|Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, is featured on a new itinerary from Abercrombie & Kent.|
Fall has officially started, and tour operators are releasing their brochures for the new year, with some surprising new options available for your clients’ European vacations. We checked in with several companies to see what new packages will be launched in 2012.
Eastern Europe continues to grow in popularity. Brendan Vacations has 13 new tours to destinations such as the Balkans and the Dalmatian coast combined with Italy and Greece. Similarly, 15 of Insight Vacations’ 22 new tours will focus on Eastern Europe next year, with Russia and the former Soviet republics getting most of the attention.
Of course, the rest of the continent still draws new and repeat visitors. Central Holidays will inaugurate a program to the Piedmont region in Italy, while Abercrombie & Kent will start new tours to Germany and Switzerland (with stops at Neuschwanstein, Lucerne and the Swiss Alps) as well as Krakow, Bergen, the Fjords of Norway and Lake Como. Insight will also add tours to the Channel Islands off the coast of England.
In Greece, Central Holidays is proposing new itinerary combinations of the Greek islands that Chief Operating Officer Gianni Miradoli says will “allow the tourist to visit some of the most beautiful and attracting islands of the Aegean Sea.”
Of course, the destination is only part of a tour; what one does upon arrival is just as important—if not more so. A notable recent trend is for tour operators to organize in-depth explorations of each city or region, often with excursions to a unique spot (think private home, winery or restaurant).
|St. Petersburg’s The Hermitage and other museums are part of Trafalgar’s At Leisure series.|
For example, the Globus family of brands (Globus, Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon Waterways) will launch MyGlobus, which Steve Born calls “the ability for Globus customers to personalize their tour through the pre-tour selection of optional excursions that fit their schedule and their style. It’s offered through a new web portal once they’ve booked a tour, and it’s commissionable to their agent.”
Trafalgar’s Be My Guest program, which brings guests into private homes for one-on-one connection with locals (and a home-cooked meal, of course), is expanding to Ireland (with music and storytelling) and a winery in Luberon. Small groups on the operator’s At Leisure programs can get exclusive tours of museums (such as The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Vatican Museums in Rome) or historical sites like Pompeii.
Similarly, Brendan’s Guided Vacations now include what President Nico Zenner calls “additional immersive and personal-touch components” connected to local culture, peoples and sights. These come with “Welcome Receptions,” “You’re Personally Invited” dinners hosted at local homes, and upgraded hotel accommodations in select cities.
Miradoli says that Central Holidays is still in the process of finalizing some new programs for France on its family-and-friends-style trips, which include a private driver and guide throughout some distinct regions of France, such as Basque Country, French Riviera, Provence, Loire Valley, and Normandy and Southwest France. “These programs will really give a different way to know this beautiful country and experience the real French life,” he says.
|Classic view from Oia on the Greek island of Santorini.|
On Brendan’s FIT side, Zenner says that the company has been aggressively adding premium and luxury hotel product under its “Gold” designation, which includes five-star hotels in each destination. Marc Kazlauskas, Insight’s president, meanwhile, prefers adding perks in hidden ways. “We’ve upgraded the products and added flourishes—little surprises, usually five per tour. These are little surprises the customer didn’t know about, like stopping for gelato in Rome or crepes in Paris.”
In recent years, river cruising in Europe has gone from a niche to a major market player. We touched base with Guy Young, president of Uniworld, to see what his company was up to for 2012.
Uniworld will be launching two new cruises next year on the recently remodeled River Ambassador. One will sail between Brussels and Cologne, covering Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands; the other will run for 16 nights between Brussels and Prague.
|Uniworld’s Antoinette made its inaugural voyage this summer.|
As for extra experiences, Uniworld’s Paris and Normandy and Grand France itineraries now include two nights in Paris: An extra night in Paris has been added to the Paris & European River Romance, Paris & Heart of Europe, and Grand European Odyssey cruises.
Uniworld has Multigenerational Family Programs on two France itineraries, with two departures each on Paris-and-Normandy and Burgundy-and-Provence. “We are also adding a program coordinator to manage the family activities onboard and onshore,” Young says.
Like the other operators, Uniworld had to find a careful balance in terms of pricing. “Modest increases over 2011 are in part due to increased costs of services and supplies and in part due to enhancements made to our product that ensure we continue to deliver the most satisfying river cruise experience to our guests,” Young says. For example, “we have added an extra night in Paris on several of our itineraries. We offer more ‘Choice is Yours’ excursion options. We continue to invest in the enhancement of service, food, and design and decor of our ships.”
Floriade Blossoms in 2012
Much like Oberammergau in Germany, the World Horticultural Expo Floriade is staged every 10 years in the Netherlands. In 2012, Floriade will take place near the city of Venlo from April 5 to October 7. Venlo sits on the border between the Netherlands and Germany and is an easy train ride from Amsterdam. More than 100 exhibitors will together pay tribute to horticulture.
|Like a rare species of flower, Floriade blooms only once a decade.|
Several tour operators will include visits to Floriade next year. Of Collette Vacations’ nine new Europe tours, two feature Floriade. The 11-day Netherlands, Belgium and Paris tour and the 11-day Dutch & Belgian Delights both visit Floriade as well as historical Bruges.
Uniworld’s two new cruises will also include Floriade, as will bespoke FIT products from Travel Bound. Tommy Ryder, head of Travel Bound’s groups department, says that the company is able to offer a discount of 30 percent on operators’ escorted tour prices. “We have noticed that many tour companies are using Amsterdam as a base—but this is a three-hour coach ride to Venlo [where the flower show will take place]. Our itineraries are using hotels in Roermond [near Venlo], Maastrict and Eindhoven.”
Of course, when adding new destinations or perks, pricing becomes a notable factor. With volatile exchange rates between the dollar, the euro and other local currencies, determining the price for a tour can be a challenge.
“In some cases, we have a slight increase (3 to 4 percent); in other cases, the prices more or less remain stable; in some other cases, we even have a reduction on rates with respect to 2011,” says Central Holidays' Miradoli. “But overall, the prices did not have a substantial increase. The market is still affected by the uncertain general economic situation, and we have a hard time receiving the final 2012 rates from our suppliers because they are all waiting to see what will be the outcome of the European financial situation.”
Zenner acknowledges that there have been “modest price increases” for Brendan’s 2012 packages but argues that while prices have increased, the value of these experiences have been “incrementally raised due to the personal-touch and experiential components.” Likewise, Born says that Globus’ pricing has been influenced by currency exchange rates and that they are seeing an increase in their average Europe land prices. “Our hope is that a slight increase is countered by the value of touring vs. traveling on your own. In years like this, we’ve seen a greater demand for touring vs. FIT due to the value factor,” he adds.
Trafalgar’s President Paul Wiseman says that negotiating with certain types of hotels can lead to better deals for clients. “Some stunning corporate hotels are empty on weekends,” he notes. “With the huge rates they charge for a corporate room midweek, we can’t sustain our business model. But the hotel might be willing to give us good rates on weekends because that’s off-peak for them.
“The reality of pricing is that the U.S. dollar is weak and fluctuating,” Wiseman continues. “We priced the preview summer program in June and July, and those prices went up 25-28 percent. The new reality is better than that—it’s up 12-18 percent. Beyond that, because we’re including new features in the itineraries, we’re increasing tour costs to cater to that on some vacations. Trade research shows that agents are comfortable because the original base price is very low. We can afford to raise the prices a little, to provide a better product and it helps increase agent commissions.”
Miradoli has a dimmer outlook, expecting 2012 to be a flat year for travel to Europe. “The recovery—if any—will start to be felt in 2013. I do not believe [we will see changes] prior to that date. In the best scenario, perhaps, there could be an initial recovery during the fourth quarter of 2012.”
After several years of highly competitive pricing, it is no secret that airfares are sky-high once again. Naturally, this will impact the pricing of tours. “Airfare is going to be such a key component,” Kazlauskas says. “It’s a necessary evil. We know airlines are increasing prices. Fuel is not going down, but capacity is. We have to help agents close the sale.” To that end, Insight is putting out an air promotion that Kazlauskas calls “very aggressive,” with a saving of more than $1,000 per couple if their trip is booked and paid in full by December 1.
|Villefranche is one of the resort towns that draw vacationers to the French Riviera year after year.|
Delta Air Lines announced last month that it would reduce its flights to Europe by up to 12 percent. MLT Vacations, which manages Delta’s and other airlines’ vacation programs, should not be affected as it has access to many code share flights. “We have access to the lowest available fares in all classes of service through our Delta Vacations brand,” says Susan Worwa, a spokesperson for MLT. “In addition, most changes are seasonal and make sense, i.e., reduced flights to destinations less traveled in the winter months.”
Trafalgar, meanwhile, will launch its catalogue six weeks early due to airfare increases. “Airfares to Europe rise so dramatically now as we get closer to the summer departures that we must get more business in early and allow agents to get ahead,” says Wiseman. “Airfares doubled between October and April last year, and it will happen again, so agents must get out to their clients and make them aware of this.”