As travel quickly rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the strongest sectors has been active and adventure travel. Americans took up new outdoor activities such as cycling and hiking, which saw massive growth during the pandemic, and now they want to take that on the road. At the same time, many realized that life is unpredictable and having great travel experiences now, not “someday,” is important. The more “Bucket List” type trips, from safaris to epic hiking routes like the Tour du Mont Blanc, have also seen jumps in bookings.
Many of the leading tour companies specializing in these kinds of trips are reporting record reservations, and travelers are booking big active and travel trips into late 2023, a year and a half out. Active and adventure travel is my favorite kind of travel, but these trips can be expensive and require advance commitment, so it is important to choose wisely. The knowledge and personalities of the individual guides is key to your enjoyment, and with complex logistics, often in far-flung or exotic locales, you need to use an organization with expertise in this kind of planning and execution. Strong networks of local contacts get you the best, most unique or most charming accommodations, the best meals along the way and memorable local immersive experiences.
Since summer is prime vacation travel time and many Americans are starting to plan their return to travel right now, I’m devoting June to profiling and speaking with the women who run some of the best tour operators in the business. After all, the majority of travel decisions and bookings are made by women, so whether you are traveling solo, with other women, or with your husband, boyfriend or partner, you might appreciate the perspective these women have about what will make your trip the best. This is the first and make sure to read the other entries as well.
Today I chat with Kathy Stewart, co-CEO of Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson, a legendary and oft-awarded company generally credited in the industry with inventing the entire category of upscale guided active travel. B&R, as its loyal customers call it (they enjoy very high repeat rates and travelers who take trips with them annually) was founded around cycling in Europe in 1966, and in the more than half-century since, has expanded to hiking, walking, e-biking, paddling, sailing, wellness, safaris, active cruises, multi-sport and expedition trips. Today they cover pretty much the entire world, and their catalog has so many stunning trip options of various activities and destinations it can be overwhelming to peruse.
They make Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best list almost every year (20+ times), have taken the coveted title of World’s #1 Best Tour Operator (of any kind) and countless awards from many other leading publications. They are famed for local connections, the most curated accommodations and world-class guides, and having traveled with B&R, I know all of this is true, it’s a seamless, complete, and perfection-oriented travel experience. They offer both scheduled small group departures on which you can book a slot as one or more travelers, the same trips as privates just for your group, or totally bespoke trips. B&R is definitely a luxury company, but if that pushes your budget, they also offer several more affordable self-guided trips, featuring the same great lodging and itinerary with local support, routes, luggage moved for you and such, but no guide or van following.
Stewart has been in the travel business her entire life and started in the mailroom before becoming a Trip Designer and eventually taking the reins. As she recalled in an interview, “I simply picked the company that I dreamed of working for, got a job in the mailroom, and moved up from there.”
Q: Have you seen an increased 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 do see more single women travellers than men.
Q: Have you done anything as a company to encourage or facilitate travel by women?
A: Our emphasis on active travel, healthy local food and immersive cultural experiences definitely appeals to a lot of women, and we’ve seen more private trips with women wanting to take this sort of wellness angle wherever they go. Our group trips provide a great balance between independence and being part of a group.
Q: What trends have you been seen recently or expect for the future in terms of types of travel or who is traveling?
A: There is a definite trend towards people travelling with friends and family and for longer periods of time. It is very common to have celebration trips like anniversaries, milestone birthdays, or graduations – especially with multi-generational families. Groups of girlfriends is very popular: a great mix of hiking or biking, some yoga and a great glass of wine with friends at the end of the day. Solo travellers feel very comfortable on our group trips with the guides there to make everyone feel included.
We’re also seeing our travellers dig into one aspect of the trip – the nature, the food, the bike routes – and our planners are crafting experiences around that special piece.
Q: What destinations are hot right now and going forward?
A: People seem to be sticking with the classics right now: Provence, Tuscany, Amalfi, and Burgundy to name a few. The Dolomites is an extremely popular destination for those who want more of a challenge with hiking, e-biking and trail running. With e-bikes, a lot of destinations like Tuscany have opened up to people who thought the hills would be too hard. Anything by water is also popular like Greece, Croatia, Sicily. The UK has also seen a lot of interest this year throughout Scotland, Cornwall and the Cotswolds.
Q: What does your company do to make travel as great as it can be – what makes your company special?
A: B&R focuses on the communities we are visiting. We value simple but authentic experiences with people and places: great local food, music, art, and interaction with people. Like lunch in an olive grove with the farmer, noodles in the market in Vietnam, or a local men’s choir in the Italian Lakes. Since 1966 we have been walking and biking around the world and have built up a network of local friends throughout those decades. We want to make the experience as personal as possible, catering to the interests of our travellers and creating memories.
Q: Do you have any advice for planning a trip or picking a trip or destination?
A: Different destinations suit different moods. Planning around what you value most when you travel is important. Maybe you want to meander through the villages of Provence, sipping rosé by the pool. Another time you may prefer a challenge like hiking in Bhutan to ancient temples or trekking to the gorillas in Rwanda. Post-COVID, some people prefer more urban cultural experiences that they have missed. Others want wide open spaces, fewer people and being outside (which are often major wish-list destinations) in Patagonia, Northern Greece, South Africa. Sometimes the places you have heard of are crowded and there are alternatives; consider Northern Croatia instead of Dubrovnik, Verona instead of Venice, the Ile de Ré instead of the Cote d’Azur.
Q: Any other thoughts that you think would be of interest to active travelers or women travelers?
A: Using a company like B&R ensures that your experience will be as safe and seamless as possible. The hotels, restaurants, guides and events have all been vetted and researched. The walking and biking routes have all been checked and double checked to ensure that they are safe and beautiful. Our guides are fun, interesting and knowledgeable – the perfect companions for exploring the world.
As we’re all making up for lost time, taking the burden of planning, logistics, and safety away from travellers has really added value, even for people who normally don’t choose to travel through a company like B&R.