First, a big congratulations to Chris Torres for his company TMA winning a 2022 Skift Idea Award for his support of operators during the darkest days of the pandemic. Chris, Peter and myself will be at Skift's Global Forum in New York City to celebrate, if any of you will be there (and congratulations to the other great winners!)
Yesterday in our Facebook Group I wrote a post about nostalgia for the experience of travel 20 years ago. It struck a chord with many Tourpreneurs, so I'm sharing it here.
I was inspired by an article I read about a trend towards "random travel" in Japan—booking a trip to somewhere you don't know you're going.
Living in today's glut of reviews and photographs about everything we see and do, many of us are feeling nostalgic for the feel of pre-internet travel. For me, it's personal, as it's how I started out on the road to tour operating.
20 years ago I was a college student in Paris. I started working as a local guide, then a tour manager across Europe, and then I started creating and offering my own multi-day trips around Europe. My audience was very niche: American students wanting a European adventure but a little intimidated to figure it all out by themselves.
So I'd put together trips in the summer. To call me a tour operator would be an overstatement... I'd require my customers buy a Eurail pass which granted unlimited European train travel for a certain period, and then tell them to show up in Paris. What happened next was completely unknown to them.
All they had was a return flight from Paris. They didn't know where they were going in between. I didn't even know. We'd show up at the train station, and take whatever was the next departing night train. Could be Barcelona, could be Berlin.
Arriving in a new city, we'd find lodging somehow. We'd walk to a nearby hostel, or meet the moms and grandmas lined up at the bus station hawking the rooms of their children who were off studying at university. I remember one time I got to a woman's apartment in Lisbon, and realized I looked exactly like her son, whose photo was everywhere. She called me his name all breakfast long.
We'd have all sorts of problems on those trips. One night we all had to sleep in the train station because a festival was going on and there were zero rooms available. A man saw us the next morning and bought us all beers for breakfast. Whatever happened, as the tour operator I was comforted knowing I couldn't be reviewed if they tried (TripAdvisor existed but my customers had certainly never heard of it). And there was a sense that "good" or "bad" weren't the right categories, this was about a memorable shared experience.
I have such a nostalgia for those trips. The internet as we know it today didn't exist. There were no review sites and Instagram to fill us with expectations. The important thing was experiencing difference and novelty and surprise and serendipity, not "doing" a city.
If you're of a certain age, you probably have memories of messy, serendipitous trips like this. This kind of traveling is needed more than ever today. It's almost countercultural now to propose that travel is not about expectation fulfillment but rather a human's core need to delight in surprise and novelty and, well, experience.
Alas, it's 2022, and in the age of Instagram and Google reviews, the businesses we run can't seemingly afford to be so risky. There are some companies that run complete "mystery tours" where the traveler doesn't know what they're doing, but the operator does. I think there are many small ways that we can all still find to make the world stranger and more wonderful than our customers could ever predict.