Many affluent travelers are nudging aside traditional escapes for more educational fare. Even in the midst of an economic downturn, private-jet tours costing $45,000 or more for a few weeks of learning about places like Easter Island and Mali are heading out full, some with wait lists. Barbara Isenberg talks with Amy Kotkin, director of Smithsonian Journeys, the largest U.S. museum-based educational-travel program.
Although the Smithsonian's been offering educational tours for nearly 40 years, the marketplace seems to have expanded in the past few years. Any thoughts on why? There are more boomers who are retiring and who have an unprecedented amount of wealth and education. They're looking for access they want to go behind the scenes where people aren't generally allowed, and they're looking for insight from experts. They want authentic experiences, but they want to be comfortable.
What instigated the around-the-world trips in private jets? A few college-alumni and museum-affinity groups were offering private-jet trips in the mid-1990s, and we began ours in 2001. At first, we didn't think our travelers would buy this product. It was much more expensive than anything we had previously offered. But they proved to be very popular.
How do you decide where to go and then manage to pull it off? You have to work very closely with the jet-tour provider. Our current provider, Starquest, generally uses Boeing 757s specially configured with 88 VIP-style seats instead of the standard 228, and they have to know where those planes can land. They need to know what destinations have the infrastructure hotels, guides, places to eat to accommodate a group of 88 people comfortably.
How do these jet trips sell in a tough economy? Our Extraordinary Cultures trip in March '09 is almost full. We usually start selling those tours 16 months in advance. Our 34-person Lands of the Great Buddha trip, which sold out this year, will go out again in September '09 to China, Japan, Mongolia, Bhutan and India to see how Buddhism evolved in those countries.
What about tours for the rest of us? We offer about 250 escorted educational tours a year. Our Signature Tours, which are higher-end, are accompanied throughout by an academic, and our lower-priced Travel Adventures have local lecturers who meet up with you along the way. If you're going to the Great Barrier Reef, for instance, you'll meet with a marine biologist, and if you go to Iceland, we'll make sure there are talks by geologists.
In other words, the idea is to get travelers to places and people they couldn't find so easily on their own? Yes. We also do one-off trips where we can provide special access to what is already an exciting event, like a major golf match or the Toronto Film Festival. One of our perennials is a Mystery Lover's tour of England and Scotland where travelers meet mystery writers and visit places where mysteries take place.
Given how different these tours are from one another, what do they have in common? Our tour operators share our notion of good itinerary-planning for this market. Often that means slowing it down and spending enough time in key places to let people absorb what they're seeing at a reasonable pace.
Have you noticed any commonalities among the people who travel with you? When you sign up for a learning vacation rather than having fun in the sun, that's the first cut. When people unite around a special interest and are willing to travel to faraway places, the likelihood of their being with other people who share that passion is very high.