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Alumni groups

Courtesy University of Kentucky Alumni Association

This year began with a blast of winter in South Bend, Ind., with three feet of snow. But the University of Notre Dame Alumni Association used the weather as an incentive to prompt alumni to begin planning warm-weather trips far away with fellow alums.

Such is the world of alumni travel, the opportunity for graduates, former students and friends to see the world with others who share their love of the college. The school, in turn, hopes the trips keep alumni connected to their alma mater and making donations to good old College U.

Notre Dame organizes about 30 alumni trips a year, nearly all international. They range from eight days in Scotland to 25 days circling the globe. Travelers rekindle and sustain intellectual and spiritual relationships with the university.

“I think the same things that make Notre Dame unique as an institution make our trips unique because of strong spiritual components,” explained Kate Telesca, alumni travel director. “We feed intellectual curiosity by sending faculty along. It’s a bonus if a priest, who’s also a faculty member, says Mass. When they do that, our travelers return with rave reviews about how much the trip meant to them.”

Skilled faculty travelers can also open doors for alumni. “In Rome, our professor arranged for our group to go beneath the Vatican to visit the catacombs, which took much coordination with Italian authorities,” said Telesca.

One of the oldest alumni travel programs is at Penn State University (PSU). “Our program is an outreach of the university, a way for like-minded people to enjoy learning and traveling with other Penn Staters,” said alumni travel director Brent Hurley.

Typical Penn State alumni travelers are 55 to 75 years old, mostly retired, with time and extra income for travel. Half are Penn State alums. All trips include a PSU welcome reception, which might include alums living in that country.

“We’re going to Rome and sent 200 invitations to people we know there to attend the reception,” said Hurley. “We’ll do the same thing in Turkey.”

PSU has created an alumni frequent-traveler loyalty program with three recognition levels, all to show appreciation. “Anyone can come,” said Hurley, “as long as they don’t mind the Penn State ambiance.”

If there’s a gold standard for alumni travel, Stanford University might have bragging rights. Its trips include “cruises, private air safaris, luxury train trips, cycling trips, expeditions, land seminars, walks, family adventures and field study programs,” said Edie Barry, who’s with Stanford’s alumni association.

The most popular trips are to China, Italy and the Mediterranean. Barry said certain features set their trips apart from basic travel-agency offerings. They feature renowned Stanford faculty and scholars, savvy and articulate local guides, top-tier hotels, small luxury sailing ships and hard-to-get access to exclusive events and regional experts.

Some travel agencies, such as Alumni Travel Group in College Station, Texas, specialize in alumni trips. The company works with a few select schools: Auburn, Clemson, Rice, Iowa State, Kansas State and hometown Texas A&M. “Mostly, our niche is international cruises for alumni,” said Nancy Grow, owner and president.

Grow claims her clients are fussy. They’re ages 60 to 80, have paid for their kids’ college educations and have already been to Cancun or Barbados. “They don’t want too much sun or to show up in bikinis. We don’t do cheap Caribbean or Mexican trips. That’s not my market,” said Grow.

Generally, her alumni prefer Europe, the Mediterranean, the Orient and Australia. Domestically, Alaska is popular.

Grow’s alumni are fun-loving but past the “go-go” stage of drinking and partying on trips. “It’s about learning, lovely dining and getting to know other alumni,” Grow said.

At the University of Kentucky (UK), the “Traveling Wildcats” have seen the United States and now want to go abroad, said Leslie Hayes, event coordinator. “We skip domestic trips. We’ve tried, but few people want them,” she said.

The trips are open to anyone, but one stipulation is that travelers join the UK Alumni Association.

Alumni are excited about a planned 2012 offering from a Frankfort, Ky., agency called Ntaba Tours, owned by a husband and wife from South Africa. The couple will take alumni to their homeland.

“Since they grew up there, they offer an insider’s perspective; they know where everything is and have great contacts,” said Hayes.

With the purpose of alumni trips being to boost school ties and contributions, the sagging economy, with its budget cuts and shrinking endowment funds, has created a sense of urgency for schools to keep alumni going on those trips.