Genesis of a river cruise
It's high noon in New Delhi at the tail end of the monsoon season, and it's difficult not to be distracted by the mounting heat as we tour Humayun's Tomb. Our still-jet-lagged group is trying -- and admittedly largely failing -- to stay tuned in to the explanation of the historical and architectural significance of the site when I hear a Polish-accented voice ask our tour guide with total focus, "And how many steps are there?"
I glanced over to see Wanda Kowalczyk, vice president of product development at Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, taking notes on a red clipboard that would be her constant companion during much of the two weeks we traveled through India as part of a scouting trip hosted by Haimark Ltd.
Kowalczyk noted every little factoid about the destination, from descriptions of the monuments to the hotel amenities to, yes, even the exact number of steps that must be climbed to reach certain sites -- steps Uniworld's clients will have to climb if the company decides to introduce an India itinerary in partnership with Haimark.
Wesley Bosnic, senior vice president of strategic development at Uniworld, explained, "We have to keep in mind the profile of our guests. The expectation from our guests is that they trust Uniworld; they trust the brand."
Bosnic was traveling with Kowalczyk on a two-week preview trip that would help Uniworld and several other potential partners decide whether to charter a Ganges River ship that Haimark will launch in 2015 and develop a corresponding India itinerary.
"Obviously," Kowalczyk chimed in during our interview onboard a train from Jaipur to Agra toward the end of our journey, "the services are very important: the hotels ... transportation, quality of the guides. We need guides who tell a story. You look to have some Unesco [World Heritage] sites, great museums, as well. And to have fun!"
After years of destination reconnaissance, product development teams like Kowalczyk and Bosnic know exactly what they're looking for. Having pored over guest feedback, they have learned what their customers want -- and what they definitely do not want -- from a vacation, and they factor that into every decision they make about creating and building itineraries.
Depending on the company, the process can be extremely refined, a precise checklist that product development staff take with them to determine if a new destination or itinerary is fit for their travelers. Or it can be a bit more fluid and intuitive, with looser parameters.
But what struck me most as I got a rare glimpse behind the curtain of the product development methodology (normally companies only want to have the media see the complete and polished package) is just how much effort and emotion go into vetting itineraries, an exercise that rarely gets much exposure due to its very behind-the-scenes nature.
Deciding on new destinations
The very first step in product development is determining which destinations are worth the time and energy to scout out. Operators take their inspiration from myriad reference points.
Pam Hoffee, vice president of product and operations for the Globus family of brands, wrote in an email: "New destinations or itineraries start from many sources: trade requests, consumer media coverage, customer suggestions, tour director suggestions, etc. Once they are agreed upon, our product team starts the process of vetting the itinerary and turning an idea into a vacation. We start with a lot of online research, talking to tourist boards, hotels and cool attractions in the region, to start to understand what there is to see and do."
Not surprisingly, many operators rely on "people on the ground" -- operators, guides and destination marketing organizations -- to tip them off to interesting new destinations, sites and attractions.
Haimark is building its business on discovering new and emerging markets in which to develop product with its river cruise vessels, then partnering with larger tour operators to sell it. In essence, Haimark actually pre-vets emerging destinations for larger tour operators and serves as a bridge between the operators and the destinations.
Haimark Managing Partner Tom Markwell said the company has to address a host of questions and concerns before it decides to invest in a destination and sell it to potential partners.
"First of all, what's the airlift like?" Markwell said. "How easy is it to get in and out of this place? If it's not easy to get there, you're already reducing a large number of passengers. Then, is there life along the river? Is it overly touristic? Are there authentic experiences, or are they going to see just sand banks? That's a large part of validating whether a river cruise is justifiable. If there's no life, architecture, people-to-people experiences, it's not going to work."
Scouting new destinations, of course, depends a lot on which demographic the company is targeting: their age, physical ability, budget, discerning tastes, level of adventurousness. Those and numerous other qualifiers are all integral to deciding where and what to explore.
For companies that have built their business on going farther off the beaten path than their competitors, scouting new destinations means getting innovative.
"We spend a lot of time researching different destinations and finding out which is the next one," said Scott Avera, vice president of product development at General Tours World Traveler.
General Tours has built its legacy on taking travelers to countries that are off the mainstream travel market's radar. For one thing, the company keeps an eye on new destinations for the European source market, because, Avera said, Europeans tend to venture into emerging destinations before U.S. travelers do.
Another thing that tips off the General Tours team to emerging destinations are places that clients book through the tour operator's custom travel department.
"Those people tend to want to be in those destinations first," Avera said. When the company detects a critical mass of custom tours being booked in a new destination, he said, it's usually a good sign that it's time to look into developing a brochure product for it.
General Tours President Bob Drumm recently scouted Sri Lanka as a potential emerging market, and consequently the company is introducing the destination for 2014.
When it comes to new destinations, almost no place is off limits for adventure tour operator G Adventures, which already sends clients to 110 countries around the globe. Finding new places to sell means continually pushing the envelope.
"Our customers, they can be a bit hard-core," said Jeff Russill, vice president of innovation at G Adventures, which just introduced the Philippines and Sierra Leone to its product mix.
Whether or not G Adventures will scope out a new destination isn't dependent on the airlift or the hotel infrastructure.
"No. 1 is safety," Russill said. "We're an adventure travel company, so we have to be even more on guard than anybody else. That's the cost of entry for us; that's table stakes."
Asked if some destinations in the world simply aren't compelling enough to check out, Russill responded, "Every country has something that's going to interest someone."
Once it has been decided that a destination is worth exploring, out comes the checklist, however formal or informal it might be, to determine which elements of the itinerary will stay and which will go, as well as if and when the itinerary gets developed, contracted, marketed and, hopefully, sold.
"That guide will not be taking Uniworld clients around," Kowalczyk whispered to me about a tour leader in India who had rubbed a few of us the wrong way with some curt comments and flippant remarks. Kowalczyk's spot decision about a potential supplier is indicative of the observations made on the road that inform contract decisions further down the line.
Uniworld serves a high-end clientele, so it has set the barometer for service and amenities on its European river cruises rather high. As the company seeks new and emerging destinations to enter, it has to be sure it can maintain brand consistency with its European product.
Not surprisingly, before all the other elements are assembled, Uniworld first has to be sure there's a suitable vessel for its passengers in any new destination.
Asked what first entices him and Kowalczyk to scout out a new destination, Bosnic said, "It is the hardware. And when I say it's the hardware, it's the experience onboard. We want to make sure that the onboard experience is as close as possible to [our European experience]. Whatever we do, we want to be confident that we are doing the very best in the destination."
Working with third parties in destinations outside Europe means that Uniworld has to go in and make sure that, on the ship and off, its standards are upheld.
Markwell, who is working to sell exotic product in places like and Cambodia to upscale partners like Uniworld, observed that different partners have different priorities. Some, for example, want to be sure there is Western food available, while other companies push for more local cuisine.
He is also sure to communicate that certain things that might be expected in established markets just aren't going to be available farther afield. For example, he said, river cruise ships in India and Southeast Asia just can't offer dry cleaning or direct-dial phones. Part of the product development process, he said, simply comes down to managing expectations.
Good guide, good food
Perhaps one of the destination must-haves most consistently emphasized by product development teams is a knowledgeable and personable guide, one who will sell the destination and the experience and, most importantly, make it a memorable trip.
"A definite no is if there's not a good guide in that area," Avera said, echoing a sentiment that has practically become an industry-wide maxim. "Without a great guide, packaged travel just doesn't work."
In Avera's case, that condition tops the criteria of a company that seems willing to go almost anywhere in the world.
On the other hand, niche travel companies that cater to adventure-seeking customers are less concerned about the destination's tourism infrastructure (they've found ways around that) than they are about good guides and safety conditions.
In order to go into less-developed regions of the world, they often simply create their own infrastructure.
G Adventures, for example, will do home stays or set up campsites in areas where hotels are not sufficient. And in West Africa, the company uses its 150-passenger vessel, the Expedition, which sails from South Africa to Morocco, to provide an alternative to the minimal land accommodations available in that part of the world.
But even more rugged travelers have their standards. Russill noted that no matter how rudimentary the accommodations, it's important to most G Adventures customers that the accommodations be clean. WiFi availability is also becoming increasingly important as travelers of all ages and backgrounds become more attached to their mobile devices and social networks.
Food presents another interesting challenge. Bringing people to remote corners of the world means not having full control of the quality and sanitary condition of the food being served or of the hygiene of all the staff who participate in its preparation, which could result in travelers getting ill.
In areas where the tour operator can't be confident about the restaurants or dining options generally available, General Tours has been forced to get creative and have a local expat host guests for a meal at his or her home.
For its part, G Adventures relies on those trusted, all-important guides to steer travelers toward local eateries and away from touristic restaurants in order to avoid food-borne illnesses.
"Most Westernized restaurants in far-out countries, those are the ones that you're going to get sick at," Russill said. "Eat where it's busy with locals, because then it's freshly made."
Clearly, General Tours' and G Adventures' travelers are cut from a different cloth than clients of a more mainstream or upscale tour operator would be. While an adventure operator's product development team might be scoping out a roadside eatery in Yunnan province, product development managers at a more traditional upscale brand might be comparing tasting menus at five-star resorts in Marrakech.
But no matter what kind of traveler they're serving, the goal is the same: to create and build an itinerary that delivers customer satisfaction.
From approval to print
One of my favorite anecdotes from traveling through India with Uniworld's Kowalczyk and Bosnic came after a hair-rising rickshaw ride through the packed streets of Varanasi, en route to the Ganges River bank to witness the evening's spiritual ceremony.
As we descended from our carriages, half terrified and half exhilarated at having survived the utter havoc of the holy city, Kowalczyk told me of a similar white-knuckled ride they experienced on rickshaws when scouting out Hanoi for Uniworld's Mekong River cruise.
Back then, Kowalczyk concluded that such rides would be a bit too much excitement for Uniworld guests. But Bosnic countered, "They're going to love it!"
"And he was right," Kowalczyk admitted. "They love it."
Reconnoitering a destination and deciding whether or not it will make a good packaged travel product for consumers is only one piece in the process of creating a successful itinerary.
After concluding the trip in India, Kowalczyk and Bosnic said they would head back to Uniworld's headquarters in Encino, Calif., to prepare a presentation for the rest of the company.
"We enjoyed [the India product]," Bosnic said. "It's great, but what type of commitment? What kind of volume? All of that requires a little more research."
Having ventured out and experienced the product themselves, it seems only natural that product development teams would get a bit emotional about the destinations they have visited. But they also realize that just because they enjoyed certain places doesn't always mean those destinations would work for their clients.
I asked if Bosnic and Kowalczyk had ever been disappointed by a decision the company made not to create product for a destination they felt had potential. Bosnic immediately threw out Myanmar.
"We really liked Myanmar," he said. "We thought it was a destination that was different enough from Vietnam and Cambodia. But the shareholders felt that it's still a little early to get in there."
Once they've done the reconnaissance, product development teams hand over their research to other tour departments, which do additional research to decide if it can become a viable, sellable product. If they decide to move forward, the process moves on to pricing, marketing and selling the new itinerary.
"The product manager creates the itinerary and hands it off, along with some notes of hotels they'd like to see in the mix," Globus' Hoffee said. "We have a separate contracting team who then source the hotels and other vendors to bring the vacation to life."
The product development team members represent the front line, and their job is only the beginning of a much longer process than sometimes can take several years to complete.
But their very existence on the payroll at any tour or river cruise operation is a testament to how hands-on the product-building process is. While an operator could probably build a rudimentary itinerary with a few phone calls and email queries to some suppliers, there would be no guarantee that those suppliers or the destination itself would actually deliver. Firsthand immersion is really the only way to find out.
As we traveled through India, we heard stories about bygone emperors' food tasters, whose job it was to test the meal for assassination-by-poison by putting their own lives on the line. It struck me that product development teams are a bit like food tasters. While a negative outcome is far less extreme, it falls to them to test every bit of the product for safety and viability before it gets consumed by travellers.