Europe Roundtable: Searching for Authenticity

Francesco Brazzini, Italian Government Tourist Board; Walter DeMirci, Scandinavian Tourist Boards; Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, Sud de France; Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism; Cyd Cunniff, Insight Vacations; Joshua Greenberg, Protravel; Wanda Radetti, Visit Croatia; Alp Ozaman, Turkish Airlines; Sigrid Pichler, Austrian Tourist Office and Navin Sawhney, Ponant
 
Francesco Brazzini, Italian Government Tourist Board; Walter DeMirci, Scandinavian Tourist Boards; Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, Sud de France; Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism; Cyd Cunniff, Insight Vacations; Joshua Greenberg, Protravel; Wanda Radetti, Visit Croatia; Alp Ozaman, Turkish Airlines; Sigrid Pichler, Austrian Tourist Office and Navin Sawhney, Ponant

Travel Agent magazine recently hosted a roundtable in New York focusing on “U.S. Travel Trends to Europe.”

Hosted by the Gansevoort Park Avenue Hotel, the roundtable comprised tourist office representatives, suppliers and travel advisors. Our group included Sigrid Pichler, manager of public relations, Austrian Tourist Office; Francesco Brazzini, marketing and event coordinator, Italian Government Tourist Board; Walter DeMirci, project manager travel trade, NA, Scandinavian Tourist Boards; Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, executive director of U.S. branch, Sud de France; Alex Herrmann, director, Switzerland Tourism; and Wanda Radetti, Visit Croatia. Also with us were Navin Sawhney, CEO, Ponant; Cyd Cunniff, VP marketing, Insight Vacations; Alp Ozaman, regional marketing manager, Turkish Airlines; Joshua Greenberg of Protravel; and Natalie Maneval of Travel Agent magazine.

The roundtable was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, vice president and editorial director of Travel Agent magazine.

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Following is a condensed version of the discussion. For more on the roundtable, see this week's column on "The New Travel Landscape."

Sigrid Pichler, Austrian Tourist Office: Our communication over the years switched a little bit more to the softer aspects of travel to really getting to know the destination in a sense that when you are there, you’re feeling at home. I think, emotionally and psychologically, there is that need. Another shift is that travelers need a little bit more of “me” time to find themselves and disconnect from daily life, to turn it off and be on their own. So in our campaigns we’re focusing on where in Austria you can really find that peace of mind; that quiet that brings you back to yourself, and gives you that very refreshing outlook when you get back home. Hence, our hashtag for the campaign that we recently launched is “#Austriantime.” 

Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism and Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine
Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism and Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine

Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism: We see that U.S. travelers are rediscovering Switzerland. We had the best year last year since 2001, which means a lot for us; we’ve had six years of growth in American travelers to Switzerland. One of the most exciting things, or the most exciting thing, is our campaign for “The Grand Tour of Switzerland,” which is a 1,000-mile tour through Switzerland that combines all the highlights with some of the lesser-known parts.

Our big campaign for this year is focusing on trying to get U.S. travelers and travelers around the world to fall in love with Switzerland again, which uses the hashtag, “#InLoveWithSwitzerland.”

Francesco Brazzini, Italian Government Tourist Board and Wanda Radetti, Visit Croatia
Francesco Brazzini, Italian Government Tourist Board and Wanda Radetti, Visit Croatia

Francesco Brazzini, Italian Government Tourist Board: There is lot of exciting stuff happening in Italy. We’re still waking up from the hangover [of] last year; we had the World’s Fair, and also had Holy Shroud and toward the end of the year the pope decided to give us a gift, so [in 2016] we also have the Jubilee Year.

We are also very excited about a smaller event, which I think is going to be interesting to bring a certain type of tourist to Italy. Christo, the artist, is actually doing a suspended bridge in Lake Iseo; Floating Piers is happening June 18 to July 3. It’s going to bring people to areas of Italy that are not as known, so that’s exciting to us.

We are also pushing alternative destinations; we have created a network called “The Most Beautiful Villages of Italy,” which are beautiful for historical and architectural reasons. Although some of them are small in size they actually have some of the most extraordinary things you will be able to see in Italy, so we are trying to steer some of the tourists.

We also see this as a key to the future of tourism for Italy, which is about connecting with the new generation of Millennials, because it offers alternative experiences that most of them seem to be very attracted to. Most of these places have an experiential element to them; for example, in Pienza, there is a university for how to make cheese; it’s really world renowned for cheese and not a lot of people know about it. On top of that, it’s a 13th-century village right in the middle of Tuscany. Things like that will be the bread and butter for the future.

Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, Sud de France and Joshua Greenberg, Protravel
Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, Sud de France and Joshua Greenberg, Protravel

Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, Sud de France: A bit of news is that, because of a major constitutional reform, the Languedoc-Roussillon and the Midi-Pyrénées regions merged — the main cities are Montpellier and Toulouse — so Sud de France now covers the entire Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées, stretching from the Rhône River and Provence to the east, westward along the Mediterranean coast, skirting the border of Spain and the Pyrénées to its south, moving north through the verdant hills and plains of Gascony and the Lot Valley, and east again, over the heights of the Massif Central and Cévennes mountains.

More than ever, we are offering the real south of France; it’s far from the crowds, [offers] very exclusive experiences, and also, [is] much less expensive than other parts of southern France. The people who work there in the tourism business know that the majority of American tourists are expecting one-on-one interaction. They want to be pampered, considered not as a group but as a person, as an individual, so we make sure that every tourist, every visitor, comes to a region that has this very exclusive, authentic experience.

Walter DeMirci, Scandinavian Tourist Boards and Sigrid Pichler, Austrian Tourist Office
Walter DeMirci, Scandinavian Tourist Boards and Sigrid Pichler, Austrian Tourist Office

Walter DeMirci, Scandinavian Tourist Boards: The Scandinavian Tourist Boards are a special arrangement here for the North American marketplace; it includes Visit Denmark, Visit Finland, Visit Norway and Visit Sweden all working in joint collaboration, particularly in anything that concerns marketing initiatives for the travel trade. The reason why we work that way is because most tour operators that sell travel to Scandinavia combine at least two, if not three countries, sometimes even all four in one trip, and so we figured that [it] makes more sense for us to pool our resources, and work together rather than compete with each other, as we do in other markets, for example.

One of the most exciting things for us this year is the increased airlift that we have to Scandinavia. Norwegian Air’s entry into the U.S. market has increased competition. We’ve been seeing a greater number of flights just from last year to this year. The number of Americans that have traveled to Scandinavia was up 25 percent and that’s due to the increased airlift.

Walter DeMirci, Scandinavian Tourist Boards; Cyd Cunniff, Insight Vacations; Francesco Brazzini, Italian Government Tourist Board and Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine
Walter DeMirci, Scandinavian Tourist Boards; Cyd Cunniff, Insight Vacations; Francesco Brazzini, Italian Government Tourist Board and Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent magazine

New flights to Scandinavia include Los Angeles – Stockholm on SAS — started March 14; Boston – Copenhagen on SAS — started March 29; Norwegian just started Boston – Oslo and Boston – Copenhagen. Later this fall, SAS will launch Miami – Oslo and Miami – Copenhagen. That’s really helped a lot. One other thing that I would have to add is we’re also very happy that more and more tour operators are adding Scandinavian programs, and these are tour operators that have never sold Scandinavia before.

Wanda Radetti, Visit Croatia: I must tell you how I started. I started in Croatia 20 years ago when I felt that it was okay to go back home, and I thought I was going to do great food and wonderful five-star experiences. Well, I was wrong. You couldn’t even drink the wine of Croatia at the time, but eventually that changed. It’s a world-class destination, and what we try to do is to bring the luxurious touch.

We try to make our travelers feel cared for and taken care of. We coddle them and try to get to know them very well.

We get to a point where we know who the people are in the group. We know who they are, and where they’re coming from, what their fears are and what their egos are like. We get to that level. We consult with everybody that travels with us; we do charge a fee for that, and from there we are able to produce and advise. We create a new [itinerary] every time somebody travels with us. We don’t have a product that exists. Everybody travels differently and has different requirements.

People say, “Well, send me your itinerary,” and I say, “I don’t know who you are. How could I send you an itinerary? Talk to me.” Luckily we’re growing by word of mouth and people who travel with us are sending us their friends or families.

Navin Sawhney, Ponant; Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, Sud de France and Joshua Greenberg, Protravel
Navin Sawhney, Ponant; Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, Sud de France and Joshua Greenberg, Protravel

Navin Sawhney, Ponant: We are the only French ocean-going cruise line. We’re led by Jean-Emmanuel Sauvée; he is our founding CEO, and his passion for discovery, learning [and] expedition is what transmits and exudes the entire culture of our company. We’re the leading polar expedition company in the world for small ship cruising. We have a fleet of purpose-built luxury expedition vessels, four of them, and the most exciting part of this is that, a week ago, we announced that we’re going to build another four; so by the middle of 2019 we’ll have eight purpose-built vessels, which will expand our world of expeditions well beyond the polar regions to Borneo, New Guinea, from Australia to the Seychelles and to the Maldives and beyond.

Joshua Greenberg, Protravel: I’m an independent contractor with leisure corporate business. I’m excited because it dawned on me that this is my 20th year in retail. What’s also exciting is that I was the youngest person for a decade in this business. Anyway, it’s nice to see that there’s a new generation behind us. This year, I joined with another agent at Protravel business so we are going to [be] the power house, so at least that’s what we think.

Cyd Cunniff, Insight Vacations: Our number one most exciting thing is that we have a Luxury Gold product now, which seems to be what a large portion of travelers want [today]. They want to be able to know that they don’t have to touch their luggage once after they arrive, that everything’s going to be taken care of. They have someone they can rely on, who is traveling with them, because we do the guided travel, and they also know that if they want to break off from the crowd that they can, and they will be helped to do so.

We’re part of The Travel Corporation, TTC, and now we are offering tours with our sister company, Uniworld, so we’re combining both land and river cruise and I foresee a lot of good things coming out of that, because we’re broadening what we’re offering. People have this idea of coach touring as hopping on a bus with your grandma and that’s it, and that is so not what this company is about.

We’ve learned that promotions, particularly with air, are something else we’re pushing toward to encourage that ever-changing environment of travel.

Ruthanne Terrero, Travel Agent: How are you dealing with the drive toward authentic experiences? I think everyone in this room represents thriving destinations because of the wonderful experiences that Europe delivers. It’s the people experiences, the cuisine, etc.

Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism;  Natalie Maneval, Travel Agent magazine and Alp Ozaman, Turkish Airlines
Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism;  Natalie Maneval, Travel Agent magazine and Alp Ozaman, Turkish Airlines

Alex Herrmann, Switzerland Tourism: Everybody has their own idea of what authenticity actually is. You can get groups of 40 people on the bus and they might enjoy a yodeling demonstration. That’s the authenticity that they want. I was in Thailand over the holidays and my most authentic experience was watching “Star Wars” in the movie theater. It was actually the most authentic moment, because there were just local people. We learned that you have to get up and watch a three-minute propaganda review with the king, and take off your hat and everything, so I learned so much about the country by this authentic experience.

As a destination, we have to be ready to provide these different kinds of authentic experiences, and who am I to define what an authentic experience is in Switzerland for an American traveler? There are all these different understandings, and so to provide infrastructure for this is challenging because we want different levels of authenticity.

Wanda Radetti, Visit Croatia: There are some buzzwords in the media that every traveler is repeating, and you wonder, “What do you mean?” I’m off the beaten path, but you haven’t been to the main places you should see, so where do you want to go? What is it that you want from your travel experience? That’s what off the beaten path is. It’s authentic when your driver has his wife prepare an extra sandwich so you don’t take time out to go to lunch, because the kids are waiting for you back at the hotel, and the driver shares that lunch with you in the car. It’s about people. For me it’s authentic when you have an experience, and when that experience is over, you want to kiss and hug somebody that was part of it. You want to go home and you remember that you touched somebody’s heart.

Their perception of my being an expert should be that I will keep them safe, and that I will give them that experience that touches their heart. They’ll have heard stories of the people who were lost during the war. That is authentic — when you speak to someone who was on the front and had to fight for peace [or] whatever he thought he should be doing for his country.

Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, Sud de France: I think by authentic, people mean interactive, so they do want to see the medieval city of Carcassonne, for example, but they also want to do their own vermouth at the winery. They also want to participate in the harvest festival. They want to go and be with the wine maker who’s going to explain methods of fermentation. This is the authentic touch that people are looking for, on top of visiting the main monuments, and going throughout the region they’re visiting, and we’ve gotten a lot of requests for special excursions that are extremely personalized.

Of course, people don’t want to take a bus, and go around and just see the monuments and go back to their hotel and speak with their fellow American travelers; they’re looking for interaction with the locals.

Navin Sawhney, Ponant and Walter DeMirci, Scandinavian Tourist Boards
 
Navin Sawhney, Ponant and Walter DeMirci, Scandinavian Tourist Boards

Navin Sawhney, Ponant: People have graduated from sightseeing, to site-doing to site-being, and that’s the proliferation of the media we’re holding. We’re far better informed. The common thread seems to be something that Sigrid mentioned a little bit earlier, and that is “emotional connection.” Everybody has some level of that need looking to be fulfilled through travel. It doesn’t matter that they came in a motor coach, or they came on an individual tour, much to the point Alex was making, and I think people begin to connect with those things emotionally, only if we enable them to do so, on our ships for example. They are so very small. They are not a destination, the ships actually take you to a destination and enable that, and not just classic destinations like the Aegean, but also far corners of Europe like northern Greenland. You may come upon a village where there's all of 200 to 300 residents and they’re totally unprepared for a visit by people from the so-called highly developed civilized world, but they show you an emotion. The children may want to jump in the swimming pool, because they’ve never experienced it, and that by itself allows people that emotional connection, and I think that’s what today’s customer is looking for.

Sigrid Pichler, Austrian Tourist Office: In Austria, we’ve had some enormous success with products like Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations or bicycle-led tours through Salzberg; they’re not even big products. I just want to give you an example of Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations, where you have a little pamphlet and you can sign up for a coffee house, and a specific topic you want to talk about, and it’s not only about travel...you get a true Viennese person, like anybody, assigned to sit with you in the coffee house and have a conversation, and explain it to you. It’s just "How do you live?" It’s students who take you to university, that take you to the class if you wish, and an emotional connection is established with a real person, and with his or her city, and her own experience in the city. I think that’s what it’s boiling down to. Maybe the challenge for the marketing of a tour operator and travel advisors is to create something that facilitates that experience.

Kristin Bator, Travel Agent magazine and Cyd Cunniff, Insight Vacations
Kristin Bator, Travel Agent magazine and Cyd Cunniff, Insight Vacations

Cyd Cunniff, Insight Vacations: We’re finding a great response to that type of experience, and it’s more about offering a palette for the whole trip. It’s not just that one time you get to do glassblowing in the middle of Budapest. It’s more being in the olive grove with the farmer and his family and making the bruschetta right there over an open fire, next to the press and tasting it while you’re standing there — with farm puppies down around your ankles. We’re gaining more and more success by adding experiences like that.