Escorted touring

The pandemic forced tour operators to adapt and reduce group sizes, resulting in more immersive experiences and deeper connections, says Debbie Ward

With some clients still nervous about larger gatherings, small group tours can be a reassuring option. While adventure operators like Exodus, Explore, Intrepid and G Adventures are small group experts, the market is widening, with several traditionally coach-based escorted touring companies now offering programmes for 25 passengers or fewer. 

Riviera accelerated plans to launch smaller tours, adding them alongside each Classic tour in its European range. It also debuted an entirely small group UK range. Great Rail Journeys has meanwhile capped its UK and Europe tour groups at 25 people.

The pandemic has also increased appetite for bucket list experiences that are often best accessed through small group tours, and the market seems buoyant. 

escorted touring wadirum

Benefits of downsizing 

Titan says requests for its small group programme are up, as people seek off-the-beaten track adventures. 

“It seems people are keen to really delve deeper below the surface of a destination,” says Product Manager, Phil Ellis. He adds: “[there’s] the chance to really get to know your fellow travellers and bond over incredible travel moments.” 

Titan’s small groups range between 12 and 24 people. Edwina Coppock, Head of Trade Sales, explains this also aids community access. 

“Keeping things small lets us plan activities and experiences that aren’t usually possible for bigger groups, like seeing the closing of the border ceremony between India and Pakistan or enjoying coffee with locals in Ethiopia. 

“It also means we can organise some unique overnight stays – intimate camps around Kruger National Park, quaint country lodges in KwaZulu-Natal (both South Africa), and stilted Khmer houses in Cambodia.” 

Newmarket’s Head of Trade Sales Richard Forde agrees. Its tours for around 16-20 people appeal to customers seeking things off-the-beaten-track.

“These often include smaller heritage hotels and even homestays with local families, where customers really get to experience a country rather than just sight-see.”

Explore, which typically takes 12 clients per group, points out there are also environmental advantages. “We have a smaller impact on both the people and the place which we visit; a softer footprint,” says Ben Ittensohn, Director of Global Sales. 

Mattia Valdegamberi, Riviera’s Short-haul Product Manager, points out more benefits of  smaller group tours: “We offer a more personal service which gives guests the ability to experience guided tours and visits with a bit more exclusivity, as well as more space and more opportunities for interaction with local guides and tour managers.” 

Saga, which is now working with selected travel agencies, also points to the more exclusive experiences enabled by smaller numbers, like visiting the ballet in St Petersburg on its Cultural Odyssey tours. 

Clients keen on safari have a good choice of small group options. All Titan’s African safari holidays, plus its Wild Borneo and Wild Costa Rica tours, are part of its small group tours collection, to allow for an enhanced experience.

Newmarket’s small group programme is also safari-slanted with options on offer in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Costa Rica. Explore’s Ittensohn explains the difference: “Seeing gorillas or doing a wildlife tour of Costa Rica, you’re going to get a better, richer experience in a small group.”

escorted touring zimbabwe

Widening the demographic 

Those used to independent travel may baulk at the idea of joining a coach party but appreciate the reassurance of a tour leader in these times of heightened travel regulations. Agents might find small groups prove a good compromise to entice these escorted touring virgins.

Solos travellers, a rising niche, will also be more confident travelling with a group and some operators offer a shared room option for those who want to avoid the single supplement. Solos already account for 60% of Explore’s clients. Ittensohn explains many have partners with different travel dreams. “More are saying ‘I’ll do this trip you do that one’.” 

Meanwhile walking holidays are currently up 82% on 2019 for the operator. Ittensohn recommends Madeira for new walkers. 

“It is centre-based as opposed to walking from one base to the next, so, if you want to, you can relax for a day without feeling you’re holding your group up.”

escorted touring finnishwildernessview inset
escorted touring finnishwilderness inset

Trending places

Patagonia, Jordan and U.S. national parks – combining a sense of awe with space – are trending for Exodus. Bucket list trips like Kilimanjaro (80% up on 2019) and the polar regions are among rising requests for Explore, but Europe leads the way with Italy, Spain and Greece its biggest risers compared to pre-covid. 

Similarly, Riviera’s best small group sellers are Lake Como, Classical Spain, Pompeii and Lake Garda. 

Newmarket Holidays has added four small groups tours for 2022, including a Madagascar tour and a safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. 

Among staycations, Riviera has added small group tours to Northumberland and Edinburgh and Explore has debuted walking tours in Cornwall and Yorkshire and walking and cycling in Devon. 

Internationally, it was among operators to introduce tours to Saudi Arabia towards the end of last year. 

Environmental considerations have meanwhile led to a new range of ‘London to…’ rail tours, kicked off with Istanbul, Athens and Morocco. 

B corp Intrepid also has new product reflecting environmental concerns, with 22 ‘Impact Initiatives’ added across 16 countries. 

If your client is Covid cautious or is simply keen to get closer to communities and wildlife, you may find the best things really do come in small packages. 

escorted touring coast

Where to book it

Great Rail Journeys has a 10-day small group Northern Lights and Lapland tour from £2,295pp, with departures January to March 2023. It includes the Lofoten Islands, a husky sled ride and lunch with Sami people.