Go, Gophers! University of Minnesota alumni travel revs back up

As a native of Colombia and a chemical engineer with international clients, Rafael Camargo traveled the world, to South America to visit family and on business trips to Europe.

Although he and his wife, Cecelia, are confident global travelers, they were intrigued by a tour to a part of the world they were unfamiliar with — a three-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia offered through the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.

They made the journey shortly before the pandemic brought travel to a halt.

“If we’d done this by ourselves, we would have missed 90% of what we experienced. It was amazing,” raved Camargo, 69. “They took care of everything: tours, accommodations, bus and plane arrangements from site to site. One of our guides was Vietnamese and he gave us history from that perspective. You don’t get that traveling on your own.”

Most large universities and a fair number of smaller colleges pitch tours and travel to alumni. The U association’s Minnesota Alumni Travel program offered 50 trips a year to about 600 travelers before the shutdown and is in the process of gearing back to that level.

According to Audra Gerlach Ferrall, the association’s director of international alumni and travel, exploring the world is a natural extension of the institution’s mission for graduates.

“They want to keep learning. They are educated and curious,” she said. “A big part of the pull is the camaraderie, traveling with people they may have never met but they all have that tie to the U. So they immediately find something in common.”

But no one stops participants at the airport to ask to see their diploma. Tours are open to “alumni and friends,” meaning spouses, family members and others are welcome to join the association’s receptions, events and excursions.

“They feel like we’re a known entity and will look out for them if there’s any snag. They trust us to pick top-notch tour providers,” Ferrall said. “We often send a staff member as host and that’s another layer of security and personal service.”

Ferrall works with eight tour providers that specialize in alumni travel. She describes many of their offerings as “bucket list” trips, with river-and-rail excursions through Europe, cruises on the Baltic and through Scandinavia, tours to China or Egypt and domestic cruises to Alaska and New England as perennial favorites.

The average alumni traveler is a retiree or of retirement age, with the funds and spare time to indulge in high-end travel with what Ferrall calls “differing levels of luxury.”

For the first time, the U is now aiming at younger Gophers, fashioning trips for alumni between 22 and 35 that are cheaper and shorter in length. While the Omicron variant forced the cancellation of the first Young Alumni trip to South Africa, an Egypt trip is currently underway and a Greek island hopper in June is sold out with a waiting list.

Life-changing travel

It’s thought that organized alumni travel started in the 1960s when a company put together a trip to a bowl game. Creating packages for big college sporting events continues to be a big chunk of the alumni travel market.

Edina-based Go Next Travel began contracting with alumni associations as a tour operator 30 years ago. Since then it moved beyond serving Midwestern college and university groups to a national customer base.

“Today people see it’s never too late for life-changing travel and being exposed to new cultures and experiences,” said Go Next president John Weeks.

Go Next works primarily in the cruise sector, offering “cruises in every ocean,” Weeks said, and on a number of world rivers.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand among this group,” he said. “People say one of the things they missed the most during the pandemic is travel, and travel has missed them, too. The industry is ready to welcome them back.”

The business of alumni travel has grown significantly in the past 20 years, with more tour companies “wanting a piece of that pie,” according to Martin Ludwig, senior director of travel for the Georgia Tech Alumni Association.

Ludwig, who has hosted dozens of alumni trips, formed a network with his counterpart travel planners at other colleges and universities. The group regularly meets to share best practices and hear proposals from destinations and tour companies.

“We pick and choose the ones we think our alumni would purchase. I’m at an engineering school so my folks love tours with bridges and locks. The Panama Canal is always big,” he said. “Our alums love to sing our fight song. I’ve sung ‘Ramblin’ Wreck From Georgia Tech’ on every continent, including Antarctica.”

New friends, adventures

Rafael and Cecelia Camargo lived in the Twin Cities for only the five years that Rafael was a graduate student at the U. They settled in the Detroit area but quickly connected with Minnesota alumni on their trip to Southeast Asia.

“We met the others at the hotel in Hanoi. We got a bio of each person, their background and interests, and we clicked with some of them,” he said. “That was part of the fun, sharing adventures not just with my wife but with these new friends we developed relationships with.”

Shortly after returning home, the couple signed up for a second alumni trip, a tour of Egypt.

“That’s another destination we wouldn’t do on our own. There are safety concerns, a language barrier,” Camargo said. “COVID canceled that but they gave us vouchers for future travel. Knock on wood, we’re booked to Japan. Then we want to do Israel and southern Italy and who knows where else. This has changed our perspective about traveling.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based writer and broadcaster.

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