|By Kim Brown Seely,
Two years ago retired police chief Bill MacKenzie took his wife to Costa Rica. He planned the entire trip—lodges, guides, boats, and bird walks—through e-mail exchanges with Costa Rica Expeditions, a local operator that, until recently, landed the bulk of its business through U.S.-based travel agents and adventure-travel companies.
"My wife had a friend who had been there several times and put us directly in touch with the company," says MacKenzie, adding that he was convinced the local outfitter would do a great job as soon as he'd exchanged a few messages with them.
Until recently, the majority of American travelers headed to offbeat destinations (or looking for more customized experiences in mainstream destinations such as France or Spain), did one of two things. They either contacted a travel agent who found them a local outfitter, or they booked through a nationally known tour operator such as Illinois-based Abercrombie & Kent or Alabama-based International Expeditions. In turn, large tour companies often subcontract business to local in-country operators, called "on-sites" in the industry lingo. The very same on-site guides might wear the logo shirts of one travel outfitter one day, and those of another on the next day, depending on who is paying them.
But the Web has made it easier for consumers and local tour operators to find each other. Patagonia Calling, an established Argentine travel agency and tour operator, recently launched a consumer website directed at North American travelers. "We've always known Patagonia inside and out, and now people have a way to find us," says Patagonia Calling general manager Emma Fontanet. Virginia Irurita, founder of Made for Spain, a Madrid-based company that arranges high-end custom trips, notes that while 95 percent of her business came through travel agents in 2001, 14 percent of it is now direct. "Every day the numbers increase," she says. "Some people don't want to travel in a group—they want their own trip, tailored just for them. They find our website, see we're easy to reach, and feel comfortable when they realize we speak English."
"There used to be no way to find these specialized outfitters," says Costa Rica Expeditions founder Michael Kaye. "So, the bigger companies found them for you." Kaye, too, has seen his direct bookings increase. "Go back 18 years and independent travelers were a tiny part of our business, not even worth keeping track of. Now about 34 percent of our clients come to us that way."
While it's far easier now to connect with local operators in distant places, there are still advantages to working with tour companies based in the U.S. or Canada. For one thing, consumers know exactly what they are getting and with whom they are dealing. There's a sense of security in booking a trip with the likes of Butterfield & Robinson or Backroads, companies with years of experience and excellent reputations. You know what size group to expect and whether the focus of your trip will be luxury or natural history. You know that certain standards will be met regarding the accommodations, services, and guides. Should something go wrong, there's a toll-free number.
Perhaps most important, North American tour operators do much of the work for you. Even if you're adept at booking flights and hotels, there's a big difference between planning a trip to Barbados and a trip to, say, Bhutan. Going with a nationally known operator is like one-stop shopping: Most tour companies offer trips on specific dates and spell out exactly what's included, at a set price per person (including international fees). They may even book your flights for you. "Time is such a key factor," says Kurt Kutay, founder of Wildland Adventures, a Seattle-based company specializing in active and cultural travel. "With limited amounts of vacation time people want to maximize their experiences." And when they are spending large amounts of money (high-end tours can average $300 to $500 a day per person), many travelers will go with a name and reputation they trust.
What's the best option, then, for travelers? It really boils down to how much hand-holding you need. If you don't mind doing more legwork and taking on more risk, and are comfortable communicating with your operator by e-mail, you can put together a custom trip that allows you to go exactly where you want, when you want. "We'll e-mail back and forth maybe 10 or 15 times," says MacKenzie, who has since returned to Costa Rica and explored Nicaragua with Costa Rica Expeditions, and is now planning a trip to Guatemala. "Each time I start by sending dates and a budget; they suggest an itinerary and we modify and adjust. The actual trip runs like clockwork."
Keep in mind that booking directly won't necessarily save you money. Ground operators don't want to undercut the North American tour operators, whose business they rely on. But for some travelers, money isn't the issue, it's getting exactly what you want, when you want it. As Rozanne Silverwood of Reston, Va., says of her family's recent two weeks with local operator Made for Spain: "It was a dream trip in every way. Our guides were superb, and drivers made the experience a vacation rather than a headache. They even managed to engage our three teenage daughters in the local culture—now that's really saying something."