Stopping to smell the roses

by Bob Hoelscher 8. August 2012 19:33


Wild mushrooms in Mount Rainier National Park, WA

Regular readers of my monthly, electronic ramblings are probably already aware that one of my passions is hiking in our national parks and other public lands.  Needless to say, along the trails I do encounter a lot of interesting and inquisitive people, yet I continue to be surprised by others who, even though totally surrounded by the majesty of Mother Nature’s handiwork, still seem unable to “see the forest for the trees.”

I don’t quite know what drives individuals to be in such a big hurry, or the attraction of simply getting to the end of a trail and return to the point of origin as quickly as possible, seemingly in order to embark upon yet another perfunctory adventure. In the tour industry, we’ve all heard stories about international visitors to the Grand Canyon, who, after a brief look over the rim at Arizona’s awesome gorge, have apparently seen as much as they want and are ready to press on to Las Vegas.         

My point is simply that there is beauty to be found almost everywhere.  Nevertheless, if one does not pause along the way to look for that beauty, or to bend over for a closer view, then he or she is missing out on a whole world of fascinating discoveries. I’d much rather make just half of a given trail and know that I experienced as many of the wonders encountered along the way as possible, than be able to boast that I made it all the way to the “bitter end.”      

Hopefully the accompanying, recent photographs provide an idea of the type of sights that many people seem to just rush on past. I sat on a rock in Mount Rainier National Park for at least half an hour to take in the splendor of the glacial lake and mountain ridge shown. Even though this rock couldn’t have been more than 100 feet off of the “beaten path,” not one of them paused along the way long enough to see what they were missing while I was there! So please, do yourself a big favor when you’re out in the wild and stop to smell, see, photograph or otherwise experience the things that are just beyond comprehension with a cursory glance.


Flowers after a rainstorm at the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, Eatonville, WA


Glacial lake and Goat Island Mountain in Mt. Rainier National Park, WA

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Photographic follies and taking better pictures

by Bob Hoelscher 8. August 2012 19:20


Rather than flash, I used a railing to steady the camera and get this shot inside the cathedral in Malaga, Spain

I take a lot of photos as I travel around the country, explore our parklands and embark on ever more esoteric cruise itineraries. In fact, I have over 50,000 digital images on my laptop computer. Although I’m pretty good at it, I’m certainly not in a league with topnotch professional photographers.

But considering the amazing technology built into modern digital cameras, taking good photos is not a difficult task. For decades I have amused friends with Hoelscher’s First Law of Amateur Photography: The amount of time required to take a photograph is inversely related to the sophistication of the equipment being utilized.

First, it is important to note that digital cameras on the market in 2012 are much, much improved over models sold less than a decade ago. As a result, if you happen to use a camera more than just a few years old, it’s high time to bite the bullet, junk the old clunker and get yourself a more technologically advanced piece of equipment.

Every week I encounter people striving mightily to see the dim viewscreen of an older digital camera in bright sunlight, which is virtually impossible. If you are not satisfied with the pictures you can take with your cell phone, do yourself a favor and resist the temptation to buy an “el cheapo” camera on sale at Walmart. Cameras with excellent features are now available for $150 to $200, while spending around $300 will get the average casual photographer as much flexibility as he or she is likely to require. Personally, I have found the selection and prices at Costco to be particularly attractive.

Yet I see people all the time who have spent $2,000 to $3,000 on expensive, frequently bulky (and, yes, top quality) Canon or Nikon equipment, apparently because some camera store salesperson saw them coming, deduced that they had money to spend and sold them a lot more capability than they needed. Most will likely never even figure out how to take advantage of a fraction of all they have purchased. Many of them don’t even know how to turn off the in-camera electronic flash. Please note that my remarks here are most certainly not geared towards many serious amateurs or those with professional ambitions.   

Back in the 35mm film days, I had cases filled with numerous camera bodies and an assortment of very flexible lenses, but I missed shots simply because I had tired of toting all the paraphernalia around. Now I have four very portable digital models.  Even my publisher friend of The Group Travel Leader seemed surprised that I get some pretty decent results using relatively modest equipment. These days I seldom even get my tripod out of the box, simply because I have learned to use whatever might be available…posts, poles, railings, rocks, fences, fire hydrants, church pews, etc., as camera braces to steady my low-light shots. Believe me, this really works!

Finally, digital photography allows you the opportunity to take numerous shots without spending any additional money. The more pictures you take, the better you will get at doing so, so I’ll let you in on a little trade secret. All successful professional photographers experiment and take many shots, but only show only their best images.                      

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”.  

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at bobho52@aol.com or by calling (435) 590-1553.


Take multiple images of your subjects in order to be able to choose the most interesting facial expressions


Find a post or fence to steady long telephoto shots, like of this one of a Mount Rainier glacier


Position yourself across from where the parade turns a corner, and you can get both "head on" and "side" shots

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The balancing act of travel

by Eliza Myers 19. July 2012 23:11



You never know how people are going to travel together until you hit the road with them, which is why I felt nervous about my husband’s first family vacation with my mom and brother to Yosemite National Park this spring. Although I had traveled with them individually, I was unsure if everyone’s travel styles would mesh well.

On the Mist Trail hike up to Vernal and Nevada falls, it became clear how their traveling preferences differed. Jeremiah is focused when hiking and likely to choose 12-mile trails going uphill the whole way. My mom and brother like to amble along shorter trails so they can stop to rest and examine less noticeable things like rock lichen.

One clue the hike felt overly taxing to my mother was when she nicknamed the 300 steps up to Vernal Falls as “the stone stairs of death.” After hearing this, I moved ahead and matched Jeremiah’s quick pace to check on him.

“We’re making good time. I think we can make it to the top of the Nevada Falls,” said Jeremiah, although we had previously agreed to only hike to the falls’ base.

“OK. How high of an elevation gain is that?,” I asked.

“Another 1,900 feet.”

“Right, so twice as high as we just walked?”

“Yeah, but we can walk up it quickly.”

Worried about how my mother would feel about this change in plans, I slowed down to see how she felt.

“I can’t feel my feet. It’s weird,” said Mom. “I can feel my legs, but they are really mad at me, so I wish I couldn’t.”

After these two varying accounts, I wasn’t sure what to suggest. How do you keep everyone happy when traveling? It is a trick group leaders have had to learn through years of experience. Group leaders have to master the art of meeting everyone’s travel expectations even though those can differ among people.

Fortunately for me, when Jeremiah learned my mom was tiring, he volunteered to only go to the base of the falls as agreed. He compromised as my mom and brother compromised to hike farther than they might have on their own. But once we got to the base of the magnificent Nevada Falls, everyone was satisfied. That’s the power of travel: Even when both sides concede things, one impressive view can make everyone 100 percent happy.

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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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Why travel and insurance go hand in hand

by Herb Sparrow 11. May 2012 22:50



The excitement of preparing for a trip, especially one that is out of the country, should also include careful planning. One of the most critical things any overseas traveler should have is travel insurance that covers trip interruptions and medical emergencies.

I had a firsthand experience about the benefits of insurance on a 10-day Panama Canal cruise on the Island Princess with cruise-operator specialists Susan and Russ Rosenberry of Islands in the Sun. I purchased a policy from Travel Guard, one of several capable and reliable companies, on my own, although you can purchase insurance through a tour operator or the cruise line.

The second night at sea, after a long and enjoyable dinner with Susan and Russ, I began getting a pain in my lower abdomen that became progressively more intense as the night wore on. Having had an attack of pancreatitis three years before, I suspected I was having another attack. Pancreatitis is not something to take lightly.

I finally dialed the emergency number around 5 a.m. and went to the ship’s medical center, where they put me on intravenous pain medicine and did blood tests and X-rays. By midafternoon, the ship’s chief medical office determined I needed to be put ashore at our first stop in Aruba for further tests.

I was taken by ambulance to the Dr. Horacio E. Oduber Hospital in Oranjestad, where I spent nearly four days.

Travel Guard, which is picking up all of my medical expenses on the ship and at the hospital, was in daily touch, monitoring my situation. The company arranged for a hotel room after I was discharged and arranged for my return flight home in business class along with a ticket for my daughter, who flew down to accompany me home.

I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t purchased the insurance. Since it was an emergency, my health insurance might have reimbursed me for the medical costs, which I would have had to pay upfront, but I doubt it would have helped me get home.

I would also like to thank Princess Cruises, whose U.S.-based passenger assistance officers Mary Kessler and Don O’Neal were also in daily contact to offer any assistance I needed and called to make sure I had gotten home OK.

The medical staff on board, headed by Dr. Deon Venter, were very professional and competent in stabilizing my condition and making me as comfortable as possible for a full day and night at sea.

In Aruba, Carol Angie, managing director of the port agency, and Henry van Loon, the agency’s boarding officer, also looked after me, getting my luggage off the ship and storing it. Carol brought my carry-on with my toiletries to the hospital and took me to the hotel after my discharge and to a pharmacy to have a prescription (they call it a recipe there) filled.

I am deeply grateful to everyone who helped me.

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How to sell group tours to a younger generation

by Stacey Bowman 19. April 2012 00:34



My husband and I are in our early 30s and have a small child. We are not your normal group tour type, but we could be part of an untapped market. Most couples our age are working, raising a family and seriously strapped for time. Planning a long couples weekend or a family vacation can be difficult. I’m a member of a generation that says yes with a click of a button, and I’d rather not have a phone conversation.  So how do you find me?

I know you are going to roll your eyes, but it’s through social marketing.  Facebook, blogs, e-newsletters, digital editions, texting, tweets and so on are your most powerful resources. Yes, I’ve said, “I’m so over Facebook” before, but I still check it every day: when I’m stuck in traffic, waiting on the doctor, in line for coffee, pretending to watch a documentary with my husband — should I go on?

Maybe I’m not updating my personal status that much anymore, but I’m still looking, and if you’ve got something I like, I’ll click on your link. And isn’t getting someone to your site half the battle? And if you do not support mobile devices or do not have a professional-looking website, I will leave your site in a heartbeat. Sorry, but it’s true.

Now that you’ve found me, how do you sell me on a group tour? First, you need to remember who I am. You can’t sell me on a 14-day trip to Italy, no matter how amazing the price. I don’t have the time, period. Sell me on a four-day weekend, where I don’t mind asking the grandparents to watch the baby. Give me a seven-day family trip to Disneyland or the Smoky Mountains that is affordable and flexible, and watch me blast it out to all my friends, who will put their families on that trip, too.

Here are a couple of things to remember about this generation: We are looking at the cost just like everyone else, and we will compare prices online if we think we can do better. We may not go on a bus, but in 10 different SUVs or minivans.

Name badges — really? Most of us have been to all-inclusive resorts; we’ll do wristbands, but name badges — ugh. Give us options. We will spend money on spas, outdoor adventure and so on, all so we can post a picture online to impress our friends who didn’t go on the tour.

Oh, and I forgot the best part: We 30-year-olds have parents, parents who are in that sought-after group called boomers. Treat their kids right, and you just might end up selling that 14-day trip to Italy after all.

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Multi-generational travel brings blessings

by Donia Simmons 20. March 2012 01:26



When my husband’s parents invited us to go on an Alaska cruise with them last May, it proved to be an opportunity of a lifetime!

For me, this was my first cruise, but his parents, who are seasoned cruise goers, were heading back to Alaska for the eighth time. They are both in their 80s and just celebrated 60 years of marriage this last December. Travel has always been a very important part of their lives, and we were overjoyed to share this time with them.

In the late 1940s my husband’s parents caught the travel bug while stationed over in Germany after World War II, and they have been traveling ever since. His mother has been to China, seen the Monarch butterfly migration to Mexico and visited the Taj Mahal. They have both been around Cape Horn, passed through the Panama Canal, cruised the Russian waterways, seen the Holy Lands and extensively traveled Europe, Canada and the United States.

I would have to say they’ve covered almost everything you could ever have on your bucket list.

The past few years, travel has proven to be much more difficult as his father’s Alzheimer’s progresses and his mother’s recent stroke and failing knees have begun to take their toll. Time is precious, and both of us realize it. That made this opportunity to cruise together such a blessing!

Our presence allowed his parents the security of knowing that plane departures would be met, boarding passes were already printed, wheelchairs or transportation would be waiting at the gates, and we were there to assist them when they got turned around on the cruise ship or at port.

Our children in turn got to spend precious time with their grandparents in a secure and fun environment. Meals were the highlight of all our days with waiters that entertained us with magic tricks and created napkin animals for the children to play with. Mr. Lyndon, our headwaiter, played a round of tic-tac-toe with our daughter every night — much to my husband's parents amusement — which culminated in a championship match on the last night of the cruise.

The grandparents enjoyed daily ice cream treats with the children, watched them swim and Grandmother read books to them at night as we watched whales and icebergs go by from the large window in our room.

I am confident that as the years go by that more breathtaking than the Tracy Arm Fjord, more captivating than the pristine views and more memorable than seeing our first humpback whale will be the treasured times we spent together with loved ones.

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Just go for it!

by Eliza Myers 18. February 2012 01:18



“Drivers in India like to play the game of chicken,” said Anil Bahal, my India tour guide with Globus, as we watched cars weave through traffic. “They like to drive at you until the last second. Driving in India may not be half the fun, but it is half of the experience.”

Watching the cars moving haphazardly through the traffic near Agra, India, I felt very thankful to have an experienced Indian driver at the steering wheel. Just looking out the window, I saw four people on a motorcycle, cows wandering beside the road and about 20 people sitting on the roof of a moving bus, since there was apparently no room inside.

India is an exotic destination, no question. It is a total culture shock to most Americans, who aren’t used to seeing cows walking down main street or giant monkey-shaped statues next to places of worship. I was clearly out of my comfort zone, and I loved every minute of it.

I tried to soak up everything about the fascinating country while I was there. I shopped at a local market, tried flavorful menu options and even danced in a wedding procession outside my hotel.

I hate to think of all the fun memories I would have lost if I had felt too fearful of the unknown to go. People who know little about current events told me that it’s too dangerous to go to countries like India. I received similar warnings about Israel, Jordan and Mexico, and had extremely safe and culturally profound experiences in each of those countries.

Choosing the more alien destinations over the familiar favorites can end up being a worthwhile decision. Sure you can always go to your favorite beach for relaxation, but it shouldn’t be the only traveling you do. Travel to exotic destinations can teach you not only about those places but also about yourself and your culture by comparison.

Always encourage yourself to try new destinations, even if you may feel uneasy about it at first. The security of traveling with a group can help people explore regions of the world they wouldn’t have dreamed of going on their own. In the end, I always have the fondest memories for the more adventurous trips like the one to India.

The traffic in my hometown was oddly quiet once I returned.

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