Travelers are seeing more of the world, and they are no longer trying to see it all in one trip.
That’s just one of the changes Collette has noticed as the 100-year-old tour company monitors the way we travel. Collette has long been known for creating tours that travelers love to take. These days, creating trips that resonate with travelers is the job of Collette’s tour development team, led by director of product design Diana Ditto.
Ditto has worked in tour development at Collette for six years. In her 20s, she led tours for Collette and as a high school student, she worked some summers at its Rhode Island headquarters. Her art history major, combined with passions for travel and history, come in handy as she and her staff determine how to make Collette’s tours unforgettable.
Beyond the bucket list
People travel more than they ever did in the past, and that’s led to changes in group travel. “Airfare is more affordable than it has ever been,” said Ditto, “so you can do more than one trip. In the 1960s and ’70s, getting on a plane was only for the very wealthy.”
Because travelers no longer feel compelled to see it all on a trip they saved a lifetime to take, they want trips that go beyond bucket-list attractions.
“People used to just get their picture taken in front of the Taj Mahal,” said Ditto. “Now, they also want to meet a local artisan and learn more about local culture.”
And because they are more independent than previous generations, today’s group travelers also want more free time. “The question becomes ‘How do you squeeze it all in without being exhausted?’” said Ditto.
Making logistical adjustments has helped. Although some Collette tours cover multiple countries, most of today’s tours focus on a single country or even a region or two within the country. That makes for less time spent aboard the motorcoach and mostly two- to three-night stays at stops along the way.
Meeting people where they live and work
The Collette team also looks for opportunities to squeeze in cultural experiences. For example, a break on a long drive becomes a cultural exploration. “Before, a tour traveling from Killarney to Galway in Ireland might have stopped for a break in a town and let everyone walk around,” said Ditto.
Now, Collette arranges stops that connect travelers with people. “We arrange for a stop at a farmhouse for tea or have lunch with the owners of a fifth-generation family restaurant. Everyone needs to eat and get off the bus,” Ditto said. “So we think, ‘How can we have a meal and a cultural experience?’”
The subway as a cultural bridge
Another way to incorporate culture — and make tours a better value — is to use reliable public transportation. There’s no better way to understand how people live than to ride to work, to school or to shop with them.
Ditto’s favorite example of Collette’s use of public transportation is the subway system in Moscow. Collette’s new Russia tour uses the metro to take travelers from the hotel to the Kremlin. It’s only three stops away.
“In Moscow you are navigating one of the most agile, historic and on-time public transportation systems in the world,” Ditto said. “The subway stations are so beautiful that people take guided tours of them. Stalin wanted the system to be a ‘palace for the people.’”
In London, guides can show travelers how to use the Tube, the underground rapid transit system. “It empowers people,” said Ditto. ”Now they think, ‘If I want to go out for dinner and don’t want to take a cab, I can take the Tube because I did it today.’”
Sometimes alternative transportation is just more practical, as in Savannah, where Collette has used a trolley company to shuttle groups around the city’s narrow streets and squares.
Choice on Tour considers varied capabilities
Another issue, given varying physical capabilities, is how to offer experiences that everyone can do. Collette’s Choice on Tour gives travelers different options. “Every tour we do has a Choice on Tour and a lot have two,” said Ditto.
For example, in Edinburgh, Scotland, travelers can take the coach along the Royal Mile or opt to walk the historic route. “If you are someone for whom walking is more of a challenge or you are just tired that day, you can take the low-impact option,” Ditto said. Flexibility is also needed in terms of free time. “That can be the hardest balance to strike,” said Ditto, “especially when you have highly independent travelers or some with very niche interests.”
Collette always incorporates free time, but also offers an add-on activity (for a fee) for those who would rather do a tour or group activity. Collette’s guides also are known for turning free time into an impromptu outing.
“Our full-time tour managers are so passionate about what they do,” Ditto said. “One might say to a group, ‘Hey, I’m going to Harrods for lunch in the food court if you want to go with me.’”
Often, travelers cite these outings as favorite moments from their trip. Those comments sometimes puzzle Collette’s staff, who realize such an outing is not on the regular itinerary. “We call the guide, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I just took the group there on a free afternoon,’” said Ditto.
Making trips transformative
Collette’s goal is to add value to tours, without losing the quality. Ditto feels the tours her team design do just that. She loves elements of the Russia trip that have added flavor without a high cost — culinary walking tours, riding the subway, being transported to dinner in Soviet-era cars.
“Over the years Collette has stuck to its core values,” she said. “We haven’t stripped down our product; if anything we’ve added more value to it. I believe Collette strikes the best value for the money. People spend a lot to go on vacation; it is a time commitment. We need to make sure for those 10 days that every moment is impactful and transformative.”
Clients talk; Collette listens
f you’ve answered one of Collette’s post-tour surveys, you’ve had a hand in tour development. Likewise, if you’ve answered a call from a Collette product development team member, asking your opinion on proposed changes to a tour, you’ve had an impact. Collette listens to its clients and travelers. It asks them questions through surveys, and through what Diana Ditto, director of product design, calls “the lost art of picking up the phone.”
Her staff calls clients — lots of them — for feedback.
Sometimes Collette poses a specific question; for example, when the company was thinking about replacing free time on a London tour with a matinee show. “We call the group leaders we have worked with for many years, especially for the big decisions,” Ditto said.
Client input was crucial in a major change Collette made to its longstanding Heritage of America tour. Sales had been lackluster; the Collette team thought shifting the tour from New York to Philadelphia might spark interest, given that city’s numerous ties to the Revolutionary War and American independence.
Clients told Collette they liked the idea and after three months of discussion, research and reflection, the change was made. The new tour has gotten good early response. It’s evidence, Ditto said, that group travelers have a big hand in driving Collette’s tour design.
“Groups are such a pivotal part of our business,” she said. “You have to gauge their feedback.”
Congratulations, Catherine! Italian Vistas winner
Early next year, Catherine Lawless and her guest will be off to Italy on an eight-day tour with Collette. Lawless, program director in continuing education for Bradley University, won the trip when her name was drawn February 11 at the Select Traveler Conference in French Lick, Indiana. The Italian Vistas familiarization tour, February 27-March 5, includes land, round-trip air travel, taxes and surcharges from New York and most meals. Travelers will spend two nights in Rome, one night in Sorrento, two nights in Florence and one night in Venice.
Collette celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2018. The family-owned business is the longest-operating tour company in the U.S., and offers 169 tours to 59 countries.