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Monday, April 30, 2012

WGN Radio has been a Chicago institution for decades; the lively conversation continues 24 hours a day. 
Photo: James Cridland
WGN Radio has been a Chicago institution for decades; the lively conversation continues 24 hours a day. 

 

From follower to fan

By Amanda Black

Anyone who’s listened to me for more than a few sentences, either in person or in print, has heard me utter the phrase: “I heard this on the radio.”

This love of mine started young. My family moved to Chicagoland when I was two, and we immediately started listening to WGN, AM 720.

Chicago’s hometown talk station has been a Windy Institution for more than 75 years. It was started by Col. McCormick, the same impresario behind the Chicago Tribune. In fact, the radio’s call sign stands for the World’s Greatest Newspaper.

I still think it’s the world’s greatest radio station.

I have fond memories of listening to the radio. On Saturday mornings, my dad and I would listen to the station while we were doing chores and errands. Beloved host Roy Leonard once sent us the soundtrack to American Tale on vinyl.

This was long before the hipsters discovered vinyl; in fact, many of them weren’t born yet when this happened.

Anyway, my grandpa and I listened to the Cubs game all the time, and every road trip involved listening to WGN until it turned into static and we found an inferior station.

I drifted away over the years: when I was in junior high, I was drawn by the lure of a pink FM radio playing the hits from Michael Jackson and Madonna. Then I moved south before you could stream radio stations online so I couldn’t have listened if I wanted to.

I then had a long flirtation with pop and country radio even after I moved back into the WGN radio territory.

Then one day, I couldn’t take one more listen to “Come On Eileen.” This was an epiphany moment for me. There’s still an AM dial and WGN is still interesting. I was in love all over again.

I even appeared on the radio a few weekends ago, sharing a story about my sad/funny story about winning the lottery and losing money anyway. (My call is exactly 10 minutes in).

Today, I listen by podcast as well. Although the technology has changed, my love of it hasn’t. 

I've been listening to WGN for years, returning after some time when I drifted away. 
Photo: James Cridland
I've been listening to WGN for years, returning after some time when I drifted away. 

 

I can think of a few ways for groups to connect with WGN. It broadcasts from the Tribune Tower at 435 N. Michigan Avenue, right in the heart of the tourist district. When the hosts are in the Showcase Studio, you can walk right by, listen to the show and be a part of the fun.

This Chicago landmark is included on many architecture tours, either by foot, land or the Chicago River. 

Col. McCormick’s estate in suburban Wheaton has grown into a premier group tour destination. It’s now Cantigny Park and includes museums, golf, gardens, shopping and more group amenities. One museum preserves his grand mansion and the other shares the story of the First Infantry Division where the colonel served in World War I.

I say all this to ask you this question: What are you doing to inspire your fans? Could they write a blog singing your praise? How do you turn contacts into fans?

Speaking of fans, we love to connect with our readers. Have you liked us on Facebook yet? I also keep the conversation going on Twitter @amandagrouptour (where, of course, I follow WGN).

Amanda Black has spent the last 10 years with Group Tour Magazine uncovering the best attractions and tours for groups. She lives in Holland, Mich., with a lovely view of a meadow and duck pond. Amanda is big fan of fresh food and TV dramas as well as all things cute.    

Friday, April 27, 2012

Illustration: Miss Travel

 

Travel companions ... yeah, those kinds of companions

By Aaron Ogg

I always enjoy hearing stories about how romance blossomed in unexpected places (e.g. grocery store, PTA meeting, food court, a nursing home). Typically inherent in these unlikely tales of love is an element of staggering odds that borders on — or falls head over heels into — evidence of destiny or fate.

Then there are online dating sites and matchmaking services.

Don’t get me wrong: I know at least a few couples that connected this way and have had successful, loving relationships for multiple years. That’s hardly surprising considering the multitude of personality traits, personal views and, yes, physical characteristics users are asked to reveal. It might seem more like an algorithm than a chance encounter, but there’s no doubting the effectiveness.

Is there really any wrong way to find love?  Hold that thought.

There is a new dating site that launched today, MissTravel.com, aiming to match “generous travelers” with “attractive travel partners.” Presumably absent from the service’s methodology is a keen focus on other traits, such as religious beliefs, favorite authors and favorite charities.

Here is their promotional video. Note the illustrations, which are fantastic:

As an added benefit, “Attractive members” (their capitalization, not mine) can accumulate frequent flyer miles that can be redeemed for free flights or hotel rooms. Clearly, it pays to get around.

I’m as yet unclear about the criteria one must meet to be considered Attractive, but I’d bet I could guess some of the metrics.

I suppose if this is the type of companionship one is seeking, this type of service makes sense. I have no reason to doubt that users get what they pay for. Thanks, humanity.

You know where I’ve overheard a lot of good conversations? Motorcoaches. Most of them are casually friendly in nature; talk of families, past careers, hometowns, favorite destinations, etc. Group tour participants, thankfully, come in lots of shapes, sizes, colors, ages, attitudes, socioeconomic statuses and preferences.            

I’m certainly not advocating a group tour as a way to seek true love, but considering what’s out there, one could do worse.

Aaron Ogg is Group Tour Media’s content marketing director. He resides in Grand Rapids, Mich., and enjoys social media, Apple products, games of chance, punctuality and the occasional meal of sushi. Follow him on Twitter, @aarongrouptour.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bingemans Camping Resort in Kitchener, Ontario, has a standard glamping package that includes a yurt rental (a free-standing tent with hard walls and a door), two queen-size beds, a fridge and chandelier lighting.
Photo: Bingemans Camping Resort
Bingemans Camping Resort in Kitchener, Ontario, has a standard glamping package that includes a yurt rental (a free-standing tent with hard walls and a door), two queen-size beds, a fridge and chandelier lighting.

 

Could luxury camping for groups be a new profit center?

By David Hoekman

I’m not a camping aficionado.

Maybe that’s because when I was a boy, my family stayed in motels when we went on vacation.

Close to 30 years ago a friend and I made a backpacking trip to South Manitou Island in Lake Michigan. While that was a fun experience (mainly because my buddy was an experienced camper) and gave me a great feeling of self-sufficiency, I’ve not gone camping since.

Backpacking is still around, of course, as is camping out of recreational vehicles.

One of the newer forms of camping is called glamping, a combination of glamor and camping.

Bingemans Camping Resort in Kitchener, Ontario, is putting a Canadian spin on upscale camping.

“A lot of people love the idea of camping; sitting around a fire, enjoying the wilderness and connecting with family and friends, but not everyone likes to rough it while on their vacation,” said Mark Bingeman of Bingemans Camping Resort. “We’ve created an experience that combines the outdoor fun of camping with the comfort of a five-star hotel. The other great aspect is how you can customize the experience to be as glamorous or as rustic as you like.”

Bingemans Camping Resort offers a waterpark, indoor playland and a golf course.

Its standard glamping package includes a yurt rental (a free-standing tent with hard walls and a door), two queen-size beds with full linen, a fridge, chandelier lighting, gate controlled access location, a fire ring and picnic table on a site overlooking the Grand River.

The glamping packages are designed for beginning campers who are looking to ease their way into the real thing, or for families and groups of friends that don’t want to deal with the hassle that roughing it in the outdoors can sometimes be.

A Pampered Glamping package includes Gina’s Spa glamping rejuvenator, a personal chef dinner made with local-based menus delivered to the yurt, premium picnic baskets and a movie night.

“We pride ourselves on providing a fun experience for every family and every family member. Our glamping packages are perfect for the discerning family or group that wants to get away from the city but also get pampered and enjoy the outdoor water park activities and other fun at the park,” Bingeman said.

Glamping doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. But it sounds to me like an enterprising tour operator can work with an enterprising campground owner to get some new product on the market.

How about it? Is glamping in your future? 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Rocco wll celebrate his First Holy Communion this weekend.
Photo: Bridget O'Neill
Rocco wll celebrate his First Holy Communion this weekend.

 

Event planning details prove frazzling for the non-expert

By Erin Albanese

Two of my favorite people are celebrating big milestones this weekend.

My 8-year-old son, Rocco, is making his First Holy Communion; and my best friend of 27 years, Dani, is having her bridal shower.

Who’s in charge of the festivities for both? Yours truly.

As I approach the weekend, I have lots of details running around in my head necessary to pull off the family communion party Saturday evening followed by the shower Sunday afternoon, both at my house. (Usually, I have a hard time coming up with what’s for dinner, so this is a real challenge for me.)

A sampling of my thoughts in recent days: When should I have the pizza arrive? Will there be time to go to the gourmet shop for antipasto items? I still need to order the cake. Do I have enough chairs? When can I fit in a haircut for Rocco? What games should we play at the shower? Do people really even like shower games? How many gifts do I need for guests? What about decorations? Who hasn’t RSVP’d? I probably should have gotten the carpets cleaned.

Then, there is anxiety about being the hostess.

I have a major fear of public speaking, and even a shower with 30 women in my own home makes me uneasy. (I feel sheer panic when I think about the looming maid-of-honor speech.)

 Oh, my! I am not a natural-born event planner! Martha Stewart seems otherworldly to me and Pinterest makes me kind of dizzy.

I could really use an expert right now!

Of course, along with the party plans I have group tourism industry details running through my head, and can’t help but appreciate the myriad logistics that must be organized for tours.

All group members must be accounted for at all times, with their needs and requested accommodations adhered to appropriately. All activities require comprehensive planning, with the right amount of time allocated for each attraction. A lot must be considered to make a tour successful, and pulling it off requires a high level of expertise. It’s daunting for me to even think about.

Bride-to-be Dani Cook, with me, the maid-of-honor.
Photo: Shawna Landacre
Bride-to-be Dani Cook, with me, the maid-of-honor.

 

Guests naturally like things to flow smoothly and to enjoy stress-free travels. They deserve to sit back and relax while the professionals take care of the rest.

Tour leaders must be calm, cool and collected and cheerful on top of that.

My events are small-scale for sure, and not tied at all to my job. They are certainly not akin to managing a weeklong itinerary, and really, not that much is expected of me. I’m still going crazy with details!

I have realized a great respect for tour leaders who can pull trips off with finesse and friendliness.

My hope is that come Sunday night, both Rocco and Dani will have had memorable, happy celebrations.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Making it appear that way will be the biggest test.

Group Tour Media Staff Writer Erin Albanese is busy fretting stepping out of her comfort zone! A graduate of Central Michigan University, she currently resides in Wyoming, Mich.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fresh produce waits for a buyer at the Old Town Manassas Farmers Market in Virginia. 
Photo: Amanda Black
Fresh produce waits for a buyer at the Old Town Manassas Farmers Market in Virginia. 

 

Confessions of a reluctant foodie

Cool is not my middle name.

I don’t understand steampunk, and most popular music sounds like noise to me.

But somehow, I’ve joined the hipster crowd.

It wasn’t the new pair of glasses I just ordered or the amount of time I spend watching the Nerdist Channel on YouTube.

It’s this fact. I’m a foodie.

There, I said it. I’m a foodie.

Foodie. Gourmet. Epicure. Picky eater. Worried about sustainability. A cook. A member of a food co-op. Frequent visitor to the farmer’s market. A person who drives through the country with dollar bills in my pocket so I can buy the freshest produce.

This is not the place I expected to end up, but I’m very happy here. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I can think of several reasons why I’m a foodie — and why you should be too.

Please hear me out. I don’t mean to sound pretentious. 

1). Real food tastes better. Strawberries in season have this juiciness that just can’t be duplicated. They’re worth the wait, and I miss them when they’re gone.

2). Processed food is packed with chemicals and other weird stuff. I’m not saying that I never buy anything in a box or a can, but if I can buy fresh, I will.

3). Sodium is everywhere. When you eat fresh food, chances are good it won’t be stuffed with extra salt. It tastes good, but there are ways to get flavor that won’t make you sick in the long run.

4). It’s fun. I’m going to step off my soapbox now and tell you it’s simply fun to make good meals out of real food. Some yellow carrots or yellow tomatoes can turn the same old side dish or sauce into something really neat.

5). It engenders community. It’s a joy to shop local and chat with farmers. Stoll through a farmer’s market, and you’ll see nothing but smiles and happy people to go along with all of that fresh food. The trip I made to the Old Town Manassas Farmers Market in Virginia was a delight and I'm still thinking about it after all this time has passed. It was a wonderful way to begin a morning far away from home. 

6). Culinary travel is rising. The truth is, everyone has to eat, and there’s probably never been a group tour without a good meal or two.

The author proves that fresh food can be a lot of fun!
Photo: Kim Fenolio
The author proves that fresh food can be a lot of fun!

 

But now, people are wrapping entire tours around top culinary activities like cooking schools, wine tastings, farm-to-table meals and progressive dinners.

We at Group Tour Magazine think that culinary tours have real staying power. The cover story for our latest issue, “Fusion Food” looks at the culinary scene in the West, how it’s grown up from its cowboy days.

I had a blast writing the article, and I’m sure people who take time to sample western cuisines do too.

We also have an entire website dedicated to all things group culinary travel. It’s called www.grouptourculinary.com.

I encourage you to check them out, and get in touch with me. Tell me about your favorite culinary tour stops and your favorite fresh food.

Send me a tweet, @amandagrouptour, or visit us on Facebook and post on our wall.

Amanda Black has spent the last 10 years with Group Tour Magazine uncovering the best attractions and tours for groups. She lives in Holland, Mich., with a lovely view of a meadow and duck pond. Amanda is big fan of fresh food and TV dramas as well as all things cute.    

Friday, April 20, 2012

Fenway Park is a century old, and has always been home to Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox.
Photo: Creative Commons/MisconMike
Fenway Park is a century old, and has always been home to Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox.

 

Fond memories of Boston's Fenway Park and the Red Sox

By Rick Martinez

Fenway Park celebrates its 100th anniversary Friday.

The only home ever of Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park is the oldest venue used by a professional sports team in the United States and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I’ve been drawn to the park near Kenmore Square in Boston at the corner of Yawkey Way and Van Ness Street and home to the Green Monster and Pesky’s Pole since I was a child.

My grandfather (Pepere, as we affectionately called him) brainwashed me. When I visited him in the summer, we would listen to the Red Sox games on the radio as he rocked on the front porch of his Manchester, N.H., duplex.

That was long before the Red Sox broke the fabled curse of Babe Ruth after 86 years to win a World Series title in 2004 (and again in 2007).

Full disclosure: I’m a diehard Red Sox fan. 

I’d love to write this blog with a Boston dateline, but I’m not there.

However, I was just in Beantown — or, more modestly, the Hub of the Universe — last month. I stayed at The Park Plaza Hotel & Towers, the Official Hotel of the Boston Red Sox, while attending the Discover New England Summit & International Marketplace.

As I walked the streets of Boston in the crisp March air, Red Sox caps with the gothic “B” were everywhere to be seen. It felt good.

Unfortunately, the closest I got on the trip to Fenway — besides seeing its lights from afar — was nearby Northeastern University and the Museum of Fine Arts. No baseball pleasures on the visit; bummer.

For me, visiting Fenway and rooting on the Red Sox has always been a group excursion. Whether on a motorcoach (a few times) or in a couple of vans, cheering on Boston against the rest of the American League has always been a community affair for me.

The sun sets over Fenway Park in Boston.
Photo: Creative Commons/InspiredInDesMoines
The sun sets over Fenway Park in Boston.

 

The only baseball stadium I’ve been to more often is Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

One of my fondest memories of Fenway and the Red Sox came in summer 1987. After a Red Sox win, the group I was with managed to spend some chat time post-game with Boston player Marc Sullivan. During the game, he chatted us up a little during breaks; he was the bullpen catcher and we were sitting just above in the right-field bleachers.

I’ve toured Fenway as a fan many times, and I've seen the Red Sox play both home and away. And I am looking forward to this summer, when I hope to take a 50-minute tour of the home field for Red Sox Nation — unless I'm able to score some tickets (fat chance since Boston’s typically sold out).

After all, Fenway is where Ruth pitched (before he went to those New York Yankees), Ted “The Kid” Williams hit, Carl Yastrzemski dazzled, Carlton Fisk caught and David Ortiz still thrills. Fenway is a place where pro baseball, football, soccer and hockey have been played. Fenway is a stadium that opened eight days after RMS Titanic sank. 

There was one winter afternoon years ago where I tried to get a group of Boston visitors I was with into Fenway. While it didn’t happen, I recall walking the perimeter of the 37,493-seat ballpark. We managed to sneak some peeks inside, but that was about all.

One of my friends said: “It’s a lot cozier than I ever thought it would be.” 

Ah, cozy it is. Too bad I can’t be there Friday to celebrate.

Rick Martinez is Editor of Group Tour Media.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Virginia Beach Boardwalk is a great place for a walk or bike ride in Virginia Beach, Va.
Photo: Erin Albanese
The Virginia Beach Boardwalk is a great place for a walk or bike ride in Virginia Beach, Va.

 

For novice travel writer, Virginia offers a great introduction

By Erin Albanese 

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — There were moments during the media tour I attended — my first ever — to Virginia when I stopped to reflect on the many dimensions of group travel.

 A bike ride on the 3.5-mile Virginia Beach Boardwalk led me past groups of all kinds doing many different activities: playing in the sand, eating, riding surreys, watching the waves.

Norfolk showcased a modern town where groups enjoy the plentiful art tied in with maritime history. Many will come in the next few weeks for the huge Virginia Arts Festival and OpSail, to try craft brews or dress up as pirates.

Colonial Williamsburg is where groups think about the Virginia of yore, when our nation was founded. They mingle with re-enactors, visit original houses and buildings and walk to The College of William and Mary where U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler were educated.

Then, the Eastern Shore along the Chesapeake Bay is another world all together. I met many locals who run businesses on the peninsula who came for a different way of living, a slower pace to raise a family.

I feel like I had a lesson in culture and heritage, while still getting the chance to feel the sand between my toes.

Virginia has gorgeous sandy beaches, a peninsula where the Atlantic Ocean kisses the Chesapeake Bay, numerous state parks, mountains, wine, food and a rich history.

The list goes on.

My consensus for Virginia’s offering for groups from a small-scale to a really big one: it does not disappoint! The four-day trip exposed me to just a slice of what the beautiful state offers.

GTM staff writer Erin Albanese meets Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors.
Photo: Erin Albanese
GTM staff writer Erin Albanese meets Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors.

 

In terms of what groups are seeking, there are a spectrum of tour destinations, from the Chrysler Museum Center in Norfolk — slated for a major expansion and renovation in 2013 — to the best-kept-secret offerings of the Eastern Shore, accessed by way of engineering marvel, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Out-of-the-way waterside town or big city excitement, Virginia has it all.

Of course, Virginia offers a plethora of historic sites. My group and I explored the gardens, original buildings and merchant shops while stopping to talk with re-enactors in period costumes, at Colonial Williamsburg. We tipped back Pimm’s Cups at the famous historical site’s Shields Tavern, located in an old tavern.

Then there was food, a delight for everyone! Fresh seafood, Virginia wine, sweet potato biscuits and locally grown peanuts were a few surprises.

 It was as trip of firsts for me —– first media trip, oyster pairing, visit to Virginia Beach — which was cool to experience with some very seasoned travel writers and friendly and knowledgeable Virginians. It was a great introduction to a really exciting industry!

 GTM staff writer Erin Albanese thinks there needs to be a Virginia media tour reunion trip! She has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she currently resides in Wyoming, Mich.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Virginia Beach's miles of public beaches are a spectacular sight.
Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau
Virginia Beach's miles of public beaches are a spectacular sight.

 

Virginia Beach, I'm packed and ready

By Erin Albanese

I may have morphed into a travel journalist, but I feel more like a hyped-up tourist.

What do I most look forward to in Virginia Beach? Let’s see. …38 miles of coastline. …a three-mile boardwalk. …. fresh seafood. Ahhh.

 I’m looking over my tour itinerary for next week, and must admit I feel like I am the big winner of an amazing four-day vacation package.

This will be my first foray into seeing first-hand how group tours work. I am participating in my first press trip, the “Beach Front Food and Family Fun in Virginia Media Tour” April 15 to 18, hosted by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and will be ready to go with backpack loaded, camera in hand and walking shoes on (I’ll leave my Hawaiian print shirt at home, but can’t promise I won’t purchase a “Virginia is for Lovers” T-shirt). I am looking forward to writing about all the fabulous destinations for groups and the restaurateurs, docents and artisans that make them that way.

I kind of feel like a giddy kid, eager to see, smell and taste everything. I am likely to adopt my daughter’s oft-repeated phrase, “I wanna see it! I wanna see it!” I have traveled quite a bit, but I still find nearly every facet of going on trips exciting, even airports. (I watch the people and wonder where they are headed or coming from, enjoying the hustle and bustle.)

This will be a new experience for me. Usually on family vacations, my husband and I fit in a few can’t-miss destinations that fit our budget and schedule, but I have never been on a trip before that covers so much in one area. I plan to bring back my knowledge not only for writing but also for a return trip to a family reunion in the Chesapeake Bay area in 2013. 

A biker rides in Virginia Beach.
Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau
A biker rides in Virginia Beach.

 

I expect the beaches and boardwalks will be breathtaking to explore. We are also going to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, the Virginia Beach Farmers Market, Cape Charles Beach, the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, Kiptopeke State Park, Eastern Shore Coastal Roasting Company, and Colonial Williamsburg. Sound like a full trip? I would never have such a comprehensive tour on my own.

I am already envisioning the seafood, fresh caught from the Atlantic. Restaurants to choose from include Bubba’s, The Cellars, Chesapeake Grill, Shooting Point Oyster Company, Blue Crab Bay Company, Eat: An American Bistro, Tautog’s Restaurant, Zoe’s Restaurant, Margie and Ray’s Crabhouse, Citrus, Kingsmill Resort and Shields Tavern. In my everyday life, I get treated to a birthday dinner at a place like this about once a year. Just being a small part of this world of group travel is opening up a whole new world for me.

It sounds incredible: cool places, food and adventures. I’ll let you know how it goes!

GTM staff writer Erin Albanese will probably forever be a wide-eyed tourist. She has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she currently resides in Wyoming, Mich.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

New York designer Carleton Varney has decorated each of the 385 guest rooms in Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich. No two rooms are alike. 
Photo: David Hoekman
New York designer Carleton Varney has decorated each of the 385 guest rooms in Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich. No two rooms are alike. 

 

Group tours and getting heads in beds

By David Hoekman

It’s true confession time at Group Tour Blogs.

I do not think a lot — let alone write — about accommodations.

And that is a shame. I know a ton of effort goes into making sure all goes well when a group arrives at a hotel for an overnight stay.

Clean and comfortable hotel rooms are so much the norm in the hospitality industry that I tend to take them for granted.

Of course, nothing can sour a group tour faster than a room cleaned too hastily or a surly hotel employee. Word spreads through the motorcoach like wildfire.

To avoid those experiences, tour operators make site inspections and develop relationships with hotel general managers.

Personally, I like staying at historic properties. 

The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa in Hot Springs, Ark., has restored and renovated the historic Crystal Ballroom.
Photo: Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa
The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa in Hot Springs, Ark., has restored and renovated the historic Crystal Ballroom.

 

Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island and the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa in Hot Springs, Ark., come to mind.

These hotels are reassuring to me. It’s almost as if the walls whisper, “Welcome. We’ve taken care of travelers for a long time. We know just how to do it. We’ll take good care of your group, too.”

Even hotels I don’t normally think of as historic are getting up there in age.

Motel 6, for instance, is 50 years old.

Homebuilders Paul Greene and William Becker built the first Motel 6 on the sandy shores of Cabrillo Beach in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1962.

Now I’ve got that guitar run from the Motel 6 radio ad going through my head. And I can hear the brand’s longtime “voice,” Tom Bodett, imparting some homespun wisdom and the brand’s iconic tagline, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” which, by the way, is a registered trademark.

Do you use historic hotels with your groups? 

David Hoekman is the managing editor for Group Tour Media, the Holland, Mich.-based publisher of Group Tour Magazine, Student Group Tour and several specialty group tour websites. 

 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Photo: Aaron Ogg
"Hearts in San Francisco" is a citywide public art project. The pieces are auctioned and sold, with proceeds benefiting San Francisco General Hospital Foundation.

 

Unplugging on the West Coast

By Aaron Ogg

This week, I am doing something I have never done in the history of my working life: I am taking a vacation.

Sure, I have taken the occasional one or two days off, sometimes bookending a holiday weekend, but in my mind those occasions aren’t quite the same. I never wandered too far from home and I usually still checked my e-mail.

This time I’m going somewhere pretty far away. For a whole week. And I plan to unplug. Completely. For me, that means leaving my iPad and laptop at home. I’ll still have my cell, but for emergencies only. The mere thought makes me kind of itchy. How silly is that?

We’re beginning in Seattle for the first couple of days where we hope to take in some of the most well known attractions, including Pike Place Market, Seattle Center and the Waterfront. We also plan to take a short side trip to Snoqualmie Falls, a site I’ve wanted to see ever since I watched my first episode of Twin Peaks.  

A group of street performers sings in downtown San Francisco.
Photo: Aaron Ogg
A group of street performers sings in downtown San Francisco.

 

Then we plan to drive down to the San Francisco Bay Area to stay with my in-laws. They are nice and clean and they have a dog we would very much like to meet, and I’m told they are happy to have us.

This was “supposed” to be my first trip to the Bay Area, but I ended up going there on a short-notice business trip in late February. Since there wasn’t much opportunity for exploring then, I look forward to having the time to leave my heart in San Francisco should I be so inclined.

I fancy myself as something of an amateur beer connoisseur, so I’m also pretty excited about sampling the local brews. There are a few destinations currently on my radar, including Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco and Big Time Brewery & Alehouse in Seattle.

For food, we’ve been promised at least one fine oyster shack meal. I imagine there also will be some sushi involved.

It’s great to have an opportunity to return to a place I’ve only seen in bits and pieces and explore it with a leisure traveler’s eyes. Still, I’m sure I’ll still be asking restaurant staff whether they can accommodate large groups. Force of habit.

Since I’m hardly a West Coast veteran, I’d love some suggestions on where to eat, drink and play. I’d appreciate it if they didn’t have WiFi, I guess.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Spending time with a rabbit can do wonders for your blood pressure. 
Photo: Amanda Black
Spending time with a rabbit can do wonders for your blood pressure. 

 

All the small things

This blog by Senior Staff Writer Amanda Black ponders the benefits of thinking small

Time passes too quickly. I suspect I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. While I can’t do anything about the march of time, I’ve decided to do something about wasting so much time.

I was thinking back to last summer and couldn’t come up with much that I did—besides a nice vacation to Bowling Green, Ky

I live 10 miles from Lake Michigan, and the only time I saw the lake was in September when my mom came to visit.

This weekend, I was talking to my mom, and I told her about my plan to make the most of the summer. Her reply was that it’s not summer yet. But I explained, for those of us who live in the frozen north, summer means any time there’s not snow on the ground.

I’m not going to let so much time pass without doing something exciting. But, gas costs a million dollars a gallon, I’m busy, I have a bad knee and I suffer from a distinct lack of imagination.

My solution? Start small. I’m not going to let a weekend go by without doing something special.

The first weekend after I decided this, I was down with a nasty virus, and I slept 40 hours in three days.

But that is history. This weekend, I was able to get started. And I started when I visited a lovely petting zoo, The Critter Barn, and had a picnic on the park the next day. Cost to me? Nothing.

Some day, this crazy goat hair will be turned into a sumptous fiber ready for knitting. 
Photo: Amanda Black
Some day, this crazy goat hair will be turned into a sumptous fiber ready for knitting. 

 

The Critter Barn is located about a mile from my house. I heard on the news they were open for spring break and weren’t even charging for a visit. After I wrapped up work on Friday, I headed straight to the barn and found my way to the rabbits. Mr. Rumple wasn’t as thrilled with arrangement as I was, but it was rather relaxing to spend some time snuggling.

My question to you is … how are you thinking small? Would that be a shorter tour closer to home? Adding more free attractions to the itinerary? What about adding a kid-themed attraction even if no one in the group is a kid?

Use your imagination and you just may find that small things make the tour.

Amanda Black has spent the last 10 years with Group Tour Magazine uncovering the best attractions and tours for groups. She lives in Holland, Mich., with a lovely view of a meadow and duck pond. Amanda is big fan of pretentious food and TV dramas as well as all things cute.    

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The U.S. Travel Association's Vote Travel Bus Tour made a stop Wednesday at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Photo: U.S. Travel Association
The U.S. Travel Association's Vote Travel Bus Tour made a stop Wednesday at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

 

Brand USA: Promoting United States tourism in the global marketplace

By Rick Martinez

The U.S. Travel Association’s Vote Travel Bus Tour is making its way across the United States.

The tour’s goal has been to raise awareness in the U.S. about the national impact of travel, making 37 stops from its March 21 launch in Washington, D.C., to its May 21 wrap-up in Tampa.

The Vote Travel motorcoach stops Friday in Cheyenne, Wyo., at Cheyenne Depot Plaza and Saturday in Denver.

It made a stop Wednesday in Bloomington, Minn., outside the Mall of America, where it found plenty of supporters.

“Tourism is vital to Minnesota’s economy,” John Edman, Explore Minnesota Tourism director, said in a statement. “The tourism industry generates more than $31 million every day in sales and it employs more than 235,000.

“It is fitting the bus stop was at Mall of America since it is the number one tourist destination in the state.”

The reality is tourism is a big deal to every state in the U.S.

In 2010, direct spending by domestic and international travelers in the U.S. was $759 billion and generated an economic impact of $1.8 trillion, according to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA). One out of nine jobs in the U.S. depend on travel and tourism, and travel ranks No. 1 among U.S. industry exports.

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced last month that travel exports in January were $12.9 billion – more than the exports of petroleum or agriculture products.

“Last year, the 2.6 million arrivals from China and Brazil spent $13 billion in the United States and supported more than 94,000 U.S. jobs; spending, on average, more than $5,000 per visitor,” said David Huether, USTA senior vice president for economics and research. “If the number of visas issued this year in just these two countries were to increase by 40 percent, the resulting increase in visitation to the U.S. would create more than 12,000 American jobs this year

“This is more than three times the number of workers employed at the largest auto assembly plant in the state of Michigan.”

That is why the Brand USA, a national tourism marketing campaign by the United States, was unveiled in 2010 and got launched internationally last fall at the World Travel Market in London. The effort gained President Barack Obama’s boost when he announced a national tourism and travel initiative in February, using Orlando, Fla., as his backdrop.

An effort like Brand USA is an increasing necessity for the U.S. in the international marketplace, especially when considering the United States’ share of global travel plummeted from 17.3 percent in 2000 to 11.2 percent in 2010.

Many might not realize the U.S. has no coordinated national marketing and advertising campaign to promote tourism and bring visitors to the United States.

Brand USA is a new national marketing campaign promoting the United States to international audiences.
Logo courtesy Brand USA
Brand USA is a new national marketing campaign promoting the United States to international audiences.

 

That is bad news in the competitive global marketplace. For instance, Mexico spends $173.8 million annually to promote tourism on a national basis. The United Kingdom spends $160 million, Australia $107.6 million and Turkey $98.6 million.

The U.S.' good neighbor to the north, Canada, sees tourism promotion as a national priority.

The Vancouver-based Canadian Tourism Commission operates in 11 countries around the world: the U.S., Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Japan, Mexico and South Korea. Last year, the Canadian Tourism Commission launched its Signature Experiences Collection touting unique Canadian travel experiences and destinations. Six years ago, the commission launched Canada’s branding “Canada. Keep Exploring.”

Such efforts have helped move Canada on New York-based FutureBrand's Country Brand Index rankings from 12th in 2006 to No. 1 in 2010 and 2011, boosted by the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. In the same index, the United States was sixth, with Switzerland runner-up, New Zealand third, Japan fourth and Australia fifth. The United Kingdom was 13th, Mexico 47th and Turkey 48th.

The momentum with Brand USA, at least to date, is helping bring about a buzz for the U.S. with potential international visitors.

That was very evident last month when I took part in the Travel South Showcase in Louisville, Ky., and the Discover New England Tourism Summit & International Marketplace in Boston. Brand USA was brought up often in general conversations, with tour operators focused on bringing international visitors to the U.S. saying they see a potential boost in business with the campaign.

However, there are folks in Washington, D.C., that don’t see the need to promote travel to the U.S. abroad.

Last week along partisan lines, the House of Representatives adopted a federal budget for 2013 that would eliminate  Brand USA’s campaign and funding. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the budget would eliminate $100 million in matching funds to be used by Brand USA to market U.S. destinations in international markets. Funding for the program comes from fees paid by international visitors from visa-waiver countries when entering the U.S.

“Losing Brand USA would be a blow to U.S. inbound marketing efforts that are important to creating jobs, boosting the national economy and helping all of our members who benefit from overseas visitors,” NTA President Lisa Simon said in a statement.

I see that as an understatement. In an increasingly competitive world, Brand USA is needed to boost U.S. efforts internationally when it comes to tourism.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

New Group Tour Media staff writer Erin Albanese and her husband, Ignazio Albanese, explore Sicily a decade ago.
New Group Tour Media staff writer Erin Albanese and her husband, Ignazio Albanese, explore Sicily a decade ago.

 

My memories of travels involve lots of lovely meals

By Erin Albanese

I am reminiscing about dining on fresh seafood at an open-air restaurant in Barcelona. A bottle of crisp white wine stands at the center of the table, and it is late at night. The many nightclubs along the harbor, visible from where I sit with my new husband, are just now opening for dancing. It is the perfect night.

That was one of my favorite meals of all time. It was the first night of our honeymoon in Barcelona 10 years ago. There was calamari, and bread with olive oil, pasta and Spanish-speaking waiters who kept refilling the wine glasses.

Then in Sicily a few days later, I found, as an American, the delivery of food to be as exciting as eating it and for my Sicilian husband, it brought back memories of his childhood. Merchants sold fresh fish, bread and fruit right off the trucks at sunrise, making their way through the narrow streets, yelling, “Pesci! Pesci!” The days were filled with sun and cuisine including homemade macaroni noodles, Margherita pizzas, arancinis stuffed with risotto and mozzarella, caramel-swirled gelato and strong espresso.

I remember lots of good food during my international traveling days: fish and chips in Ireland, the best oranges ever from a market in Cyprus, and tasty little tarts from Paris. Some of the best dining experiences I’ve had were in my travels (before two kids made restaurants a how-fast-can-we-get out-of-here experience).

My musings branch off to all the stuff I haven’t yet tried.

You see, it is now 4:40 p.m. and my lunch was nibbled away by 11:30 a.m., and I am starving.

As the new Group Tour Magazine staff writer, I am getting used to the in-office, full-time workweek schedule, but I haven’t yet figured out how to best pack my lunch. The peanut-butter sandwich, pretzels and low-fat yogurt I had today just aren’t cutting it.

During four years of freelance writing, from home, I could simply raid the refrigerator whenever I wanted. But in an effort to save money and eat healthy, I’ve been packing food and trying to schedule in long walks during my lunch hour. 

An afternoon gathering in a Sicilian mountain town caught Ignazio's attention.
Photo: Ignazio Albanese
An afternoon gathering in a Sicilian mountain town caught Ignazio's attention.

 

 

So here I sit thinking of the wonderful places group tours can dine, researching the unique fare and food facts of states, regions and countries.

There’s fresh seafood in New England, cheese in Wisconsin, wine in Virginia, locally owned restaurants wherever one may travel, chocolate in Canada, and so much more.

But enough about my appetite. I am happy to be the newest writer for Group Tour Magazine, where I have been learning about the vast world of group travel. There are tours for pretty much every type of weather fan, hobbyist, and, yes, foodie. There’s so much to do and see, and it’s exciting to write about it all, while imagining the experiences organizers provide for tour goers, the memories to be made, and, of course, the meals to count among all-time favorites.

OK. So it’s 5 p.m. Remember I’m starving? See ya later.

When not daydreaming about food in her cubicle or writing about group tours, Erin Albanese is drawing with sidewalk chalk with her 5-year-old daughter, shooting hoops with her 8-year-old son and enjoying time with her loving husband (who cooks!). She has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she currently resides in Wyoming, Mich.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The spring Western issue of Group Tour Magazine
The spring Western issue of Group Tour Magazine

 

Fusion food, take-out dependence, West Coast brews and group tour nibblings

By Aaron Ogg

My in-laws love to criticize how much take-out my wife and I consume. Rightfully so, I suppose.

We’ve gotten better (read: thriftier) about our food spending habits since we welcomed our little guy into the world two years ago. Still, if you were to place us on a spectrum of food convenience — fast food on one end, slow food on the other — we’re still considerably farther from churning our own butter than we are the drive-through speaker.

After reading Amanda Black’s (@amandagrouptour on Twitter) feature article on fusion food in the spring issue of Western Group Tour Magazine, I feel like making a more serious commitment to eating well.

Amanda writes about the birth of the slow food movement in Berkeley, Calif., and it just so happens that’s where my family will be staying for a few days this month. I figure this is as good of an opportunity as any to consider my meals more carefully. It’s also a great chance to sample some great West Coast brews, which is definitely more in my wheelhouse than conscientious dining.

My favorite culinary critic and Sesame Street character, Cookie Monster, in cupcake form
Photo: Brett Jordan
My favorite culinary critic and Sesame Street character, Cookie Monster, in cupcake form

 

Those planning tours for foodies also will want to check out articles on Colorado Springs Food Tours and Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant.

To quote my favorite gourmand, Cookie Monster: "NOM!"

Also, after all this talk about healthy and deliberate eating, I'd be remiss not to touch on our interest in health and wellness tours.  Be sure to follow GTM staff writer Erin Albanese on Twitter (@eringrouptour) for great info on where the worlds of travel and healthy living intersect.

Have a good nosh.

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