The next horizon

Kathi Everden reports from first PURE Life exhibition

Expedition cruises are becoming increasingly popular with adventurous jet setters.
Expedition cruises are becoming increasingly popular with adventurous jet setters.
Diving can be classed as 'experiential travel'.
Diving can be classed as 'experiential travel'.
For some, 'experiential travel' means wildlife encounters.
For some, 'experiential travel' means wildlife encounters.

With consumers looking beyond luxury to ‘experiential travel’, proactive agents should tap into this lucrative new sector, which covers a multitude of options from safari to space travel. Kathi Everden investigates.

With outbound travellers in the Middle East plumping for the same destinations time and time again, there is little incentive to source new and exciting travel options. However, the financial earthquake that struck last year has decimated all pundits’ predictions for the future of travel.

Luxury travel, at least for the leisure sector, seems to continue on a growth curve but the demand is for more than just marbled lobbies and Bose technology, with actual content of the ‘holiday’ becoming as important as its star rating — at least according to international travel trends.

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Debbie Joslin, group exhibitions director for Reed Travel Exhibitions’ ILTM show, said the luxury event delivered an upbeat year-end for the industry, reflecting industry trends for more product.

“The luxury travel market has changed, with authenticity and the quality of the experience becoming increasingly important to group and individual travellers,” she said.

The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) too reports a boom in business, much of which can be attributed to the healthy bank balance and fitness levels of the baby boomer generation of 50+ travellers.

“Adventure travel is definitely on the rise with a desire and willingness to pursue more authentic travel,” said ATTA president, Shannon Stowell.

But he stressed that adventure or experiential travel did not necessarily mean sky diving in Hawaii or white water rafting in Colorado: “There’s always something new; from snorkelling with killer whales off the coast of Norway to luxury camping in Patagonia,” he said.

Taking this further, ‘experiential travel’ has crept into the travel lexicon, defined as a leisure journey that can be active but also have cultural, natural, social or spiritual aspects.

According to Serge Dive, co-founder of the new PURE Life Experiences exhibition, which is devoted to the ‘experiential travel’ sector, the aim is to appeal to those who aspire to be travellers rather than tourists.

“The travel market is splitting again, moving from selling destinations to selling journeys,” he said.

“In the 1990s, the destination was the country and after the millennium, the destination became the hotel — now people don’t only want a destination or a resort — their holiday has become a gateway to an experience.”

Hand in glove with this aspiration, there is also a move towards more responsible travel, he said, with inquisitive rather than acquisitive travel becoming the buzz word.

PURE experience
For all the theory, the PURE launch event in Marrakech in November underscored the demand for a dedicated event to capitalise on the demand for a world beyond luxury.

“It is clearly focused and cost efficient, aimed at lodges, retreats and unique hotels, discovery journeys, wilderness experiences, soft and extreme adventure, gastronomic and cultural escapes and events and festival,” explained Dive.

Some 700 participants attended from around the globe, with hosted buyers and set appointments guaranteeing a business environment.

There were only two Middle East exhibitors but those that did show up discovered an entirely new audience for the Arabian experience. Dubai-based Gulf Ventures, promoting the wider UAE and Oman in particular, reported an excellent response, with the outstanding calibre of attendees generating good quality business.

“We had scheduled appointments throughout the event and in fact, were over-subscribed,” said operations manager Deborah Bevan. “People wanted the Middle East region as they know they can sell it, given the right product — and the main focus has been on Abu Dhabi and Oman.

“Previously the focus was on Dubai and we were not able to sell the UAE as such, but with more resorts such as Banyan Tree in Ras Al Khaimah, Al Maha, Qasr Al Sarab and Desert Palm, we are getting the right credentials and touring has become the thing, taking in Oman too and with perhaps our camel polo as a gimmick.”

With buyers “pleasantly surprised” at the scope of Arabian tours — and Gulf Ventures already notching up bookings from PURE show buyers for multi-centre itineraries — it emphasised the potential both to sell the UAE as one destination and also to package the Gulf product differently to woo new business.

Nicholas Mantheakis, the owner of Oman-based off-road specialist 53 Degrees East — the other Middle East exhibitor at the show — stressed that demand for travel to the region and its potential for soft adventure was strong at the event.

“I will definitely return — the show was geared to travel experiences rather than just luxury and it worked very well for me with more than 65 set meetings as well as passing traffic,” he said.

“Most buyers were from Europe, but there was a great interest from South American visitors as the market there seems willing to travel and experience new things.

“We offer four-day desert initiation teaching 4WD skills mixing camping with a stay at The Chedi, but the potential is to expand this to longer trips and even twinned with the Liwa dunes in Abu Dhabi.”

Outward bound
So, if experiential travel could become another USP for inbound travel to the region, what of the potential for outbound?

In some ways, the travel industry in the Gulf is only just moving towards ‘packaging’ at a time when the rest of the world is going for independent travel, but in contrast, the trade has always catered to individual arrangements and could perhaps now shift to adding ‘experiences’ to the air/hotel combo.

A pioneer of this concept is Paul Clabburn at Bahrain International Travel, who launched The Signature Collection “to stimulate the thought process about travel in terms of products available”.

He acknowledged that the majority of bookings were for mainstream luxury products but said bookings had been received for gorilla watching and Galapagos cruises.

“You need an angle to make this a success — whether you are a big or niche operator,” he said.

“We aim to broaden the horizons of our clients and offer suggestions to enable them to get more from their holiday than they might otherwise have expected.”

Clabburn stressed that those agents looking to sell experiential travel needed to be passionate, invest in sourcing product and offer quality service.

The PURE event helped agents look at new product offerings by showcasing global suppliers and prompting new ways of thinking about traditional destinations.

The show opened up a whole new world — one where clients could be set aloft in a space balloon; venture across the canopy in the South American jungle; indulge in the lap of luxury on an ‘expedition’ cruise; ride the rapids on the Yukon in Canada’s wilderness; go heli-trekking in the Himalayas; discover gourmet Japan; retreat to a wellness spa in the South African bush; find alternative beach luxury in Mozambique, Pemba, Bangaram or Fiji; test out a wine tour of New Zealand or Chile; or opt for yet another safari — this time on horseback, on elephant, on foot, or even by yak in Mongolia.

Key selling tips

  • Know your client, their preferences, budgets, sense of adventure, love of comfort/luxury.
  • Start with a few ‘shop window’ products that can be marketed and talked up — even just alternative Indian Ocean destinations or safaris.
  • Research the market — exhibitions such as PURE, organisations like ATTA (www. ATTA.travel), the African trade association, or the Adventure Travel Trade Association (www.adventuretravel.biz).
  • Think regional — Oman, Jordan and Egypt operators are targeting experiential travel and could offer short-break trips that would appeal to the expat market in particular.
  • Emphasise the tailor-made aspect of this travel — service elements are vital.
  • Consider selling family experiences as an alternative to the Disneyworld-style holiday.

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