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Researching travel: Do your homework

Courtesy Boone N.C. CVB

Joanie Coates says researching a trip is like building a house.

“I like to do a little research on my own so I know the high points before I talk with a tour operator,” said Coates, director of the Experiences program at the First American Bank in Des Moines, Iowa. “It’s like building a house. You want to know what you want in a house before you decide to build it.

“I make a list of what I want to do and see, then I go to a tour operator. But I feel more comfortable if I have done my research.”

Research is a critical component to being a group leader, whether its getting ideas for new exotic places to take a group, finding a great new restaurant at a favorite destination or doing extensive legwork to map out the details of a day trip.

Although several group leaders said the Internet is a major source of ideas and information, there are numerous other informational channels available to group leaders, such as magazine and newspaper articles; television and radio programs; familiarization tours; destination and attraction brochures and guides; travel agents and tour operators; even motorcoach drivers.

But a ready source of ideas for some group leaders is their own ears.

“We have about 900 members, and we solicit their input: What do they want to see, where do they want to go,” said Nancy Swanson, director of the Red Wing Area Seniors in Red Wing, Minn. “We also put together a survey every few years as to where they want to go, for how long, by want means, day trips or a seven-day or nine-day-long motorcoach tour. What do you like?”

Coates said she talks with people on their trips to get input. “I ask a lot of questions of the people I travel with,” she said. “On day trips and longer trips, I sit down by them and ask where do they want to go next.”

“For 2011, in our April newsletter, I had a questionnaire as to where they would like to travel,” said Mary Ann Gelven, director of the Advantage Club at Legends Bank in Linn, Mo. “I broke it down into day trips, extended trips, etc.

“We have scheduled three trips for next year based on where they said they wanted to go: Alaska, a day-trip to a northern Missouri Amish community and a Christmas trip to the Mall of America.”
Gelven said she has even asked her motorcoach drivers for ideas.

“Sometimes folks will tell me about places to eat or attractions,” said Kermit Burns, who leads choirs and senior travel in his position as minister of music and senior adults at the Berea Baptist Church in Mooresville, N.C. “They bring back brochures when they travel.”

Coates also looks at how long it has been since the group traveled to a certain destination. “I look back to see what we have done in previous years,” she said. “We did Ireland 10 years ago and went back on the 10th anniversary.”

On trips like that, Coates relies on tour operators. But finding the right operator also requires research.

“I have narrowed it down to a few I like to work with,” she said. “I look at the service I get, the price and if they are willing to work with me to add in things like a special dinner here or a stop there.”

“There are two travel agencies in Red Wing that we have worked with for the eight years I have been director,” said Swanson. “We trust them. We also work with a motorcoach company that does its own tours, Diamond Tours.”

Gelven uses Cruises and Tours Worldwide in St. Louis for many of her trips and gets destination ideas, such as San Antonio and the Grand Canyon, from owner Anne Davis.

“For extended trips, five days and beyond, I let them handle the details. Alaska will be the largest trip in the three years I have been a travel club director,” said Gelven. “I will call Anne and say this is where my people want to go. We set the date, and she takes it from there.

“If I am doing the customizing and planning myself, I contact the local chambers of commerce and convention and visitors bureaus and use the Internet a lot, more than actual paper copies of brochures.

“Let’s say we are en route and stop at an area in Arkansas. I am looking for hotels and restaurants that accommodate groups, and depending on the time of day we will get in, a type of activity. Is there a mall they can shop in or a tour they can take. I will Google that town and find out.”

Burns, whose group mostly takes day trips, relies heavily on the Internet for details.

“The Internet has really been a big help to me,” he said. “It is really important to me in finding these places. Last fall, we went to Patrick County, Va., I just discovered that on the Internet. It has a lot of neat places on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We went to a candy factory and a couple of scenic areas.

“If we are going to a historical place or museum, I will look around in the area, usually on the Internet, to find a nice place to eat. I have a reputation for being able to find a restaurant any place in the world.

“We have an Out to Lunch Bunch. Each month we get on a bus and go someplace to eat lunch just for the heck of it.”

Burns said that while most attractions have pretty complete information on their websites, he will often call to verify. “I won’t have a large group, 15 to 20 folks, and I want to make sure they cater to smaller groups. And I have found places [on the Internet] that are not there any more.”

Burns said he also uses a couple of computer mapping programs to make sure a site is feasible to do in a day.

Other group leaders can also be sources of inspiration.

“The BankTravel Conference is good to get ideas and exposure,” said Gelven. “You can talk to members and say, ‘Have you thought about going to New York?’”

“Sometimes I will call my fellow bank directors,” said Coates.

Some of the research is based on personal experience beyond fam trips.

Before becoming a bank program director, Gelven had traveled most of Missouri in her previous job as a microcomputer networking supervisor with the Missouri Farm Bureau.

“Places I had seen and visited a lot of times I am now taking my club to as mystery trips,” she said.
And then there is the firsthand research that Burns does.

“Almost three years ago, my wife and I gave in to our second-childhood urges and bought a little blue Miata convertible,” he said. “One of our favorite pastimes is taking Saturday road trips as far as we can go and return in a day — sometimes we do an overnighter.

“We’ve seen some great scenery, eaten at some neat places, and I’ve found some destinations for my senior adult trips. I am constantly looking for places.

“The two of us are much like our travelers; we get so excited seeing things for the first time and then sharing those places with others.”

And that comes from doing your research, even if is a weekend jaunt in your blue Miata.

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Researching travel: Do your homework