Shortly after graduating college about 20 years ago, Brent Hurley traveled to New York City to pursue a singing career. Assuming he would spend an ample amount of time struggling in his quest to be onstage, he still sounds surprised and delighted when he describes his experience to the contrary.
“I was hired by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines on my first audition,” Hurley said with a laugh. “This cruise lines has a reputation for high-quality entertainment. I was thrilled.”
Traveling primarily in the southern Caribbean, Hurley was one of only four singers who performed three shows a week. “This allowed time for me to experience several jobs on the ship, including assisting in shore excursions. I learned a lot about travelers, anticipating their needs and making sure they had a quality experience.”
Today, as director of alumni travel and education at Pennsylvania State University, Hurley fondly reflects upon his time aboard a cruise ship.
“I had no idea I would someday be back in the travel industry — no longer singing to travelers but once again making sure they have a good experience.”
Small Group Travel a Favorite
Penn State’s travel program for alumni and friends includes up to 40 international trips a year. Excursions are typically accompanied by a high-ranking official from Penn State, including Hurley.
“The point of our travel program is different from some alumni programs,” he said. “We are not charged with making a profit, and our travels are not meant to be fundraisers. Our purpose is outreach and engagement that goes beyond athletic events and reunion weekends. We want to connect alumni with each other and back to the university.
“It’s a successful strategy, as our numbers were up 38 percent in 2013.”
Although groups consist of as many as 60 alumni and friends on worldwide cruises, Hurley said the program is most successful with small group travel.
“Our alumni tend to like groups between 24 and 36 travelers,” he said. “And when it comes to cruises, the Italian Inspiration cruises with Oceania Cruises, with ships carrying between 680 and 1,200 passengers, have been extremely successful. The sizes of the ships are not overwhelming.
“They are large enough for independence but small enough we can create an affinity with special dinners and gatherings. It hits the sweet spot for what our alumni travel is trying to accomplish.”
While Hurley still has his own soft spot for the Caribbean cruises where he once performed, he raved about his experience with Penn State alumni on the land and cruise excursion to the Galapagos Islands.
“It was exotic and amazing,” he said. “We were disconnected from our phones for nine days, and it gave us a chance to take a deep breath and take in the wildlife and natural inhabitants.”
Travel With an Educational Twist
Hurley’s job also includes overseeing the cultural and educational programming, ventures that include travel but are also educational. Those excursions, such as the program’s Civil War study tours, include time in classrooms as well as on the battlefields. A pretour reading list is suggested for participants.
“Our City Lights travel series includes travels to a major city where there are many alumni,” he said. “For example, we had a gathering at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where Valerie Plame Wilson, a Penn State alumna, was the speaker. Valerie, of course, is famous for being the CIA operations officer whose cover was compromised in the [George W.] Bush administration scandal.”
Other City Lights events with esteemed alumni speakers have included time with a Tony Award-winning costume and set designer on Broadway and a leading architect at the Freedom Tower.
“These regional events are not just cocktail parties,” said Hurley. “They include educational components often held in a venue that gives a great backdrop to the speaker topic.”
Staying Connected Is the Key
The Penn State Alumni Association was the first alumni association to launch a Frequent Traveler Loyalty Program, according to Hurley.
“The program recognizes loyalty and participation in our programs,” he said. “Members receive early notification on discounts and sneak peeks into our upcoming travels. We award gifts on a bronze, silver and gold level, and while they are not expensive gifts, people boast about them.”
Hurley is also increasing the association’s visibility on social media. A special Facebook page devoted to the travel program allows visitors to ask questions, read travel tips and see photographs from their excursions around the world.
Hurley sums up his opinion of the importance of alumni travel when he tells the story of one of his favorite travelers.
“She is a woman in her 90s who has never been back to Penn State since she graduated,” he said. “Yet she has taken four trips with us. I met her on a Greek Isles trip where she was with two of her friends; they called it their Golden Girls Cruise. I will always remember her, as she was really something, and she needed no special assistance. She told me that these trips were especially meaningful to her because it was her way to stay connected.”