Shelley Cline, president of TCS World Travel, and expedition leader Richard Butler recently stopped by Luxury Travel Advisor’s office to talk about the latest from the private jet tour operator. Among the highlights, TCS just announced a new lineup of trips for 2020, a focus on “first-chance” destinations and experiences, as well as its recently debuted teen advisory panel.
1. What are some new destinations you're going to and what are some destinations that you see are piquing travelers' interest right now?
Cline: We're focusing on the Balkans, actually, such as Kosovo and Serbia. We have a trip that's all around the Balkans and into Uzbekistan and Georgia. These are places that either didn't have the infrastructure to support luxury travel in the past or they're places that people want to go to but they want to go with a group rather than on their own. So, definitely I'd say the Balkans are an area of interest. People have been interested in Croatia but beyond just Dubrovnik.
Digging in a little deeper, I think there's a renewed interest in Scandinavia, and especially Iceland but outside of Reykjavik. We've got trips going to northern Iceland and Greenland and the Faroe Islands. It's the first time we're offering a trip that has a stop in the Faroe Islands.
Butler: And then, looking down into Africa, we've seen a trend headed towards Mozambique. We're heading there. And I know people have been focusing on Rwanda for gorilla tracking—it’s an amazing experience and [there’s a lot] going on in the country. With the new lodges coming through there, it really fits into our guests' profile. There are luxury lodges there now, so that's really on our radar.
2. Speaking of the experiences, what are the things that your guests are looking for that you have to make sure the destination has?
Cline: I think being able to see things in a unique way, right? See things different than everybody else is. So, [we look at] places that clearly have cultural interest—whether it's wildlife or something else interesting to see, but then [to have] the ability to be able to see it in a unique way. So, one example would be Rio. We go there and we go up to do the Christ the Redeemer visit, but we do a morning private visit and you're there having coffee and tea and pastries as the sun comes up. I just did this, and it was just so surprising to me—such an enjoyable experience. But then we came down and we did this helicopter tour and they then do a circle around Christ the Redeemer and you look down and there's thousands of people there and you realize, wow, we just had that whole place to ourselves. And that was one place where the guides that were with us were so excited because they don't get to do it. So, I think when we're looking at places, we make sure and really work closely with partners to be able to either see the things that people want to see in a really unique and special way or to be able to do things that other people aren't doing.
Butler: Continuing that theme, I think about Rwanda and when we visit there, what do we add that you wouldn't have if you were traveling independently. We get in touch with the gorilla veterinary program and we have the vets come out and talk to the guests for about half an hour, an hour, and they have a Q&A about what their program is. Because it's one of the success stories in conservation. So, guests really get that chance to connect.
We're also putting more active options into our journeys. We always break down into smaller groups, and we have different options, so the guests can curate what they want to do. In Petra or Jordan, we'll have a group leave an hour, hour and a half earlier and they will make a thorough exploration. They'll get back, and they'll have 20,000 steps on the Fitbit. If we go to Galapagos, we'll have the shorter hike and the long hike. We're making sure that the fitness centers are ready in the hotels for our guests who want to wake up early. So, we're seeing a general trend there. But we've also got a trip heading out in February next year, Secrets of Longevity, with Andrew Weil, the guru of Eastern medicine. And, so, that's focusing on general health, diet, yoga, holistic medicine and visiting Sri Lanka through India, Kathmandu and Chiang Mai. That's a trip that we put specifically together to focus on wellness.
We're putting yoga sessions in the itinerary as well. We're organizing those in hotels. The executive chef in Seattle is planning with all the chefs on the jets to make lighter meals and healthier options.
Cline: Our average age has probably been 60, 65 for a long time. And having been there so long now as both of us have, you can really see the 60-year-old today is completely different than even ten years ago. They're so much healthier, so much more active and they're not thinking how they used to about desserts and heavy meals—[although] they want to have good food. They want to have a great atmosphere, and the dining element is super important, but they're making much healthier choices and options.
3. Can you talk about your new aircraft and any other new services that you’re offering?
Cline: The new aircraft is a 28-seat custom-configured jet with flatbed recline, and our first trips are actually in 2019 at the end of the year—we're doing an around-the-Mediterranean trip. And it sold out really fast. We added another one, it sold out. So, for 2020 we put a series of eight trips together. And again, these are a bit more regional-focused, so they will be a deeper dive in a region. And we're doing a series, “Land of the Midnight Sun,” we're also doing “All Around Brazil Program,” a “Wildlife and Wine Trip” in South Africa.
Butler: And something key about this, because it's a smaller group size, we are starting to reach out to more boutique properties—so we're not just sticking to the large properties. We're really getting out into the countryside, finding these independently owned boutique places. And what I think we can help travel advisors with is rather than just our guests thinking of a country and what you normally see there, we can propose new ideas of what to see. People think, ‘Oh I want to go to the Balkans, I want to go visit former Yugoslavia.’ But we can then curate and we can point them in the right direction of what to see.
Cline: And I'd say another part of our business that's been growing a lot in the last couple years is luxury custom travel. It really grew organically out of our past travelers returning and saying, ‘I loved that trip, I'm taking my family to Italy or Argentina, and will you plan our trip?’ So, sometimes it includes a jet, sometimes it doesn't. And then we just customize the trip for them. We actually work with a lot of advisors because we have experience in a lot of remote places that a lot of other people don't. A big part of it is that it's very high touch and customized. I was in the office recently and a family trip was going out and they had individual amenity kits for the kids versus the grandparents and it's all very, very personalized.
4. Where did the idea for the Teen Advisory Panel come from? What are teens looking for when they travel? And has that helped your family and multi-gen bookings in any way?
Cline: It's been great, an interesting idea for one, and it was a fun process to go through because they had to tick some boxes of having been to over four continents besides their own and 14 or 15 countries. And just hearing the stories they told and then we have had a woman call and book for her granddaughter going to Dubai and asking, ‘Can you ask the Teen Advisory Panel about what to do there?’ And then we had another teenager who called and sorted of vetted us for her parents before they planned a private travel trip.
A spokesperson for TCS World Travel added: We’d seen this trend towards teens as the new family travel expert, in a sense—that families were really looking to their teens for several reasons. They're so connected these days through social media, online, that they're kind of on the pulse of what's new and interesting. And then also just the desire to involve teens, and if they're happy, the whole family's happy. And making it that they're engaged upfront.
An important element, too, on where the idea came from, is you have a number of previous guests that are now wanting to bring their grandchildren or the multi generation experience continuing at TCS so when those grandparents are trying to figure out what they want their grandkids to do or at least what they think their grandkids would enjoy doing, they would ask our travel experts. And so that just led an additional idea of having ... when we saw that there was a trend of generation Z being an interesting decision maker within family travel, we married the two, we married what are guests were interested in with a trend that we saw that was happening. And so, we created the Teen Advisory Panel in order to help address that.
5. What would you tell either an individual or a small group that hasn't done this type of group tour to entice them to try you guys out?
Butler: Well I would say, for solo travelers, please come join us because on each trip, depending on the size, we'll have between half a dozen and a dozen solo travelers. Predominantly women. And so, our trips give solo female travelers a chance to get out and experience all those places in comfort and confidence.
The idea of traveling with a group, it's a great opportunity to meet like-minded folk and have a shared experience. TCS, if you think of it is travel, connect and share, is a great way to connect and share those experiences. You don't do it just on your own, you make friends for life because of it.
Cline: And we have loyal past travelers so we will often, if people are interested, connect them to past travelers to answer those questions for them. But for me, a big part of it is—I've been working there so long and I can tell you—when I read the evaluations one of the top highlights of the trip was about the other people that they met. And they often come back—and with a group they traveled, that they made friends with, they'll take another trip together.
But really, [a key is] highlighting the things that you'll get to do that you wouldn't get to do if you did it on your own. And, I think, making sure you're able to tell those stories at every destination. And just the idea of the jet, right? … So, to have your own plane that can take you, you just couldn't do it any other way. I think there's such a benefit in that in terms of the time that it saves you, in terms of you're not dealing with your baggage, you're not having to deal with any of the planning, any of the immigration procedures, so it just saves so much time.