Credit: Trafagar

Private groups are big business now, say top tour operators

TORONTO — From the start of the global pandemic in March, the travel industry has seen the emergence of many new trends that reflect current concerns. From COVID-related travel insurance to an increase in domestic tourism, travel trends in this ‘new normal’ show that travellers are putting health and safety top of mind in 2020 and beyond.

The latest trend to be added to the list is private group tours, an ideal option for families and friends looking to stay within their social bubble. Though certainly not a new offering, private group bookings are booming among Canadian travellers, says The Travel Corporation.

Speaking with Travelweek, Elizabeth Raposo, Groups Manager for Trafalgar and Costsaver Canada, both part of The Travel Corporation umbrella, says that both brands have seen a marked increase in custom groups and scheduled group offerings for 2021 and 2022 as a result of the pandemic.

“We have seen an incredible surge in group bookings throughout the pandemic and are ahead when comparing year-over-year around the same time last year for our custom groups and scheduled groups, too,” she says. “Our groups team is extremely busy and very eager and ready to support Canadian travel agents during this key booking season.”

Trafalgar and Costsaver’s new private group tours are available across Trafalgar’s Europe, Britain and North America departures for 2021 and beyond. Customizable and available for an additional charge, these tours include a private coach, a private Travel Director and driver, plus enhanced well-being procedures to help ensure the safety of the entire group.

How it works is simple enough: travel agents with clients looking to secure a private tour can choose an itinerary and departure, then contact Trafalgar or Costsaver using the ‘Make this departure yours/Make this a private group tour’ button online on and Agents can also contact their local Sales Manager to complete the booking process.

The benefits are obvious: clients can better ensure their health and safety by travelling with just their inner circle, they can customize itineraries to suit their needs and preferences, and they can fully relax while on tour knowing that Trafalgar and Costsaver are taking care of all the details.

For travel agents, the perks are just as bountiful, says Raposo.

“Benefits for travel agents include larger commissions, an easier sell as it is a ‘travel bubble’, the possibility of turning a small group into a bigger group, more repeat business and word of mouth to develop new business,” she adds. “Our private tours are an amazing way to reintroduce clients back to their love of travelling and to reignite sales. Trafalgar and Costsaver’s dedicated sales team will be with Canadian travel agents every step of the way to assist with closing the sale.”

Goway, whose specialized Groups department handles any group with 10 or more passengers, has also seen a steady increase in group leads and bookings since early April. Barbara Norton, VP of Group Sales, tells Travelweek that 75% of these bookings are considered ‘new’ rather than rebookings due to the pandemic. What this tells her is that small groups of 10-15 passengers has become the norm with people wanting to stay within their bubble.

“Keeping within small-group bubbles helps everyone control movements and contacts and avoid crowds by booking off-hour and behind-the-scenes touring,” she says.

But if you’re a travel agent, how do you go about finding these small-group bubbles?

“Pre-formed bubbles already exist and an agent just has to reach out and ‘touch’ them,” adds Norton. “These include celebratory and multi-generational family groups, sports teams, delayed weddings, faith-based groups, chamber groups, activity-based groups like golfers, dragon-boaters and walking clubs, and social-based and service clubs. All these pre-formed bubbles travel in groups and will be ready to go when the time is right.”

Norton suggests that agents promote new ideas for avoiding crowds, like booking small charter boats or an entire small boutique hotel or inn. Also look into motorhome convoys, long stays and booking large motorcoaches and filling every third or fourth seat only to ensure physical distancing.

From G Adventures’ Sean Russo, National Sales Manager, here’s this handy tip: look at your database and the family member of those travellers.

“Reach out to them, ask how they’re doing and, if they permit, tell them you’ve got an opportunity for them,” he tells Travelweek. “Look at individuals who would traditionally already travel in smaller groups – think two families going to the Caribbean or on a cruise – and see if they’d like to try something off-the-beaten patch, immersive and not confined to typical tourist spots. Families are also going to be looking to reconnect after spending time apart, and what better way to do that then to experience the wonders of travel together?”

Since launching its ‘Book your Bubble’ (BYB) collection in early August, G Adventures, says Russo, has seen a lot of travel agents enquiring as to how they can use the collection to help recoup business that’s been lost as a result of the pandemic. Travel agents are used to promoting private travel as an opportunity for the ‘group leader’ to travel alongside the group as they experience the world. With the Book your Bubble collection, however, it’s a bit different.

“The savings is meant to be shared with the group, so it could be a group of couples, two families, a large multi-generational group to keep the idea of social circles, or bubbles, intact while travelling,” adds Russo. “Once agents have connected with our GPS (Global Purpose Specialist) team and this is explained in more detail, we’ve seen enquires more than double.”

Russo adds that, for agents specifically, the collection introduces a revenue stream using vocabulary already known to the general audience – “social circles” and “social bubbles.” Plus, for the first time, G Adventures is allowing its public promotions (currently 15% off the majority of its worldwide trips) to be used with a BYB booking.

“So there are more benefits than ever before for agents looking to increase their earning from private group travel,” says Russo. “Right now we are seeing a huge opportunity in Canada for agents to market and sell trips to millennials, and to encourage them to book now for travel later. Over the past five years or so, we’ve seen a growth in private travel from Canadians and we believe this will continue.”

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