Experiential travel was once a niche that only appealed to the most adventurous travelers unafraid to jump off the itinerary and truly eat, see, and, well, experience a destination for all that it’s worth.
But the digital age has helped bring this kind of travel into the mainstream. More travelers are interested in learning about what’s on the minds of locals or breaking bread with a host family than dining at a Michelin starred restaurant, although experiences like the latter are still valued, according to a 2017 global survey by Expedia Group Media Solutions.
What Is Experiential Travel?
Many travelers have learned that there’s often the fairytale version of a destination that most guidebooks and tour operators show you, and then there’s the deeper layer that reveals the character of the place today rather than hundreds of years ago.
Experiential travel, or experiential tourism, involves travelers engaging in a meaningful activity or unique experiences either for themselves, a destination, or both. Many travelers want to feel like they’ve made a positive impact on a place or themselves during a vacation. They seek out activities that align with this goal, such as meeting a local beer brewer to understand why they believe their business makes a difference or harvesting honey to see first-hand how important bees are for the environment.
And, most importantly, these travelers want to share their experiences on social media to show their friends and families their passions or a cause they care about.
These kinds of experiences usually require a destination partner, such as a tour guide, who is well-connected in a destination and its local culture, and understands the impact positive travel experiences can have.
Some tour operators helped pioneer this type of travel within the industry both before and after the Internet’s arrival, taking travelers off the beaten path and visiting places where tourism is vital to local economies.
That’s why tour operators are arguably one of the best-positioned travel sectors to thrive as more travelers seek connectors between themselves and experiences, and content that leads the way.
Trends Driving Experiential Travel
Smartphones have helped peel back that deeper layer in recent years along with social media platforms such as Instagram that have helped travelers discover local things like traditional dishes to try for dinner.
Instagram, in particular, has dramatically moved the meter on what many travelers consider as exciting and local experiences. A recent easyJet survey of 18 to 65-year-olds found 55 percent of travelers had booked trips purely based on images they saw on their Instagram feeds.
But technology isn’t the only factor fueling many travelers’ craving for experiences. Mega-hit series “Game of Thrones” and Blockbuster success “Crazy Rich Asians” are two recent examples of pop culture phenomena that gave a destination a leading role.
Tourism Northern Ireland, the country’s destination marketing organization, said earlier this year that 350,000 (one in six leisure visitors) per year come specifically to see “Game of Thrones” filming sites. And Singapore Tourism Board said there was a 110 percent increase in travel planning searches in the United States on booking site Orbitz following “Crazy Rich Asians’” release last year.
Northern Ireland and Singapore tour operators have crafted itineraries specifically designed for fans of “Game of Thrones” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” respectively. The rise in travel and culinary docuseries on streaming platforms like Netflix have also inspired travelers to go beyond their comfort zones and try new things.
How Can Tour Operators Benefit from Experiential Travel?
Experiential travel is a brand identity that’s built over time rather than something a company can flip a switch on. Travelers considering booking an experience want to see proof that a tour operator can perform the magic it takes to create a memorable trip.
Tour operators can use user-generated content (UGC) in their marketing to prove this. Here’s how UGC can help tour operators market authentic experiences and impact the bottom line.
More direct bookings
Experiential travelers, as a rule, are more adventurous and that means they will explore multiple websites to ensure they’re getting the best deal for your tour.
When displayed on your website, UGC can help tour operators sell more tours. Since OTAs, travel agents and other distribution partners can charge hefty commissions, a tour operator’s website can bring in the most profit.
More brand awareness
Many travelers want to share photos of experiences they feel are unique that friends and family will find interesting. These are often the same photos tour operators will want to share as proof that the product they offer is unmatched in the industry.
It’s useful to think about most content shared by travelers about your product as positive reviews that can be just as powerful as a long-winded written review. Visualizing the experience is especially helpful for millennials: 84 percent of millennials report that user-generated content has some influence on what they buy.
Show how you’re different from the competition
Tour operators know which panoramic scenes best capture a destination. But those photos probably don’t tell travelers what they’ll actually experience in a destination.
Anyone who’s researched a trip to Ireland has probably seen the same stock photos of the Cliffs of Moher and Dublin’s Ha’Penny Bridge. While those kinds of photos are inspiring and might initially pique someone’s interest in learning more, they don’t highlight what experiences are available at either place.
The beauty of user-generated content is that no two operators will have the same and the photos that your customers take themselves will likely do more to tell a story than anything a stale stock photo could do.
Operators like Collette believe user-generated content is the only way to authentically market their products and destinations that allows them to focus resources on the travel experience rather than operations.
Experiences Must Be Seen to Be Believed
Tour operators gave birth to the experiential travel movement but resting on laurels isn’t enough. Travelers expect real-time content and actual photos of people and what they’re doing.
The staged Christmas card type photos of everyone smiling may have worked 20 years ago. Sure, travelers want to see people smiling but many aren’t afraid of the harder truths and the realities of daily life in destinations.
If a tour or activity operator doesn’t have any user-generated content of a tour, did it even happen? In the Instagram era, that’s the standard operators are held to.
Image credit: @Sebastian Staines