In 2013, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, the Mid-American Conference football champions, earned the right to play in the Orange Bowl. Most anyone with any association to NIU was going to be watching this must-see event.
“This was a huge deal,” said Pat Anderson, director of NIU’s Alumni Office. “We were playing Florida State. Everyone was beside themselves in excitement.”
However, on the day of the game, Anderson and dozens of NIU alumni travelers just so happened to be in Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand. So what’s an alumni director to do in such a dilemma?
“It took a lot of research to find a big-screen television that offered ESPN in that part of the world,” Anderson said with a laugh. “But we finally found a backpackers lodge that had a TV that covered the entire wall.”
Travel directors with loyalty programs often go the extra mile to reinforce the bond that brings their travelers together during group travel. “Our program reconnects people to the university,” said Anderson. “Graduates who for 30 years haven’t connected with us will see we have a travel program, and often they are at a point in their lives where they have the time and finances to travel.
“This is a terrific program where travelers immediately have a tie to their fellow travelers, even if they were strangers before boarding the plane. And that tie is their university. Of course, we had to see the Huskies in the Orange Bowl.”
Ties That Bind
What makes traveling different for loyalty programs is that common bond. Regardless of the destination, travel leaders find it important to have an enhanced event where their university, bank or hometown is celebrated.
Joe Small, CEO of AHI Travel, a tour operator that works with 250 to 300 college alumni associations throughout the United States and Canada, appreciates the efforts made to promote that bond. In existence for more than 50 years, AHI is a pioneer in the alumni travel business, and Small remembers the days when simply finding out the results of that Orange Bowl game would have been difficult.
“Before the Internet and all the technology that makes information available in an instant, I remember our travel directors going to great lengths to find those results,” he said. “Today, our travel directors are insistent that they assist in making those loyalty events happen.”
Small speaks for all loyalty travel programs when he describes the “magic” that happens on a tour.
“People who have not been on these sorts of tours begin with a little trepidation,” he said. “They might be a little nervous about not knowing anyone and how it all will work. But as we have heard time and time again in our focus groups, one of the best things that happens is making that connection with what all have in common — in this case, their alma mater — and as a result, having lifelong friends. They look forward to the next travel opportunity.
“In fact, between 50 and 60 percent of the group in each of our departures are with past travelers.”
Invite the Locals
Group tours with a common bond can take a nod from alumni travels such as Anderson’s NIU program.
“Like the Orange Bowl we saw in New Zealand, sometimes we go to great lengths to strengthen that loyalty bond,” she said. “But we also invite the local alumni in domestic locations to join us for an event when we are in the area.”
“In the Pacific Northwest, we invited the alumni living in the area to join us on a dinner cruise. When our group was in the Grand Canyon, we invited local alumni to join us in Phoenix for a spring training game where the Chicago Cubs were playing the Chicago White Sox What a treat for us Chicago fans! Over 70 alumni in the area joined our group for that game.
“On those occasions where local alumni have joined us for a NIU event, people get a taste of what our travel program is about. But the best part is it continues to promote loyalty and involvement with NIU.”
Small could not emphasize enough the success alumni groups are having by offering personalized events that reinforce the travelers’ bonds to one another and their school.
“Each year, these universities often have a travel reunion/party that is an opportunity to show photographs and is another reason to socialize with each other,” he said. “It is not only those terrific travel experiences that these travelers enjoy, but those events throughout the tour that are special to each group.”