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If the Group Tour Fits . . .

By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page P01

When my mother suggested we take a trip to Sicily along with two of her friends, it didn't take long to decide that an escorted tour was the way to go.

Our group was admittedly older, ranging in age from 49 to 81. But between us, we had traveled to six continents within the past few years. We were all comfortable maneuvering in foreign airports and cities, and could walk all day without tiring.

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But none of us speaks Italian, and I knew from experience that Italians rarely speak English. None of us had been to Sicily, and Sicily has a reputation for being somewhat difficult to navigate. No one wanted to spend a fortune, and the dollar was dropping like a rock. We had only a week to spare, and we were not interested in poring over maps and choosing restaurants, especially with four different personalities involved. An escorted tour would resolve all these issues.

We weren't alone in making the decision to go with a group. According to the National Tour Association, a membership group that represents the packaged travel industry, North Americans spent $71 billion on group tours in 2001 and packaged trips accounted for 30 percent of all international trips. Most of those who go on escorted tours head for Europe, with Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom being the most popular countries, according to Robert E. Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association.

But tour operators are facing an uphill battle as AARP-card-carrying members of the Greatest Generation are being replaced by more finicky baby boomers, many of whom equate European tours to the movie "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," in which a group of hapless tourists visit nine European countries in 18 days.

"The word 'tour' is highly negative," said Whitley, adding that several tour operators and organizations have gone as far as taking the offending word out of their company names. "People who have never been on a tour, especially men, don't want people in charge or telling them what to do."

Whitley noted, however, that the industry is evolving. "The old image of the little old ladies with blue hair crammed into a motorcoach, up at 5 a.m., running off to a cathedral and eating rubber chicken has changed," he said. "Baby boomers have entered the equation. Ten years ago, they were not going to take tours. But now they're 55 or 60 and they're tired. They want everything done for them."

Hank Phillips, president of the National Tour Association, said special interest tours, such as cooking or wine tasting, and escorted tours that promise a unique experience, such as a theater-focused trip with post-performance backstage access, are the newest trends. "Many tour operators are offering more flexibility and more options," he said. Traditional tours are also drawing greater numbers of multigenerational travelers, such as adult children with their senior parents or grandparents and grandchildren.

Janice Kimmelman, 49, of Burke, who recently went on a Perillo Tour in Italy with her sister and mother, said, "If I was doing it with my husband, we would not do a tour. But it was great to do with my mother. It was nice having everything arranged."

New tour flavors are constantly being added to the mix. The best-known larger companies that offer general tours designed to appeal to a wide-ranging demographic -- including Globus, Collette Vacations, Trafalgar Tours and Tauck World Discovery -- are facing more competition from smaller specialized firms that cater to a specific age group, a particular interest or an out-of-the-way destination. Want to ride horseback in the English countryside? Cross Country International specializes in equestrian vacations. Don't want to travel with anyone older than 35? Contiki markets exclusively to ages 18 to 35. Want to learn more about Flemish artists or World War II battles? Smithsonian Journeys offers educational tours.

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