For more than 65 years, General Tours—one of the oldest tour operators in North America and a founding member of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA)—has sent more than one million travelers to destinations around the world, always adapting to new market demands and expanding its inventory, earning its moniker as General Tours World Traveler.
Today, the company specializes in small group travel—no more than 16 participants—private guided tours and custom tour packages to exotic locales. And, as demand for hands-on, participatory exotic travel has grown, Robert Drumm, president of General Tours, says, “That’s why you’ve seen us going a little bit further afield each year…. I think the interest in far-flung travel is growing and upscale travelers are looking for more attention—not just straight tourism anymore, but engagement, not only with the circumstances around them, but with the tour leader or tour guide we provide.”
In short, General Tours is for people who don’t want to just travel, but who want to experience the destination. As a result, they’ve developed what they call Freestyle travel, an inventory of individually packaged destination programs of three, four or seven days that includes as much or as little as the client wants, with private guide and car. They can serve as a pre or post program on a group or river cruise program, or clients can create their own FIT journey from a few Freestyle products with their travel agent.
“Our Freestyle business is growing considerably. I think it’s just a mark of the times because a lot of our travelers—particularly since we’re long-haul exotic—they’re experienced people,” Drumm explains. “People travel with a mission these days, they have a sense of what they want to accomplish because they’ve done their homework, they know exactly what they want to see and include. This gives them the opportunity to put together a privately guided program that meets their particular needs.” Drumm adds that, “We’re also seeing custom travel, which is the next step after Freestyle, where we’ll construct totally independent customized journeys for individuals, again, working with travel agents. We’ve seen that grow enormously.”
Of course, with that kind of travel product and the sophistication of the travelers today, agents are key to deliver on the demands of an experiential traveler. “I know there’s been a lot of press lately about the resurgence of travel agents and I think it’s true,” Drumm concludes. “I also think it has a lot to do with the income level of travelers and with the fact that regardless of how much money you have and how much you can spend on a trip, you want to make sure you get the best value and the best experience.… They’re going to a travel agent to get assurances on that and to make sure decisions are handled correctly.”
Drumm thinks there’s a healthy shift within the travel agent industry with many new entrants into the travel agent fold. “They’re hungry for learning, particularly because travel is now so far flung and in so many directions, it’s very difficult to be an expert. I think that’s what made them more engaged. We see it in our webinars.” Those webinars are available on the company’s Travel Agent Rewards section of its new website launching this month.
That focus on travel agent education is reflected, too, on a FAM the company organized for one of its new destinations in South America.
“We have a group of travel agents on an invitational FAM in Colombia right now, which is a new destination for us. None of them have been to Colombia before,” which underscores the need for them to go in order to sell the new product.
On that note, Drumm adds that South America travel has been booming for the company over the past year, mainly because people seem to want to go to places they deem to be a little bit more adventurous and they’re more intrigued by the natural world showcased daily on TV channels like National Geographic, Discovery and the Travel Channel, citing the beautiful South American wilderness areas in Patagonia, Argentina and Ecuador. Indeed, those programs have driven interest in the marketplace, programming the traveler to genuinely experience the destination.
“We’re seeing our African business grow as I think others are, as well, and more far afield—not just East Africa, which is doing nicely—but places like Namibia and Botswana. We’re seeing India with its natural advantages being showcased now. We have a very popular trip that links Nepal and Tibet across the Himalayas. It’s remarkably popular and it’s a tough trip,” think 4×4 jeep travel, a visit to the highest monastery in the world and the base camp on Mt. Everest. “It’s so appealing to so many people, including single women,” he laughs. “Americans are—at least our kinds of client in our position in the market—finding this kind of exotic travel to be more rewarding and the more adventurous, the better. It’s actually pushing us a little bit to innovate.” And indeed they are innovative. When putting together a Freestyle trip to Bulgaria and planning a trout dinner for clients Drumm thought, “Wait a minute, instead of just giving them the dinner, why not let them catch it.”