It’s been a big year for the Buffalo Tours team. Within 2015, we’ve launched our brand new Local Life experiences, we’ve taken home the award for Vietnam’s Leading Tour Operator and we’ve earned your stamp of approval with our TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence! But before 2015 is up, the team has one more trick up our sleeves: Essence Tours. To get the inside scoop of how we created this brand new collection of highlights experiences, we sat down with with Ed Pettitt, Buffalo Tours’ product manager who leads the creation of our new tours throughout Asia.
First thing’s first – why is Essence an exciting next step for the Buffalo team?
Ed: “I think that the whole point of Essence was to give clients a more curated experience on their travels. This really came from our people in the Buffalo team. We’re very lucky because we have our product teams who are on the ground, That is, living and working in our destinations, and they are constantly finding interesting routes and developing new ideas for touring.
These are people that really know our destinations like the back of their hand. We’re so proud of that, and we wanted to bring that element of what we do more into the tours that a majority of our travellers take. Naturally that ended up being highlights tours, since so many of our travellers are first-time travellers in Asia or in a country. So we got our team together and asked ourselves: ‘What are we doing to make our best tours even better?’ And voila – Essence was born.
So in reality, Essence isn’t really changing the philosophy of what we do as the Buffalo Tours team – it’s really a demonstration of what we do best. We are bringing in an extra level of care and creativity to the tours that are the most ‘in demand’, and giving our guests the option to take their tour to the next level.”
What makes an Essence tour different from any other highlights tour?
Ed: “I think for a lot of highlights packages – and not just in Indochina or Asia, but around the world – you don’t really need to leave the office to create them. They’re following fixed routes and fixed programs, and they tick all of the boxes. So, for example if we wanted to do a highlights tour in London – I could probably make that tour without ever leaving my office in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“That’s what’s gone into these Essence tours. The local knowledge, the expertise and the passion we have in all of our in-destination teams.”
The difference with Essence is that the experience and the inclusions of these tours can’t just be created in any office. They feature elements that only local experts and in-destination expertise can provide. Spending days on the road finding those small alleyways, meeting the people, eating the most authentic and delicious food – that’s what’s gone into these Essence tours. The local knowledge, the expertise and the passion we have in all of our destination teams.”
Each Essence tour features a special selection for food. Why the focus?
Ed: “Let’s be honest – the first time that most people experience Asian culture is through food. It’s a big reason that people have an interest in Asia as a travel destination in the first place. So when people travel all the way to Asia, they don’t just want to have lunch. They want to enjoy lunch.
With Essence, we wanted to feature the best of the best in local cuisine. We don’t want to have lunch just because we have to have lunch! We want a meal to be an extension of that cultural experience – a chance to sample those local delicacies within an atmosphere that’s unique.
So on that, it’s not just about what we’re eating – it’s about where we’re eating it. We’ve chosen restaurants that really are the best of the best in terms of culinary innovation. That could mean something very traditional to a country, but it could also mean great fusion food – what we’re searching for are restaurants that put a unique spin on local cuisine and have an atmosphere to match. We like to choose our restaurants for Essence based largely on the atmosphere of the restaurant or eatery. With Essence, it’s really a step up from this – we put a premium on really great food experiences in an environment that guests can really settle into.”
Is there a particular tour that really showcases this focus on food?
Ed: “It’s so hard to choose, because I think all of them offer something really unique in terms of food. But I guess if I had to choose, the Essence experience in Hong Kong is certainly a stand-out tour.
So on that Hong Kong city tour, your day is highlighted with the city’s most iconic food, dim sum. I hate to brag, but that will probably be the best dim sum you’ve ever had, and not just because of how it tastes. You might have had dim sum in London or New York or any other major Western city, but it’s not going to hold a candle to the one we’ve chosen in Hong Kong. It’s won awards for its dim sum, and it gives clients an authentic Cantonese atmosphere.
“We think that great food doesn’t always have to be part of a culinary tour – it should be a part of someone’s experience within a destination.”
“I think this is a great example of going beyond the standard concept of a “food tour”. We think that great food doesn’t always have to be part of a culinary tour – it should be a part of someone’s experience within a destination. Why do we have to call it a food tour to justify choosing really amazing food? The Hong Kong Essence tour is such a great example of this approach.”
So which of the Essence tours is your personal favourite?
Ed: “There are so many I could pick out, but I think a stand out for me is our Essence of Indonesia Temple Blessing tour. The reason I think that it’s so cool and interesting is because it takes a very traditional experience in Bali – [which is] visiting a Hindu temple and experiencing Hindu culture – to a new level.
We’ve really stepped it up and given it a very authentic look at how the locals interact with their Hindu faith. The idea is to go into two temples, learn about the religion and how it plays into daily life with a local guide who is a practicing Hindu. Then you go through and buy your dedications – which includes incense, flowers, and old Chinese coins at a second temple. Then you go to visit the second temple, which is actually a waterfall purification temple.
So here you are, going down the steps and queueing up with local worshippers and devotees. You’re learning about all of the steps of the ceremony with your guide, who is showing you how to pray to the deity, and walking you through the different dedication of coins and incense. Meanwhile, the local pilgrims here are doing the same thing, so by now you aren’t a tourist or passive observer. You are part of the community doing this, in an area that certainly isn’t set up for tourism. We would only ever bring private tours here – to ensure we are not making a negative impact. I think this Essence of Bali experience is such a perfect example of how we’ve achieved this.”
Nowadays, when so many people are travelling independently, what’s so special about travelling with a private guide?
Ed: “I would say that Buffalo has always been a private tour operator. We have always operated private tours with guides – and over twenty years of experience doing so! The great thing with Essence is that is has all of the benefits of a private tour guide – guidance, support, a very in-depth and informative experience – with some of the flexibility of independent travel.
With a private guided excursion, you have the flexibility on the day to experience local culture at your own pace. So yes, you’ll definitely follow the itinerary, but your guide is there to tweak your experience so that you get what you’re looking for out of it. You can stop and spend longer in areas you like. If you spot an alleyway that strikes your interest, you can have a wander with your guide. Plus, you can actually interact with the locals since you have a guide to help you translate, which creates a very rich and unique experience.
If you’re on your own, it can sometimes be hard to get up the nerve to do this – to willingly get a little bit lost, or strike up a conversation with a local resident. With private tours, you’re really able to make a journey exactly what you want it to be, but with some expert guidance and help.”
Last but not least – what’s next for Essence? What will we see in the next few months?
Ed: “The aim is to have Essence experiences for each of our top destinations throughout the 11 countries in which we operate. Soon, the line will diversify beyond just full-day tours – we’ll have evening excursions in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, where nighttime is the coolest time of day to explore city highlights. We’ll also have half-day excursions for people looking to have a few extra hours of independent exploration.
Really, we want Essence to be the gold standard of highlights experiences in our destinations – with a bit of a Buffalo Tours’ “seal of approval”. We imagine that Essence will soon become the heart of our tours – and the best experience on offer for first-time visitors in Asia.”