Q&A with President of Brendan Vacations, Nico Zenner

Boutique Journeys features a couple of Mongolia itineraries.

With the launch of Brendan Vacations’ all-new Boutique Journeys program, editor-in-chief Paloma Villaverde de Rico thought it an opportune time to converse with Nico Zenner, president of Brendan Vacations, to ask him about this product debut.

Paloma Villaverde de Rico: What makes this collection of journeys unique in the marketplace?

Nico Zenner: They are unique because of the concept (maximum 24 guests, all guaranteed departures), selection of destination (e.g. Myanmar, Mongolia, Colombia, Guatemala) and theme (e.g. our partnership with Slow Food Italia for our Tuscany, Umbria, Piedmont, Sicilian, Loire and Provence itineraries, the whale watching in Baja…).

PVR: Who is the target clientele?

NZ: We believe our Boutique Journeys will attract a more seasoned, savvy traveler; someone who is interested in a different type of vacation, with a smaller group of people, themed or to a destination that is not well traveled. Our clients are likely to be soft adventurers (to Iceland e.g.), or foodies (for France and Italy with our Slow Food itineraries). [These are] travelers who have the time to discover the far corners of the world (it takes a while to get to South Africa and enjoy our World in One Country journey) and expect the unexpected.

PVR: What’s the core concept of Boutique Journeys?

NZ: Never more than 24 guests, always more than you expected. And all departures are guaranteed. This means that there might be just two but never more than 24 guests and there is no risk that the departure might cancel because of an insufficient number of participants. The itineraries include unique experiences not usually found elsewhere.

PVR:  Why did Brendan create these “journeys” and why now?

NZ: About two years ago, we launched Boutique Journeys in Ireland. Our Castles and Manors tour was so well received by travel agents that they kept asking for more. The concept of small group touring with unique features and higher-end hotels (in Ireland it’s castles and manors) proved popular. It took us about two years to complete our collection of Boutique Journeys. We also heard from agents that they wanted to make sure we deliver a quality product, and more importantly, that the departures would indeed operate, even if there were just a few guests.

PVR: Are these journeys a reaction to travelers requesting more and more experiential travel experiences?

NZ: Yes, absolutely. Travel agents and travelers alike are keen to participate and experience more immersive things. This is why we are launching our partnership with Slow Food Italia and offer culinary-oriented Boutique Journeys in Italy and in France. This is why we offer the Gobi Desert, use a 16-passenger (max) catamaran in the Galapagos, offer snorkeling at Los Islotes and so much more. Incidentally, there are literally dozens of World Heritage Sites included in our Boutique Journeys.

PVR: What are the average prices for these tours? Are they at a higher price point than the traditional Brendan itineraries and if so, what are the points that a travel agent should stress to their clients in order to make this pricier sale?

NZ: Prices range greatly depending on duration and destination. Because of the uniqueness of the itineraries, prices tend to be higher than on traditional itineraries. Then again, comparing itineraries is almost impossible since we do not carry a regular tour in Guatemala, Colombia, Mongolia, Iceland, South Africa and so many other unique destination features in our Boutique Journeys collection. We advise travel agents that these are unique destinations, with unique features, smaller groups, higher-end hotels and guaranteed departures. Some destinations are only available for a very short period (e.g. whale watching in Baja, the Gobi Desert) and capacity is at a premium there. Many itineraries also only run in the summer.

PVR: How do the accommodations differ from those on the classic Brendan vacations?

NZ: Again, comparing Boutique Journeys with classic Brendan Guided Vacations is next to impossible. We do not have specific culinary departures in Europe, yet our Boutique Journeys in France and Italy do. In Tuscany e.g. we stay five nights at the Villa Il Palagio, once a former palace. And in Ireland, we stay at Ballynahinch Castle. On our regular Guided Vacations, we do not offer similar hotels. Now mind you that accommodations vary and in Mongolia e.g., we stay at gers [yurts] simply because that is the only way there. In general, the hotels we feature are of a superior first, first or deluxe category.

PVR: I noticed that there are a lot of culinary tours. Why so?

NZ: Food consistently ranks in the highest categories of travel interest. And the regions we’ve selected (they are regional journeys by the way) truly offer the best of Italy and France. We thought that customers would be interested in a different kind of experience and not go see monuments, cities and towns, but learn more about the food. We thought that the philosophy of the Slow Food organization (good, fair and clean food) is awesome and it’s translated in virtually every aspect of those journeys. The experience isn’t just a culinary tour, though, it’s about the region and there are plenty of sightseeing inclusions alongside plenty of tastings, samplings, demonstrations, explanations and cooking experiences.

PVR: Of those in the Boutique Journeys collection, if you had to pick one itinerary to sell to me today, which would it be and why?

NZ: Oh, this is a very tough one. I would literally want to go on all of them. But I guess I’m most intrigued by our Slow Food itineraries and more in particular the one in Tuscany, which is called The Foods and Vineyards of Tuscany. Like several of our itineraries, it is leisurely paced with first and last night in Rome but five nights in the same palace in Rignano Sull’arno (outside of Florence). There are fantastic activities and excursions every day, ranging from Chianti and Greve, Siena and San Gimignano and Montalcino. I am curious to taste Chianti goat cheese, learn about aromatic herbs, Pecorino cheese, Perche No gelato, honey, wine, olive oil, etc. This journey includes six guided tastings!

PVR: What are some of the “surprises” that travel agents will find in this Boutique Journeys brochure that might be completely unexpected? In other words, “off the beaten path,” so to speak?

NZ: There are so many: just the list of World Heritage Sites is impressive. In China, we’ve included a city called Pingyao (a walled city not usually featured on a China itinerary); in Greece our Island itinerary includes Mykonos (three nights), Paros (two nights) and Santorini (three nights); in Mongolia, we stay at gers; in India, we’ve included Varanasi; we feature Namibia and Easter Island and Laos…and then there’s Greenland that can be added from Iceland. Kulusuk anyone?

A sample itinerary is the 17-day Portrait of Indo China, with visits to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Departures begin in early February and rates start at $5,225. For the Slow Food aficionado, recommend the 7-day Piedmont’s Gastronomic Pleasures, with visits to Milan and Pollenzo where participants will sample wine and the exquisite hazelnuts, chocolates and cheeses for which Piedmont is known. Departures dates start in May and starting rates are $2,160.

For more information on Brendan Vacations’ Boutique Journeys, visit brendanvacations.com.