A source of hope and peace

by Brian Jewell 20. November 2013 23:23

Photo by Mac Lacy

In my 10 years of working in the world of travel journalism, I’ve been incredibly blessed to see some of the most amazing places on earth. And I’m happy to report that many of those places are right here in the United States.

One of my great joys in traveling this country from coast to coast has been visiting the iconic sites that are proudly and uniquely American. Along the way, I’ve been compiling an informal list of places every American should visit once, places such as the Grand Canyon, the Black Hills, the Gulf Coast and the National Mall.

On a trip to New York in April, I added a new place to my list: the National September 11 Memorial.

I was a junior in college in the fall of 2001, and I remember the day the towers fell with alarming clarity, as I’m sure you do, too. The terrorist attacks and the events that followed shook us all and dominated the national conversation for years to come.

It took more than a year to clean up the mess at the World Trade Center site and several years more to decide on what should be built in the center’s place. The design, the deliberation and the construction were a slow and sometimes frustrating process. For a nation looking for closure, the crawling progress on completing the memorial was disheartening. I remember walking around the site in Lower Manhattan on a visit in 2006 and feeling disheartened that all I saw was a roped-off construction site.

In 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the National September 11 Memorial officially opened to the public; my recent trip to New York afforded my first opportunity to see it in person. I was not disappointed.

It’s difficult to accurately describe the sense of impact, honor and remembrance that the memorial bestows on visitors. Unlike most memorials around the country that make a statement with large objects, the September 11 Memorial is all about absence, creating a sense of what we collectively lost in the attacks. No skyscraper has been built on top of the former World Trade Center tower sites. Instead, the memorial has two large pools recessed into the ground, with streams of water pouring in over the sides. The pools are constructed in such a way that you can’t see their bottoms, symbolizing the eternal absence left by towers that once stood there and the people who inhabited them.

I spent about an hour at the memorial reflecting on my memories of September 11 and hearing amazing stories from New York locals. It would be easy to spend much more time there. Construction of the official museum is now wrapping up; the museum, which will open next year, will tell the stories of the World Trade Center, September 11 and the national response from a variety of perspectives.

In the midst of all the tragedy of the past year, I found my visit to the September 11 Memorial to be a source of hope and peace.

I wish you and your groups hope and peace as well, both in New York and anywhere else the road takes you.

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Travel Thoughts

Elegance is outdated

by Brian Jewell 23. September 2013 21:48

I rarely use this column as a soapbox, but one particular element of traditional travel has been getting under my skin lately. So I hope you’ll indulge me for a few minutes while I make my case for this idea: “Elegance” is outdated.

You may not realize how prevalent the idea of elegance is in tourism. But when you begin to notice it, you’ll discover that it’s everywhere. Many resorts, cruise lines, restaurants and other tourism companies use their atmosphere of “casual elegance” as a selling point. Many of the best international airlines — those that fly to destinations in the Pacific or the Middle East — use television commercials to brag about the elegant experience their passengers will have if they fly in first class.

Elegance isn’t a bad thing. But I question whether it is still relevant in the world of travel and tourism. When I read that I’m going to be participating in a swanky event or visiting an establishment that has a dress code of casual elegance, I feel frustrated, not excited. When you say “elegant,” I hear “stuffy.” What is so fun about that?

I realize that elegance was once part and parcel of the travel experience. I’ve heard plenty of people talk about the “good ole days” of air travel, when everyone wore their Sunday best to board a plane. Films like “Titanic” can paint enticing portraits of sea travel in the Gilded Age, when passengers dressed in black tie to attend elaborate dinner galas onboard. These romantic images seem to appeal to people. But they’re not realistic.

When we think about the good ole days of elegance in travel, we often forget that the only people who could afford to fly across the country or sail around the world were people of extraordinary financial means. Travel had to be elegant because it was also very expensive, the domain of rich people. And in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the wealthy lived a life of rigid opulence that would make most of us uncomfortable today. If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Downton Abbey” and squirmed at the thought of wearing those period clothes to dinner, you know what I’m talking about.

Today, we’re a world away from the elegant age of travel. Flying, cruising and vacationing at resorts are popular among the American middle class and working class. We use hard-earned money and scarce vacation time to take these trips. The last thing we want to do is dress up like we’re going to work.

If you think about it, the trends in travel today are moving in the opposite direction of elegance. Many travelers don’t get excited about going to fancy restaurants — instead, they’re turned on by great local gastropubs and barbecue joints. We hear over and over that people are looking for experiences that are more authentic. And authentic life is rarely elegant.

In my opinion, the tradition of elegance in travel is a holdover from a generation that is quickly aging out of the market. Baby boomers are notoriously independent, and their children are known to wear jeans to even the most formal events. Requiring travelers from either of these generations to dress up for nightly dinners is no way to attract them to travel.

After all, it’s their vacation, and they’ve paid for it. Why should they let someone else tell them what to wear?

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Travel Thoughts

Why does international travel matter?

by Brian Jewell 24. July 2013 00:23

Why does international travel matter?

We have such a wealth of great places to see here in the United States. Our country enjoys a diversity of cultures, histories and natural landscapes that is rivaled by few other places on earth. The old domestic tourism mantra “See America First” encourages us to spend our free time and travel dollars exploring our home country, and there are enough great experiences in America to keep even avid travelers occupied for years. So why is it important to travel abroad?

Pose those questions to 100 people who have traveled overseas, and you’re likely to get 100 different answers. Travel is inherently personal after all, and every traveler’s reaction to new places, people and experiences will be personal as well. This means that everyone will see the value of his or her own international travel experiences through a slightly different lens. One thing is certain, though: Nobody who has ever gone abroad will tell you that international travel isn’t worth doing.

Of course, I can’t speak for all of those people, but I can tell you about some of my personal motivations for traveling outside of the United States. Going abroad introduces me to the people of the world and reminds me that I am a citizen not just of my country, but of the entire globe. Meeting African tribesmen, Chinese housewives, Polish students, Mexican dancers and Jordanian nomads demonstrates how wide and diverse the human race and its cultures are. And yet, every one of those encounters underscores something deeper: Although many things differ between nations and races, many more things unite us in our common humanity.

Those kinds of personal encounters often help bridge gaps between nations and cultures that sometimes appear to be at odds. The more I travel, the more I come to understand the subtleties of our world and the more I value people who live in places far from my own home. Mark Twain observed this transforming power of international travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” he wrote in “The Innocents Abroad.” “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

At The Group Travel Leader, we’re big believers in the power of international travel. Everyone on our staff has spent time abroad, either on work, study or vacation. Several of us have been fortunate to spend extended periods in foreign countries, giving us a love of travel that we carry into our daily work in the tourism publishing business.

With that in mind, we created an International Travel issue of the magazine with features on some of our favorite foreign destinations, as well as tips on taking your travelers to some of the world’s most famous festivals and events.

We hope you will consider planning an international trip for your travel group. There’s a big world out there full of adventures and unforgettable experiences waiting for you. Take a trip abroad, and you’ll find your own reason to treasure international travel.

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Travel Thoughts

Change is in the air

by Brian Jewell 22. May 2013 01:26

Change is in the air this spring. It’s not just the flipping of calendar pages that lets us know that life is changing. Examine the group travel landscape around you, and you might notice that it looks remarkably different from the industry you remember of 10 or even five years ago. The passing of the World War II generation and the entry of baby boomers into the group travel market have brought a profound shift in the way we think about tourism.

Along with this new generation and new attitude have come new travel tastes and habits. Savvy tour operators and destination marketers are finding new ways to package trips, even to the cities, states and countries that have been strong players in the tourism market for years.

Group leaders would do well to bring some of this new energy and perspective into the way they plan travel as well. Last year’s itineraries won’t cut it in 2013. This year, it’s time to take some risks and try something new with your travel plans. Just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done; it just means you have new adventures to discover.

In that spirit, we at The Group Travel Leader always try to highlight a number of new opportunities and new approaches to tourism that you can use to plan creative, enriching group experiences. For example, we recently included a round-up of outdoor music series and venues around the country where you can take your group to hear everything from symphonic performances to indie rock and electronica DJs. We’ve also shone a spotlight on shows around the country that go beyond standard musical revues to offer unique and memorable entertainment options for groups.

For a really groundbreaking experience for your group, consider taking a tour to Cuba. Since the U.S. government created provisions for certain types of group travel to Cuba in 2011, this country has become one of the most sought-after destinations in our industry. I was fortunate enough to visit with a group last summer, and wrote a feature article on my travel there.

We hope our articles inspire you to do something new with your group in 2013. Take a look at these ideas with an open mind, and let us know what you think.

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Travel Thoughts

Two days on the Breakaway

by Brian Jewell 12. May 2013 00:38

I remember my first cruise well. It was a seven-day spin on a classic ship that was certainly stately but also somewhat stuffy. I left with a respect for the heritage of cruising, but also wondering if this form of travel was best suited for me.

This weekend's experience on the Norwgian Breakaway has allayed by concerns. I was invited to join a ship full of tour operators, travel agents, journalists and other industry VIPs for the inaugural of the Breakaway, the latest new ship to enter the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet. NCL showcased the new vessel with a pair of two-day sailings from New York, which will be its homeport thorughout the year.

My wife joined me for this weekend excurision, and we were almost immediately impressed with what we found upon boarding the Breakaway. A two-hour ship tour introduced us to many of the company's innovations. Perhaps most significant is the Waterfront, an outdoor thoroughfare that surrounds the exterior of deck eight. Many of the ship's restaurants and bars are located on this deck, and they feture outdoor sections that open up to the Waterfront. Guests can take a stroll to enjoy the open breeze and stop for an al fresco dinner or drink at one of eight restaurants and lounges that open up into this space. The Waterfront also features an a la carte gelato stand and bakery.

The Breakaway also represents Norwegian's next step in their "freestyle cruising" concept. Unlike my first cruise ship, which had one buffet, one dining room and one specialty restaurant, the Breakaway has a staggering 27 onboard dining options for passengers. Several — such as the primary buffet and three main dining rooms — are included in the price of the experience; many others are specialty restaurants that include an additional cover charge. The most notable of these establishments is Ocean Blue by Geoffrey Zarkarian. A popular New York restaurateur and Food Network personality, Zakarian oversaw the development of the high-end seafood restaurant himself, going so far as to create the menus and chose seafood purveyors from among the most trusted in New York. His wife worked with him to select the furnishings, decor and place settings.

The restaurant is a small space in high demand, so we weren't able to get a reservation on the short cruise. Zakarian was on board, however, and we enjoyed getting to know him and his approach to Ocean Blue his question-and-answer session with guests.

Ocean Blue is one of several initiatives that NCL undertook to bring elements of the New York experience onto the Breakaway. In addition to the hull artwork, whcih features images of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, the city's presence can be felt in the Manhattan Room (a dining room designed to resemble a New York supper club), and Carlo's Bakery, a New York family bakeshop made famous by the television series "Cake Boss." Onboard entertainment reflects New York traditions as well: Regular entertainment includes an adaptation of the Broadway hit "Rock of Ages," as well as shows by Cirque Dreams, Burn the Floor and New York blues musican Slam Allen.

I must admit, though, that what we enjoyed more the restaurants and shows was the menu of onboard activities. My wife and I played mini-golf on the top deck of the shock, and watched as daring passengers tackled the most extensive ropes course at sea. Were the weather a little warmer, we surely would have tried one of the five twisting waterslides in the pool area. Inside, we enjoyed pool tables and a miniature bowling alley at O'Sheehan's, the ships irish-inspired 24-hour bar, grill and arcade. We played enough games to make us feel like kids again.

Cruise enthusiasts who travel on Breakaway will still find some of the traditional stapels of cruising. But newcomers and independent spirits will also find plenty of options, activities and autonomy to make them feel at home on the high seas.

Breakaway salis year-round from New York, with trips to Bermuda; Florida and the Bahamas; and the Southern Caribbean.


Savor, one of three main dining rooms aboard the Breakaway

Ocean Blue by Geoffrey Zarakian is the ship's most intimate, in-demand restaurant.

Celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian


Let go of your travel stress

by Brian Jewell 27. March 2013 00:07

“I hate it when I ask for no pickles, and they give me pickles anyway.”

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of first-world problems; there are plenty of little annoyances and aggravations in life that get under our skin. But when you stop and think about them in the context of the wider human race, you realize that many “problems” — like unwanted pickles — happen only because of the enormous prosperity that we enjoy in the United States.

Perhaps pickles aren’t your pet peeve, but I’m sure you can think of a gripe or two of your own. Is the air conditioning in your office so cold that you have to wear a sweater? Do you hate it when your iPhone takes too long to download a video from the Internet? Have you ever grumbled when the morning line seemed too long at Starbucks?

I’m as guilty as the next guy. Many of the things I grouse about daily aren’t existential problems at all but mere inconveniences that blur the edges of my comfortable, connected and convenient life. When I travel outside the United States and see the harsh conditions many people face every day, I realize how much I take for granted and how many of my “issues” are just first-world problems.

I’ve also noticed that those of us who work in travel and tourism can develop our own brand of first-world problems. Whenever I’m around a group of tour operators, group leaders, travel agents or travel journalists, I see a creeping tendency to begin to complain to each other about the travails of our collective work.

“I had to fly 12 hours to get to China — in coach,” we say. “The hotel was out of king rooms, so I got stuck with two double beds.” “My lunch at the conference was cold.” “I had to sit in the back of the bus during our ride through Glacier National Park.”

Although everyone needs a chance to commiserate from time to time, I wonder sometimes if we’re missing the point. Sure, travel has its hassles, and the more you travel, the more vulnerable you become to them. But then I step back and think about the incredible industry we work in. We spend our lives in travel and tourism. We have jobs that our friends and neighbors dream about. We get to see some of the most amazing places on the planet, and very often, we do it at no personal expense.

The next time you feel swimming in travel stress, take a few moments and give thanks for all of the blessings that come with being able to travel.

Travelers get to see, do and experience more every year than most people do in their entire lifetimes. We are blessed indeed. Next time you get held up on the tarmac — or stuck with an unwanted pickle — thank heaven you should be so lucky.

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Travel Thoughts

Five Favorites: Events

by Brian Jewell 14. December 2012 02:07

Courtesy CMA

If I had to choose, here are my five favorite events that I would recommend to anyone.

Fiesta San Antonio

During Fiesta, several large parades take place in locations throughout the city. There are flower parades, pet parades, the Fiesta Flambeau and more. My favorite memory of Fiesta is attending the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, a grand evening event that takes place on the beautiful San Antonio River Walk.

CMA Music Festival
Casual music fans can enjoy any given night in Nashville, Tennessee, but serious music-lovers come to town during the Country Music Association (CMA) Music Festival, which takes place over three days each June.

More than 100 country artists come to Nashville for the CMA festival, where they perform more than 40 hours of concerts. Some 60,000 music fans come out every year to enjoy the music and to meet their favorite artists during the Fan Fair.

Mardi Gras
The South punctuates winter with the celebration of Mardi Gras. Special Mardi Gras “krewes” celebrate with elaborate costumes, formal galas and lavish parades where they throw millions of plastic beads. The festivities are accompanied by plenty of fresh seafood and king cake, the traditional Mardi Gras dessert.

Mardi Gras is too big to be constrained to any one city. Although New Orleans is traditionally known as the capital of Fat Tuesday celebrations, I’ve been to great Mardi Gras parades in Shreveport, Louisiana; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Mobile, Alabama.

100 Miles of Lights
Virginia welcomes winter in style with 100 Miles of Lights, a coordinated series of holiday events that stretch from the Capitol in Richmond all the way through the Hampton Roads area to the Atlantic Coast.

Groups will find drive-through and walk-through light displays in parks, gardens and other public places. In Williamsburg, the colonial center of town is decked out in period Christmas trim, and the Grand Illumination celebration brings in Christmas with candlelight and fireworks.

Indianapolis 500 Festival
The Indianapolis 500 is one of the most famous events in auto racing, and the community celebrates with the 500 Festival. Throughout May, a series of 50 smaller events and programs take place around Indianapolis.

Some 300,000 spectators fill the streets of Indianapolis for the 500 Festival Parade, which features floats, costumed characters, celebrities and giant helium balloons. The 33 starting drivers for the auto race serve as grand marshals of the parade. Among the other events are foot races, a community festival and “Breakfast at the Brickyard” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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Travel Thoughts

Cuba: Forbidden Fruit for Americans

by Brian Jewell 12. September 2012 20:54

Forbidden fruit has always had a particular appeal to me. Tell me not to do something, and I have an irresistible urge to do just that thing. Ask me to close my eyes for a moment, and you’re practically begging me to peek. Prohibit me from going somewhere, and that place takes first priority on my travel wish list.

For more than 50 years, Cuba has been the ultimate forbidden fruit for American travelers. A wide-sweeping trade embargo against the country’s communist government has effectively prohibited American travelers from visiting the island nation, which lies just 90 miles south of Florida. Although Cuba was once a prime vacation destination of rich and powerful Yankees, it became a symbol of the Cold War, a gated paradise off-limits to American tourists.

It was this strict prohibition that made Cuba such an attractive destination for me. I’ve longed to visit the island for all of my adult life (although I passed up an opportunity to go illegally from Mexico once as a college student). And when we began to hear whispers last year that travel restrictions to Cuba might be loosening, I immediately put Cuba at the top of my tourism bucket list.

The rumors turned out to be true; the Obama administration instated a provision in federal Cuban policy that allowed American tour operators to take passengers on “People to People” tours of Cuba that create cultural exchanges between the citizens of the two nations. American tour operators began lining up for licenses last summer and took their first groups of American tourists to Cuba last fall.
In July, I was fortunate enough to secure a spot on one of those tours as a guest of Premier World Discovery. The weeklong adventure in Cuba took us all around Havana, as well as to farmland to the west and beautiful keys off the island’s northeast coast. I was thrilled to visit this long-forbidden destination and to do it legally. I found Cuba fascinating, beautiful, warm, engaging and challenging. It was everything a good trip should be.

I’m not the only person who has longed to visit Cuba. The pent-up demand for this destination exploded in record bookings for the tour operators who began offering trips last year. Today, many tour operators who are licensed to take these trips report waiting lists of groups that extend into 2014.

We found out firsthand just how excited Americans are about Cuba when we surveyed bank travel program directors about their destinations for 2012 and 2013. In its first year of availability, Cuba surged to number four in our survey, surpassing perennially popular international destinations like England, France, Spain and Australia.

There’s a lot to learn on a tour of Cuba, just like a visit to New York, Albuquerque, South Africa or anywhere else in the world. And although global politics sometimes divide us, travel has a powerful way of creating common ground among all sorts of people.

Here’s to more happy exchanges and less forbidden fruit.


Travel Thoughts

Hard work makes great memories

by Brian Jewell 18. June 2012 22:14

The four hardest-working days of my year are coming up this month. But they don’t take place here at the office; in fact, they have nothing at all to do with my job.

I spend four hot, sweaty days each June on a farm in Wilmore, Kentucky, for the Ichthus Music Festival. This contemporary Christian music event is the oldest festival of its kind in the country, and it attracts up to 20,000 visitors from throughout the South and Midwest.

Ichthus is dear to my heart — I first went to Ichthus as a child with my brother and my father to see my favorite band perform. Throughout my teen years, the festival was the regular highlight of my summer. I would get excited just thinking about all of the music, the fun with my youth group, the junk food and the late-night camping. I always enjoyed the shows and appreciated the ministry that took place during the course of the weekend.

As an adult, I began to see Ichthus not just as a place to have fun, but also as a chance to volunteer and help make a difference in the lives of today’s youth. I’m now part of the festival’s steering committee and head up a team of volunteers who take care of the needs of the artists while they’re on the property.

The steering committee has been working since January to prepare for this year’s festival, but the real work starts when the gates open on Wednesday, June 20. The artists arrive early and leave late, which means that my team and I are on duty from 7 in the morning until whenever they leave, sometimes hours past midnight. The days are incredibly stressful and exhausting. And I love every minute of them.

I first went to Ichthus because I loved music; I began working with the organization because I love the ministry behind it. Each year, our work affects the lives of thousands of teenagers and young adults. It’s this combination of fun and ministry that makes the work so worthwhile and brings me back to the festival year after year.

I’m telling you all this because I see a lot of similarities between what I do at Ichthus and what you do as group travel leaders. Many people believe that traveling is all fun for you, but of course, you know better. Although it is fun, it’s also a ton of work. But the work is worthwhile, because you’re touching a lot of lives along the way.

So this travel season, when the stress mounts and the road gets long, remember the love of travel that got you started in the first place. And remember that the fruit of your group’s travels will long outlast the hard work it takes to make it happen.

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Travel Thoughts

River Walks and Runs

by Brian Jewell 2. June 2012 00:58

The San Antonio River Walk is saving me from obesity.

I've been eating my way across the city for four days now, enjoying the best of San Antonio's food during the annual Culinaria celebration. The events have included elaborate lunch and dinner affairs, a Mexican tasting event and a fancy soiree that featured some of the area's leading chefs offering small bites of their very best dishes. Needless to say, I've consumed more calories than my body has required.

After all of this eating, my waistline would be expanding rapidly were it not of the San Antonio River Walk. I've been stayinig at the beauiful Westin hotel, located right on the River Walk in the heart of the scenic downtown district. The San Antonio River and the charming district built up around it may be the most iconic image of San Antonio (save for the Alamo itself), and it makes an ideal place for visitors to stay, eat, shop and explore.

It's also an ideal place to excercise. The river winds through the downtown and neighborhoods such as La Villita, which give it a distinctly Mexican ambiance. Along both sides of the water, the River Walk offers paved pedestrian access, where visitors can stroll alongside the river and well-landcaped gardens that run along either side. Though the weather is already heating up for the summer, the River Walk provides a welcome respite from the heat, so I've been taking advantage of the setting to run a few miles each morning before beginning my touring for the day. Along the way, I pass plenty of other walkers and runners.

The River Walk is San Antonio's best toursim asset, and the city has gone to great effort to expand it in recent years. An expession project currently underway has added several miles of walkable riverfront extending from the downtown area in either direction; when the project is finished, there will be more than 8 miles of walkable riverfront. The expansion projects allow pedestrians to walk north to the city's museum district, and south to the grand homes in the historic King William neighborhood.

Of course, running isn't for everyone, and the city offers other ways for visitors to experience the River Walk. Groups can take a boat tour of the downtown district, with guides who tell the history of the River Walk and point out some of the area's most interesting spots. River taxis also ply the waters through town, picking up visitors along the River Walk and ferrying them to wherever they want to go. There's even a lock system that allows the boats to ride up river to areas of higher elevation.

I think my morning runs along the River Walk are helping me stay in shape during this trip — or at least that's what I tell myself. Even if I'm not burning off all of the calories, though, I'm certainly enjoying the view.


A group explores the River Walk via boat.

The River Walk includes stone bridges, shade trees and great architecture.

Visitors can use the River Walk to access hotels and museums.

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