From 1,000 to 30
When Stypa and other alumni staff members sit down to choose tours for the following year, they start with close to 1,000 trip proposals and narrow it down to 30 they think will resonate with alumni. Stypa chooses trips close to home at national parks and as far away as Antarctica. To help whittle down the daunting number of possibilities, he consults trip recommendations from post-trip evaluation forms, the destinations of peer travel programs and tour operators’ expertise.
To debut the coming year’s tours, the university hosts a summer preview party for past and present travelers. Attendees dine on international cuisine and reconnect with other travelers and faculty members. Traveling Owls also offers a holiday party close to December with food and drink that represent various international holiday cultures.
“We also invite Rice students studying here from abroad,” said Stypa. “So travelers are not only enjoying the holiday event, but they are also able to talk with students from the area they have personally visited. It helps bridge a gap with their experience.”
Stypa invites travelers to continue conversations with foreign students by signing up for the university’s International Friendship Program. The program pairs volunteers with international Rice students.
“They can host the student in their home for Thanksgiving or take them pumpkin carving at Halloween,” said Stypa. “These students are coming to Rice as their first exposure to the U.S. The travelers volunteer to serve as hosts to help navigate the student’s transition not only to Rice but also the United States.”
When marketing alumni travel programs, many planners typically target only a 50-years-and-over age demographic. However, Stypa tried a new approach with resounding success.
“Rather than relying solely on age, we are pulling marketing lists based on degrees of study or profession,” said Stypa. “This lets us target a demographic that even if they are younger than our traditional traveler, they might have an interest in our tour’s theme. So if we are going to Belize, we pull a list of everyone with a science background.”
The experience paid off, since most first-time travelers of 2017 were younger than the traditional alumni traveler age demographic. Traveling Owls also offers several trips a year geared toward young alumni by shortening the trip’s duration, lowering the price and increasing the itinerary’s flexibility.
For nearly all of the 30 trips, Stypa recruits a faculty or a staff member to come along, keeping the focus on Rice University. Stypa may not have traveled much before coming to Rice University, but now he loves joining one or two trips a year, not just for the experience but also to interact with the other travelers and help strengthen their connection to Rice University.
“I have incredible memories from all the places I’ve visited,” said Stypa. “One that stands out is a trip to Tanzania on a safari journey in the Serengeti. One of our travelers had a dream to see a family of elephants. As we rode, we saw an elephant family with one baby. To see this traveler with tears in his eyes because his dream had just come true was really powerful.”
• In each place you visit, take time to experience the culture by visiting with residents.
• Always work to make memories for your travelers that they’ll forever associate with your organization.
• Have fun. With all the responsibilities associated with planning, executing and leading trips, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the work and not enjoy the experience yourself.