Most people think alumni travel is only one thing: big group trips, the kind we see in glossy catalog photos. But my experience working with universities and colleges large and small has revealed at least three models of alumni travel. One school could find a match with one model, or all three. You just should never assume that you are stuck making use of only one.
In this article, I describe the pros and cons of each model, including how to use them effectively depending on your school’s resources and alumni network.
1. Travel Agent-Led: Off-the-Shelf Packages
These are the glossy-catalog trips. Large travel agencies shop itineraries around to different schools, simply swapping one school logo for another on the catalog, and promise to make incredible memories (that will be fit for the next season’s catalogs).
Although “Cruise the Danube River” and “Tours of Italian Wineries” are standard fair, they have been well-designed and are well-executed for very reasonable prices.
- The trips are easy to implement since they come prepackaged from the travel agent.
- You can offer them annually and consistently.
- The travel agents do all the work, including managing the logistics and bookings, as well as provide marketing resources—all you have to do is send the catalog to your alumni network and receive the commissions off of who registers.
- They can accommodate lots of people, sometimes hundreds, depending on the trips.
- The trips are easy to sell—these are destinations everyone wants to visit.
- Customization is not possible—you have to advertise a trip “as is.”
- There is no originality—twelve schools, including your competition, could be offering “Loire Valley Lavendar” this year.
- There is limited connection to your school. Your faculty aren’t there, and neither is anything else special to your school.
- It can be hard for alums to feel special in a crowd of alums from multiple schools. (It’s quite likely your group will cross paths with those other university groups. They may even be sharing the same facilities, such as the same cruise ship or hotel.)
This option is a good fit for an organization with a small staff for alumni engagement and advancement. It allows you to offer top-notch trips with little to no labor on your part. If you are going to use travel agent–led trips, then you need to:
- Advertise the trips broadly, in web, print, and email
- Work with the travel planner as well as your alumni advancement team to find ways of making your alums feel special and connected, especially if they are, for example, on a cruise ship with hundreds of other alums of different schools. Examples include special swag sent to them, the opportunity to have their photos featured in a university blog post, or a virtual pre-departure session with faculty.
2. Faculty-Led: Educational Transformation Trips
These trips are designed around the expertise of your faculty. They tend to be focused around a particular body of research and are designed on a professor’s experience and connections. Some examples may be
“Post-Arab Spring Feminism in Egypt” or “Exploring LGBT Rights in India.” These trips tend to be more off the beaten path and offer unique experiences that your alumni could not access otherwise.
- These trips are unique to your school and faculty.
- They offer destinations not commonly expected for alumni trips.
- Participants get deep knowledge of a site because of the faculty experiences and connections.
- Participants gain insider access to a location.
- There are clear ties to your school—these trips highlight the important work of your faculty.
- Smaller groups can be more intimate and engaged and stay connected.
- These trips are a lot of work to implement. It will be hard to find a logistical operator because each trip requires customization.
- This kind of trip relies on the expertise and delivery of faculty—some are great at leading group trips, and others…less so. They may present well in a classroom but struggle with “being on” for an entire week. Remember, they are professors, not tour guides.
- You may have a hard time selling these trips—these are not really “vacation” opportunities but are instead learning opportunities.
- The limited group size of ten to thirty alums makes this significantly more work for less revenue.
This type of alumni trip is a good fit for an organization with faculty doing cutting-edge research. You also need enough staff support to help plan the journey and do targeted marketing to alumni.
- You will need to both advertise broadly and do targeted outreach.
- You have to identify and work with exceptional faculty doing cool research that is leading their field.
- You must make sure the faculty have deep knowledge and experience in-country—they need to know the culture and logistics.
- You would be wise to consider aligning this with your short-term study-abroad trips. Then ask yourself, do you want alums to engage with current students on the same trip, or do you want to replicate a student trip with alums?
- Know that you will need to cycle through destinations. Morocco will be hot one year and then not sell the next. Be prepared to offer different trips every year.
3. Alumni-Led: Total Customization
In this model, alumni themselves determine the destination and dates, create the guest list, and receive custom recommendations on faculty and activities. Similar to VIP trips in donor travel, which connect key funders with the sites of work they support, these experiences are designed around specific alumni whose support has transformed your school.
This is the most labor-intensive and time-intensive of all models, but it is also the most exclusive, customized, and special. These trips are often designed around one alum who brings their family or friends for a truly world-class educational experience.
Keep in mind that these trips are only worth the investment of time and resources if you have an alumni base who can support your school with principal-level gifts (often of $1 million or more in a single year).
- You don’t need to promote the trip because alumni pick the destination and dates.
- They will bring their friends and families. You don’t need to worry about filling the seats.
- Small groups make planning easier.
- You get to charge a premium for this service to cover the time and effort (these trips can cost $75,000+).
- You can build deeper relationships with these alumni.
- These trips can also be used as cultivation opportunities to raise principal or capital campaign gifts.
- A trip such as this requires lots of work and offers little opportunity to leverage or replicate it. You are not going to be able to use photos for marketing opportunities, and you probably can’t repackage the experience for a broader base.
- You need to be ready to delivery top-notch service, and you need to have staff with the time and ability to do so.
This option is a good fit for an organization with an alumni base that consist of donors who can, and do, give $1 million or more in a year; a dedicated advancement team who know how to use travel for cultivation; and staff who can:
- Work closely with the development team to identify donors who would be good for these private, custom trips
- Plan trips far in advance and spend a lot of time up front on the logistics (even if they are working with a travel consultant)
Your school may only focus on one of these types of trips, or you may have offers that fit into each model. For example, you may offer travel agent–led trips every year but faculty-led or alumni-led trips during anniversary years or when something special happens (e.g., a professor receives prestigious recognition; an alum makes a capital campaign gift and wants to celebrate their anniversary with former classmates). Just remember, each model offers unique opportunities and requires a different strategy to ensure success.
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