Group IST (International Specialty Travel) is the umbrella company for such tour operators as Variety Cruises, ET African Journeys, and Regina Tours. Founder and CEO Michael Goren spoke with Associate Editor Deserae E. del Campo to talk about the company’s religious, educational and experiential travel tours to such places as the Holy Land, Africa, the Greek Isles and the Seychelles—all tailor made for organizations and groups.
Deserae E. del Campo: What is Group IST and when did you start the company?
Michael Goren: Group IST has been in business since 2003 and we are rich with experience in all of the niche travel markets. We offer cultural tours around the world, as well as religious travel or mega-yacht and small boat tours.
We put together a few brands in the niche travel industry market such as Journeys Unlimited, which focuses on religious travel for all denominations. When dealing with small boat and mega-yacht cruises, we have Variety Cruises that travels to different areas of the Mediterranean, Africa and South America, for example. When touring with Variety Cruises, you feel like you’re on your own yacht, in a sense. It’s amazing because travelers get to see the picturesque and beautiful ports that obviously the big boats can’t get to, and every day and night you can experience a different island. Plus, you can swim right from the yacht to some of the most wonderful beaches.
Right now for ET African Journeys, we have author Patricia Schultz of “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” taking one of our groups with her to Ethiopia; so as you can see, we try to connect specialists together with our groups.
DC: Variety Cruises offers itineraries to the Seychelles on the Pegasus, ideally called the Garden of Eden tour. What makes this itinerary so popular?
MG: If you go to the Seychelles, but decide to stay in a hotel, you’re stuck in one location; yet if you go with us, you cover the various islands and you have a platform that will bring you to some of the most gorgeous places in that part of the world. It’s a better opportunity to see the Seychelles instead of staying at a hotel. Why would your client go to Seychelles Islands on a plane to fly for so long and pay so much and only be at one location?
DC: What’s the biggest trend you’ve witnessed while in the tour operator industry?
MG: I believe today small boat cruising is the next big trend. Africa is also the next big traveler trend. Only a few Americans have visited Africa, and the beauty about it, say, 10 years ago when people were talking about going on safari, they knew they were going to spend in the range of $7,000 to $20,000; today you can go with us and spend about $3,500—which includes the flight, the safari package and accommodations at great lodges—using the same type of safari-made vehicles. This trend is now for every pocket.
DC: I’ve learned that you were very hands-on when it came to building Group IST, from the itineraries to the recruitment of travel specialists and partners. What do you look for when creating a new site tour?
MG: What I do is analyze the opportunity to bring people to the destination for a fair price and to create an amazing life experience for them, and that’s what we have done throughout the lifetime of our company. With religious excursions, too, people are inspired to go to church and to religious sites that they feel strongly about, and we accommodate many of these groups. Today we deal with thousands of U.S.-based churches and work on pilgrimage-type experiences with them.
DC: What’s the target clientele for these types of tours/cruises?
MG: The range of ages is unbelievable. For example, right now we have a group trip planned for Mt. Kilimanjaro—it’s a week-long program where people can extend it and take a safari tour afterwards—and the range of ages for that group is from 19 years old all the way to the late-70s. Even on our cruises and regular African safaris, the age group is from children all the way to seniors. The same for the religious tours.
DC: Why did you decide to enter the travel industry selling tours to groups?
MG: It just makes sense. We understand that there are folks traveling a lot and going on so many cruise vacations, but looking for new destinations. They want to be more sophisticated, which is the reason we offer these different opportunities. Travelers are used to going to Europe and maybe South America, but I think the American traveler is savvier and in search of a different experience, which is why we offer these tours.
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