Yoga enthusiasts wanting an immersive cultural retreat, football fans looking to meet their sporting heroes or individuals with a penchant for the mixology of gin — these everyday interests and hobbies are shaping “passion-driven” itineraries for travelers looking for more meaningful travel experiences.
Dharma, an Abu Dhabi-based tour operator for businesses, says it is ready for it. They aim to simplify group travel with their travel management software service as they help non-travel companies create tailored travel experiences for their existing communities or fandoms.
“Our core conviction is that the future of travel is passion-based, not destination-based,” said Dharma co-founder and CEO Charaf El Mansouri.
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Abundant Noise and the Paradox of Choice
Starting with the community that cares deeply about a particular interest or experience immediately lowers the need to find customers who will book the tour.
“Dharma is not about indiscriminate supply. Differentiation is what we build with relevant, repeatable supply,” added El Mansouri.
With some 50 talent partners, as Dharma calls its clients, mostly based in the U.S. and U.K., it kicked off its business model with a focus on wellness and sport. According to El Mansouri, its first sporting venture, Looking FC, is an example of its group travel differentiation.
It featured a range of immersive four-day trips led by former French national team and Manchester United player Eric Cantona.
“Manchester United has 600 million fans online. So we’re talking about one itinerary around one club or team, curated by Cantona, who is widely considered the best player ever to have played for that club. We have proprietary supply and a captive audience, which changes the group tour conversation dramatically.” he said.
‘Heartfelt Experience Curator’
Dharma bridges the practical aspects of group travel merchandizing for non-travel brands looking to travel experiences to delight their customers.
High Yoga is one of Dharma’s first clients and has run about seven retreats of groups between 15 to 25 people with them to destinations like Morocco and Croatia.
All their trips have been sold-out, with repeat bookings across their student base and no need for external marketing. According to Mona Godfrey, one of High Yoga’s lead teachers, the trips are centered on being close to nature and having a deep sense of cultural immersion. For example, the students met artisans who make musical instruments in Morocco. These instruments were then played during their yoga sessions while on the retreat.
“Working with Dharma is like working with heartfelt-experience curators. It is never a cookie-cutter group tour and we couldn’t do these curated retreats without them,” said Godfrey.
The acquisition cost for this yoga community is zero as High Yoga pays 20 percent of their earnings per tour for Dharma’s travel destination research and flexible itinerary curation service.
The valuable time with their students makes it worthwhile, according to Christian Coelho, who also teaches at High Yoga.
“It’s a lot of effort and time to get all the different numbers in, cost different locations, to put it all into a spreadsheet and make it flexible. They work with you and move the numbers around so that you’re happy. That’s something that would take so much time out of our day. Instead, we get to spend more time with our students and get to know them better during these retreats. It’s a beautiful experience,” said Coelho.
Passion for Eno Tourism
Dharma’s next set of passion-led itineraries, Spirited Stories will tap into the eno-tourism appeal of destinations like Oaxaca in Mexico and France’s Champagne region. This time round it has partnered with a much bigger non-travel brand Pernod Ricard, worth an estimated $10 billion with 300+ spirit brands.
Industry research shows that eno-tourism or wine and spirit tourism, is expected to grow from $6.98 billion in 2021 to $7.68 billion in 2022. Future data projections indicate a robust 14 percent growth to reach $12.99 billion in 2026.
Pernod Ricard Global Brand Homes Leader Laura Sileo Pavat frankly stated, “Spirit tourism needs to reinvent itself.”
Sileo Pavat said as a terroir-based business, with each brand having an established home of origin, they’ve seen how wine and spirit tourism can drive the discovery of a destination.
“I started in this industry 22 years ago, and a lot of brands used to have a visitor center. Then, people came to the destination to discover a city, to discover a region, and additionally, in that city, they also visited the winery. Today, we are definitely seeing the opposite.
As a deep-dive into the eno-tourism experience blended with gastronomy she explained the significance of Maison Perrier-Jouët in Champagne, with origins dating back to 1811.
“They meet the chef in the morning and go to the fruit and vegetable markets to do the shopping. Then they go back to learn and discover how a chef in a Maison Champagne delivers a recipe differently than in a restaurant. It’s beyond making a tasting. It’s a question of the food texture, if you put something creamy or crispy, or how it reacts with the bubbles of the champagne,” Sileo Pavat said.
“It is the ritual of opening a bottle of champagne, in recreating a recipe and sharing a dinner with friends when back home, in participative education that these experiences will last forever,” Pavat said.
Not Just Selling the Dream
According to El Mansouri, Dharma is preparing to launch its own topic-centric travel marketplace. It would reflect the Airbnb search model, as travelers will choose their trip according to the type of experience, not only by destination. Trovatrip.com is a similar example offering travel searches according to interest, such as body positivity, photography or fitness.
El Mansouri said Dharma would be defined by being able to find the best in-class group tour according to interests “in just two clicks.”
A lofty tailored-search commitment, if ever there was one. And while Dharma might have a passionate audience locked in, the continued expertise of its travel management will be the determining factor in the long run.
*Catch Charaf El Mansouri, Dharma co-founder and CEO, as part of the Skift Global Forum East panel discussing the topic Driving Innovation and New Ideas Through Tech