The world is our workplace. It may sound cliché, but we have employees who “clock-in” from many different states, countries, and continents every day. Sending staff into the field for research and development is a vital component for developing and operating successful travel programs. Megan Burden, Manager of Guest Services at Academic Travel Abroad (ATA), recently joined the National Geographic Expedition, Greece: Wonders of an Ancient Empire, to see firsthand what our travelers experience on the ground.
As I roamed the ruins of Delphi, Greece, heart still pounding from my ascent to the ancient stadium, all I could think was, wow, if I’m this out of breath, what are our travelers thinking?!
From the uneven walkways to the lack of handrails, Greece’s many historical sites require a certain level of mobility from all visitors. Knowing that the ruins at Olympia spread out over mostly flat ground, while the ruins at Delphi require travelers to climb up the side of a hill, is invaluable information from someone in my position. Experiencing the terrain firsthand and sharing that information with colleagues helps our organization set each travelers’ expectations accordingly. It also allows us to look at alternative options for those who may not be able to fully experience a visit.
Mobility is not the only thing assessed while on an Research and Development (R&D) trip. While in Greece, Megan performed routine quality control visits. She checked out hotels, restaurants, and other important sites on the itinerary. As a member of ATA’s Guest Services Team, Megan was familiar with common questions asked by travelers, so she knew exactly what to explore on her site visits to be better equipped in servicing future travelers.
Upon arrival at each hotel, I looked to see if the amenities were as advertised, that the rooms were large enough with ample storage, and checked to make sure the views were scenic as promised. I kept an open ear for travelers’ reviews of the restaurants and food, not just to make sure the cuisine and atmosphere were up to par, but to be able to give suggestions and information to future travelers who ask about the food. I also paid close attention to the site visits to ensure that activities advertised in the itinerary were not only delivered, but delivered well. Did a weaver actually give a demonstration to the group? Did we spend enough time at the National Archaeological museum, or not enough? Did we have an archaeologist with us when exploring the Temple of Apollo? Did travelers engage with the family whose home we visited in Aegina? We never want to promise an experience that we cannot deliver, nor do we want to keep an experience that has grown stale. If a hotel, restaurant, or site visit is not up to par, it will be reevaluated for future trips. On this particular trip. guests told me they truly experienced Greece in an authentic manner. They thoroughly enjoyed the variety of foods, the ability to interact with locals, and of course, having beautiful and comfortable hotels to relax in at the end of a long day of travel.
Our tour staff is also responsible for taking pictures while working in the field. We love having staff photos on-hand for show-and-tell and to enhance our marketing materials.
While images of the Acropolis are in abundance, images of Aegina, an island off the coast of Athens where our travelers spend their last day, are not. I spent time taking photos that can be used to feature sites and experiences highlighted in the itinerary, as well as in different marketing pieces. Having photos also allows us to deliver a more complete narrative, and gives travelers a better sense of what to expect on the trip.
Staff R&D travel is an essential part of what we do at Academic Travel Abroad. Without it, we would be unable to regularly provide the unparalleled, behind-the-scenes travel experiences that set us apart. It is simply not possible to understand the character of a place through research alone. It’s important to be there, to experience it firsthand.