“There would be no such thing as a hidden gem if it wasn’t hidden.” – Cari Gray, owner Gray & Co.
Travel is always changing in terms of emerging destinations, complexities, logistics, technologies and trends, but there has been no more significant change agent in our lifetimes than the COVID-19 pandemic.
What will travel look like next year, the year after that, and for years down the road? What has changed in how consumers travel and what they want when they do? What choices can we make to ensure smoother, safer trips and peace of mind when traveling, right now and down the road?
Active travel had been growing for years before COVID-19, but this trend was accelerated in the pandemic, and now it has become one of the hottest categories of all travel. But as it has grown, active travel has also increasingly broadened and morphed into other areas of travel, as the top companies have expanded their offerings and expertise beyond classic hiking and biking trips and into everything from safaris to culinary focuses. To a large degree, the best specialists in active travel have become the best specialists in travel, and many of the trends and tips overlap. Today we are going to take a deep dive into both realms, so buckle up!
Studies show a substantial increase in outdoor recreation participation and fitness activities among American since the pandemic, and more than 60% of those who took up new activities in this surge say they intend to keep doing them afterwards. This growth spans just about every outdoor activity, but has been led by large increases in running, cycling and hiking, and is reflected in travel choices. Bookings for the biggest companies in the field suggest the interest is only going to keep growing in the future, and top active travel tour operators are adding trips and departures at breakneck pace as they experience record bookings for later this year and next.
I love these kinds of trips, because they combine all the things that are great about a “regular” vacation with exercise, health and fresh air, in the most beautiful and desirable tourism destinations on earth. There is also a feeling of accomplishment that comes from actually doing something physical, and while the food in Italy is always fantastic, that gelato after dinner tastes even sweeter when you know you burned the calories it contains. From a practical perspective, many of the world’s great destinations, from Tuscany to Ireland to Incan ruins, are better observed at a slower pace and from ground level, in the immersive way that only walking or cycling allows for. Much of the wonder of the most wonderful places is simply lost on those who view it from a window, no matter how good the guide or tour operator.
Speaking of good tour operators, when it comes to active travel, one player rules the luxury end of the category, and today I have the pleasure of sharing her expert insights. In this moment surrounding the Winter Olympics and Super Bowl we are constantly reminded just how hard it is to be number one, how many compete and how few can take home the gold. In active travel that champion is Gray & Co., a luxury tour operator that offers no set trips, no group trips and no scheduled departures. All they do is craft one-of-a-kind bespoke trips carefully curated around their clients’ preferences, tastes, lodging and travel styles, and preferred activities, all in the best places on earth. Today, founder Cari Gray is sharing her insights and advice with my Forbes audience.
I have had the good fortune to have traveled around the globe with many of the top tier luxury active travel tour operators, and I’ve had the privilege to have traveled with Gray & Co. I can say from firsthand experience that there are a lot of excellent options in this field offering amazing trips (Butterfield & Robinson, Backroads, DuVine, Tourissimo, Trek Travel, Dolomite Mountains, Micato Safaris, National Geographic Expeditions, Mountain Travel Sobek, and others), but Gray & Co. deserves the many accolades the company has earned in the past few years, not the least of which is being named Number One, the World’s Best Tour Operator, by Travel & Leisure magazine. Just to be clear, that is not the world’s best active travel tour operator, it is for any kind of travel, against the biggest names in trips of every ilk.
Because you might not know how well-informed I am on this topic (very), it’s worth noting that I am not the only one who thinks highly of Cari Gray and her company, nor is Travel & Leisure, which has had her on its Best List year after year. To give you an idea of the company’s position in the travel industry, and where the following advice comes from, here is just a smattering of recent press – before we get onto the good stuff.
Travel & Leisure: Number One Tour Operator in the World, scoring 98.14 out of possible 100. Conde Nast Traveler: Best Travel Specialists in the World 2021, 2020, 2019. Financial Times: “Cari Gray is the go-to woman for a truly bespoke cycling trip,” and “All her bespoke trips feature carbon-fiber bikes, support vehicles, mechanics, and high guide-to-guest ratios. And if there’s one thing Gray also always gets right, it’s the hotels.” Outside Magazine: “catering to the world’s most discerning travelers…the guest-to-guide ratio is two to one…over-the-top itineraries span the globe.” Robb Report: “Each Gray & Co. journey is custom designed, with no set calendar of departures, no catalogs, and no group trips with strangers. Itineraries are born out of personal interviews conducted by Gray, allowing her to weave client’s passions – from bird-watching and fishing to whisky and wine – into each day’s activities.” American Airlines Celebrated Living: “The highest of high-end tour operators, Gray & Co takes a completely different tact with its operations and philosophy, offering only completely bespoke trips…Its clientele includes A-list international entertainers, CEOS of Forbes 500 and Fortune 1000 companies, and at least one frequent repeat cycling billionaire. And “a ‘no margin for error’ philosophy that puts guest satisfaction above all else.”
Q: Do you think the pandemic caused long term changes in the way people will want to travel?
A: Yes, but in many different ways. For some, it confirmed they want to spend valuable time off with friends or family. So now those travelers want adjoining suites or big house rentals (fully staffed of course!). But some people want buzz and have missed it badly! They want to meet new, like-minded people and socialize.
“Bucket Lists” are big, and this is true for the young and old alike. For some mature travelers, it’s finally time to head to Africa. But it’s the same for families – they want to travel and see the world through their kids’ eyes. We had a family that went to Galapagos at Christmas last minute with four kids because they felt their window to travel together was shrinking.
But Bucket List or no, multi-generational travel is growing. Families want to share experiences.
Q: What other changes have you seen in recent years that will continue as trends going forward in terms of what people care about when they travel?
A: There are several. Unique lodging is in big demand – properties in the U.S. like Amangiri’s Camp Sarika and Dunton Hot Springs were crazy popular even pre-pandemic. We need more of them. Globally, there are more castles than ever in Europe. There are treehouse hotels, cave hotels, a wolf lodge, and remote destinations are opening up thanks to great basecamps.
Also, unique ways to get between places – it’s more fun to take the train to Denali in Alaska, or to hire a yacht to get between islands,
There is more interest in simple food, local specialties and healthy food – on most any night travelers prefer an authentic atmospheric bistro over Michelin stars. They’re saving the fancy restaurants for the big celebrations.
Traveling with their pets is through the roof. People just can’t leave them behind!
[See my recent Forbes feature on the Best Luxury Pet Friendly Lodging]
Safety and access to good health care, in case of emergency. This was fueled by the pandemic, but it is going to stick around: more interest in clinics, doctors on call, available level of care etc.
Longer stays in fewer places. Because the pandemic has made crossing borders more cumbersome and introduced uncertainty, many travelers are choosing to focus on just one country per trip.
In this vein, they want places that are easy to get to. In Costa Rica people love Peninsula Papagayo because of direct flights to Liberia. There are non-stops from the U.S.to South Africa, and people love that. As a company, we love Mallorca, it’s a fabulous active destination, and United, part of Star Alliance, just added the first ever non-stops to Palma from the U.S., and that is going to drive bookings.
Giving back, charity and supporting local communities is a growing interest. People want the option to visit good works, have a positive impact and create a legacy along the way.
Q: Outdoor activities surged in popularity during the pandemic. How will this impact demand for active vacations going forward?
A: This has been growing long before the pandemic. Active vacations have been on the upswing for many decades, which is why I founded Gray & Co. in 2009 to cater to what was then a small bespoke niche of the business. Nowadays there are myriad active travel companies that cater to most every traveler. On top of that, most traditional “fly & flop” vacation destinations have added optional experiences, many of which are active. Evidence of current interest in active travel abounds – look at the recent record-breaking attendance in National Parks, sold out lodges, ranches across the US. Everyone is embracing the great outdoors and moving!
Q: For someone who loves to vacation but hasn’t really considered active travel, what’s the appeal and why should they try it?
A: After pandemic months of indoor biking on Pelotons or “hiking” on treadmills, it’s great to be able take your newfound fitness on the road with you. On a practical level, you get up close and personal with different cultures and landscapes at a slower pace. This leads to high levels of engagement, along with good health. There are dedicated bike paths and hiking trails all over the world, and it’s also now easier than ever to try it out. There are new e-bikes which are fun and accessible and help even out biking abilities. Regular bikes now come in every shape, size and tire width, with something for everyone, from pavement to bike paths to country dirt roads to mountain bike trails.
Also, after an active day, food somehow tastes better, and you feel less guilty about ordering dessert and an extra glass of wine. And it’s all local. You didn’t have to buy it and cook it the way you did endlessly during the pandemic. And you’ll sleep well at night!
Q: Hiking and biking are the classic “activities” in active travel, but what else are travelers looking to do now? Are there other growing areas of activity?
A: People love to dabble, mix and match, and try new things. So they might bike in the morning then golf or tennis in afternoon or indulge in watersports: stand up paddleboarding, kayaking, hoverboards, snorkeling, scuba, surfing, fishing. In this vein, multi-sport trips just keep generating more and more interest – add a zip line, horseback riding, rock climbing, hike through a coconut plantation and learn all about it, a mix. And another big one is yoga and wellness, meditation, tai chi, etc. that all just keeps growing.
A lot of tour operators are now adding a daily yoga class to bike or hike trips, but one of the advantages of going bespoke is that not only can you mix and match, you can do it in the perfect proportions for your tastes. If you really love hiking you can do a “hike and” itinerary, where you hike every day but add one or more different activities afterwards for a big variety. But if you only want to bike and then fish every single day because those are your passions, you can do that too, and you are never going to see that option in a catalog.
Q: For travelers used to booking itinerary-based guided tours, like the “Best of Spain and Portugal in 10 days,” can you briefly explain the custom/bespoke model and how it can be better?
A: Time is precious, and it is your time. On vacation, you should spend your time doing exactly what you what, when you want and with who you want. A custom itinerary is tailored to fit you perfectly. Get up when you want to. You see what you want to see. Bike the distance you like on terrain that suits your fitness levels and shows the best of the location off. You’re not limited by the desires of strangers or stuck sitting in a van or bus.
Also, the beauty of a custom trip is that there can be multiple itineraries within a day, to meet the varied needs of each traveler. This works especially well with multi-generational travel. Adults go bike. Teens go horseback ride. Grandpa hikes. Everyone meets up for lunch to share experiences. Afternoon downtime at the spa or pool – or if you don’t like downtime, then more of everything!
Our clients are very savvy and typically already well-travelled. They have done the big traditional cities, and already have their “favorite hotel” for London, Paris, etc. They come to us for the lesser-known destinations where it’s not obvious where to stay, visit, bike, hike etc. They appreciate a well-constructed day. The trip should be seamless.
Q: All of your luxury competitors offer both fully custom trips and the more traditional group scheduled departures with fixed itineraries. Why are bespoke private trips all that your company does?
A: Because we’re crazy?! It’s a massive amount of work that requires crazy levels of communication, dedication, curiosity, deep connections, and first-hand knowledge. Our team of planners and producers sweat the details with our extended team of local experts and subject matter specialists. Forcing people into cookie cutter agendas makes us cringe! Only when we dive deep, can we create truly meaningful experiences.
We also love the creative process. We love matching people first to destinations, and then to activities, and then hotels or lodges, and the culture, then the cuisine, the pacing, the unveiling – we do it all, from start to finish. We love managing expectations, collaborating, pivoting, raising the bar, exceeding expectations, delighting and more. Travel is a people business – and we love people!
Q: Just to give people an idea of what bespoke means, what are some unusual trip highlights you’ve created?
A: Each trip we do is custom and unusual in that sense that it’s always unique. But some things we’ve done on trip are super unusual and exclusive. In New Zealand, we took travelers to visit a kiwi sanctuary to meet an extremely rare white albino kiwi. The day before, they wore wet suits and rode inner tubes through pitch black caves illuminated only by staggeringly bright glow worm caves – with glasses of local rose in hand. In Japan, while biking the amazing bridges across the Seto Sea, we discovered a local hairdresser that was also a Neapolitan pizzeria with a massive Italian pizza oven. So we ate the most delicious authentic pizza lunch in the most surprising setting imaginable before more explorations on Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu islands.
Few visitors to Africa, even repeat safari veterans, have ever seen a caracal, one of the rarest big cats. In Namibia, we walked along with Misty, a caracal, on her morning stroll before heading out to do target practice with the anti-poaching team. In Tasmania, we timed our hiking around Freycinet park to see the Tasmanian Devils back at Saffire lodge crunch up their carnivore dinner. In Cape Town, we had tea with Nelson Mandela’s longtime bodyguard, Christo Brand. In Buenos Aires, we took travelers inside the social clubhouse of the prestigious and ultra-private Jockey Club, before attending a custom tango show. In Salzburg we biked to all the places in the Sound of Music, complete with music blaring, and then hiked up to the largest ice cave in the world. In India we arranged a small private commitment ceremony by a shaman in the Nepali temple along the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. In Scotland, we went out by zodiac to visit Fingal’s Cave on Staffa Island famous for Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture” before helicoptering back to Edinburgh. I could go on….
Q: I know a lot of people who think they are well-traveled and savvy and can do all the planning themselves and are hesitant about the idea of traveling with a guide. What would you tell them?
A: There is no denying that the internet has made researching and booking travel easier in some ways. But it’s just too much info, some of it dubious. Curating or vetting has never been more important. And as growing demand and the exclusiveness of properties drives up prices, how can you know which is the right fit? Is the beach black sand or white? Smooth and squeaky or rocky? What room category is the one best for you?
But ultimately the simple answer is that truly exclusive experiences and respected insider knowledge is not easy to find on Google. It’s through our relationships with local guides, hotels, and suppliers that we have our finger on the pulse of what’s new and unique in a destination. There would be no such thing as a hidden gem if it wasn’t hidden.
Also, and this is very important, in a time of so much uncertainly, it’s extremely helpful to have a fixer, should things go wrong. For example, we recently had our private guide save the day for travelers abroad who needed to find a Covid testing center at midnight.
Q: Some people want to travel again but don’t feel comfortable booking right now with all the border restrictions, omicron, fear of being suck in quarantine and such. What’s your suggestion?
A: It’s so hard to tell when international travel will be “normal” again, but luckily there’s so much to do in the U.S., and people who are cautious are still traveling, just doing it closer to home. I’ve spent much of the past two years exploring parts of Utah, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, and California, and I’ve been thrilled – we LOVE biking in Texas’ Hill Country.
Q: So for those who want to travel but choose to stay domestic, where are you sending people right now? Do you have any hidden gem trips here?
A: Yes! There are plenty of domestic gems. For bikers, it’s tough to top the roads around Santa Ynez, California. The Fess Parker Hotel in Los Olivos is perfectly located, and there’s a new Auberge resort due to open. Nearby Santa Barbara offers myriad of top hotel choices and activities – I’m a huge fan of kayaking out in Channel Island National Park. Kentucky is another fun place to bike, among the horse farms and blue grass and bourbon distilleries of Lexington and Louisville. For hikers, Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park is a stunning but lesser-known destination compared to its much more crowded peers, and Cougar Ridge is a great basecamp. For more multi-sport type trips, Sage Lodge outside Bozeman, Montana offers up plenty of comfort, fine fare and adventures – they even do llama trekking.
Q: For those who are traveling abroad now, do you have any special insider tips or advice to make it smoother or less stressful?
A: Book MULTIPLE tests to return to the U.S.! Labs in other parts of the worlds not as reliable, closed on weekends, limited hours etc. Source a second lab to alleviate worries about late lab results, and most airports now have rapid antigen testing. Also carry back-up home tests in your carry on in case you miss connections.
Expect to get stuck. Always keep in mind that you might get Covid when you’re away, no matter how careful you are. Make sure you have insurance. Pack extra of what you need, like prescriptions, and budget so that if you do get stuck somewhere, you’re all set. If you have to be back on a certain day, make sure to add a buffer day. Commercial flights are struggling to keep schedules.
Fly as direct as possible and don’t add any more stops than you need to. Every change compounds exposure and risk of delays, cancellations, or not complying with regulations.
Stay longer. Make the most of your trip, and choose places where there’s plenty to do outdoors, where you can eat outdoors, and avoid needless bouncing around.
Q: There has been dramatically increased interest in a handful of places such as the Dolomites, Mallorca, Portugal, St. Barths, and others. Going forward, what do you see as the factors that will make places the new hotspots?
A: It’s a combination of the things today’s traveler is looking for: High service levels, multiple good local lodging choices, places that cater to multiple-ages, interests and physical abilities, places that are easy to get to, and places that allow for work/play combination trips. During the pandemic, St. Barths decided to invest in infrastructure and buried high-speed fiber connections to just about everywhere on the island. If you can tear yourself away from the weather, beaches, beauty and food, it’s a great and reliable place to stay connected to work.
Q: Given your focus on hiking and biking, what are some of the all-time best trips/destinations, both well-known and surprising?
A: Ireland – biking up – and down – the Healy Pass outside Kenmare in Southwest Ireland is so fun!
Mallorca – for hike, bike, food, beach, and water – and great places to stay.
St. Barths has so much beyond the buzz and bistros. Amazing beaches, some surfing, sailing, land tortoises, etc. Great hotels and tons of villas.
South Africa – I never get tired of it. Epic hiking, biking, beaches, hospitality, good value, culture – oh, and they have animals!
Japan is still so mysterious, culturally distinct, incredible cuisine and yet increasingly open to active explorations. World class biking, hiking and skiing.
Uruguay is tiny and often overlooked among South American destinations but has amazing beaches, biking and great food.
Northern Italy is still new for so many travelers, so much variety and such high quality, from Piemonte to the Veneto, the Lakes, Dolomites and so many places in between!
Burgundy is a classic, near and dear to my heart.
Australia awaits post pandemic explorations, with more new standout lodges.
Canada is my home, and so close to the U.S., but so special, the Gulf Islands, Newfoundland, Rockies, polar bears and more.
Q: What are your company’s biggest challenges?
A: Misconception. People hear the word “guided” and think that means there’s someone along that will invade their privacy and lead them to places or situations that they don’t want. That’s why we prefer the term “producers,” like a movie. We’re more discretely behind the scenes, but also very present, keeping all running seamlessly.
Underestimation. Even among those used to high-end luxury travel, people just don’t realize how good a trip can be, and how great it is to experience ultimate choice and flexibility – especially when you have many ages, abilities, and interests to accommodate.
False value. The biggest cost in our trips is the pain-staking planning, in-depth research and discrete service. The team. But that’s also what makes the biggest difference! But we’ve been very lucky in that our customers value us and are willing to pay for the production levels required. Many of them come back, so we must be doing something right!
Q: What’s the place Cari Gray has not been that is number one on her to-visit list?
A: Too many to list! Hiking in Bhutan, exploring East Africa, biking in Croatia, swim with whale sharks in at Sal Salis Ningaloo reef, hiking up in Ecuador near Cotapaxi. I’m headed next to do cycling R&D in Guadeloupe, stopping at the Body Holiday wellness resort in St Lucia. They have an astonishing 70% repeat rate. I can’t wait to experience it! Carolyn on our team wants to road bike the Faroe Islands. Julia is headed to Costa Rica to check out surf breaks, tented camps and wellness retreats. Annie is next off to bike among the vineyards and mountain passes of South Africa – with a refuel in the Canary Islands for some biking en route among the lava fields and unique rock vineyards.