Matthews was eager to talk about Europe Express’ new website, due to launch in late January or early February. The site, he said, will recreate the operator’s online booking process to incorporate train tickets, airport transfers and other elements beyond hotels and other essentials. “We have an advisory board of agents,” he explained, “and they suggested what was needed. Many want to book online, but others don’t. We must be able to serve them all.” The website, he added, will also help boost agents’ commissions, and will help make agents more familiar with a wider range of destinations.
The company will be focusing on its preferred partners like Signature, Ensemble, Vacation.com and Nexion, he continued, looking to educate agents in these consortia about what is available through the operator. “They need to know that a tour operator can support top-level agents and clients,” he said.
Europe Express is stepping up its FIT and customized sightseeing excursions--a necessity, he added, as requests for private tours have increased significantly in recent years. “People don’t want to see all places,” Matthews said, “just a few. Any time they feel locked in [to a tour], they run from it.” For 2014, he added, customization will no longer be an option. “It’s the new reality,” he said. “Travelers have to have it.”
In Paris, a half-day private tour with a dedicated car, driver and guide who can take guests to the sites they want to see rather than those that can accommodate groups. In Florence, visitors can go to private wineries that are not usually open to the public. “They get a tour and a wine tasting with the owner followed by lunch in town,” Matthews said. “There’s no gift shop, though they can buy wine and have it shipped home.”
Local immersion is also increasingly popular, with demand for one-on-one experiences on the rise. “Everyone wants to be a foreign local,” Matthews quipped. “They want to do what the locals do.”
Europe Express also released its top five destinations for the year, with top attractions and activities in each.
1. United Kingdom – This destination continues to be the number one spot for group travel. England is ideal to combine with the nearby nations of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland, thanks to a wide selection of activities, easy access via air and rail, and no language barrier. Visitors can explore Neolithic sites, the Reformation, national parks, Hadrian's Wall, English literature, theatre, golfing, royal residences and gardening, learn about Shakespeare's England or ancient castles, or explore the shops and landmarks in London. And don't forget to set time aside for Afternoon Tea.
2. Italy – A multitude of special interests can be explored such as Renaissance painting, Italian cuisine, Etruscan history, olive-oil production, Greek temples, Italian cinema, Catholicism, prosciutto ham, parmesan cheese or Ferrari fabrication. Groups can visit cities like Rome, Milan, Palermo or Naples or stay in traditional villas in the Tuscan countryside or Veneto region.
3. France – Groups can travel throughout the French countryside, taking cooking classes and doing wine tastings – or they may prefer to be based in the elegant capital city of Paris for an urban holiday. Special interest tours can include perfume making, Victor Hugo, the literary works of Alexandre Dumas, Paul Cezanne, pastry making, Claude Monet, Champagne, Impressionism, the French Revolution or Loire Valley castles. While in France, groups can cruise the Seine, go truffle hunting or lay on the beaches of the Cote d'Azur. And thousands of American and Canadian visitors still flock to the shores of Normandy to honor the fallen from the D-day Invasion. Not to mention, 2014 will be a landmark year for France as it recognizes the 70th Anniversary of D-day, as well as the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
4. Spain – Language, architecture, cuisine and culture vary so dramatically from region to region that visitors traveling to Spain can experience totally different cultures over the span of a few days. Take advantage of the multitude of festivals throughout the year, experience authentic flamenco in Andalucia, ski in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, take a day trip to Morocco, go wine tasting in la Rioja, whitewater raft in the Pyrenees Mountains, dance in Ibiza, visit the iconic Monastery of Montserrat, see the ancient Roman ruins of Tarragona and tour the remarkable Alhambra Palace in Granada. Most importantly, enjoy the tapas, sangria and flamenco!
5. Ireland – For many Americans, a trip to Ireland ranks high on the bucket list.Take on a Celtic adventure exploring the unique cultures of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, visit the location from which the Titanic sailed its only voyage, explore the lively city of Galway, play golf, take a tour of Old Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, stay in a castle and more! Not to mention the rich ancestry is perfect for a multigenerational family researching their Irish heritage and roots.