If there is one certainty in the adventure travel industry, it’s that it is in constant flux. Tour operators must stay vigilant, keeping up with traveler trends, marketing strategies, and even new activities or variations on existing ones to remain competitive in the marketplace.
Cycling, like other adventure travel segments, has evolved over time, and tour operators working in the space have adjusted accordingly, incorporating equipment upgrades and adopting new business initiatives to meet customer expectations. What they have learned in the process can, in many ways, be applied to the industry at large.
Adventure Travel Expectations
Once upon a time, travelers picked up a brochure at their local travel agent’s office, chose a tour of interest, and booked a vacation, but times have obviously changed. An upcoming, younger demographic of travelers is interested in more than just the technical aspects and logistical details of a tour, forcing those in the industry to rethink how they market, promote, and sell products to meet evolving expectations. “Younger customers want to connect with the product by being inspired first, and weighing the particulars of the product second,” said Sally Phipps, marketing manager of SpiceRoads.
Additionally, adventure travel now encompasses more than just adventurous experiences, a general industry trend cycling companies are experiencing firsthand as well. Multi-sport programs are popular, and travelers, while fit, are not diehard cyclists, said Trish Sare, director of BikeHike Adventures Inc. “They are casual cyclists, looking for a moderate distance with vehicle support throughout the day, and they want comfort in the evenings. They want good food and wine.”
This evolution toward experiences that are more robust fits naturally with the move toward customization. “As more consumers turn toward adventure travel, a one-size adventure model doesn’t fit at all anymore,” Phipps said. “Travelers want more options, from the types of adventure to additional activities to accommodation styles.”
The trend toward customized travel has led an increasing number of travelers to dictate exactly what they want and expect from an adventure experience, including those with pre-established itineraries. “The increased popularity of the DIY (do-it-yourself) requests or custom requests, I think, means that, although a company can standardize an itinerary, the younger, more independent travelers will keep wanting to pick the sights, timeline, and some specifics of an itinerary themselves,” said Maria Elena Price, co-owner of ExperiencePlus! and Cycle Europe, noting that her company customizes more than 50 percent of even the self-guided tour requests it receives from customers.
This can be particularly challenging for companies trying to cover all aspects of the activities they offer. In cycling, for example, travelers have choices when it comes to bike types, terrain, trip focus, and amount of support. To meet these needs, some companies are developing sub-brands to properly address requests and partnering with other businesses that can provide services customers want in destinations they desire.
At SpiceRoads, for example, the company recognized its customers could be classified based on tour preferences. As a result, in conjunction with a company-wide rebranding effort, it recently developed five sub-brands based on different touring experiences the company offers. These five distinct verticals — touring, road, epic, trails, and excursions — each offer different types of cycling experiences in different environments and locations, further customizing the “generic” cycling trip. “The segments will offer targeted itineraries, showcased on a new, mobile-friendly website,” Phipps said. “This segmentation has been informed by trends within cycling travel, and reflects the diversification of product within the industry.”
Tour Operator Roles
Even with specific ideas on what they want a trip to entail, DIY travelers are not necessarily the best travel planners. This is the area in which tour operators can continue to flex their muscle, but they need to do so with clarity and transparency. “As direct bookings become more and more common in travel, the best way to aid customers in their purchase is to be transparent about the product,” Phipps said.
With the online world at their fingertips, anyone can find out just about anything about a particular company’s offerings. This also means that, working within an environment with lots of options, tour operators need to do an excellent job of explaining why travelers should pick their products and services over those offered by other companies. “As more and more local tour operators and guides have a strong presence and ability to talk directly to the traveler, any company selling travel needs to be providing some sort of added value, whether it is quality assurance, stronger operations on the ground with guide standards, tour design expertise, or improved customer service for pre- and post-sales,” Price said.
Given all the changes in cycling in particular — and the adventure travel industry as a whole — tour operators have had to adjust not just their offerings but also their business strategies. “While the number of people participating in adventure travel has grown, the demand still does not exceed the supply,” said Lauren Hefferon, director and founder, Ciclismo Classico. “The competition is tougher than ever. Big players with massive mailing lists and big marketing budgets make it difficult for small- and mid-sized players to compete,” she said.
To combat this, these smaller companies have had to find creative ways to reach potential customers. “Print marketing is practically obsolete,” Hefferon said, noting that referrals and word-of-mouth are still top drivers of business. Unsurprisingly, social media marketing has become increasingly important, particularly on Facebook. These statements are consistent with research conducted by the Adventure Travel Trade Association published in 2016, which found print advertising now makes up only 6 percent of the average company marketing budget whereas social media outreach makes up 13 percent.
Additionally, Price said her company has upped its ante in regard to video. “We know videos are getting more exposure by most of the social media and search engines, so we’re trying to understand how to create, produce, and engage people with videos,” she said. “A good video is one of the best ways to share and get people excited by travel.”
Across the travel industry, successfully reaching and booking potential and returning customers is an ongoing challenge. Just as these customers won’t settle for one-size-fits-all travel experiences, marketing messages must be appealing, memorable, and customized, hitting the right emotional buttons while still providing support only experts can provide. “One of the greatest challenges will continue to be better defining and better communicating what each experience is like,” Price said, “but as more adventure travel experiences are offered, this will continue to be the challenge — being able to tell the story of what it is like on a tour is really important.”
Tour operators interested in learning more about trends in the cycling industry may be interested in the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s Cycling Survey, which was published in 2014.