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Group exclusives: Preferred customers

Courtesy Virginia Beach CVB

How about a behind-the-scenes museum dinner with mummies in which you get to touch a mummy or a gallery reception in which a local brewery serves samples of re-created 9,000-year-old rice wine?

Or you could be a minor-league baseball player for a day, go backstage after a touring Broadway play to meet and greet the cast members, or don a pair of white gloves and handle 300-year-old artifacts.

These are just a sample of the many innovative experiences that destinations and attractions are offering group travelers — and only group travelers.

The idea is to give group members experiences they couldn’t get as individual travelers, thus providing group leaders and tour operators added incentives to attract travelers and giving destinations added marketing tools for groups.

“We want groups to do something they couldn’t do on their own,” said Kathleen Titus, director of tourism sales for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, one of the pioneering destinations in developing experiential tours. “We have more than 30 experiential tours in the program, and 95 percent are really geared toward groups.”

“We always want to bring in more groups, but we also have added a bonus to group leaders and tour operators that can bring exclusivity to their groups,” said Brian Cheek, tourism sales manger for Experience Columbus, Ohio.

“What DMOs (destination marketing organizations) are doing is working with a dozen or so partners literally crafting, scripting and staging the experience, creating the experience,” said Joe Veneto, a Quincy, Mass., consultant on experiential travel. “It is about creating an experience and making sure there is sizzle to it. It is done in such a way that really is impactful, and at the end of the day, the customers say, ‘Wow.’

“The key thing is give me bragging rights,” said Veneto. “That is the term I use: bragging rights. Allow me to say I saw this, I did this. Entertain me in a unique way. VIP me, show me behind the scenes, let me learn.

“Ultimately, everything you do should give you bragging rights.”

Here’s a sampling of destinations with activities group members can brag about.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology offers a couple of interesting options for groups. The program Dinner and a Mummy includes a special museum dinner, an exclusive mummy talk, a behind-the-scenes viewing of mummies, an introduction to select museum galleries — and an opportunity to touch a mummy.

The museum’s Uncorking the Past program concludes with a gallery reception with special tastings of several re-creations by Dogfish Head Brewery of some of the ancient brews the Penn Museum’s scientists have discovered.

Titus said the attractions are constantly reviewing and revising their programs. “The behind-the-scenes are growing and expanding,” she said. “At Eastern State Penitentiary, it is not just Al Capone anymore. You are able to see what they did. They have opened the chapel and synagogue, and the hospital area is being opened.”

Other group-only experiential opportunities in Philadelphia include helping paint a mural; acting workshops at a dinner theater, with a group member being selected to take part in that evening’s performance; and personal after-hours tours of Independence Hall by Colonial characters.

Columbus, Ohio
Experience Columbus, another leader in the experiential travel field, has 57 experiential activities organized by categories: culinary, great neighborhoods, arts and culture, gardens, sports, history and play here.

“It is definitely all over the board; there is something for everyone,” said Cheek. “From being a baseball player to culinary attractions, we try to cater to everyone.

“It is something they will not be able to get on their own, and a lot of these are more enjoyable with a group. It’s fun to make a dinner together and then sit down and have that dinner together.”

New this year is the two-day Go Green in Columbus itinerary, featuring attractions and restaurants that are environmentally sensitive. “It goes from the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, the nation’s only major urban Audubon center, to the rooftop garden on the Lazarus Building,” said Cheek.

The experiential itinerary also features the Franklin Park Conservatory, where groups learn how to attract butterflies to their backyards; the organic-focused North Star Cafe; and the suburban town of Gahanna, the Herb Capital of Ohio, where groups learn how to use herbs in a variety of ways, from one-of-a-kind herbal teas to herb-infused vinegar and pesto.

Virginia Beach, Va.
One of the newest players in group-exclusive experiences is Virginia Beach, where earlier this year the convention and visitors bureau rolled out its Live the Life Adventures.

“The idea sprang out of some of the trends that are out there in the marketplace,” said Kelli Norman, director of tourism marketing and sales for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People are being more active and wanting more hands-on, immersive type of activities.”

Norman said the 19 experiences are currently only for groups. “We specifically wanted to target the group market,” she said. “These are things the normal consumer on vacation can’t do.”

The experiences are arranged by theme: culinary and agriculture; arts and culture; military and history; outdoor and eco-adventures; and mind-body-spirit. Each theme has a specially designed lapel pin that is given to groups who do one of its experiences.

“Each tells a story about that attraction,” said Norman.

For example, as groups take the Swing Time in the Skies tour at the Military Aviation Museum and view its large collection of flying World War II aircraft, they suddenly run into Rosie the Riveter, who starts talking to them.

“There are two huge hangars, and when they go over to the other, they run into a P-51D Mustang pilot dressed in uniform, and he starts his story about what happened to him,” said Norman. “They are getting that firsthand look and feel about what it was like.”

Some of the more unusual experiences are in the Mind-Body-Spirit category, with various options at Edgar Cayce’s A.R.E. (Association for Research and Enlightenment), among them interpreting dreams, exercises to keep limber at any age and holistic health workshops.

Dutchess County, N.Y.

Dutchess County Tourism’s extensive and varied lineup of experiential group programs in New York’s Hudson River Valley covers more than 400 years of history and topics from Gilded Age servants and sustainable farming to large pieces of art.

“It’s not like they have been there and done that,” said Dawn Hopper, tour and travel marketing manager for Dutchess County Tourism, in describing how the programs are developed.
“We started with historic sites, then expanded beyond that. We have so many things.”

At the Franklin D. Roosevelt Home and Presidential Library in Hyde Park, special group tours are enhanced with artifacts such as handwritten letters by Roosevelt.

“He wanted to try to walk down the road from his home to Route 9 as a challenge,” Hopper said of the 32nd president, who was crippled by polio as a young adult. “Each of his leg braces weighed 7 pounds. They have weights people can hold in each hand and look down that road to see how far he had to get and what a struggle it would be. We are trying to involve them with FDR.”

At the Vanderbilt Mansion, group members are assigned the roles of various servants during a behind-the-scenes tour. “They take them through the entire backside of the house; they never see one room of the main house,” said Hopper. “They learn all the ins and outs of what the Vanderbilts liked.”

On a white-glove tour of Mount Gulian, groups can touch 300-year-old artifacts.

Southwest Louisiana
“We really pull out all the stops when we have a group coming in and can arrange for some very unique offerings to them that aren’t necessarily available to an individual traveler,” said Katie Harrington, public relations manager for the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“There are tours that normally aren’t available to the public; it is something we arrange especially for leisure groups. They are not something you can come in off the road and do. They are an exclusive opportunity you get as part of a group.”

One exclusive activity features a representative from a local bakery talking about the history of the king cake.

“Group members are allowed to decorate their own [king cake], and we ship it home to them,” said Harrington.

The CVB can arrange for tours of a local rice mill, “where they see how it [rice] is cleaned from the hulls, bagged and shipped out all over the world,” said Harrington.

“A local family offers airboat rides in the marsh, and we can do a behind-the-scenes tour of their business, where they make alligator souvenirs that are shipped all over the country.”

More Buyer’s Guide articles:

The new norm is constant change
Flexible group tours: You’re on your own
Gender-based tours: It’s understood
Green travel: Sustainable momentum

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