The other day I was perusing another company's website and saw the claim "Small group adventure travel, never over 18". For non-adventure travel companies I've seen the same claim for groups up to 25. Which got me thinking - what is a small group and is that desirable?
For thoughts on optimal group size, I posted the question on our Facebook page. The majority of people thought it was 8 to 12, a few thought 6 to 8, and a few thought up to 20. A number of people raised the issue of the nature of the trip: whether it was wilderness based, or active adventure vs city touring. But obviously there is no standard definition and as long as a company is clear about what the group size is, people can decide for themselves what size they find acceptable.
My own experience is that if there are no other considerations, then 10 to 12 plus 2 guides is most likely to provide the best combination of flexibility and group cohesion. Once beyond 12, the potential for group cohesion doesn't disappear but it does decrease. Below a size of 8, the group can be very cohesive or it can be so small that people start getting tired of always talking to the same people, or find someone's irritating mannerisms more difficult to ignore. But it's really just potential we're talking about. There can be large groups of 6 (lots of very divergent personalities) or small groups of 15 (everyone very group-oriented and sensitive to the needs of others) - I've been in both. Like a party, it depends on who shows up.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I've worked on pricing our 2014 trips. There are 2 trips that were very popular last year, Adventures in the Caribbean and Northern Lights and Natural Beauty of Iceland, where we faced large price increases. For the Caribbean trip, the price increase from our partner was due to a change in lodging that was necessitated by the closing of Maho Bay. For the Iceland trip, part was an increase from our Iceland partner because of inflation in Iceland, new taxes, and the US dollar weakening against the Icelandic kroner; and part was the fact that we had not charged enough to cover our overhead in 2013. On the Caribbean trip, the size is limited to 10 so the full increase had to be passed on. However, for the Iceland trip there was more flexibility in size and our Icelandic partner was encouraging us to increase the group size to 20. After much agonizing I decided that increasing the price by $100 and going up to 16 was preferable to keeping the group size at 12 and going up $300. But should I have gone up to 20 and kept the price the same? Or held it at 12, knowing that the price would be discouraging for some people? I don't know.
But in addition to keeping the cost of a trip down, a larger group can be fun. It offers the opportunity to socialize with lots of different people and sometimes get to know a few more in depth. Again, the party analogy is apt. If you enjoy going to large parties and connecting with lots of different people, then traveling in a group of 16 or more may be perfect for you. If you tend to avoid large parties and instead prefer to have dinner with a few friends, then small group travel may be more your style. Both can be delightful experiences, just different.
However, aside from the social aspects, adventure travel often has the additional consideration of impact on the environment, both physical and cultural. Large groups undoubtedly cause more wear on trails and more trampling of vegetation. In wilderness they also impact the solitude of others and can scare animals away from water sources. Impacts of large groups can also be cultural. Any time a destination becomes of interest to travelers, there will be an impact on the culture. But larger groups, particularly groups over 30, will have more of an impact as the infrastructure is developed to meet the demand. This is why most adventure travel companies keep their group sizes under 20 but also why prices are higher for this kind of trip.
Like everything else in travel, the size of the group is a tradeoff and you, the traveler, need to decide what is most important to you. Sigh....