Bite size is better

For a segment of the market that all involved agree is exciting, fulfilling for clients and is growing exponentially, small group travel certainly divides opinion. And the main point of contention is just how to define ‘small group’.

small group toursby Gary Walsh

FOR a segment of the market that all involved agree is exciting, fulfilling for clients and is growing exponentially, small group travel certainly divides opinion. And the main point of contention is just how to define ‘small group’.

Paul Hole, founder of Insider Journeys (formerly Travel Indochina) is one operator who believes some in the industry have misused the term. “Companies who operate with group sizes of 20 and 25, and even undefined maximums, use the language in an attempt at ‘me-too’ marketing. Clients see through it – but when travel agents do not and send clients in good faith who return disappointed it is a problem,” he says.

Insider Journeys has a guaranteed maximum of 16 clients, with Hole suggesting that “the tipping point for what can be described as a small group is typically recognised as 18. We need to call for all companies who use the language to disclose that they have a guaranteed maximum and what it is they are calling ‘small group’ to maintain the credibility of the segment.

“Today’s travellers are no longer satisfied with just visiting the must-see attractions while holidaying. They want to take away more from each destination – they want lifechanging experiences. Experiential travel is what it is all about, not just ticking places off a bucket list,” Hole told travelBulletin.

Wendy Wu Tours’ general manager of marketing and product, James Hewlett, says there is no standard definition of ‘small’. “Some would say that it is less than 10, others 18, others less than 30,” Hewlett said. “Small groups can access a greater choice of local small-scale experiences, restaurants and other facilities that may not be able to cater for larger groups. The trend is increasingly towards more remote locations and active participation and these often are better suited to smaller group sizes of 18 or fewer.”

Helen Wong, founder of Helen Wong’s Tours, says the popularity of small group tours stems from their relaxed pace and more personal attention from guides. “Prices are generally higher but passengers are prepared to pay the extra for the more personal experience. As a tour operator filling a smaller coach can be less stressful. Mind you, our larger group tours are no bigger than 25, which to some degree falls into the smaller group segment,” Wong says.

James Thornton, Intrepid Group managing director, says: “Our small groups generally have an average size of 10 people and a maximum of 16. They’re small enough so the traveller feels like they are exploring a destination independently but big enough to create a good social dynamic. In small groups, you are able to form meaningful connections with others in your group. When groups sizes are 40 or 50 you feel like you’re meeting someone new for the first time every day.”

Thornton says “more immersive experiences” are possible in a small group. “We won’t push you into a big coach where you’ll see everything through a window. We won’t fit you into a massive, impersonal restaurant designed for tourists. Instead, we’ll take you on local transport, where you’ll meet the locals, and you’ll dine on street food in small markets and authentic local restaurants.

“Our philosophy has always been to experience things the local way and we’ve always had small groups, so our clients can rest easy in the knowledge that our expertise will provide them with the best experiences. Also, experiences like homestays, cooking classes and market crawls – anything that provides immersive local interaction – are something our travellers love, and we are continually striving to create more and more of these experiences.”

Sujata Raman, Abercrombie & Kent managing director, says small groups can access places and events that larger groups can’t manage and that would be too costprohibitive to visit on a private travel basis. “More and more, we’re finding our guests seek authenticity over the standard trappings of luxury travel. Great accommodation, exemplary guiding and efficient transfers are a given. Our most popular itineraries are small group journeys to either new and exciting destinations or itineraries offering unique experiences and interactions.”

Raman says clients are more likely to find like-minded travellers in small groups. “The very fact that you’re on the same itinerary already gives you a starting point for conversation. Different people have different reasons for choosing the itinerary. Some may have a family connection to the destination with a relative having lived there. Some are interested from a historical perspective. Some may be relishing a particular experience in the itinerary that would be their personal highlight. The opportunity to meet people with these varying reasons for travel enhances everyone’s appreciation for the journey and the experiences,” she said.

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