WORLDWIDE SPORTS TOURS
by Susan Kostrzewa
It’s a common cubicle occurrence: beleaguered employee sits at desk, half-buried by papers, and stares at his/her monitor. Instead of crunching numbers, the staffer is daydreaming about screaming along the sidelines of the Indy 500, watching hoops at the Final Four, or tippling mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby.
Mere fantasies? Not anymore, according to statistics. Since 2001, two out of five U.S. adults planned vacations around an organized sport event, and 75 million travelers attended sports events in the last five years. Ninety-eight million travelers decided to go for the gusto themselves and planned active adventure or sports-related tours in the past five years, delving into everything from heli-skiing and scuba diving to golfing in exotic locales like South Africa and the Middle East, according to figures from the Travel Industry Association of America/TIA.
“Our business has grown year after year for the past 20 years,” says Suzanne Slavitter, owner of California-based tour operator Sports Empire Inc. The company offers organized tours to high-profile sporting events such as the Super Bowl, the U.S. Open and the Daytona 500. “Maybe 50 percent of that is just good old marketing and word of mouth, but the other 50 percent I would attribute to a growth in sports and niche travel in general.”
Slavitter says that spectator sports tours are the answer for travelers who have already seen most of the major tourist attractions and are looking for an experience that is both unique and invigorating.
“We sell lots of packages at the holidays — for that NASCAR fan that has everything, now they get to go to the race,” she says. “Sports travel goes beyond an ordin-ary vacation. It’s a vacation that creates once-in-a-lifetime memories.”
While a number of operators offer tickets to premier sporting events like the NBA All Star Game, PGA Championship and Rose Bowl, a growing interest in more eclectic sporting events has inspired operators like Sports Empire, Esoteric Sports and Sports Travel to add events like the National Finals Rodeo and the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta to their roster of choices.
Some itineraries go beyond the actual events themselves. California-based Grand Prix Tours offers seats at all of the world’s top car racing events — Formula One in Monaco, Laguna Seca, NASCAR in Daytona. In addition, the company gives enthusiasts an insider’s look at that world with visits to exotic car factories in the U.K., Italy and Germany; tours hosted by former F1 World Champion Phil Hill; and parties with famed drivers. In the past, this has included hobnobbing in Monaco with racing celebrities at a cocktail party featuring Prince Rainier’s automobile collection.
President Barry Simpson says this kind of touch is not only about staying competitive, but also about connecting on a deeper level with the traveler. “Gone is the day when specialty tours can just offer a bare-bones package to a sporting event.”
“[Those special touches] are exclusive insights that cannot be experienced by any other source,” he continues. “As a niche tour operator we are able to mix with our clients at an event. This is an ideal way to get to know what your client really wants — it’s also why 70 percent of our guests return on another tour.”
While spectating certainly sizzles among sports enthusiasts, growing numbers of adventure travelers are opting to experience the rush first-hand on participatory sports tours. These range from more traditional activities like cycling and whitewater rafting to wilder picks like air-combat training and shark diving.
“Travelers are always looking for vacation options they haven’t tried, places they haven’t been, and things they haven’t done,” says Karen Lancaster, owner of New York-based Cross Country International Equestrian Vacations. The group leads learning-based and trail-riding holidays worldwide and is geared toward multi-level riders looking for either leisurely jaunts or more vigorous adventures like fox hunting. The company also leads walking vacations in various locations around the globe.
Lancaster feels that the learning aspect of participatory sports tours are a huge draw for travelers eager to challenge themselves and explore a new destination at the same time. “Our training vacations afford them the chance not only to learn from the best, but to enjoy a great overseas getaway at the same time.”
In addition to more mainstream activities like rafting and hiking, Swiss-based AlpinElite offers adrenaline-fueled adventures such as “moonwalking” — a combination of climbing, caving and high alpine trekking; canyon jumping off a cliff while attached to a 260-foot long swing; and Top Gun–style flying in a PC-7 airplane replete with 5g loops. Despite the adventurous tone of the tours, the operator stresses safety, and all participants are accompanied by an experienced guide.
Scuba diving is a hot trend because of its combination of exotic, tropical scenery and fitness-oriented activity. According to statistics from PADI, the world’s diver training organization, there are nearly three million active recreational scuba divers in the U.S. alone. Operators like Florida-based World Dive Adventures accommodate beginning to advanced divers in accessible locales like Belize, Cozumel and St. Croix, and also appeal to advanced divers with edgy adventures like shipwreck diving in Vanuatu.
For snow enthusiasts, winter sports options have grown in diversity and popularity over the last five years. In addition to skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, activities like dog- (and even reindeer-) sledding, ice-climbing, snowmobiling and ice fishing are attracting active travelers with a taste for extreme outdoors. Colorado-based American Overland Expeditions specializes in active winter adventure tours in the Aspen area, including a snowmobile safari during which travelers lodge in mountain cabins and visit remote ghost towns.
Want the best of both worlds? Some operators, like California-based cycling specialist Backroads, offer tours that provide activities for both spectators and participants. The company specializes in eight-day Tour de France jaunts that combine cycling from inn to inn along the race route with spectating from key points on the sidelines. “The magic of the trip was that it allowed us to have such a real Tour de France experience by not only viewing stages, but by also climbing so many of the storied Cols of the race,” says Todd Smithline from San Francisco.
Whether delving head-first into the action or cheering from the stands, travelers are finding that sports tours offer excitement, adventure and a sense of learning.
WORLDWIDE SPORTS TOURS
AlpinElite: 011-41-79-249-5645; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.alpin-elite.com. Active adventure vacation packages to Switzerland include rafting, mountain biking and skydiving tours.
American Overland Expeditions: 800-598-1325; email@example.com; www.aoeadventures.com. Specializes in unique sports trips like llama trekking, jeep tours, dog sledding and rock climbing.
Backroads: 800-GO-ACTIVE (462-2848); firstname.lastname@example.org; www.backroads.com. Bicycling, hiking, walking, cross-country skiing and multi-sport vacations in Europe and the United States.
Cross Country International Equestrian and Walking Tours, Inc:800-828-8768; www.equestrianvacations.com. Vacations worldwide for all levels of riders and hikers.
Esoteric Sports Tours: 800-321-8008; www.esoteric sports.com. Specializes in tickets to major worldwide sporting events like the Kentucky Derby and NBA Finals, as well as the National Rodeo Finals and Country Music Awards.
Grand Prix Tours: 800-400-1998; www.grandprixtours.com. Upscale packages to major car racing events worldwide, including the Daytona 500, Monaco Grand Prix, and USGP in Indianapolis.
Sports Empire, Inc: 562-920-3395; email@example.com; www.Sports-Empire.com. Tickets to all the major North American sporting events, such as U.S. Open, Football Hall of Fame, and Belmont Stakes.
Sports Travel, Inc: 800-924-9993; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.sportstravel.com. Packages to worldwide events like the French Open and Ryder Cup.
World Dive Adventures: 954-236-6611; email@example.com; www.worlddive.com. Dive travel packages around the world, including the Great Barrier Reef, the Caribbean, Fiji and Yap.