Two clear indications TTC seeks limited feedback:1) A character limit for Insight's "Contact Us" form2) No "Contact Us" form on TTC's website
1) Seamless, Stress-Free Travel?: Our Travel Director (TD) kept our group of 37 people on time and on schedule. She was efficient but didn't (given the group size, she literally couldn't) attend to individual needs/requests. For example: Before the tour, my spouse emailed our TD about procuring distilled water for a CPAP machine. Our TD responded that distilled water was available at any local pharmacy; we could buy it after we arrived. Our proficiency in Spanish doesn't include 'distilled water' nor are we inclined to search for it after a long flight. To reflect Insight's commitment to "hassle-free" travel and "personal attention from our Travel Director", another TD would have bought a bottle of distilled water from her discretionary funds and offered it to guests who needed it. Our TD could have at least told us how to ask in Spanish for distilled water at a local pharmacy. Also note the "lost luggage" example (#3 below).
1A) Our Friend Overseas?: While TDs typically maintain some distance from their group members, ours was more a "shepherd' and "timekeeper" than "our friend overseas" (as claimed on the Insight website). Fortunately, the norms our group established organically ensured all guests were on time, polite, and respected others. Some Spanish speakers on the tour resolved simple needs (like getting distilled water, translating menu items, etc.). While our TD offered a few "flourishes" per the itinerary (Pasteis de Belem and a drink and tapas in Salamanca), the large group size necessitated a transactional relationship--belying Insight's pledge for a TD who "provides personal attention".
1B) Unusually Large Group Size: This was the largest group of any Insight Vacations tour in which we've participated. The large group size made it extremely challenging for our TD to "provide personal attention" to individual guests and accommodate individual requests, needs, or specific interests. Our relationship with the TD was almost purely transactional--a fact for which Insight Vacations is directly responsible. During conversations with other guests, I learned they felt similarly and reflected those feelings in the gratuities they gave our TD.
1C) Passionate and Knowledgeable?: The knowledge, connections, and pride of local TDs have consistently been a top reason we choose to travel with Insight and evangelize the company amongst peers. Local TD's added meaningful and memorable perspectives and insights about their respective country's history, culture, traditions, sights, and sites off the beaten path. By contrast, the local guides were all excellent.
1D) Fluent in the Local Language?: In this tour, our TD was a British citizen (from Barbados) who lives in Florence, Italy. Not indigenous to Spain or Portugal, she was neither fluent in Spanish or Portuguese (I don't believe she was conversational in either). For example, rather than try to teach us words from "the local lingo" and interesting idioms (as pledged on the Insight website), our TD simply emailed us two photos of pages with words in Portuguese. This is another example of the transactional relationship described above.
1E) Expertly Trained?: Several long stretches (60 minutes+) on the coach offered our TD opportunities to share insights about the history, culture, and significant sights and sites we passed. Whereas several of our previous TD's used the audiovisual tools on the coach (show videos or play local music) to complement their commentary; our TD did neither (despite a new coach equipped with cutting-edge A/V). Our TD spent the majority of the time on the bus doing paperwork.
3) Lost Luggage: A guest in our group lost her luggage (the airline's fault). During the four days she tried to locate it and get it delivered, our TD was moderately helpful (she called the airline and offered the guest guidance and suggestions). A TD who really wanted to provide "stress-free travel" would have been more than moderately helpful. However, with 36 other guests to shepherd, resolving that problem should not be the Travel Director's responsibility. TTC should assign a specific staff member who is fluent in the local language to communicate with the guest and the appropriate airline and relentlessly resolve the matter. Our TD lacked the bandwidth and tools to help this guest.
4) Accommodations: In general, the hotels were not "superior" as claimed on Insight's website. In at least two cities, our TD showed us the "Insight Luxury Gold" hotels and highlighted their benefits (closer to town/city center, more luxurious, better meals, etc.). While we know from previous Insight Vacations that TDs sometimes upsell Gold (and are encouraged to do so), my spouse and I felt as if we were less than (and certainly poorer than) Luxury Gold guests. Finally, three of our five hotels had lower limits on the AC temperature (!!!) and sporadic wi-fi.
5) Optional excursions: Based on our positive optional excursions on previous tours, my spouse and I chose almost all the offerings on this tour (costing us more than $800USD). Our TD promoted the optional excursions but didn't offer or recommend alternatives to guests who chose not to join. For example, in Lisbon, there was a Banksy exhibit down the street from the Turim Saldanha Hotel. Our TD could have suggested this to guests not joining the Seafood Dinner by the Tagus River rather than offer unspecific suggestions for "local shopping" or "great restaurants".
In terms of the optionals, we noticed there weren't as many (the "Lisbon by Night" tour was listed on the itinerary but not offered). In at least two cases the cost of the optional far exceeded the value. I understand hidden costs (e.g., coach travel, driver pay, local guides, fuel, parking, etc.) for which Insight must account and realize Insight has to make a profit. That said, the costs of the two optional excursions below seemed out of proportion with the value provided.
5A) Seafood Dinner by the Tagus River: At a combined cost of 128E ($143), we took a coach to the pier, a ferry to the other side of the river, ate a large dinner, and took the coach back to the hotel. While the food was plentiful and the wine drinkable, we were packed into a loud pierside establishment that I hope did not represent Lisbon's "famous traditional restaurants." I was also surprised the restaurant charged 7E extra for local crab.
5B) Fado Evening: We spent 74E each ($160) for dinner and a musical performance. We chose our dinner in advance (Sea Bass, Steak, Chicken, or Vegan); the food was ok but definitely not the "savory traditional Portuguese dinner" described on the itinerary. The prix fixe menu outside the restaurant showed 45E ($50).
6) Tour Pace: "Amazing Spain and Portugal" is mislabeled "Leisurely Pace" ("1.6 - 3.2km daily, on primarily flat surfaces and with some stairs"). Except for the two days we spent mostly on the coach (Madrid to Granada and Lisbon to Salamanca), I recorded an average 15,000 steps/day. Spain is Europe's second most mountainous country (not flat) and the daily temperatures in the South consistently exceeded 30C. I found the "leisurely pace" somewhat tiring--it was evidently exhausting for several older and less-physically fit tour members.
7) Recognizing Loyal Guests: On previous tours, Insight Vacations recognized loyal clients with a special reception, gift, or activity. The recognition made us feel special and built our loyalty to TTC and Insight. There was no such recognition on this tour. Our TD gave an Insight-branded bag to every guest but nothing exclusive for loyal clients. Given multitudinous tour and travel company options, I'm surprised Insight didn't seize every opportunity to thank and recognize loyal clients.
7A) Dedicated Contact for Loyal Guests: I accessed Insight's online customer service chat and requested the name and email address for someone in a senior leadership position to whom I could send my extended feedback. The agent with whom I communicated referred me to Guest Relations. My other frequent travel and credit card companies (Amtrak, Hilton Honors, AMEX Black, Chase Sapphire) have an exclusive line to call or email; Insight should do the same. Giving loyal clients a devoted Guest Relations group whom we can contact is a basic reward that increases customer service satisfaction and brand loyalty.