Former New York Times foreign correspondent Elizabeth Becker circled the world to report on the global impact of travel as a product. Her book, “Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism,” was published earlier this year. It is a comprehensive and often discouraging report on the impact of tourism in a world where no corner is left untraipsed. We focused our discussion on incentive travel and experiencing new places as a group.
SMM: What trends have you noted in terms of group travel such as incentive trips?
Becker: Nowadays, it’s important to not overorganize travel. You don’t have the fall-back-on-your-partner kinds of psychological exercises. You do not have to be with your group all of the time at all. That’s the trend I have seen and that’s what is most rewarding.
SMM: Although you state in your book that serendipity has all but disappeared from travel experiences. Specifically, you say, “What were once journeys of discovery, escapes from the daily dullness of life, or a plan for retirement are now packaged trips with nearly every aspect planned in advance.” Do many travelers want their time on the road planned for them?
Becker: It’s the perfect yes and no. It depends so much on the kind of trip and who the people are. The new traveler often wants super planning; the seasoned traveler, absolutely not. There was one example of an incentive trip that had everything planned and nobody chose it and then a different trip to the same city in Europe – I think it was Paris – when the trip was very loosely organized, everybody wanted to go on it because then you had choice and these people know who they are and what they want.
SMM: Is there something about the experiences we have when we travel that pairs up well with the goal of team bonding?
Becker: Sure. The bonding is that you have such a strong shared work experience. It becomes more fun and more interesting when you’re pulled out of it and you can talk about it in a very attractive setting in a way that is not forced.
Another aspect that I think is often overlooked is that people will respond to an education situation. If they are given an opportunity to go someplace new and instead of being entirely just consumers they are given the chance to have an expert meet them at a museum and give them a great lecture, they love it. People are starting to want to go back to a stronger dose of education.
I’ll also put a word in here also for travel guides. If you go to the trouble of finding a good travel guide – say you want to take a trip around Istanbul and you offer (your group) a chance to have a good guide with an advanced degree showing you parts of the city and nicely educating you about the history of the city and the history of Turkey, I promise you you’re giving your employees something that is invaluable. It’s much better than if you have a day helping to build a latrine somewhere. I have a lot of questions about the concept of having a day of volunteer tourism. It makes you feel good, but I’m not sure what it does for the people who you are supposedly helping. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good, but I’m not so sure if you are really going to be giving useful help. I would swap that out for a smart and fun travel guide to show your employees the history. I think you travel to learn. If you want to be helpful, tip heavy. Most employees at hotels and the locals you meet are not going to make very much. The best thing you can do is to tip. That goes much further than some of the one-day volunteer exercises.
SMM: You mention in your book a lot of themes that trips are built around – ecotourism, medical tourism – do you see those or any others emerging in incentive travel?
Becker: Medical tourism is for people who have big holes in their medical insurance coverage, so that’s not your average businesspeople. But businesses are looking at this from a different angle. Employers look at their costs for paying health insurance and they say, “We’re going to give an option to our employees to have that medical tourism trip. Instead of having that operation here in Houston, I’ll let my employee go to Malaysia.” They’re looking for insurance policies that make that happen.
In terms of ecotourism, that’s part of what your resort will be selling to you in the first place. It is becoming built in. It’s a very serious issue and people are taking it seriously. You don’t have to look very far to find the resorts that are going to offer it to you as another way to entice you.
SMM: Do companies sponsoring incentive travel have a duty to heed the ethical aspects of tourism and how they are impacting the destinations they go to?
Becker: I think everyone does. That’s the reason I wrote this book. Travel and tourism is like any industry: You hope that people really do care about where they go, how they are treated and how they treat the people they meet. And that means do they accept that with this wonderful right to travel, there is also the responsibility to leave the place you visited as well as you found it? If you’re interested in climate change, there are ways you can calculate how much fuel you’re using and how much you’re changing the climate. One woman I interviewed who did a lot of business travel plants a tree every time she takes a trip, so she has a mini forest outside her town in Ireland. I’m a fan of taking longer trips, and it turns out that is also a more responsible way to travel. If you take fewer trips and make them longer, you are going to be more responsible environmentally than if you take a four-day trip across the ocean.
The groups that make you cringe are the thousands of people who leave a cruise ship for a couple of hours and then return. Or go to China and see the huge tour buses that pull up at big spots such as a Panda watching spot.
SMM: We started our feature on incentive travel in this issue by retelling the story of a group of road warrior sales reps pining for the incentive trips their companies used to host. Are you surprised that people who spend 100 nights or more on the road for work still love receiving travel as a reward?
Becker: I’ve met so many people for whom travel is almost addictive. The more they travel, the more they want to continue to travel. There is the adrenaline fix of being someplace new and the freedom from family cares – picking up the dry cleaning and going to the children’s performances. When you talk about incentive travel, conventions, conferences and those types of things, in some people’s lives that is their vacation.
SMM: Having traveled for five years to research your book, are you ready to stay put for awhile?
Becker: It was more travel than I care for. I found it tiring. My travel when I was a correspondent was a matter of living somewhere and then going around. I got used to traveling as a reporter and I found traveling as a tourist more tiring. As a reporter I had real interaction with where I was. I had to study up and know where I was. If I didn’t know the language, I had to have a good interpreter. I was digging deep. As a tourist, often, you don’t have a chance to really delve in the way you want to, yet you feel like, “I have to do more than just eat and look.”
SMM: What’s something about travel that you learned in researching the book that you didn’t know you didn’t know?
Becker: I’ll do a little pitch for travel agents here – and most businesses (using incentive travel) have good travel agents. If you tell a travel agent what your goals are – that you want to make this a personal experience and that you want to reflect a sense of responsibility about the environment – the travel agent will find it for you. I gained a renewed respect for travel agents after traveling around the world for this book. I would never do it on my own.
SMM: You mentioned in an interview on your website that you learned that lesson the hard way. Can we get more details?
Becker: I conducted an experiment on my own to see how well I could navigate and act as my own travel agent through Brazil. Even though I had the map out and I went through all of these different websites, I had the craziest itinerary and I eventually had to drop one leg of it because I was crisscrossing the entire country. It was like a spaghetti noodle. It was horrible.