlas Obscura have also launched their own branded tour products.
City Tours will be nearly identical in nature to tours already in Urban Adventures’ product offering, said Carne. “Our focus has always been on a unique product,” he said. “We’re not interested in any race to the bottom because in our business the bottom is free.”
Carne said there’s overlap between Times’ readers and Urban Adventures’ travelers, but they’re not the same people. “Maybe the Times can tap an audience they don’t have at the moment that will change the viewpoint of the Times,” he said. “Our early conversations with them were how could we tap into a well traveled, well read audience of the Times.”
Urban Adventures’ tours generally aren’t deep dives into history or subjects beyond food and drink, said Carne. “This gives us a different style sheet we can work with to deliver the different, deeper level of knowledge than they might get on a typical Urban Adventures tour,” he said.
Urban Adventures has free cancellation within 48 hours of a tour, which it will also offer on City Tours. “We have last-minute availability and you have to say yes to everyone and run the product when the customer wants to go,” said Carne.
The Times, like many brands in travel, is increasingly looking to stay relevant for different aspects of travelers’ lives and the launch of City Tours gives it a new opportunity to make its journalism come alive. Many tour operators can’t claim journalistic integrity and that could give the Times an advantage if it keeps its content more exclusive and exciting.