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The Travel Authenticity Question

Your clients want authentic travel—but what does that mean for each individual traveler? 

According to the 2019 Virtuoso Luxe Report, “seeking authentic experiences” is one of the top five travel motivations for the year. But what exactly does “authenticity” mean in travel? Increasingly, advisors and companies are realizing that instead of having a single definition, authentic travel represents a range of experiences that can differ greatly among travelers. For advisors serving authenticity-seeking clients, this means a deeper dive is necessary to properly understand what each traveler is looking for—and the result is a profoundly personal vacation with lasting rewards for both agent and client.

Authenticity is very important to our travelers,” says Suzanne Aresco, CTIE, director of travel sales for AAA Club Alliance Inc. in West Hartford, Connecticut. “Fewer people are now going to a destination without having a meaningful reason to visit. They are looking for trips that scratch further below the surface, that really have the feel of the destination.”

Patricia Hollywood, president of The Travel Connection in Aurora, Ohio, agrees that the search for authenticity has changed how many of her clients travel. “In the old days, ‘I want to see the Eiffel Tower,’ or ‘I’d like to visit Machu Picchu,’ were common refrains. Now we hear things like ‘I don’t want to see the touristy spots; I want to go where the locals are.’ ” 

But Hollywood also points out that “definitions of authenticity vary by client and location,” meaning travel advisors must carefully consider the traveler’s past experiences, interests, lifestyle and goals—and how such factors can relate to the specific destinations they’ll be visiting on their trip. 

“Key to the whole idea of authenticity is understanding passion,” says Susan Black, chief commercial officer of CIE Tours International. “Travel advisors need to understand the customer to know what is right for them.” 

Understanding Authenticity
Skift notes in its “Five Trends That Will Shape Experiential Travel in 2019” that travelers seeking “truly local and authentic experiences” could be looking for anything from “the best food truck in Portland,” to “the hidden beaches of Madagascar,” to “textile weaving classes in Peru.” 

Hollywood has found similar variations among her clients: “For some, authenticity may center on tradition. For others, it could be more culturally driven. It could relate to accommodations or cuisine.” For Aresco’s clients, the word authentic “can mean genuine, unique or experiential.”

But it’s up to travel advisors to zero in on how their own clients are defining authenticity. Black provides an example: “Someone interested in sampling cuisine, for instance, might find it authentic to go to a well-known establishment and try some cuisine the destination is known for. But for someone else interested in food, authenticity might be going to a renowned chef and actually cooking with them. The spectrum is very wide.”

To better understand what their authenticity-seeking guests are looking for, CIE Tours conducted an internal study that revealed an “authentic experience spectrum”—in other words, a whole range of trip types and activities that different travelers viewed as “authentic.” With the results of the study, CIE was able to identify certain “personas” of authenticity seekers, and uncover how they can differ dramatically in the types of experiences they expect from an authentic vacation.  

While the personas defined in the study relate specifically to CIE’s client base—and are by no means indicative of every type of traveler CIE serves—they provide a helpful illustration of the myriad ways travelers can think about and relate to the concept of authenticity

For instance, CIE found many heritage-seeking travelers among its guests. For this group, authenticity is tied to the discovery of local heritage—that might mean visiting castles in Ireland, learning about the different clans of Scotland or spending an evening at a British pub. For an exploration-minded CIE traveler, on the other hand, authenticity is more about unique activities and in-depth discovery. According to Black, this type of traveler wants “real exploration into local culture and lifestyle. They want to try new things and have special access to unique things. Authentic for these people is very much in the doing, not just the seeing.” So instead of visiting a local pub, such travelers might prefer a hands-on cooking class or a foraging expedition.

For a CIE traveler in search of knowledge, meanwhile, authenticity might be about finding the deeper backstory or historical perspective of the places they visit. Black explains that this type of client is looking for more information than they can find online or in a book, and may benefit from guided exploration. 

“People are choosing to do more hosted or escorted things so they don’t miss out on those authentic experiences that they wouldn’t have access to if they did the trip on their own,” says Aresco. 

Points of Consideration
Of course, advisors don’t need to identify their clients quite this specifically; they do, however, need to understand what will feel authentic to each individual traveler. A few factors to consider:

How much travel experience does the client have? Hollywood has “noticed that the travel experience or history of the client can influence their view of authenticity.” A newer traveler, for instance, might find that a destination’s top sites satisfy their desire for authenticity, while a more seasoned traveler may think it’s more authentic to venture off the beaten path.

Is there a personal passion that ties into the client’s idea of authenticity? “Somebody might be specifically traveling to a destination for a culinary or wine experience,” says Aresco. “Others might be looking for wellness travel.” Hollywood notes that for film and television fans, for example, exploring that passion can boost the authenticity factor. “If you’re a Game of Thrones fan and ever wondered if dire wolves were real, we can arrange a visit with the dogs on one of our Ireland tours.” 

Does the client have an ancestral link to the destination? Exploring a personal connection like ancestry is increasingly popular and adds a layer of authenticity for many travelers. “We have a lot of people traveling to trace their ancestors, their genealogy,” says John Madden, CTC, executive vice president of TravelWorld in Scranton and Kingston, Pennsylvania. “Scranton has a sister city in Ireland called Ballina in County Mayo, and here in Pennsylvania, we have a lot of relatives and ancestors from County Mayo. We bring people to visit the town, and the locals take us for dinner and out to the pubs. People love it.”

Are they interested in meeting local people? “Interaction with locals is at the top of so many people’s list when they travel,” says Aresco. For this type of authenticity-seeker, consider boutique hotels or BBs, neighborhood bars and restaurants, classes and visits to local families’ homes. 

What type of experiences is the client looking for? For an active traveler, adventures in nature might be their idea of authentic. Those interested in unique or once-in-a-lifetime moments might define authenticity as special access or private tours.

Upping the Authenticity Factor
Once an advisor has drilled down to their client’s idea of authenticity, there are a few things they can consider doing to further enhance and personalize the experience

For one thing, Aresco advises travel advisors to keep an eye out for local events that might serve as an authentic experience on a client’s trip. As two examples, she mentions the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy in 2019 and the Oberammergau Passion Play in 2020, which only occurs once a decade. “Good travel advisors are looking at destinations’ calendars to see if there’s something specific going on, like tulip time in Holland or Europe’s Christmas markets, which you only get during a certain window of the year,” Aresco says. “That might spark a conversation about going to the destination for that authentic event.”

Agents can also watch for special event-focused offerings from tour operators that will provide unique or exclusive opportunities for their clients. This year, for example, CIE Tours is hosting St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin: The Wearing of the Green, with once-in-a-lifetime inclusions like a visit to Dublin’s iconic General Post Office—which is open to visitors for the first time, but only CIE guests—along with an exclusive tour of the St. Patrick’s Day parade floats and more.   

Of course, it’s important to note that during special events or popular times of year, destinations can become more crowded—and for some travelers, throngs of tourists can detract from their sense of authenticity. For these clients, off-season travel might provide better opportunities to experience typical local life, if that’s their idea of an authentic trip.

Agents can also look for a unique connection between the vacation destination and the traveler. Madden, for example, has done a few trips to Ireland with CIE Tours for a group of fire fighters, which included “a meet and greet at the main fire station in Dublin. They met with the chief there and shared experiences, and it went over big. The wife of one local fireman even invited about 20 people to their house, and they had a ball.”

Key to planning any travel experience is knowing what a client wants, but Aresco also likes to make surprising recommendations for her authenticity-minded clients. “A trusted travel advisor can probably recommend something that the clients had never even considered doing. Send them somewhere on the trip that will really wow and surprise them, to make them feel like they had that authentic experience.” 

In the end, it’s that insider knowledge that will truly impress clients and enhance their in-destination experiences. As Hollywood explains, “Authenticity is where the value, expertise and knowledge of the travel advisor is really coming back into play.”

Over the course of 87 years in the travel business, CIE Tours International has learned a thing or two about what it means to provide an authentic vacation experience—and the company’s 95 percent customer satisfaction ratings prove it. What’s more, CIE recently conducted an internal study to identify a whole range of definitions of authenticity among its travelers in order to provide even more tailored travel, whether guests are seeking a deep dive into local culture, food-focused exploration, immersion in nature or any other authentic experiences.

Since CIE’s origin as a provider of vacations to Ireland and Britain, its deep ties to The Emerald Isle have influenced many of the company’s operating philosophies. “We are committed to and born of our Irish heritage, and our company exemplifies the best of Irish hospitality: genuine warmth, approachability, natural storytelling and immersion into local culture,” explains Susan Black, chief commercial officer of CIE Tours. “These are embedded in our brand and in the travel experience, and really speak to the concept of authenticity.”

Today, the focused service approach that began in Ireland is at the heart of CIE’s operations in all its destinations, which include Scotland, England, Wales, Italy and Iceland. Crucial to that approach are CIE’s native local guides, who are extensively trained and often work for the company for decades. “We have 130 Irish native guides—so these are the places they grew up in,” says Black. “And for past guests who love the CIE Tours way, we’re expanding to new destinations like Italy and Iceland, and hiring guides who are native in those areas.”

Employing native guides also helps CIE tailor the in-destination experience for each guest over the course of the tour. “Our guides are trained to ask the right questions and point guests in the right direction so that their search for authenticity will be satisfied,” says Black. “Even if they’re on the same tour but have different expectations, our guides are going to deliver—we know that because our guides have a 98 percent customer satisfaction rating.”  

Black also points out that CIE Tours’ huge range of product offerings helps travel agents cater to their clients’ unique ne, from escorted tours (including small-group departures and group vacations) to self-drive and private driver options. The company also recently introduced the Family Collection of tours and multi-country itineraries, and is continuing to curate opportunities for different types of authentic experiences. 

“When we say authentic, we don’t just give you two or three tours—you’ve got 50-plus tours so you can really pick what’s right for your client,” says Black. “We want travel agents to know that we take their customers’ dreams very seriously.”   

To learn more about CIE Tours’ diverse range of authentic vacations, visit