Better safe than sorry

by Donia Simmons 16. January 2013 19:49



“Are you ready … for a disaster?”

A roadside billboard with this message greeted me each morning throughout the month of September. The first time I saw it, I actually got a little nervous. It made me think about things I had never thought about. After visiting the website posted on the sign, I discovered that September was National Preparedness Month.

I realized that our family wasn’t prepared for any type of disaster. I thought a lot about whether or not emergency preparation was something we should plan for.

In the end we decided that disaster preparedness was important for our family. Better safe than sorry, right? We now have an emergency kit in the car, one in the entryway closet and “go bags” for each member of the family. We’ve stored away a supply of food that could feed us for three days in case of an emergency, and we’ve gathered phone numbers for every critical service and family member under the sun.

Will we ever need to use these emergency supplies? I sure hope not. But if we do, I will feel better knowing that we have a plan in place, and that we are better equipped to face the elements or other unknowns than we were before.

As travel planners, you certainly know the importance of being prepared for the unknown, and you may have encountered your own kinds of disasters while traveling with your groups. Many of you buy travel insurance so that you and your travelers will be covered in the case of illness, inclement weather or other unforeseen issues. If you aren’t currently taking these steps, perhaps it’s time to think through the possibilities a little more. It will give you peace of mind and the confidence that you are ready to face the challenges that an emergency might present in your travels.

How are you preparing? Go to our Facebook page www.facebook.com/grouptravelleader , and let us know the clever ways in which you have prepared for travel emergencies.

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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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Five favorites: Museums

by Eliza Myers 20. November 2012 17:51


Courtesy The Field Museum

I found it very difficult to rank my five favorite museums, since I tend to be a fan of almost all museums. History museums especially intrigue me, since even a small, budget-conscious museum can have incredible stories to tell. So I tried to pick the ones I would happily get lost in over and over again and still discover new fascinating nuggets of information.

If you don't see your favorite museum, feel free to comment, because I know there are so many wonderful museums I have yet to explore.

The Field Museum
I still remember walking in and gazing up at the toothy, 13-foot-high Tyrannosaurus skeleton named Sue. At that moment, history felt real, instead of just a set of stories. That is part of the magic of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: The exhibits do not just tell you about how dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures lived; they let you stare them down.

The Field Museum has so many engaging exhibits, I could go back again and again and not get my fill. Displays of a preserved mammoth and the infamous Lions of Tsavo especially stand out in my mind among the numerous exhibits.

The Louvre
Just the building itself is a work of art. Built originally as a fortress and then used as a palace, the Louvre in Paris houses incredible works of art that span time and geography. Since it is one of the largest museums in the world, it felt like a maze I could happily wander through for days.

Although I made sure to see the famous works, like the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, what I enjoyed most was discovering works I had never heard of that nearly took my breath away.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History
The entire National Mall in Washington is worthy of much praise. However, there is something very patriotic about seeing the National Museum of American History while in our nation’s capital. It reminded me that it wasn’t always known that America would become its own country and remain that way through the Civil War, economic depression and other hardships.

The museum is proof that even a country as young as ours can have a rich history, with memorable artifacts such as the American flag that inspired Frances Scott Key and President Abraham Lincoln’s top hat.

British Museum
The British Museum in London comes as close as you can get to gathering the entire history of humanity and fitting it all inside one building. From early Mesopotamian artifacts to the eye-catching Great Court room built in 2001, the museum presents a comprehensive look at human culture. My favorite section centers on the Egyptian legacy, with artifacts including the Rosetta Stone, mummies and statues of the kings of Egypt.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
If you like music, Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum can be a blast. Each level of the museum explores different genres of rock music with artifacts, interactive exhibits and, of course, lots of music to hum along with.

I found it particularly interesting to look at some of the crazy outfits worn by past rock stars, such as the glittery costumes of Queen and Michael Jackson’s famous sparkly glove. The museum also taught me what a wide variety of music inspired and shaped the rock music genre.

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Ten favorite Western scenic drives

by Bob Hoelscher 15. November 2012 21:20



Although I could easily list dozens more, the following is a list of ten wonderful scenic drive that are all particular favorites of mine. Group travel coordinators (and even individual vacationers) would be well advised to include in their future trip planning. Please note that these are all routes that are primarily outside of our national parks, so such extraordinary scenic examples as the Tioga Pass Road (Yosemite), and Trail Ridge Road (Rocky Mountain NP) are not included here.

AZ: AZ Highway 89A from AZ 89 (north of Prescott), through historic Jerome, Cottonwood, the magnificent Sedona “Red Rocks” Country and Oak Creek Canyon to Flagstaff.

CA:  The “Avenue of the Giants” (parallel to U.S. 101) through dense forests of towering coastal redwoods, including Humboldt Redwoods State Park - A bit further south, a good alternative is CA 128 between Cloverdale and the Pacific Coast, which traverses the Mendocino Wine Country and through Navarro River Redwoods State Park.
 
CO:  CO Highways 62 and 145 (part of the “San Juan Skyway”) from Ridgeway through picturesque Telluride and the awe-inspiring San Juan Mountains to Cortez, which is great during fall foliage season. 

ID:  U.S. Highway 12 from Lewiston along the rushing Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers, through Lolo
Pass and on to Missoula, MT, which is another outstanding choice for golden aspens during autumn.

MT:  U.S. 212 (the “Beartooth Scenic Highway”) from Yellowstone National Park, through breathtaking Beartooth Pass, Red Lodge, and on to Billings - Please note that this route is usually open only from late May to mid-October, due to heavy snowfall.

NV:  U.S. 50, (the “Loneliest Road in America”) across the state from the Utah line and Great Basin National Park, through the historic mining towns of Ely, Eureka and Austin, and on to Fallon - desolate yes, but beautiful. Contact my good friend (and one of the nicest fellows on the face of the earth), Ed Spear in Ely at (775) 289-3720 or coyoteed@mwpower.net for further information.

OR:  The “Three Capes Scenic Drive” off of U.S. 101 along the spectacular Oregon coastline between Tillamook and Pacific City – It’s better to do this southbound, so the scenic overlooks will be on the right side of your vehicle.

WA:  WA Highway 20 from Burlington through the heart of North Cascades National Park and Ross Lake National Recreation Area and on through the “Old West” town of Winthrop to Twisp - This makes a great combination with the full-day cruise/tour on Lake Chelan to Stehekin or a visit to the Bavarian-style community of Leavenworth.

WY:   U.S. 16 through splendid Ten Sleep Canyon from Buffalo to Worland - This is also the route to take to Thermopolis, home to what is touted as the world’s largest hot springs, located in Hot Springs State Park.

UT:  The entire length of UT Highway 12 from Torrey (just outside Capitol Reef National Park) through incredible mountains, canyons, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and on to Bryce Canyon National Park and Red Canyon to its termination at U.S. 89


Historic Telluride, on Colorado Highway 145 "San Juan Skyway"


The "Three Capes Scenic Drive" on the Oregon Coast


Utah Highway 12 Scenic Byway

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A tribute to the National Park Service Rangers

by Bob Hoelscher 15. November 2012 21:14



I have often thought that if the U.S. were as well run across the board as is the National Park Service and the Coast Guard, we would have one really exceptional and responsive form of government. Wishful thinking aside, however, and recognizing that even the NPS has a (relatively small) share of the bureaucratic pie in Washington, D.C., it has been my privilege to meet, learn from, and work with literally hundreds of park rangers in the field who do an outstanding job of administering, protecting and interpreting the 398 units that are currently under the jurisdiction of our National Park Service. 

Day in and day out, these committed public servants, aided by a substantial cast of volunteers, can, almost without exception, be characterized as knowledgeable, friendly, helpful and cognizant of the fact that their jobs can be defined as working for, representing and serving us, each a part owner of the world’s greatest collection of historic, scenic and geologic treasures, rather than the other way around.          

It is sometimes difficult to imagine much in the line of real service being provided in a day when lackadaisical attitudes and “good enough” mentalities are all too frequently encountered when dealing with “service” personnel. Yet I have found that NPS employees do take their jobs extremely seriously, even when posted to infrequently visited (especially during wintertime!), lesser-known parklands in the “wilds” of North Dakota, Alaska or Oklahoma, or even to some relatively obscure NPS historic sites that are overshadowed by their much more popular neighbors. 

I am presently on a personal quest to visit all of our NPS-administered facilities, a journey than, as of this week, has reached 339 different units or just over 85% of the existing (but gradually expanding) total. By next summer, I hope to have made all 379 sites in the continental U.S., Hawaii and the Caribbean, leaving only 19 well “off-the-beaten-path” units in Alaska, Guam, and American Samoa.

This effort has been made immeasurably easier, more educational, and simply more enjoyable because of the countless fine NPS rangers that have assisted me along the way.  As we continue to approach the NPS centennial in 2016, I propose that we take the time to often doff our own headgear, whether fedoras, cowboy hats, or (in my case) baseball caps, in tribute to those exceptional ladies and gentlemen who wear their own “Smokey the Bear” ranger hats with pride, dignity and professionalism.


Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, SD

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Five favorites: Hidden gems

by Mac Lacy 19. October 2012 00:18

 


Tenakee Springs, Alaska

For our recent Group Travel Industry Buyers Guide, I was asked to compile a list of five favorite places I’ve been that could be considered hidden gems.  Here are four in the United States and one in Italy that certainly fit that description for me.

Ground Zero, Clarksdale, Mississippi
There are a lot of great stops on the Mississippi Blues Trail, but one I particularly enjoy features live bands, great tamales and fried catfish, and lots of star power. Academy-award winning actor Morgan Freeman is one of the owners and is known to hang out there when he is not on location somewhere.  The acts there are not necessarily name bands; they are more often local blues bands that honor the tradition of Mississippi blues. Live music is offered Wednesday through Saturday nights.

Tenakee Springs, Alaska
You don’t drive to Tenakee Springs. You arrive by small vessel or seaplane. Tenakee Springs is in southeast Alaska on Chichagof Island. The little community of roughly 100 residents is a favorite stop for fishermen, and it gets its name from the natural spring that warms the water in the community bathhouse.
The day we arrived, the town was buzzing about the arrival of a new dog. They had lost one that winter, and the new puppy, a lab, came walking up the pier on a leash while we were there.

Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia
At the Going On Faith Conference in Richmond last summer, I asked Janie Lawson where I could go for a couple of hours for a run and some relaxation. She recommended Hollywood Cemetery, an urban preserve tucked away in Virginia’s historic capital city. This meandering cemetery lies inside a canopy of trees and includes the graves of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; U.S. President James Monroe; and numerous other historic figures. Walking tours are offered Monday through Saturday at 10 a.m., April through October.

Fertitta’s Delicatessen, Shreveport, Louisiana
Don’t ask me how to get to Fertitta’s Delicatessen because I can’t tell you. But anyone in Shreveport can. We came here for lunch a couple of years ago when we were doing a site inspection for the Small Market Meetings Conference. Our hosts suggested this local favorite that serves muffalettas, sandwiches of Italian origin consisting of olive mix, ham, salami, cheeses and mustard.  This unassuming place was filled with local diners dressed in anything from suits to hardhats. And the mint tea you poured yourself in the back was one of the most refreshing drinks I’ve ever had.

Todi, Italy
A hidden gem in Italy may be a misnomer simply because so many people put this country at the top of their travel lists. But Todi isn’t Rome or Venice or Florence. And it isn’t in Tuscany, which gets so much press as well. It’s a beautiful small city high atop a hill in the region of Umbria. I was there at Christmastime, so its ancient town square was lit for the holidays. Someone in that square was playing old Christmas songs by American artists such as Andy Williams over a loudspeaker that night. Enjoying that holiday music in this heavily garrisoned old city was a memorable paradox to me.

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A most interesting fellow traveler

by Bob Hoelscher 12. October 2012 20:44



All of us (hopefully, at least) have a few friends that we can always count on to “be there” whenever we need them. I am fortunate in that my best friend, Graydon “Gig” Gwin, has also been gainfully employed in the travel industry, so we have a lot in common professionally and have been able to regularly supplement each other’s knowledge in our particular areas of interest. 

Our relationship goes back four decades to the early 1970s, when we both worked at the incentive and meeting travel giant, Maritz Travel Company in suburban St. Louis. Although I am now semi-retired, Gig still owns the largest retail travel agency in the “Gateway City,” which specializes in both corporate and upscale vacation travel. But what makes him really unusual is that Gig is one of but a handful of individuals who have visited every single country on the face of the earth (all 320 some-odd of them).

Extensive travel has definitely made Gig into the type of character that makes it a challenge for those he meets to determine whether or not he is pulling their legs, as telling entertaining tall tales has become a Gwin specialty. Even after 40 years of experience, I’m still regularly surprised and amused by some of the things he says and does to complete strangers on the street in foreign lands!

Since Gig’s wife Terrie is not nearly as enamored with being on the road, we have frequently traveled together to places as diverse as Egypt, France, New York City, the Texas Hill Country, South America and Antarctica. Gig has authored an award-winning book entitled Travel Dreams Sold Here – Crafting an Extraordinary Vacation, for which I was privileged to write the chapter on America’s National Parks. This book for leisure travelers is available at amazon.com.

He has also done a substantial amount of travel writing for respected newspapers and magazines, so secondary writing careers are something else we have in common.  Furthermore, he currently serves as a regular guest host for a travel-oriented, nationally syndicated radio program heard in 125 markets. As a speaker, he has entertained over 200 businesses and organizations, so if a truly interesting fellow is needed to liven up a conference or meeting, Gig is certainly worth your consideration.  He can be reached at www.gwins.com/gig or (314) 571-6937.


Gig listening to a presentation at Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland


At the Budĕjovice Budvar Brewery, Česke Budĕjovice, Czech Republic


Taking a break during evening exploration in Bordeaux, France

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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.

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Group travel gets hands-on

by Herb Sparrow 14. August 2012 01:53



Group travel today is much more than just sitting on a motorcoach. Today’s more active group travelers demand more chances to learn about and experience the destinations they are visiting. Over the past decade, many destinations and attractions have seen the value of providing such opportunities.

On two recent trips, I got to immerse myself in hands-on experiences in Columbus, Ohio, and Hershey, Pa. From petting a cheetah at the Columbus Zoo and printing a greeting card on a 19th-century hand-cranked press in Worthington, Ohio, to creating my own candy bar at Chocolate World in Hershey — complete with my photo on the wrapper — I had a blast.

It’s an axiom that people learn by doing, and it’s easy to see why such experiences provide greater understanding. And they are a lot of fun.

One particularly delicious experience was at the Chocolate Lab at the Hershey Story, the Hershey company’s museum located on, you guessed it, Chocolate Avenue.

“You are enrolled in a class where you will make a chocolate bowl. It is totally edible,” Denise, our instructor, informed me. I had just settled in at a stainless-steel workstation after thoroughly washing my hands and donning a plastic apron, latex gloves, a hairnet and, to top off the look, a beard net.

The six stations can hold a total of 35 people for a class.

The class was informative and fun. In between leading us through the steps for making a bowl out of chocolate, Denise gave us a history of chocolate and an overview of chocolate production, from beans to bunnies (chocolate, of course).

She told us that the cacao bean, from which chocolate is produced, needs lots of water and heat; thus, it grows only in the rain forest of a tropical band between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator, with 70 percent now grown in Africa.

After harvest, the beans go through several processes before becoming chocolate: fermenting for up to a week; drying; and roasting, which breaks them into small pieces called nibs, which we sampled.

“The process hasn’t changed in decades,” said Denise.

If you want to sooth your conscience when you overindulge, Denise informed us that chocolate is considered a health food because it is an antioxidant and is considered a fruit. “It is very close to the strawberry,” she said.

But, back to the bowl. The secret was a small balloon. We dipped the balloon in a bowl of melted chocolate twice, careful not to let it drip after the first time, then placed the chocolate-coated balloon on a paper plate and put it into a refrigerator to set. When the chocolate was firm enough, we popped the balloon with a pushpin, and we had a bowl, which we decorated with swirls of liquid frosting from a squeeze bottle.

And, yes, it was edible.

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Ten memorable experiences of the past 12 months

by Bob Hoelscher 8. August 2012 19:35


The author with his motor home in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

In no particular order…

1. Learning to drive a 36-foot motor home, towing a compact car behind, and avoiding as many “big city” traffic hazards as possible by parking the motor home in the outskirts and using the car to get into and around town 

2. Having the ability to avoid snow and cold last winter, as well as oppressive heat this summer by taking my motor home to Phoenix and the Seattle/Tacoma areas when the times were right   

3. Eating (real) bear stew at the 53rd Annual McCleary Bear Festival in Washington

4. Meeting a fellow at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery (outside Seattle) who saw my Cardinals baseball cap and introduced himself, then finding out that he grew up just a couple of miles from where I did in suburban St. Louis and attended both my elementary and high schools   

5. The Cardinals’ end-of-season surge to a surprising World Series victory last October

6. Enjoying a warm, cloudless early May day at Oregon’s breathtaking, deep-blue Crater Lake, at the time still surrounded and enhanced by massive amounts of last winter’s snowfall

7. Being amused by watching locals at a Burger King in Barcelona, Spain, trying to figure out what to do when they were handed empty cups and directed to a brand-new “self serve” ice and soda dispenser of the type that we take for granted in the U.S., but had never been seen before in Europe

8. Lamenting how incredibly rude, self-centered and aggressively hostile American tourists can be when a fistfight was narrowly averted in an elevator I was riding aboard cruise ship Carnival Magic (Please be assured that I was not involved in the confrontation!)

9. Attending thrilling, virtuosic symphony concerts performed by the resident orchestras of Berlin, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco and Oregon

10. Spending the Christmas holidays at remote but magnificent Big Bend National Park in West Texas


My $2 plate of bear stew in McClary, WA


My May visit to Crater Lake National Park, OR


The New York Philharmonic following a concert in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center

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