At this point in my career, some 29 years on the road, there are very few places I’ve not been. Though in all honesty, sometimes my having checked a state or country off the list amounted to little more than crossing the boarder, shouting “I’m here!” then leaving as quickly as I arrived. Such was nearly the case with Spain. About 15 years ago, I escorted two separate Mediterranean cruises with ports of call in Spain. On one, I purchased an optional shore excursion bound for Granada’s famous Alhambra Palace. On the other, I simply walked around the port city of Cadiz. The better part of two days. To me, that was Spain. Clearly, this was a county that deserved more of my time and attention.
I love it when people say to me, “How in the world did you find this place?” It’s like earning a merit badge or a military stripe; a verbal accommodation for a job well done. Tours don’t just happen. They don’t create themselves. Of course, we attend conventions to learn about destinations and meet the suppliers we later hire to provide components for your vacation experiences. We study brochures, guidebooks, visitors’ guides and pour over countless websites to learn as much as we can and limit the vast field of choices to what looks to be the best of the best. But even then, we aren’t quite ready to start soliciting contracts.
No, there’s one important component that’s still missing: Personal experience. Here in Sports Leisureland, nary a multi-day tour hits the road without the planner or escort (usually one in the same) going out on a “dry run” to personally inspect the hotels, restaurants and attractions that will be a part of the itinerary.
We call these scouting trips, but they are far from being a vacation. On the average scouting trip, we might visit 15 restaurants, ten hotels and five attractions in a single day to find the one or two that offer the best combination of value, hospitality, location, historical significance, beauty and/or local flavor. These trips are not inexpensive in terms of staff time, nor actual hard costs. Whether we drive or fly, transportation is going to be a significant line item. In many cases we could work with our friends at the local convention and visitors bureau to “beg” a hotel and meals, but we usually elect not to do this. We don’t want to feel obligated to use one supplier if another proves to have a better offering.
Now you know why Sports Leisure staff members are such fiends for earning air, hotel and credit card points. We don’t use them for personal holidays in Bermuda! More often than not, we cash them in to defray travel expenses on scouting trips.
So I just spent a long weekend scouting trip in Jackson County, Oregon, visiting the lovely communities of Ashland, Medford and Jacksonville. “Wait just a second,” you may rightfully say, “Sports Leisure visits this area many times each year. What about tours to the Shakespearian Festival, Crater Lake and Klamath Falls? Surely you guys must already know it all. And hey, aren’t you the East Coast guy?” Good questions!
And of course, I have answers. Because of my willingness to travel on the happiest and holiest holiday of the year—Christmas—and because these tours tend to be shorter and stay a little closer to home, I have to reevaluate destinations like Jackson County. We all know it’s a great place to visit in the spring, summer and fall, but is it a solid destination at Christmas time? Will it be beautifully decorated? Will there be restaurants open to feed us? Will there be attractions and entertainment venues wanting our business? The very best destinations at other times of the year might be terrible at Christmas if too many suppliers close their doors.
Scouting trips for Christmas tours simply have to be done during the holiday season so that we get an accurate feel this year for what the town will hopefully look like next year. Thus, this weekend has me in the Ashland area, whilst Mark is in . . . oops, I almost let the cat out of the bag. Mark’s out scouting next year’s “Christmas Lights Mystery Tour.” And may I say it’s going to be much closer to home than this year’s Massachusetts and Rhode Island trip, but chunk-full of the wonderful holiday experiences you’ve come to expect on this annual vacation.
Mark and I have been lucky this weekend. Our travels have not been in vain. Both destinations are picture perfect around the holidays (except I can’t tell you his). Ashland and Jacksonville are breathtakingly beautiful, bathed in an ocean of twinkling lights and other holiday offerings from theatre to food. And in Medford, we’ll enjoy a particularly flavorful Christmas treat, thanks to the hospitality of my friend Leigh Johnson, vice president of Harry & David, fruit and candy purveyors extraordinaire. If there’s anything better than one of their Royal Riviera pears, I want to taste it! Unless, of course, it’s their signature popcorn confection called Moose Munch, flavored with dried cranberries and gingerbread this time of year. So much to savor. So little time!
And so it goes. I’ve toured and eaten my way through yet another wonderful destination. Will it work as our over-Christmas-Day trip for 2010? You betcha! And I just spoke to Mark. He reports that his scouting trip is proving to be a wonderful success; his destination unknown will host the best Christmas mystery tour ever next year. For us, it’s just another day at the office (so to speak); another day of making your travel dreams come true. We wouldn’t have it any other way!