With travel recovering rapidly from the COVID-19 pandemic, active and adventure travel has been one of the strongest sectors. Americans have started new outdoor activities like biking and hiking, which have seen exponential growth during the pandemic, and now they want to take that on the road. At the same time, many have realized that life is unpredictable and that having great travel experiences now, rather than “one day,” is important. Bucket List trips, from safaris to epic hiking trails like the Tour du Mont Blanc, have also seen jumps in bookings.
Many of the leading tour companies specializing in these types of trips are reporting record bookings, and travelers are booking large active travel trips until late 2023, a year and a half later. Active and adventurous travel is my favorite type of travel, but these trips can be expensive and require an upfront commitment, so it’s important to choose wisely. The knowledge and personalities of individual guides are key to your enjoyment, and with complex logistics, often in remote or exotic locations, you need to use an organization experienced in this type of planning and execution. Powerful networks of local contacts bring you the best, most unique and charming accommodations, the best meals along the way, and immersive and unforgettable local experiences.
With summer the prime travel time, and many Americans starting to plan their travel backs now, I’m dedicating June to spotting themes and talking with the women who run some of the best tour operators in the business. After all, the majority of travel and booking decisions are made by women, so whether you’re traveling alone, with other women, or with your spouse, friend, or partner, you may appreciate these women’s perspective on what will make your trip the best. This is the first and be sure to read the other entries as well.
Today I speak with Kathy Stewart, co-CEO of Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson, the legendary award-winning company often generally credited in the industry with inventing an entire category of high-end geared, active travel. B&R, as its loyal customers call it (they have very high frequency and travelers who trip with them annually) was founded around cycling in Europe in 1966, and in the more than half a century since then, it has expanded to include hiking, walking, e-biking and kayaking. sailing, wellness, safaris, active cruises, multi-sports and excursions. Today they cover pretty much the entire world, and their catalog has so many amazing tour options for various activities and destinations that it can be hard to peruse.
they make Travel + Leisure The World’s Best List Almost every year (more than 20 times), it has earned the coveted title as the World’s Best Tour Operator (of any kind) and countless awards from many other leading publications. They’ve been known for their local connections, the most curated accommodations and world-class guides, and having traveled with B&R I know it’s all true, it’s a seamless, complete and perfection-oriented travel experience. They offer both small, scheduled group departures for which you can book a place as one or more passengers, the same flights that individuals take for your group only, or fully customized flights. Sure, B&R is a luxury company, but if that pushes your budget, they also offer several affordable self-guided trips, which feature the same great lodging and itinerary with local support, routes, baggage, etc., but no Manual or truck following.
Stewart has been in the travel industry her whole life, starting in the mailroom before becoming a tour designer and eventually taking over. As she recalled in an interview, “I simply chose the company I dreamed of working for, got a job in the mail room, and then moved on from there.”
Q: Have you noticed a growing interest in active travel among women travelers in the past few years?
a: Our business has always been about 50/50 women and men, but we see more single women traveling than men.
Q: Have you done anything as a company to encourage or facilitate women’s travel?
a: Our focus on active travel, healthy local food, and immersive cultural experiences certainly appeal to many women, and we’ve seen more private trips with women wanting to take this kind of wellness angle wherever they go. Our group tours offer a great balance between independence and being part of a group.
Q: What trends have you seen recently or anticipate in the future in terms of types of travel or who is traveling?
a: There is a clear trend towards people traveling with friends and family and for longer periods of time. It is very common to take festive trips such as anniversaries, birthdays or graduations – especially with multi-generational families. Girlfriend groups are very popular: a great combination of hiking or biking, some yoga and a great glass of wine with friends at the end of the day. Solo travelers feel very comfortable on our group tours with guides there to make everyone feel included.
We also see our travelers delve into one aspect of the journey – nature, food, and bike paths – and our planners craft experiences around this iconic piece.
Q: What are the hot destinations now that are still going on?
a: People seem to stick with the classics now: Provence, Tuscany, Amalfi, Burgundy to name a few. The Dolomites is a very popular destination for those who want more of a challenge with hiking, e-biking and running. With e-bikes, a lot of destinations like Tuscany have opened up to people who thought hills would be too challenging. Anything by water is also popular such as Greece, Croatia and Sicily. The UK has also seen a lot of interest this year across Scotland, Cornwall and the Cotswolds.
Q: What does your company do to make travel as great as possible – what makes your company special?
a: B&R focuses on the communities we visit. We value simple and original experiences with people and places: great local food, music, art, and interaction with people. Like lunch in an olive grove with farms, or noodles at a market in Vietnam, or a local men’s choir in the Italian lakes. Since 1966, we’ve been walking and cycling all over the world and have built a network of local friends throughout those decades. We want to make the experience as personal as possible, catering to our travelers’ interests and creating memories.
Q: Do you have any advice for planning a trip or choosing a flight or destination?
a: Different destinations suit different moods. It is important to plan what you value most when traveling. Perhaps you want to wander through the villages of Provence, sipping a rose by the pool. Again you might prefer a challenge like hiking in Bhutan over ancient temples or trekking to gorillas in Rwanda. After COVID, some people prefer more urban cultural experiences that they missed. Others want wide open spaces, fewer people, and being outside (which are often prime wish-list destinations) in Patagonia, northern Greece, South Africa. Sometimes the places you’ve heard about are crowded and there are alternatives; Consider northern Croatia instead of Dubrovnik, Verona instead of Venice, and Ile de Re instead of the Cote d’Azur.
Q: Any other ideas that you think would be of use to active travelers or women?
a: Using a company like B&R ensures that your experience is as safe and seamless as possible. All hotels, restaurants, guides and events were checked and searched. All hiking and biking trails have been checked and double checked to ensure they are safe and beautiful. Our guides are fun, interesting and knowledgeable – the perfect companions for exploring the world.
Since we all make up for lost time, taking the burden of planning, logistics and safety away from travelers has really added value, even for people who don’t usually choose to travel through a company like B&R.