Updated: Jul 7
A post-pandemic travel trend appears to be emerging. What was previously a fairly niche product from the UK travel industry's perspective is fast becoming a core offering for both specialist and mainstream tour operators. Are we witnessing the beginning of the Self Guided Revolution?
First of all, a bit of context...
A number of years ago, I came across the term self-guided while I was running a tour operating business. At first I wasn't really sure what it was all about and I probably ignored it for a while thinking that somehow it didn't apply to me or my company. The tour operator I owned at that time had a brand which specialised in walking and trekking holidays.
I started to hear the term mentioned more and more and I probably only really started to understand it after travelling to Turkey on a walking trip which involved several days of guiding ourselves using notes and route maps which had been provided by the local travel provider. The notes that this particular provider gave us were fairly basic and comprised of a few basic directions with photographs and maps of places/landmarks to look out for. In this particular case the provider of the notes had previously walked the route and provided helpful blobs of red paint from time to time on trees, rocks, gates etc as a way of drawing attention to places where it would be easy to go wrong and take a wrong turn.
Having been an organiser of group travel for so many years I probably didn't pay sufficient attention to this type of tour initially, mainly because I was much more familiar with both the organisation of and the benefits of small group travel. However I did begin to notice that a number of travel companies such as Macs Adventure, Inn Travel, Exodus Travel, KE Adventure and others were adding more and more self-guided holidays to their range, with some specialising only in self-guided (and these companies were becoming increasingly successful).
For some reason I still failed to fully embrace the change that was happening and felt that it was probably just a small niche and that guided group holidays would always be more popular.
The post-Covid accelerator
Fast forward to the Covid-19 pandemic when all travel companies faced the most challenging time ever experienced in our industry. Over the two years of 2020 and 2021 the world pretty much stopped travelling, but from time to time - where there were gaps in the pandemic and where restrictions were lowered or where the number of Covid cases seemed to be on the way down - it became evident that group travel was going to take longer to recover than FIT, tailor-made or self-guided travel.
I became increasingly aware that while group tour and cruise companies were suffering from lack of demand and finding it extremely difficult to start operating again, the travel firms offering self-guided trips were able to continue to operate throughout much of 2021 and were experiencing a remarkable upturn in clients travelling as early as April 2022.
A spring of two halves?
I travelled to Egypt and Portugal in early 2022, just as as travel was beginning to take off again and I experienced two very contrasting sides of the travel industry. One was with a Nile Cruise operator who had high operating costs requiring as many people in a group as possible to cover fixed costs. The second was a self-guided specialist DMC - and one who I believe are world class in terms of how they organise self-guided holidays.
The company - called Portugal Green Walks - is based in a small town called Ponte de Lima, just north of Porto in Northern Portugal. The attention to detail and professional approach to creating all of the necessary information to operate a self-guided holiday was the best I have ever seen. The company spends at least two years researching each walking or cycling route, going through a painstaking process of walking and noting all parts of the route, taking photographs, GPS settings and elevations, recording walking distances and times, creating maps etc. Then, having written a first draught of all the research done, the route is then tested by colleagues, friends and potential clients who then provide feedback to make sure that it is nigh on impossible to get lost when following the walking route notes. Only then is the route and 'Roadbook' finalised and published.
PGW's extraordinary 'Roadbook'
So as well as this extensive route research, Portugal Green Walks then goes on to produce comprehensive notes for each route in a bound booklet which is personalised for every single customer. This 'roadbook' is just phenomenal - it is personalised and bound for every client and covers all aspects of the trip such as a code of conduct for walkers, advice on clothing and equipment, safety advice and various other practical types of advice. There's a section on local language, phrases, numbers etc; a section on useful contacts and a full, day by day, hour by hour and kilometre by kilometre itinerary and directions, comprehensive maps (with each route marked), places to see, details of local accommodation, tips on getting to and from trains/buses, an elevation cross-section for each walk and then a handy section for making your own notes at the end. It is quite extraordinary.
And all sections of the routes are fed into a system so that packages or modules of walking routes can be created according to the needs of the operators and their clients.
Pre-planning for self-guided trips paying off
I'm very pleased to report that the hard work, organisation and detailed processes absolutely pay off in the end. The company is able to provide a first class service to several tour operators and hundreds of customers who choose to go walking and cycling in Northern Portugal. This service is also backed up by real dedication, passion as well as specialisation and laser-like focus on the region of Northern Portugal.
I travelled through the region with the owners of Portugal Green Walks with a small group of UK tour operators who also came to the conclusion that self-guided holidays were the way forward - especially now after the pandemic where: a) people were sometimes more nervous about travelling in groups and b) it was much easier for tour operators to organise without the risk of trips being cancelled if group sizes fell below the number required. Some tour operators have been finding it increasingly hard to reach minimum operating numbers in order to run groups. It gradually dawned on all of us - a kind of epiphany - that perhaps we were in the midst of a quiet revolution.
Demand for self-guided trips 'exploding'
Like any revolution, it had begun as a movement some years before, but it was now in full swing. The week we arrived, in April 2022 (just fractionally after the feeling that the pandemic was now behind us), there were over 400 other clients in Northern Portugal with Portugal Green Walks. Fuelled by a hunger for travel caused by the pandemic, clients were travelling in droves but not in groups. They wanted control of the company they were in and they wanted to approach their chosen route in their own time - either on foot or by bicycle.
The outbound travel market is very buoyant at the moment and airports are busier than they have been in years - but group travel is still lagging behind. As an example, Exodus Travel, which is the UK's largest outbound tour operator, reported 'an explosion of demand' for self-guided trips following the pandemic - article here. Any tour operator that is keen to find products that are easy to sell and which don't require the organisational input and financial risk associated with running group trips should take a close look at the opportunity here.
When I returned to the UK from Portugal I started to ask more of our DMC clients about this. We have many clients who are travel providers all around the world and I soon realised that many of them had already discovered that the self-guided style of travel was becoming increasingly popular. Some had attempted to provide self-guided holidays and others were aware but were not sure how to go about this.
I also started to notice reports and news articles about self-guided holidays, became aware of the number of Apps that now exist for self-guided and I even checked out the pre-pandemic profitability of several self-guided specialists at Companies House - impressive indeed. The more I looked and researched and the more I talked to people (consumers and trade), the more I felt that this silent revolution was already well underway.
Providers of self guided holidays are extremely busy with bookings at the moment and I would encourage more tour operators to try this approach if they have not already done so. If it is done well the quality can be just as good and generate just as much (if not more) loyalty than group holidays.
Still in doubt?
Doubting tour operators may have concerns and questions such as those listed below so please email or call me if you'd like answers in confidence:
1. What information is needed to provide sufficient information to offer self-guided trips?
2. I already have a DMC in X destination - can I ask them to provide the relevant information?
3. What if my clients get lost?
4. What if my clients prefer travelling as a group
5. What if there is an accident and there is no leader available to help to rescue or evacuate clients affected?
6. How do I find a reliable DMC for self-guided holidays?
7. I am a DMC - what do I need to do to start creating self-guided holidays?
What to do next
Join our webinar 'The Self Guided Revolution' on Wed 27 July - registration will be open here from Friday 01 July: https://www.theadventureconnection.com/event-details/the-self-guided-revolution-webinar
For further information
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to know more.
Blog written by Mark Wright
Founder of The Adventure Connection
29 June 2022
Special thanks to José and Paulo from Portugal Green Walks for their incredible attention to detail in running one of the best Fam Trips I have ever experienced.