Skift Take

Post-pandemic trends are shifting the customer experience in educational tours to include pre-trip immersion through virtual tours. Their value cannot be underestimated.

Online travel platforms that pay close attention to the unique curation of their tours and activities will own the longtail game of discovery.

That’s the belief of Context Travel founder Paul Bennett, who, with co-founder and wife Lani Bevacqua, has been trying to differentiate and digitally scale the walking tours for nearly two decades.

The Stickiness of Curiosity and Learning

Tours and activities fell by 77 percent during the pandemic, with a full recovery to 2019 levels expected by 2023, according to Skift Research.

While other online travel agents have shuttered the virtual tours they developed when global travel came to a standstill, Bennett said its virtual tours are helping to increase user engagement.

Founded in 2003, Context claimed to be one of the first tour companies to offer online booking. Now, Context Learning, a virtual experience product that offers online seminars with experts before and after in-destination tours, allows its customers to connect 365 days a year with Context Travel experts and not just once or twice a year when they are traveling.

Bennett, a work-from-anywhere acolyte, has spent around 10 years circumnavigating the globe with his family on a boat while building their multi-million dollar experiences brand. This immersive way of traveling and experiencing destinations has largely informed and shaped their business.

Most recently, he founded Cicero, a remote-learning education platform born out of the need to homeschool his three daughters as a digital nomad family pushing the blended travel way of life way before it became a trend. Bennett said, “enhancing the traveler journey and stimulating intellectual curiosity through continuous learning” is redefining the way this global brand markets its day tours.

A Merchandising Shift

Context attempts to differentiate itself with deep experiences of cultures and and cities, the company said. PhD scholars, professionals, journalists, chefs, and other qualified experts lead its small (six or fewer people at a time) walking seminars.

“Everybody during the pandemic spun up some virtual tour, yet now we’re the only player who is actually offering this master-class merchandising approach,” Bennett said.

In fact, lots of venues still offer virtual tours, but Bennett argued that Context’s are distinct.

For example, suppose you’re doing an archaeological deep dive on day five of your planned trip. Context allows travelers to then do a mini-course to meet the archaeologist hosting your experience before you even depart, Bennett said.

Blending Immersive Travel with Virtual Learning

“This year, as revenge travel surged, we shifted the majority of our resources back onto the in-real-life tour experiences in the spring/ summer, but even then still saw about a 10 percent lift in revenue from the virtual experiences,” said Context Travel CEO June Chin-Ramsey.

Chin-Ramsey expects virtual experiences to be a “15 to 20 percent top line lift next year” as the company continues to invest in the niche.

In the digital space, there is tremendous amount of divided attention, Bennett added, admitting that they still need to improve the model.

“The problem is that the majority of tours and activities is that it all looks the same. This has made it uninteresting for the consumer who has become price-centric and it’s a case of… I just want to get my tickets,” Bennett said.

So how can consumers hope to book an experience that is edifying and life-changing? 

For Context, the consideration phase is the opportunity to lure the traveler in with something they don’t have to book immediately, but can participate in as they nurture their interest in an experience or destination.

“Context Learning is an entry product to our brand, it gives customers an opportunity to connect with our experts at a lower price point than our in-person tour product, and to experience the difference for themselves before they hop on the plane,” said Chin-Ramsey.

“After learning online with our experts, many customers want to meet them in person — we are seeing more and more customers planning their trips around these experts — they are learning about Rembrandt with our Dutch art historian and then deciding to go to Amsterdam so that they can visit the Rijksmuseum with him,” she said.

Chicken and Egg Booking Situation

Much debate surrounds overlapping data on tours, attractions and activities and whether they will become the linchpin for the consumers’ travel planning journey.

The traditional flights, then hotel or accommodation bookings remain the bread and butter of online travel agent dominants like Booking.com and Expedia, with activities or experiences seen as a last-minute, in-destination consideration or purchase.

It’s been a pandemic and a day since travelers began prioritizing experiences over retail purchases, as the older millennials and GenZ become upwardly mobile and continue to make experiences the deciding factor for travel planning.   

“More and more millennials and GenZ travelers are buying our tours, which is exciting because Context offers a pretty expensive product,” said Bennett. 

“The key is to build a community around the brand,” he added. “When people take a Context Tour, they feel like they belong to a club.”

Bennett believes the company is building that sense of community by extending the educational pre-trip offering, and the Context connection throughout the year. 

While live events would undoubtedly see this experiences component booked first, can the same be said for a Cape Malay deep-dive tour in Cape Town, South Africa, for example?

While the Mother City remains a small segment for Context, Bennett said merchandising dynamics remain the thing to watch. 

He said it will continue to change, so people can find the interesting tours more efficiently that are tailored to first-time visitors, and repeat visitors as well as the needs of travelers according to their length of stay. 

Pressures of Commoditization

Admittedly, with more than 1,000 different tours in 65 destinations, there are many product choices. And that’s just one platform looking to create a globally recognizable experience brand. 

Making up a considerable chunk of the experiences iceberg are Viator, Musement and GetYourGuide – all of which are ramping up efforts to assert their positioning within the experience economy. 

When you isolate a popular offering like a Vatican Tour across these dominant players, the overwhelming number of choices can likely create decision fatigue.

Context Travel offers eight Vatican Experiences. And while these tours carry star ratings and reviews, a key differentiator is the high-end price, three to four times higher than other online travel agencies.

Viator offers 95 tours in Vatican City that can also be sorted according to traveler rating, price, duration, and new tours.

GetYourGuide offers 414 activities related to Vatican City, differentiated by recommended tours, price variance of lowest to highest, and star ratings. 

In a seemingly bloated and competitive marketplace for just this particular tour option, online platforms will need to shift their focus beyond inventory availability and invest more in driving consumer demand through higher awareness, better curation and discovery.

Travel Tech company Holibob’s head of brand and commerce, Michael Lattig agreed, “Offering value pre-trip when a traveler is most engaged and in a heightened state of anticipation provides an intriguing opportunity for online travel agents and tour operators.”

It could potentially overcome both the issue of people waiting to book in-destination, as well as the lack of association travelers make between an experience and the booking platforms, he suggested.

For example, citing Holibob client Niagara Falls Adventures, Lattig said easy access through a localized marketplace with partnerships and insights for top attractions drove “five times higher direct bookings this past season than they did the previous year.”

Whether through regional partnerships to foster direct booking traction or through global brands looking to solidify their footprint, the ongoing emphasis for travel experiences remains the need for quality over quantity — and the value of pre- and post-trip virtual immersion cannot be underestimated.

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Tags: context travel, experiences, getyourguide, Musement, online travel, online travel newsletter, tours and activities, viator, virtual learning

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