Traveling with a small group is how many people choose to see the world these days, but two decades ago, that type of travel was the exception. That was when pioneering companies like Odysseys Unlimited emerged, cutting their teeth with alumni travel programs and branching out from there to offer these trips to the general public. I recently had a chance to chat with company founder Bruce Epstein about the genesis of this company, which is under the radar of many travelers yet has been singled out as the best tour company in the world by Travel + Leisure six times.
Everett Potter: Bruce, what was your background when you founded Odysseys Unlimited back in 1998?
Bruce Epstein: I had been in the travel business for 12 years and saw what I believed was a void in the market – providing prospective travelers with affordable small group experiences with superb levels of quality and service. Hence, we created Odysseys Unlimited to fill this gap.
Potter: What was the state of group travel 20 years ago?
Epstein: When we started Odysseys Unlimited 20 years ago, no other companies were focused on “small group travel”. Many adventure-type companies conducted tours with small groups out of necessity — the more rigorous nature of the trips could only be done with small group sizes. We were the first to create the small group experience of 12 to 24 guests, at a time when most companies were simply filling a bus to its maximum capacity of 40 to 50 seats. What we knew – and learned even more over the years – was that the small groups enabled us to provide more engaging, in-depth experiences to travelers than was possible with larger groups. Over the years, many more companies have created their own versions of small group travel, often times select departures or a special division to handle this. But this is all we’ve ever done and we’ve never wavered. Over the years I would say – humbly – that we’ve become quite good at it.
Potter: You’ve put together many trips for alumni organizations over the years. How do these tours differ from the ones you offer the general public?
Epstein: All our tours are highly educational by nature and provide a nice “fit” for college and university alumni organizations who offer travel as a benefit to their alumni. The tour itineraries are the same but, often times, the schools will include a faculty member with expertise in a particular area suited to a tour who will augment the educational content with a few formal lectures as well as informal interaction with the travelers. These professors work closely with our tour directors to ensure that all educational aspects of a tour are delivered in an engaging, fruitful, and fun manner.
Potter: What is the Odysseys Unlimited difference – in other words, what is it about your trips that makes them appealing – price, more nights in one place, the guides, or is it a combination of elements?
Epstein: All of the above! Our focus is on providing the best in affordable small group travel: that involves every aspect before, during and after their tour. For example, our guests tell us that they appreciate that all costs – air fare, accommodations, admission fees, local guides and gratuities for everyone except their tour director – makes planning much easier for them. They also value our personal attention throughout the process, from making their reservation to the insights and commentary of our carefully-selected Tour Directors, who add their own perspective on the destination, which our guests love.
Potter: Odysseys Unlimited keeps a relatively low profile but has been singled out six times as the world’s top tour operator by Travel + Leisure. What’s the secret to maintaining quality and keeping the company at the top?
Epstein: A combination of many elements including new and exciting itineraries; a staff that cares about each guest’s experience as if it were their own trip; top Tour Directors; and fair, air-inclusive pricing.
Potter: In terms of destinations, what’s hot at Odysseys Unlimited right now?
Epstein: Demand for individual destinations tends to fluctuate year to year but some regions never seem to waver. Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, among others in Europe, tend to stay at high levels year in and year out. While always strong, we’re currently seeing even more demand for Croatia and Slovenia. Away from Europe, both North Africa and the Middle East would qualify as “booming.” with Egypt and Morocco leading the way as “in” destinations. Safari experiences in both east Africa and southern Africa are also seeing dramatic increases in travelers.
Potter: I know there are new trips on the horizon for Odysseys Unlimited in 2020. Which ones are you particularly excited about?
Epstein: We’ve just announced four new ones for 2020, and I think they will all draw our travelers’ interest. Ethiopia: Cradle of Civilization will be an eye-opener: Ethiopia is an amazing, little-known nation, with a fascinating culture, welcoming people and spectacular scenery. Everyone wants to visit the Galapagos, and on Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands,we’ve added time in Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil to the three days in the Galapagos on a luxury catamaran. On Treasures of Jordan, guests will visit Jerash and Wadi Rum, as well as legendary Petra and the Dead Sea. And though many of our travelers have visited Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Nice, on Discovering Provence and the French Rivierathey will also explore the spectacular Camargue from their base in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and the beauty of the Luberon region. I can’t wait to hear the comments when the first travelers return from these.
Potter: After 30 years, is it harder and harder to come up with new trips and new itineraries?
Bruce Epstein: Far from it, Everett! We have a running “wish list” of trips we know our travelers will love. We’re guided by our guests’ interests they report on our surveys, which always ask where they would like to go next. Our well-traveled staff is full of suggestions as well. We always seek to balance those interests with the ability to find just the right accommodations, appropriate local transportation and meals, and most importantly, the perfect Tour Directors in each destination, who will make our travelers’ every moment a memory. Always – no matter where they travel, our ultimate goal is that our travelers should return feeling like they’ve had the trip of a lifetime.