Harvest festivals come with narrow booking windows that could lead to possible challenges. However, private group tour guides lend themselves well to designing these experiences with a difference.
Tea leaf-picking near Tokyo with views of Japan’s Mount Fuji, exploring breadfruit and banana plantations on Cook Islands in the South Pacific, or harvesting grapes in the Douro Valley in Portugal – annual harvests hold a seasonal promise for travelers who want to connect with their destination through a different, sensory experience.
At least that’s the premise on which Canada headquartered ToursByLocals runs its private group harvest tours, designed by local tour guides across its networks in 187 countries.
Harvest Tours are about intimate experiences, customization, and privacy, according to tour guide Miguel Ribeiro from Portugal, who has been on the platform since 2012, having led over 800 tours, including many wine harvest tours in the Duoro Valley. Portugal is amongst the top 10 countries for bookings for ToursByLocals right now, including Japan, Spain, France, and the U.S., according to the platform’s latest booking data.
ToursByLocals said its overall bookings are up 66% through the first half of this year. The average booking value for a listed tour guide is about $576, including multi-day tour bookings, which make up about 4% of overall annual bookings.
Portugal is a hot destination for many reasons, according to Ribeiro, including that its more affordable than some European destinations.
“And the Harvest Season is something special, especially in the Douro Valley,” said Ribeiro. “Harvest is engrained in the culture. This is where the design of the tour comes into play. It’s a tradition.
Design elements include the experiential harvest activity, from picking to stomping the grapes, the types of food the guests get to sample, and specialized educational elements that include preparing the food themselves to arranging personalized merchandise for his group, said Ribeiro.
ToursByLocals Harvest Tours can be a half-day, full-day, or multi-day trip experience, all bookable across a one-month window.
“It’s usually somewhere around the 10th of September to the first week of October,” said Ribeiro.
Some of the challenges he faces as a guide include the shifting seasons, which he puts down to “global warming,” noting that in 2022 the harvest season started in the first week of August.
Fortunately, there are many wineries in the valley, he said, which allows him to adjust his bookings, together with support from ToursByLocals.
With just 135 core employees, over and above the guides who list on the platform, ToursByLocals hit its 2 million customers milestone in April 2023, according to Paul Melhus, ToursByLocals CEO and co-founder
“We have to delight both the guides and obviously the travelers,” said Melhus. “They’re going somewhere different each year. They’re seeking novel experiences. We’re a trusted platform (referencing the company’s 79 net-promoter score, which measures customers’ loyalty), and we’ve vetted the guides and ensured everybody on the platform will give a quality experience.”
“Even before the pandemic, there has been this move away from mass tourism, more towards the curated bespoke experience. That’s always been what we’ve offered, and through our platform, we facilitate this conversation back and forth between the guide and the travelers. The guide gets an idea of what this person wants, and they’ll create a customized tour for that person that focuses on the customer’s interests and needs. And it’s really worked.”
“We’ve encouraged the guides on our platform to expand beyond the typical tourist offerings and bring people more off the beaten track – to local farms, producers, artisans, vineyards, and family homes. We’ve seen these sort of hyper-local tour itineraries increase post-pandemic,” said Melhus.
In 2020, the company raised $33 million for its Series A round, almost 11 years after its initial founding and just before the pandemic lockdown.
“So we were very fortunate in that regard, and we’ve done a really good job of treating our customers well and treating our guides well. We don’t add guides into an area unless we feel like we can give a meaningful amount of work for them.”
Being selective in enlisting guides is only one aspect, according to Melhus. Evaluating and pricing tours relevant to a tour guide’s destination and customer market is another example of its strategy.
The company also anchors performance on reviews and conversion ratios of customers matched with its guides.
“It’s not really rocket science. Our thesis is that people will review a tour if it’s really awesome or if it’s really bad. Right now, 44% of our tours are rated five stars.”
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Photo credit: Man holding grapes in vineyard harvest. Source: Unsplash