Alumni Travel is a subset of the travel business that deals primarily with groups of people from the same collegic background.

I wish I knew how alumni travel started. Like the first guy to eat an oyster, it doesn’t seem obvious: why would 10-50 people from the same school (different backgrounds, different ages, different travel wants, etc) get lumped together. Often alumni travel groups get lumped in with other alumni groups (competing schools) or just non-alumni travellers. That trip you took to Paris through a travel agency had a bunch of Gophers or Sooners or Ducks along for the ride. They didnt know each other from Adam and aside from where they bought their ticket, you wouldn’t have any clue they were alumni travellers.

Travel companies build trips. They say, “We’re going from Chicago to Europe. We’ll put together airfare, a tour bus, hotels at each stop, a few meals, and the occasional feature, package it up with a little overhead to pay for the tour manager and a little on the top for the company and sell them to whomever.” Travel agents around the world try and sell that trip to people who come up and say, “Do you have a trip from Chicago to Europe where the details are handled for me? Yes? Do you have a brochure I can look at? Great, sold.”

Alumni associations are acting like travel agents in this instance. They send brochures (taken from the travel company with an alumni association logo slapped on) to alumni who have stated a preference for European travel and hope to sign them up in a bundle. The price is usually the same as registering through a travel agent, though an alumni travel agent will have a more limited number of trips to sell than a travel agent.

The value to the alumni association is that they get a percentage of the sale, and if enough travel pakages are sold, free trips are thrown in. Commonly, these free trips are given to management or university faculty and staff the alumni association is trying to curry favor with. The person taking the free trip is to act as an alumni travel liason, helping the alumni travellers however they can, and bringing issues up to the tour manager. The make sure that the alumni needs are met. While this seems like extra value that the alumni association is providing the alumni travellers, the tour managers usually do the heavy lifting: the alumni tour helper-person is there to make the alumni traveller feel good.

So how in the world does an alumni association sell a trip? Â The cost is the same but the selection is less. Alumni associations add some value in sending an extra person, but that seems negligible. Â The reason why alumni travel in these groups thorugh alumni associations is because of the connection they feel to the university. Alumni feel that no matter when you graduated, you went through the same things as every other graduate, and thus you have a common groud. On a more base level, it helps travellers feel like they won’t be travelling with the riff-raff, that these are people who went to the same school, thus have similar beliefs, though in practice, this isn’t at all the case.

So how does an alumni travel program grow? Here’s what I would propose:

1) The Web 2.0 Fairy Dust: Social Network. Some white label social network will be fine (Ning, etc), so long as it can be admin-ed by a 10-year-old and has the ability to add events. Nothing fancy, nothing crazy, no need to connect it to Facebook or authenticate it to your alumni database. It has to be a stand-along site, with a seperate domain and seperate name. Yes, stick the alumni association logo all over it to show it’s a legit site, but don’t feel like it has to have the exact same look and feel (trust me, this is a plus: alumni associations have to build sites that are all things to all people, making them examples of decision-by-compromise — Â a stand-alone site will be able to specialize and focus). Let travellers set up their own regsitration and look around.

2) Don’t Be Lazy. Alumni travel departments are spread thin, so they slap logos on other people’s brochures and copy the text to the web sites. Â If they get the time, they add postage stamp-sized photos. They do a great job making Paris, Istanbul, Dubai and London look like Akron. It’s a miracle someone plunks down $3,000 for these trips with this kind of info. Every trip needs to be re-written. Take the text and re-write it to focus on what the alumni will get. Focus on the destination, yes, but what the alumni will experience and with whom (basic differentiation). Trips are spent trapped in boats and busses with strangers — make alumni feel like these are people they’d want to be trapped with.

3) Get Social. Add upcoming trips as events.  The site should allow people to express interest in the trip, ask for a brochure, as well as show who else is interested in the trip (popular trips breed interest). Encourage previous travellers to upload photos and tell their stories (10% discount for the best photo every month or a free t-shirt or a free poster-print of the photo). You want the crappy snap-shots someone took with their $150 2-megapixel Panascony camera becaus eit looks more real. You want people who talk about the funny stories of travelling (even if, and especially if they are bad stories: travel is about the experience) and what they did.  Not just a paragraph of “I loved it. I would do it again and again. It was better than Cats.” You need real stories. Print out business cards with the URL and remind travellers to stop by the computer in the hotel lobby to post their day’s experiences.  The system should encourge them to send their diaries and photos to friends and families through the system. Encourage them to get together and talk about the trip ad which trip they want to go on next. Let them be advisors to future travellers on what to expect, what to pack and when to do.  Let new prospective travellers ask questions.

4) Document Like A Freakin’ Pro. For most trips, the alumni travel department shouldn’t give trips away to staff and faculty, they should go to professional photgraphers, journalists, journellers, poets, artists, writers and reporters. What you want isn’t a fleshed-out itinerary of stops and sights, but a capturing of the feeling of the new. When you are thinking about spending $4,000 (per person) on a trip to the Middle East, wouldn’t you like to read about the person before who stood in the footsteps of Jesus and Mohammad? The photo of local kids playing? The poem about the Mona Lisa? The stories of the travellers themselves, why they chose to travel to Italy/Panama/Moscow/Antactica? The pictures of travellers on a Japanese bullet train or seeing the remains of the Berlin Wall for the first time? The movie of a walkthrough of Notre Dame with a voiceover that’s a little more than “This church is pretty?”

Travel is about experience. If your prospective traveller can’t put themselves in the picture orthe story or the movie, they aren’t pulling out their checkbooks. If they don’t feel emotion about the re-telling of how the last time a traveller was in this place, they were wearing camo and carrying a gun. If you can’t document the trips for sale to the next people, you are commoditized to the point of non-existance. Even if your next trip is to Norway and you have no Nroway pictures and stories, people visiting your site will see the experiences of past travellers and be able to extrapolate.

5) Tell a Friend Program. If one traveller comes back and tells their friends, and one of them books with you, there needs to be an incentive. It doesn’t matter what, but the first traveller has to know that their story is wanted and that it helps the organization and the business and that it is appreciated. If a discount is applied, let them apply it to the trip they make with that friend. Share share share.