A reality check on tours and activities (bubble?)News / Distribution | TechnologyBy Viewpoints | May 15, 2014Share This article was originally published on It's that time again, on the heels of another big tours and activities study from Phocuswright, when the hive starts buzzing about this sector in travel.I love this time.NB: This is an opinion from Paul Bennett, co-founder of Context Travel.Activities and experiences on the ground is an exciting area with tons of opportunity.One of the reasons for this is that, unlike hotels and air, activities are connected directly with the core reason people travel—and the reason most of us get into this business - which is the love of learning, innate curiosity, desire to expand horizons, and the thirst for new and unusual experiences.When we travel, what we do on the ground is usually much more interesting than the hotel we stay in or the seat we sat in on the plane.At least, in my opinion.Caveat: I run a boutique walking tour company which pairs intellectually curious travelers with scholars and experts in cities worldwide for in-depth "walking seminars".So, I’m a little biased here.BackgroundRecently, my wife/business partner, Lani, and I returned to our roots and began traveling again - a lot. We packed up our house, moved aboard a 40-foot sailboat, and started sailing around the world.We’re once again the perpetual travelers we were when we began Context 11 years ago. It’s fun and edifying to spend so much time with our kids and to see some amazing places.But, also, professionally, it puts me squarely in the shoes of our clients. I’m a traveler now, and see the world through their eyes.I feel their pain.Being on the road (er, water) allows me to understand more clearly what the travel consumer really lacks. Here it is: access to substantial, on-the-ground info about a place.What she needs, more than anything, is a quick pass through the BS so that she can connect with the culture, history, art… whatever it is that drives that place and gives it its character quickly and directly, and not waste her time.In other words, what really makes a good trip great isn't the hotel, the restaurant, or (god forbid) the flight. It's connecting with locals who know stuff and give you a serious cultural experience.That’s what drives the travel industry and makes travel a transformative experience.But, wait a minute, don’t we have this in the form of a thousand-and-one websites that serve up travel activities?IssuesYes and no. Don’t get me wrong. I love the model of the marketplace for activities where a traveler can find a local expert in tai-chi to give them tai-chi lessons in Beijing.But, unhappily, that model has failed the venture capital test, and most of those sites have packed it up and gone home.Today, the majority of "marketplace" websites are actually just old-fashioned distribution channels for old-fashioned tour companies hawking "skip the line" Vatican tours.We know. We distribute through them.Now that I’m on the road all the time, trying to find rich, rewarding activities in a destination is one of my biggest pain points. Take my experience in Cartagena this winter: I wanted to connect with a historian from one of the local universities or research institutions who was a specialist in colonial Spanish history to give us a 3-hour walk of the old city.But, all I could find were all-day van tours that “did everything” or cruise-ship oriented emerald tours, which I suspected were mostly about selling me emeralds.Technology didn’t help, either.Web failureOne big problem, as noted by Tnooz in this article by Sean O’Neill, is that search has been compromised by advertising so that it’s impossible to connect with the little guy any more.And, unfortunately, it’s usually the little guy who has the best stuff. Try searching for "walking tour of Rome". The first page is dominated by companies that spend 25% of their revenue on paid search. It’s great if you’re looking for a “Rome in a day” tour. Not so great if you want to learn what "baroque" means in the Italian context.Agents aren’t much help either, mainly for the opposite reason: They’re using outmoded tools and relying on old-fashioned distribution channels like GTA (Travel Bound).Cartagena again. I wrote several emails to an agent who specializes in Colombia travel explaining that we were a family and that I wanted a specialist in history to do a family-focused walk of Cartagena.I went into detail about my kids and their learning styles and expressed that I wanted someone with expertise in "inquiry-based learning" to really engage them and stoke their curiosity about Cartagena, which is what they were studying while we were there.We had long email exchanges. But, in the end, I ended up on a five-hour bus tour that had us in traffic most of the time and took us to an obscure monastery outside of town. My kids were bored to death with the tour guide.Guides, of course, are a big part of the problem.Much of the world’s destinations are regulated by tour guiding laws, which tend to homogenize the travel experience and reduce it to the lowest common denominator.I find very few consumers actually want a "tour guide" in the old-fashioned sense, much preferring to connect with a knowledgeable expert in an unscripted situation. But, that the drive towards legalizing information and restricting speech runs counter to this, making the whole experience of "experiences" ever trickier for the traveler.So, what’s the solution?That reality checkFor one, the industry needs to remember in what it trades. We’re not hawking products, we’re crafting experiences. Each traveler has her own needs and expectations.Our challenge is to understand those, and then to have at the ready solutions for satisfying them. Yes, this is a human activity, though algorithms can help.The biggest issues facing activities and experiences are the barriers that have been erected either purposefully (guiding regulations) or by market forces (the declining usefulness of search).In both cases the result is that we make it very hard - often impossible - for the traveler to satisfy her needs or get her expectations met.We put her on a bus with a tour guide reciting a script, when in fact what she wanted was to meet a historian and ask the questions that have been collecting in her mind as she explores this new place.As a result, we’re actually constraining and limiting the world, rather than offering expanding possibilities.It’s been 13 years since I was last a perpetual traveler. Much has changed for the better. (I’m writing this and sending it off via satellite phone from the middle of the South Pacfic.)But, some has not. Parodoxically, it’s harder than ever to find a great experience of place.NB: This is an opinion from Paul Bennett, co-founder of Context Travel.NB2:Balloon tour image via Shutterstock.