Alumni Travel Tours Link Travelers to School Spirit and Each Other

Alumni travel tours link education, camaraderie.

Los Angeles Times
September 12, 2010

By Judy Mandell

Doug Donnell has traveled with UCLA’s alumni tours for more than 15 years. His trips have taken him around Europe “enough times that I don’t want to go back,” to South Africa, South America, Egypt, Jordan, Fiji, New Zealand, China and Tibet.

“When I was 25, I went around the world by myself,” says Donnell, a retired Long Beach physician. “It was a life-changing experience but one characterized by a Spartan lifestyle. At age 75, I’m not there anymore. Now I want five-star hotels, my travel arrangements made for me, my baggage handled and the luxury of having a boarding pass put in my hand when I arrive at an airport.”

Besides the educational aspects, alumni tour goers find camaraderie and an unusually easy rapport because of similar educational and social backgrounds (although you do not necessarily have to be an alum to take a trip). Some participants also say they save on alumni trips, all of which may explain their growing popularity.

Alumni travel also has special appeal to those traveling alone. “There is a comfort level knowing that even though they may not know anyone at the beginning of the trip, they have something in common to talk about – their alma mater,” says Debra Crary, manager of the University of Connecticut alumni services. “Ninety-nine percent of the time they end up knowing someone that the other person knows or had the same professor or belonged to the same affinity group. It’s amazing to watch these relationships develop. Oftentimes they stay in contact with each other and will travel on a future trip together.”

Some might believe they could do better financially by planning their own trip.

“You could not do these trips on your own and get the same value,” says Nancy Treser-Osgood, director of alumni relations at Pomona College in Claremont. “To cruise the Amazon River with a biologist, for example, or stroll along the Camino de Santiago with a historian or witness a total solar eclipse with an astronomer – those are not activities you could do on your own.”

Deborah Faucette, a Tampa, Fla., pharmacist, who travels regularly on UConn alumni trips, thinks she saves money “by not worrying about the details that are taken care of for me, and I never need to rent a car,” she says. “It’s comforting to know that the arrangements are vetted through experts – there are no unexpected surprises or disappointments. I also save money by making my own flight arrangements – with my extensive travel for business, I use frequent-flier miles.”

Alumni travel is not new. UC Berkeley’s alumni travel program, for instance, has been in operation since 1974 and is one of the oldest and largest programs in the country. Its Cal Discoveries Travel Program averages 1,000 travelers a year on 60 trips and offers a variety of domestic and international excursions, including land trips, cruises and combination land-cruises, from four days to three weeks or more, but most are 10 to 14 days.

Tauck Tours, in the travel business for 85 years, recently jumped on the alumni tour bandwagon, working with Yale, Lehigh, Kansas State and the UConn.

“Alumni travel groups line up very well with what Tauck does,” says Navin Sawhney, senior vice president of sales and marketing. “Alumni tours place a very strong emphasis on the educational component of travel, on enrichment and on inspiration…. Over 90% of our guests each year have at least a bachelor’s degree, so in a sense, we’ve already been catering to the alumni market for a long time.”

Jackie Olson, director of Berkeley’s Cal Discoveries travel program, sees alumni travel as a chance to reconnect alums with the university and each other. Many travelers are donors to the university. “We feel that our engagement with our alumni travelers helps the university in the long run,” she says.

Christel Pailet, director of UCLA’s alumni travel program, says, “We are in the ‘friend-raising’ business. We want to connect alumni back to the university and keep them involved in UCLA’s future.”

Educational alumni tours also may have a positive impact on the admissions process, said Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington, D.C., educational consultant and admissions strategist.

“Participation in alumni tours can be helpful to families whose children or grandchildren are interested in applying to that university,” Goodman says. “Alums who travel on alumni tours are often viewed positively by university administrators – because the alums are engaged with the university, they have money to spend on upscale trips, and they are generally interested in the learning aspects of various trips.

“By extension, sons and daughters of traveling alums are often initially presumed by admissions officers to be academically oriented, affluent and willing to explore new places – all attractive qualities for applicants in the college admissions process. Of course, there are limits – C students who are not recruited athletes don’t get into Stanford or Harvard no matter how many trips their families take.”

Donnell is often asked which alumni trip he enjoyed most. “This is an impossible question to answer,” he says. “Your question is like asking, ‘Which was the best dinner and wine you had in Tuscany?’ ”

Most people, alumni or otherwise, who travel can tell you what is not their favorite part of a trip. “Traveling is the downside of traveling,” says Donnell, referring to the stresses of a modern-day journey. “Only the destination and its milieu make traveling fun.”

Except for alumni travel, which makes getting there fun again.

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