Last week I wrote about the SuperHost program and how it taps into fundamental customer service tools to help businesses improve their NPS scores.
But there’s another fundamental component covered by SuperHost: appreciating the emotional experiences customers go through.
I was reminded of this “emotional component” a few days ago. Some students asked if they could have a meeting with me. It was a busy day, so I asked them to follow me into my next lecture. I was expecting them to ask me for an extension on a project or some advice on studying for the exam.
I was wrong. One of the girls pulled out some stuffed animals, while another produced a card and a small plant. “We read your blog and we heard you’re having a tough term,” they said. “We want you to know we appreciate you and we hope things are going better.”
With that they left. I was blown away. The card expressed the same sentiment with the added words “You are awesome!”
Of course it brought tears to my eyes. The stuffed animals are for my kids, the plant for my desk, and the card … for my heart.
Working in the service industry, it’s easy to get caught up in scores, and ROI, and the grind … don’t get me wrong, these things are important.
But the heart of the matter is that customers are people, with lives outside the scope of our interactions, who need some TLC from time to time.
I’m confident these young women will make great additions to any tourism team because they have the brains, but more importantly, the heart, to make a difference with our visitors.
This Tuesday morning I joined fellow tourism nerds at a Tourism Vancouver presentation of Alex Hunter: The Art and Science of Wow.
Alex is a former Virgin America executive who travels the world as a branding and customer experience expert and keynote speaker. He’s also the host of Attaché, an award-winning online travel show, which brought him to the Vancouver Playhouse main stage.
Alex is a phenomenal storyteller; it’s challenging to take his fluid ideas and anecdotes and pull them together into something cohesive, so here’s what stood out for me:
The Internet Ruined Everything
Maybe it’s because Alex is a fellow Gen Xer who remembers the good old days of pay phones and print ads, but his statement that “marketing was the easiest job in the world until we ruined it with the internet” really struck home. He pulled up the following ad which summarizes the kinds of things Madison Avenue used to be able to get away with:
The internet comment was tongue in cheek, but he’s right that the good old-fashioned decision-making funnel has been obliterated. We can’t grab consumers with a big message (sexually harass her and you’ll be cool), hit them with some PR/evidence (doctors recommend Tipalet), and then do a little price-based sales promotion to nudge them over the line (Tipalet: now 2 for the price of 1).
Consumers today are in a cycle with more points of engagement. Marketers must strike a reasonable balance between pre and post purchase connection because our targets are not in a funnel, they’re on a see-saw adding and subtracting brands under consideration in any given moment.
We’ve moved from a push to influence at the “consider” and “buy” stages to an emphasis on talking with (not to) our customers at the “evaluate” stage (even if that means exposing them to other brands) and at the “advocate” step (encouraging sharing with their sociograph in person and online).
The Loyalty Loop
So if there’s no funnel, Alex argues, we need to pay extra attention to loyalty, which has been something of an obsession for him. The ultimate goal is to get your consumers into what he refers to as the “loyalty loop”.
You can’t have loyalty without someone feeling something, or in the words of Matthew Weiner on Mad Men:
“You feeling something. That’s what sells.”
Alex then called out Apple users (guilty as charged). When I remember back to my switch from the frugal but frustrating combo of a Microsoft Surface and a Samsung cell phone to a MacBook and iPhone in one day, I recall feeling free and relaxed.
And since that day, when I interact with Apple, I know I’m taken care of. I know where to go to get my problems solved, and they’re solved promptly, frequently exceeding my expectations. Prior to this, the tech devices in my life were a source of stress and confusion. Say what you will about the corporation, but Apple really does handle UX very well. By helping me to chill, they’ve got me in the loop!
Emotion is Greater than Reason
Alex also introduced us to Dr Donald Calne. Well, not personally, although Dr Calne apparently lives in Kamloops. Calne is a neurologist who discovered, through scientific study that:
“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.”
So if we want our guests, visitors, and customers to conclude something about our destinations and businesses, then we can use reason. But if we want them to take action, we have to appeal to their feelings.
Hunter’s example was that of Coke vs Pepsi (specifically Diet Coke in his case). As a Coke drinker, I understood his story immediately. Because if somebody offers me a Pepsi as an alternative I feel incredulous and, frankly, insulted.
Coke is a special treat. It’s birthday parties, summer vacation, going to the movies in a real theatre, and Christmas dinner. Pepsi is … overly sweet Coke substitute. I will stick with water if that’s the only option.
As Alex puts it, “if brown water in a can can produce that reaction, no product or service is immune.”
The Small Stuff
Back in ye olden days, when I was a kid (so, the 1980s), businesses used to interact with consumers one-on-one. This is another thing the internet ruined, for a spell. We got so fixated on broadcasting wider and wider on the web, that we lost this connection. But we can get it back.
And it’s not that hard to do well. You’ve heard my example of being bowled over with the gift of well-timed water on a WestJet flight. And Hunter is loyal to a hotel in New York City where, time after time, they’ve stocked the fridge with Diet Coke, left a basket of his favourite snacks, and a handwritten note. The first time it was a surprise (based on a questionnaire he’d filled out). But they treat him to this every time he stays – prompting the comment “I am no longer a transaction, I’m not just a room night, I’m a relationship.”
We Are Magicians
We have all this data and the capacity to use what we know to create delight. And so many opportunities (touchpoints) to do this online and in person. But Alex cautions us NOT to tell our guests how we do it. He shared the story of a famous airline that used iPads to produce out-of-this world personalized greetings and experiences for their guests. Except in a PR move, they published a white paper on how they did it. They ruined the trick (“you don’t love me, the iPad told you”), and forgot the context of the relationship. To create magic for the guest, never forget that you are a magician.
The Handwritten Note
Take the time. Get the pen. Write the note. And for the love of everything, if you’re going to do a mail merge, do it correctly. Alex quit banking with an institution that sent him a “Dear null null” letter. I’ve broken up with a car dealership that uses my two middle names in all their communication. Get these things right the first time.
People Remember How You Make them Feel
There were so many nuggets in this presentation and the Q & A that followed. Ty Speer joined Alex Hunter on stage and they wrapped the session up with a from Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”
Alex Hunter made me feel excited to work in tourism, excited to bring the magic to my students, and pumped to be a better businessperson and host. You can check out his website here, or follow him @cubedweller.
So in case your Facebook feed didn’t pile up with pictures of little back-to-schoolers on Tuesday, I’m here to remind you it’s that time of year again!
It’s the time of year I:
Realize that I am the teacher
Promise not to take on too much
Take on way too much
Here’s a list of commitments that I entered into over the summer, and am now realizing might be impossible to meet:
Elected member of the BCIT Education Council (EdCo)
Member of the programming committee
New volunteer at Kudoz
Volunteer member for the BC Hospitality Foundation scholarship committee
Member of a cool new committee to do with the Tourism Industry Conference (TIC is my jam, as you know)
Member of the selection committee for a new Associate Dean for our department
And assistant coach of the marketing team for JDC West
Of these, I have decided to drop the last item (coaching) because mercifully another (more qualified) volunteer stepped forward out of the woodwork. That’s great, because as an instructor I’m now having to go from public speaking hibernation to ‘on’ several hours a day. And plan. And prep. And parent. Also apparently I have a social life?
Don’t let the calm-and-poised instagram post fool you, folks, I’m low-key freaking out over here. Next post I hope to address some (relatively healthy) ways I’m trying to cope with the stress.
What are your ways of dealing with back-to-school stress? Hit me up in the comments.
On August 20th, 1954, the SS Groote Beer docked in Quebec City and my two-year-old father disembarked alongside his family to start their life in Canada. My Opa made the decision to leave Germany as a result of his experiences in World War II.
As I approach a milestone birthday in 2019 I’ve been working towards a trip that combines a bucket list destination (Paris) with an opportunity to connect with my German roots. And since I’m the “tourism nerd”, I’ve been thinking about this trip and what it means from an Explorer Quotient (EQ) perspective.
EQ is a psychographic tool developed by Destination Canada, and in use across the country, that attempts to move beyond demographics (age, gender, country of origin) and into the psychological motivations and desires behind travel.
Typically as Canadian tourism professionals we focus on the ‘hot’ EQ markets for our destinations: Free Spirit, Cultural Explorer, and Authentic Experiencer. These are great segments to target, and you can read more about them, and how to apply EQ, in this handy PDF: EQProfiles2015.
Originally, however, nine EQ profiles were developed. And while I’m not suggesting we should focus on all of these, in my circumstances think it’s important to note a ‘special’ category, which is the Personal History Explorer (PHE).
In the context of this specific trip, as a PHE I’m having a hard time accessing the resources I need. Part of this journey requires birth records (destroyed during the war), part of it relies on memories (my dad is a grandparent now, it’s hard for him to remember when he was two years old), and the rest relies on research that frequently yields incomplete results. For example, I’ve visited seven different websites with Groote Beer manifests, all of these are partial, most focus on arrivals to Australia and New Zealand … it’s a bit of a mess.
And let’s talk about shifting geography for a second!
My Oma and Opa were from the Sudentenland, which was the area of the now-Czech Republic inhabited by Sudeten Germans. Since Bohemia and Sudetenland are no longer political regions, and haven’t been for decades, I’ve had to rely heavily on my uncle to determine where, exactly, I should be visiting.
Finally, there is the emotional component of developing a trip like this. Immigration is a stressful change for a family, even when it’s for the better. Talking about family origins can dig up deep feelings of regret, loss, or even anger. If I’m honest I’m currently harbouring some resentments at my father for choosing not to keep his German citizenship, and for not teaching us to speak German – even though intellectually these decisions make sense in hindsight.
In his book “Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche“, Bill Plotkin talks about our need to return to our psychospiritual roots. He asserts there is an innate connection we have with our ecology of origin. I’ve looked at photos of the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) since childhood and deeply known that those streams, trees, and mountains are somehow of me, just as parts of British Columbia like the Fraser River, North Shore Mountains, False Creek, and Burrard Inlet are part of my makeup.
Returning to these primal, ecologically-emotionally connected places is what Plotkin calls “relocalization” (p.55). I think as more boomers, Gen X, and even Millennial travellers start seeking out PHE trips, tourism developers and marketers will need to provide more support for this type of journey.
What I’m recommending is:
Local tourism professionals keep an eye out for unique stories like these and create customer journey maps to understand the ‘pain points’ of developing this kind of trip
Residents, staff, or other passionate locals help PHEs develop itineraries
Destinations with shifting geography/place names make this very clear in their marketing materials
Tourism marketers use these stories as a means to connect with other PHEs who may be interested in the region
Do you have a PHE trip on your mind? Where might you need to go to feel truly reconnected to your psychospiritual roots? Share in the comments.
A question I get asked regularly is “what is dark tourism”?
Many people conflate dark tourism with sex tourism, exploitation, and other challenges related to overtourism.
According to Stone, Seaton, Sharpley and White, dark tourism is “the contemporary commodification of death within international visitor economies.” The distinction here is death, which is why the phenomenon is also referred to as thanatourism from the Greek ‘thanatos’ or personification of death.
An example of dark tourism is a visit my daughter and I took to the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, included as part of a group tour of the country.
This network of underground tunnels just outside of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was used during several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, serving as the Viet Cong’s base of operations.
We visited the Ben Dinh site, featuring reconstructions, re-enactments, with tunnels widened to accommodate visitors. Guests are taken through the tunnels (if desired) and shown various components of life during the war. I was taken aback by the shooting range where guests paid by the bullet to fire M16s.
Ahead of our visit I did the best I could to debrief my then seven-year-old on the Vietnam War. Our guide was a former solider who walked us through the areas and provided colour commentary. But if I’m honest my daughter mostly knows this as “the place I went in the tunnels from the world war” (she doesn’t understand the difference between conflicts). And I had been reluctant to visit the site from the start.
So who are Stone, Seaton, Sharpley and White? They’re the co-authors of the definitive reference text for the study of the phenomenon of dark tourism. Their newly-released text (click here for more) examines dark tourism and visitor sites of death or disaster in order to better understand issues of global tourism mobilities, tourist experiences, the co-creation of meaning, and ‘difficult heritage’ processes and practices.
I was privileged to work on a chapter with Dr Geoffrey Bird of Royal Roads University and Natalie Thiesen of Tourism Winnipeg. We argue that marketing plays a major inventive role in tourism world-making, the shaping of culture and place. Additionally, we consider how marketing can be consciously, responsibly, and appropriately employed in politically charged sites of memory. Our section starts on page 645 – this truly is THE handbook for the subject, and it’s the size of a phone book (if some of you remember those).
Having now experienced a dark tourism attraction, I’m struck by the popularity and Disneyfication of what is a profoundly disturbing place to me. Tour groups jostled each other to get a position climbing on a tank for photos. Our guide’s dialogue was fascinating but at odds with the story we were being presented. My daughter was encouraged to scramble through the tunnels as if it were a game, not really grasping the severity of the conflict or how many lives were lost.
One of the principles of dark tourism is that the visitor and the site co-create meaning in the moment of the experience. Overall I was grateful for the chance to visit a challenging site, but wish I had been better prepared to work through it with my child.
Are there any ‘dark tourism’ sites in your community? And if so, how are they approached?
Last week I got the thrill of a tourism nerd’s lifetime when I met THE official EXPO ERNIE!
For those of you who haven’t sat (suffered) through one of my lectures on the growth of BC’s tourism industry, Expo Ernie was the mascot for Expo ’86, which marked the birth of our industry as it is today. Approximately 22 million people descended on Vancouver for the World’s Fair from May to October 1986.
Not without controversy (which you can read about elsewhere), to this then 7-year-old Vancouverite Expo was a thrill. Check out this CBC retrospective on the event to get a sense of the scope.
But how did I come to meet THE Expo Ernie? He was the guest of honour at the official re-launch of SuperHost, a program developed in 1985 in preparation for Expo, which has become the standard for service excellence in BC and an internationally recognized leader in training for the tourism industry.
With go2HR now in charge of the program, there was no better time than Tourism Week to announce that the suite of courses has been revitalized with a new Foundations of Service Quality to be followed by Service for All and Destination Ambassador, available later in 2018.
I’m proud to be a SuperHost trainer and happy to offer it to our tourism students each fall, as well as to new industry entrants through programs like Embers, and private-sector clients in the hotel and food and beverage industries.
At the launch, Grant Mackay from Destination BC referenced our goal for British Columbia to be the most highly recommended destination in North America. We can’t do that without offering our guests exceptional service – a tradition that started over 32 years ago, and continues to this day.
Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of BC, talked about the excitement of Expo 86 and how if you “take the experience and extrapolate it to 365 days a year, that’s the life of a tourism professional.” I couldn’t agree more. What makes me such a tourism nerd is that I get to share this province with visitors, and help shape the strategy that makes us great, but more importantly I get to share my enthusiasm for BC with the world.
“Beauty is not what sets us apart,” he added. “It’s the service by well-trained professionals that turns visitors into advocates for our province.” Hear, hear.
I’m going to take my exuberance at meeting Expo Ernie into my SuperHost training at a local hotel this month, because #bctourismmatters and #superhostmatters!
WestJet’s Christmas Miracle campaigns, which combine corporate giving with strong public and media relations. Too numerous to mention them all, a recent WestJet effort in the Dominican Republic offers a good example. Click hereto watch it.
“Red Sucks”, the video from a small mountain in the Kootenays. This campaign was a tongue-in-cheek look at 24-hours in a guest’s life at the local resort. Watch the video here.
The transcendent nature of the “Super, Natural British Columbia” brand that has persisted through several organizational structures to touch the hearts and minds of hundreds of visitors. Students this year referenced the Wild Within video (here) as being particularly memorable.
Tourism Calgary, the Calgary Stampede and other stakeholders’ “Come Hell or High Water” statements, and “Calgary, We’re Open” a 2013 collective effort to invite visitors to the destination despite excessive flooding. See the official tourism video here.
5. UNILAD Adventures’ look at Zimbabwe, as posted on Facebook.
“Pure Michigan” radio campaign, particularly in the Windsor-Quebec corridor. Apparently to those who live there, these spotsare a near-constant presence.
Tourism Australia’s “Best Job in the World” campaigns. Starting with a 2009 contest for the NSW region, this grew into a national youth-focused initiative drawing global attention.
1. And the “winner” is? Incredible India. I promoted this to the top spot because my BCIT undergrad students also voted this the top brand in our destination development course. Click here for a 2013 commercial from the campaign.
To view the list we created in 2017, click here. And let me know what campaign springs to your mind (from any era) in the comments below!
It’s almost the end of term and time for me to reflect back on my teaching practices. One of the things I’ve been focusing on this year is engagement: connecting with my students as people, and encouraging them to connect with me as well.
A practice I’ve implemented in all of my sales courses is to ask a bonus question that awards one mark for demonstrating that the students have gotten to know something about me:
“Share one thing you’ve learned about your instructor (her background, likes, dislikes, family or other fact) while taking this class.”
This year, I decided to compile some of these. I hope you find them as funny as I do. And please share your ‘engagement’ practices with me!
From my introductory sales class:
A passion for marketing and utilizing blogs and social media accounts (i.e. Instagram) to share professional knowledge and personal experiences respectively. Also dislikes getting stuck on a snowy mountain and missing class.
She’s into Star Trek and possible TOTR (editors note: had to Google this … I think they mean LOTR?). She likes poutine.
She likes visual aids, dislikes pushy salespeople, enjoys traveling and has at least one child … is that everything, gel?
Amiables (smile emoji) explains things clearly.
Does not like telemarketing. In the tourism industry.
BCIT grad. She recently went to Vietnam with her adorable daughter named Fraser. We can find her Instagram account @tourismnerd. She likes lemons?
You like pets! You have kids?
She likes travelling.
You have a very cute daughter. You are confident, and have beautiful voice.
You went to BCIT!
She likes getting up mountainsides, but no so much down!
She likes to climb mountains/hike instead of teaching her students. JOKES (smile emoji) . Morgan graduated from BCIT as well.
You were a sales manager before. You are teaching sales class at night as well.
Funny, enthusiastic, active and responsible.
Has a daughter.
I learned that Morgan has a 7-year-old daughter.
The love for Star Trek and dressing up as those characters for Halloween.
She has a daughter.
Morgan is hungry all the time. Thank you for teaching this class! I had a great time learning and you’re a great teacher! Good luck with everything.
Her daughter is really cute. Morgan has amazing traveling experience, I am so jealous!
You throw student evaluations in the garbage, LOL. (smile emoji) I knew it was true! I’m sure most teachers do.
How do you engage with your learners or peers? Post your ideas in the comments!
It’s that time of year again! The annual BC Tourism Educators Conference is being held at Okanagan College and as per usual much debate, discussion, and learning is happening around key themes in tourism education.
First up this morning was Tom Baum from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. For over 36 years Tom has been seeking to address the social and strategic contexts of low skills employment, with particular focus on hospitality and tourism.
Dr Baum challenged us, as a group, to look at the future of work in tourism, by first looking at the past. He suggested that for decades we have been engaged in the same conversation around tourism employment issues: lack of meaningful pay, low-skilled work, and high turnover – to name a few. He referenced a quote by George Orwell who was a pot-washer (plongeur) in the Paris of 1933: “a plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work.”
The fact is that in 2018, if we take a global view, there are still many “plongeurs” in our industry. Dr Baum cited reports including:
Global hotel chains – making London an unethical tourist destination through ‘standard industry practice’ by Unite the union Hotel Workers’ Branch: UnethicalLondon
Wage Theft in Australia – finding of the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey: WageTheft
The great training robbery – assessing the first year of the apprenticeship levy: TrainingRobbery
Dr Baum shared findings from one document in particular, “Working for the Mouse”, in which they found that despite challenges including homelessness and extreme commutes, and yet over 85% of the workforce interviewed at Disneyland in Anaheim reported that they loved their jobs. You can read that report here: WorkingfortheMouse
So where to from here? Dr Baum’s presentation set the stage for a day of “backcasting” (also the process used by The Natural Step), in which we looked at the outcomes we want to produce in our institutions, communities, and industry.
One of the best experiences of my trip to Vietnam was participating in a cooking class called Oodles of Noodles run by Streets International in Hoi An.
Doang was the first up from the Oodles of Noodles team. She taught us about the program and asked us to “please correct our English so we can learn”. Throughout the experience all the hosts were very good at interacting with the group. “We need your help to learn. You will do that, yes?” “Yes!” we all promised.
Next we watched a short documentary about Neal Bermas’ vision for Streets International. They conducted research to find the right city and chose Hoi An due to the high levels of visitation and its history as a multicultural port and culinary destination. Their goal is to launch careers in hospitality.
The program provides participants with full health care, lodging, and three meals a day. These are orphans, children from HIV backgrounds, or formerly trafficked and prostituted people. The facility has a working kitchen, a classroom for culinary lessons (both internal and external, like ours), and a 16-station computer lab for learning English.
The cooking class that followed the program description was immersive and entertaining.
A young woman named Nho taught us about noodles and I now consider myself a rice noodle expert. Dai from Hanoi did a demo which was also broadcast on a TV for the people at the back.
M Nhi is from close to Sapa. She taught us to count down in Vietnamese as well as guided us through the noodle making process at our table. Our noodles were combined with a charcoal broiled variety to make a smash cake which made a delicious appetizer.
The tables were then wiped down and we were served the local specialty prepared by the culinary students.The entire group agreed that the meal, the service, and the cleanliness of the facility far exceeded anything we had experienced so far.
Streets International also runs a restaurant, one that is designed to stand on its own. The servers, hosts, and culinary team are all program participants.
Recognizing that front-of-house trainees receive the lion’s share of immersive language and hosting experience, Streets International also partners with local tour operators to offer tours led by back of house staff. These tours allow budding chefs to take guests through Hoi An, where they practice English and share the culinary history of the destination.
Intake for this program is every nine months. So far 250+ youth have graduated and there are more job offers (high end restaurants, resorts, etc) than graduates. A second location recently opened in Hanoi.
My experience of Hoi An was one of a busy destination, one where popular sites were choked with tourists barely grasping the significance of what they were seeing. While at times I experienced the dreaded ‘overtourism’, the afternoon spent at Ooodles of Noodles was educational and entertaining – all while making a difference in the lives of young people.
This is the future of the industry as far as I’m concerned and a model for tourism done right. I’ve already challenged my soon-to-be tourism graduates back home to explore this model and see how they could bring it to BC.
I’m in the middle of my trip to Vietnam and it’s been an incredible experience so far. Based on my social media posts and pictures, a few people mentioned they’d like for me book their travel for them.
Well, folks, here’s the secret: I didn’t really plan this trip!
Our packaged Vietnam Family Adventure has been fantastic, it’s true. So here are my top ten reasons to book a packaged tour. These are especially applicable for cross-generational travel or travel to areas where you are completely a fish out of water.
10. A support team stands behind you.
I initially mis-read our itinerary and completely missed our departing flights. I connected with the company through Messenger and started getting instant advice, and partnering, on how to correct the mistake and reunite with our tour. They re-booked our airport pickup and we seamlessly joined the group on arrival.
As an aside I highly recommend booking your own flights (unless included) so that you are 100% comfortable and familiar with the itinerary. If not, triple check the dates and times you are sent. (It just didn’t ‘click’ for me when it was booked on my behalf).
9. Quicker jet lag recovery and routine building.
After three days we were completely on Vietnam time, thanks to a thoughtfully constructed, tried-and-tested itinerary. It’s hard to motivate yourself to push into a new time zone, with a tour it’s done for you. Get up to do the thing. Lather, rinse, repeat. Congrats! You’re on a new schedule.
8. Vetted optional activities at better prices you can negotiate yourself.
We participated in a kayak tour and a motorcycle tour. I know for a fact that an FIT (fully independent traveller) could not have gotten those rates. I also knew I could trust the safety record of the suppliers. Our CEO (chief experience officer) Son also was able to cancel us out of an optional activity when it became clear my daughter wasn’t feeling up to it. “Our suppliers understand when this happens, if you don’t want to participate you won’t be charged any money.” This just isn’t the case when you book yourself.
7. Mind-blowing optionals.
Want to rent a motorbike and travel to the Vietnamese countryside to see an ancient tomb? It’s possible. You might get there at the busiest time of day, the road might be flooded … or you could walk out of your hotel and jump on a bike and enjoy the activity. Most of the sites we visited had zero people (outside our group).
We also did a cooking class through Streets International that I will remember always. This particular class is not open to the general public, only g-Adventures guests, and you can read about it here.
6. Better connection with the locals.
We were led around Hanoi by a young woman named Lan, who introduced us to six different types of street foods. Personal stories, learning how to do a ‘cheers’ in Vietnamese. Can you meet locals like Lan using apps and other tools? Of course. That said, this was a vetted experience and took zero effort on our part. She showed up in the lobby of the hotel, Son had already made all the arrangements, and then we paid her cash at the end of the trip.
To put this in perspective, a family from our tour went out to find a certain dish and vendor themselves, and they ended up walking for over an hour, and getting caught in the rain. While that’s part of an FIT “experience”, I’m not able to do that with a 7-year-old.
Later in this trip we’ll stay with Vietnamese families in their homes on the Mekong Delta. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to plan that myself.
5. Access to what you need when you need it.
My daughter became suddenly ill while walking to the citadel in Hue. I mentioned this to my group leader and he immediately found a clean bathroom for us at a scooter dealership. Now, unless you speak Vietnamese, know the culture very well … there’s no way to negotiate that. And trust me, she needed a bathroom. Like most travel tummy troubles we had maybe two minutes’ notice.
Later in Hoi An, I was able to use Messenger to chat with Son and get the address of the local banh mi kiosk he had recommended. He even offered to go for us in case my daughter wasn’t up to it. Service!
4. Instant travel buddies!
Our group of 20 started calling ourselves “sticky rice family” after Lan’s advice that we stick together (like sticky rice) when crossing the street. My daughter played Uno with the other children, including a little girl from Bremen who is still learning English. She had kids to play marco polo with in the water. And I had other adults to chat with.
3. Insider tips.
Did you know that the train from Hanoi to Hue leaves from the centre platform? Son does. I would have missed that train for sure (it was hidden behind another train, and the announcements were in Vietnamese). There were backpackers in the station holding tickets to cities they didn’t want to visit, lining up to talk to agents who didn’t quite understand them.
Now, I had an experience like this in Thailand as an FIT where my friend and I bought tickets for a train-bus-boat trip to an island that, upon arrival for the final leg, was missing the final boat ride. She spoke enough Thai to get us passage on a fishing boat. It’s one of my favourite travel memories! But I was 21, had days to spare, and went almost a day without food or drink. That’s less appealing as an adult on a schedule, especially with a child in tow.
2. Efficient itineraries.
Did you know that the train always leaves late? Son does. Do you know when rush hour starts in Hanoi? Lan does. How about the best time to visit the really crowded areas?
When you travel on a packaged trip, they’ve run through the itinerary dozens of times themselves. They’ve tried it with people of different ages. They’ve learned that if they hit a specific attraction at a specific time, it can be viewed just before the crowds hit, and if followed by lunch at a specific restaurant, the meal will happen right when everyone is hungry.
It really is possible to see a lot in a short amount of time, and still have down time, if you’re travelling with the experts on that region.
1. The right amount of down time.
Not every optional activity is going to work for every traveller, even if they share demographic and psychographic characteristics with the rest of the group. Some people want to go for dinner by themselves. Some couples (or parents and kids) have a spat and want to work it out in private. Believe me, tour operators know this and they factor it in. We had almost three days in Hoi An where I had a bunch of tailored clothes made, my daughter swam her face off, and we did lots of relaxing in our air-conditioned room.
This was optimally planned for just when we needed it.
Some people think that technology and other shifts are going to kill the packaged tour. I disagree! There’s a role for this kind of product in our industry. And I highly recommend the experience.
Like all things #tourismnerd, this post has not been sponsored in any way and I paid full market rate for my trip.