The 'out and about' crowd

Like timeshares and '60s fashions, group tours are back.

New and improved is the message broadcast by longtime tour operators hoping to catch the eye of travelers who have long overlooked or avoided them.

New? How?, ask the wary. Itineraries offer much beyond the traditional European capitals, less drive-by bus touring and more experiential travel.

Improved in what way?, ask pessimists. Less regimentation, more opportunity for personal "ah-ha" experiences, more mixed tour groups.

"There's more sight-doing and less sightseeing," said Robert E. Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association.

As a consequence, group travel is booming. It was an $8 billion business in 1999, carrying 10 million passengers.

So if there's more of so many things, what's there less of?

There's less of the if-it's-Tuesday-it-must- be-Belgium pace that had slack-jawed, blurry-eyed Americans shuffling through 12 countries in 12 days.

These days, group-tour travelers get rushed around more slowly.

"People want more hands-on experience. They want to learn more. They want to be part of it," said Marc Kazlauskas, director of worldwide sales for Tauck Tours of Westport, a 75-year-old company at the tippy top of the group-tour food chain.

That means getting off the bus and the usual routes. "They want to be off the beaten track, (but) they want it done for them. They want to be treated like individuals, even though they are in a group," Kazlauskas said.

Meeting those challenges has meant the creation of more tours that offer expected comforts without being commonplace and excursions that are fascinating without being frightening.

These tours allow travelers to come home with stories and photos of "that wonderful little village bistro in Umbria" and that "charming pension we stayed at a few nights in Provençe" instead of the stock Big Ben-Eiffel Tower-Berlin Wall stuff.

However, because group touring has broadened to embrace groups as small as six and as large as 50, and destinations ranging from London to Laos, shopping for the right trip is more important than ever.

"Not all Italy trips are the same," said Janice Sentivany, who coordinates travel and custom departures at the American Automobile Association in West Hartford. "Will you be driving by (Rome's) Spanish Steps, or getting out and seeing the Spanish Steps, or are you going to have a guide there telling you about the history of the Spanish Steps?"

Sentivany said AAA was offering 60 to 100 tours when she started there about three years ago, but that number has dropped to 15 to 30 annually. "Instead, we're doing much more customizing," she said, noting that travelers want itineraries created for their own interests.

Luckily, the public is keeping up with the nuances that distinguish one type of tour from another, says William Levy. He has been coordinating and leading tours from Manchester Community College since 1975 and has seen a world of change.

"I think the sophistication of the traveler has changed. They know there is a world outside the United States. They look at the (college tour) catalog, call their travel agent, look at the Internet, and then they come back to us," Levy said.

IN UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY

Group touring has grown up, becoming more refined and mature, but more adventurous as well, said Levy, chairman of MCC's psychology department. Despite the makeover, the reasons to take a group tour haven't changed much. The list is still topped by three main points -- it's easy (the traveler does no planning); it's cheaper (economies of scale); and it's less stressful (someone else understands the money and exchange rate, plans the sightseeing, speaks the language, finds the restaurants and so on).

"I would advise a first-time traveler (to a foreign country) to start with a group. Don't walk into a country without some things being planned," Levy said.

Levy, who started by leading three tours a year and now offers upward of 50 (he has time to lead only one or two these days), said time-stressed travelers are well served by a tour. He tells of a recent trip to Venice in which his group landed, ferried over to Venice, took in a Venetian glass-blowing demonstration and settled into their hotel -- all before dinner on the first day. As some members headed out to dinner that night, they ran into an exhausted couple that had landed that day as well and spent the whole afternoon reaching Venice and trying to find a hotel.

His point? On a tour, "You'll probably experience more and see more than you would if you are doing all your own plans," he said. "(It's) different than a stumble-across (kind of) tour."

Of course, for some travelers, the unknown, the road less traveled -- heck, the road not even on a map -- holds the greatest promise. The risk, the rolling with the whatever, is the fun part.

Very independent travelers "don't want to be on a bus, off a bus. They don't want to be told they are eating at noon, that they can't order off the menu" or that they can't choose to stay instead of moving on, said Sentivany at AAA.

Such travelers usually do not consider a group tour, but if they want to she suggested that they read the tour itinerary carefully to make sure it won't disappoint them.

It was that idea of independence, more identified with baby boomers than previous generations, that shook up the group-tour industry a decade ago. There was a fear that the industry would die when the older population did, said Whitley at the USTOA.

"But it's not true at all. . . . the largest segment of our population is the over 50," Whitley said. "Group tours have changed to fit the personalities of this older market."

Connecticut illustrator and artist Iris Van Rynbach, who recently waded into leading group tours with an art angle, offers excursions that would appeal to many independent travelers.

"It's a very casual approach. It's like going with a friend who can show you around a bit," Van Rynbach said. "We have a meeting (about what they might want to do that day) after breakfast each morning" and then tour members go where they want, sometimes meeting up for dinner that night.

Newington resident Ernie Listro describes himself as an independent traveler, but he and his wife will be taking a group tour this year to Austria or Switzerland.

"I'm adventurous. I'd do it on my own, but the woman I live with likes it more controlled," Listro said. "We have never been (to either country), and to be on the safe side we'll let (the tour operators) worry about where we are going to go, where we are going to eat and so forth."

Marguerite Listro fondly remembers the couple's first trip to Italy. It was a group tour that both say was well-organized and gave them a good introduction to the country. They have visited Italy four times since then, on their own, but plan on using a group tour for familiarization again this year.

"There are limits to adventurousness," Ernie Listro said.

Similarly, Diane Miller of Plainville has traveled without a guide to England and Iceland but intends to take a group tour this year.

"We wanted to go to three different countries. There's the possible language problem. Also, I don't think we are going to be any one place that long, so I'd rather have someone show us the highlights quickly," Miller said.

CONVENIENCE, CUSTOMIZATION

Convenience is a compelling reason for taking a group tour, said Deborah Crary, who organizes and leads tours for the University of Connecticut Alumni Association.

"People don't want to take the time or don't have the time to spend putting together a really good trip. They want somebody to do it all for them. They don't want to have to worry about the details," Crary said.

And customized tours can sometimes better meet the needs of a specific interest group then the members could on their own. That's where an experienced travel agent becomes crucial, Crary said. She often works with Jean King at Meriden's King TravelWays, which has been creating customized group tours since 1977.

This year, the university's alumni association has an art trip to Belgium that will be based in historic Bruges and include a trip to the diamond district of Antwerp. There the tour group will visit the Diamond High Council, where many of the world's diamond policies are debated and written.

"I try to get it behind the scenes as much as possible," Crary said. "We try not to do things that they could get by picking up the Sunday paper."

King said TravelWays specializes in customized group tours, which she creates for a wide variety of customers including UConn, Mount Holyoke College and the New Britain Museum of American Art.

"That's what makes us different. We don't just pick something off the rack," King said. "We can stretch and bend our tours."

And that flexibility is more than a matter of pride. It's a matter of survival, King said.

"The travel public has become more and more sophisticated, so you have to expand your global search and find places that they haven't been before. We do a lot with Eastern Europe," King said. "Travel has become an important necessity. It's not just a luxury anymore."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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