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The Interview: Amy Kotkin, Smithsonian Journeys

Amy Kotkin, Director of Smithsonian Journeys

 

Interview by Everett Potter

Ask any savvy and inquisitive traveler about “educational travel” and chances are that Smithsonian Journeys will be the first name they mention. The educational tour program of the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Journeys offers classic trips to places like Machu Picchu and the Egyptian pyramids, trips that are accompanied by expert Study Leaders that take you behind the scenes.

To get the pulse of the specialized world of educational travel, there’s no one better to speak with than Amy Kotkin, who joined the Smithsonian in 1974 and has been Director of Smithsonian Journeys since 1994. Kotkin oversees Smithsonian Journeys’ 250+ annual tours throughout the U.S. and around the world. Not surprisingly, she’s a very frequent traveler, so I was lucky to catch up with her between trips to Panama and Quebec City.

 

EP: How is Smithsonian Journeys adapting to the current economic and travel environment?

 AK: Our travelers have become relentless in their search for value in this economic climate, as they should be! Our job is to be equally zealous about creating the richest experiences at the best prices. We’ve found that air-inclusive tours are especially popular now because some of these prices just can’t be beat on your own. We also need to stay very broad in our range of destinations. While the Middle East — and Egypt in particular — has been extremely popular with our travelers over the decades, we have to make sure we have great alternatives. The fact that we had strong offerings on every continent helped us weather the temporary downturn in travel to the Middle East. In fact, our tours to Patagonia, Tanzania and China, among others, have really picked up. We are also going to double our domestic cruise offerings in 2012.

 

Korcula, Croatia, along the Dalmatian Coast.

 

EP: You place a lot of emphasis on your leaders. How are they chosen and what sort of expertise are you looking for?

AK: Top experts are at the heart of Smithsonian Journeys. Our study leaders provide travelers with insights and context for what they are seeing. For instance, traveling along the Dalmatian Coast is of course a feast for the eyes, but when a historian prepares you with riveting tales of the powerful Venetian Empire, you gain insight into why those magnificent medieval fortifications were built in Kotor and other locations along the picturesque eastern shores of the Adriatic.

Erudition is only part of what it takes to be a study leader. Equally important is that you need to be a “people person” who thrives on lively conversation from morning ‘til night with inquisitive travelers. Often the best source of referral is a current study leader who knows the demands and delights of the job, and recommends colleagues with the requisite knowledge and talent for teaching. We maintain a vast network of experts across colleges and universities nationwide. Plus, we use all the modern tools – YouTube, Rate my Professor, and personal web sites – to find the best person for the job.

EP: You recently began a new series of trips called European City Breaks, which are a departure from your normal itineraries—in part because they’re just seven days long, but also because they go to major European cities. Was there a growing demand for these shorter trips?

AK: In a word, yes. We added these short City Breaks because younger and older travelers with busy work schedules have told us that they’d love to take our trips but can’t take off the 10-15 days for a typical Smithsonian international journey.  So we created a product that provides Smithsonian educational value in a short period of time, focusing on major cities that are easy to reach from the U.S.  In Paris and Madrid, we’re at one centrally located hotels throughout the week. Our London program includes a couple of nights at a charming hotel in the Cotswolds as well. I think these programs are headed for success – the Paris program is already enrolling quite well for next March.

 

The Eiffel Tower on a full moon night.

EP: Give us an idea of what you might do on a European City Break to, say, Paris. How would it differ from what you might do on your own? 

AK: Like all our tours, City Breaks are accompanied by an experienced tour manager and a top study leader so right there you have a key difference between our trip and doing it on your own. We’ll have a couple of morning lectures during the week, and then our study leader will accompany all included sightseeing as well. But these tours are not just mini-versions of other Smithsonian Journeys. They all include a great balance of included activities, optional tours, and time on your own to give travelers the flexibility in determining how they want to shape their week. On our Paris program, we’ve planned a walking tour through Montmartre and a guided visit to the Louvre as well as other landmarks, but we’ve left two full days to take part in optional tours or discover Paris on your own.  Our tour manager will assist travelers with independent sightseeing, almost like a personal concierge service.

EP: I tend to think of Smithsonian Journeys as a company that offers trips to see the pyramids and the Amazon. But the fact is that Europe is a huge part of what you do. You offer a series of “Insider” tours, such as “Mystery Lover’s England and Scotland” and “Hidden Venice.” Is this kind of special interest tour a growing part of your business?

AK: About half our offerings take place on the Continent and on cruises that touch on southern European ports. The great thing about travel to Europe is that many of our guests take several trips there over time, so we are able to offer some very special tours – trips that move well beyond the iconic “must-see” destinations. For instance, our “Hidden Venice” and “Insider’s Florence” tours are aimed squarely at those who may have visited these cities in more of a hurry the first time, but vowed to come back!  In Venice, guests will take a private tour of San Giorgio Maggiore and its adjacent cloisters, which requires special permission to visit. In Florence, they actually tour the Uffizi Gallery on a Monday when it is closed to the public. Can you imagine having that whole room of Botticellis to yourself? They also go behind the scenes and talk to an Uffizi conservator in her studio, and gain access to the private, portrait-lined Vasari Corridor, linking the gallery to the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti.

This year, we are introducing other specialized European trips, “Mercedes Benz and Bugatti,” which includes factory visits and tickets to the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim. We’ll also launch “Jane Austen at Christmas.” We’ll tour the Hampshire countryside, visit many of the villages and stately homes that shaped Austen’s stories, and celebrate Christmas at Winchester Cathedral.

Small, thematic trips like this remain a steady part of our business and our audience really looks forward to learning what kinds of novel experiences we’re able to offer each year!

A private safari, one of the Private Journeys that Smithsonian Journeys now offers.

EP: Why did Smithsonian Journeys start a new division, Private Journeys?

AK: Returning travelers often tell us that they would love to arrange a Smithsonian Journey just for their family or friends – at a time that is most convenient for them.  So now we have an option for those folks who want a private departure, as structured or unstructured as they want it to be.  Our first guests on these private departures were our past travelers who trusted us to put together an ideal private trip.  But now we are also attracting new travelers who love the idea of a private departure planned exclusively for them.  Again, broadening our product offering allows us to address the needs of more travelers, in this case people who want to travel on their own but look to us for expert planning, including all arrangements for hotels, guides, meals, and transportation.

EP: Are Private Journeys guided, with an expert along?

AK: Every Private Journey involves expert guides who lead the excursions you’ve chosen to include.  For example, if you plan a private African safari with us, top game guides will accompany you.  Or if you’d like to travel with a study leader as well as a guide, we’ll be happy to provide one of our experts.  Last year, a group of people went on one of our regularly scheduled safaris to Tanzania with a study leader who is a top mammalogist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The group got along so famously, and enjoyed our study leader so much, that we are now helping them plan a Private Departure to Rwanda, with the same study leader. Private Departures enable us to plan trips on demand, trips that originate with the desires of the participants themselves – which is different than always trying to anticipate what people might like when we plan our traditional tours. We might say our Private Departures are user-generated – we just supply the expertise to satisfy their dreams.

Breakfast on Sea Cloud II

EP: One aspect of Smithsonian Journeys that I wasn’t really aware of is your small ship cruise offerings. Where are you taking guests these days?

AK: Small ship cruising is an important part of our portfolio.  We offer more than 50 in the U.S. and around the world every year, on ships with capacities ranging from 12 to 350 passengers.  Top destinations include the Mediterranean, Baltic and Black seas, as well as Alaska, Galapagos, and America’s inland waterways such as the Hudson, Mississippi and Columbia rivers. We find that small ships offer an ideal learning environment.  All of the ships we use have facilities conducive to good conversation and learning.  Our experts provide almost daily presentations to prepare travelers with insight prior to their site excursions. When the day concludes back on board ship, passengers can discuss their experiences during an informal “recap” session with the staff or easily find them in the lounge, library, or at meals to continue a conversation. I find guests particularly attentive on cruises. Because they unpack only once, they are relaxed and ready to learn. The fact that we use such small ships not only engenders camaraderie on board, but also allows us to visit smaller ports that are not overrun by tourists. We also find that our travelers really enjoy the relaxed, informal ambiance aboard our small ships.

EP: You’ve been with Smithsonian Journeys since 1994. How has the business – and the concept – of educational travel changed since then? 

AK: The great news here is that educational travel has become bigger and broader than ever! When I first started with Journeys, educational travel had a rather narrow definition, and a fairly narrow audience – mostly active retired people in search of a culturally rich but rather structured experience. Today, more people at a variety of life stages are opting for educational travel, and education is delivered in many creative ways. Families are an important new market and we have several trips that are designed for parents and children ages 8 to 15, with special activities for the kids.  On our “Gods and Heroes” cruise to Italy and Greece, kids put on an ancient Greek play for their parents. Our specially trained youth counselors teach the kids about archaeology by literally smashing clay pots and then challenging the kids to put them back together. Learning is now more experiential and multi-faceted.  Our travelers value classroom teaching techniques, but they also want to absorb the culture by cooking, kayaking, walking, biking, learning about olive oil production, dining with local families, meeting religious figures, and attending great performances. All moments are teachable moments – the trick is to plan trips in such a way that wherever the traveler is, he or she can enjoy those “aha” experiences.  One of my favorites happens on our Santa Fe Opera tour.  Each year, we have lunch with the apprentices – promising young opera singers who spend the summer at the Santa Fe Opera with seasoned professionals.  Our guests tell me that they learn as much from talking first hand with these dynamic young people as they do from watching the operas themselves!

I should say, too, that you will find avid learners everywhere.  While we don’t necessarily think of the mega cruise ships as floating classrooms, the fact is, you will find a lot of intellectually curious people on board.  Our partnership with Celebrity Cruises brings nearly 100 Smithsonian Journeys experts on board their fleet annually, with presentation topics ranging from coral reef ecology to astronomy, geology and archaeology.  It’s not uncommon for these presentations to draw hundreds of cruisers.

Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.

EP: What are the hottest trips right now? 

AK: Many of the “classics” stay hot, year after year – destinations including Italy, Turkey, America’s national parks, Peru, France.  Recently, as I mentioned earlier, Patagonia has become extremely popular.  We’re also beginning to see interest in our new City Explorer series, with programs in Siena and Athens.  On these novel trips, guests settle in to a charming small hotel for a couple of weeks and we help them adapt to the rhythms of the city itself, with a series of language lessons and informal meetings with locals. In the cruise sphere, the Mediterranean has enduring appeal and our annual Hudson River cruise, which takes place during the peak of fall foliage, sells out every year.  Civil War tours, especially now that the 150th anniversary of the war is being commemorated, are also especially popular. At the other end of the spectrum, we’re also enrolling extremely well on our Private Jet Tours, which circle the world, and stop at such iconic sites from Easter Island to Petra and Marrakech. Plus, our new special interest tour, “Mercedes Benz and Bugatti,” which I mentioned previously and is scheduled for next July, is nearly full!

EP: Which destinations are you looking at for future trips? 

AK: Oh, so many!  First, on our “Exploring West Africa” cruise in January, we’ll make a first-time visit to the Bilagos Archipelago, a cluster of 88 pristine and seldom visited islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau. We’ll resume cruising in the Far East, with three new itineraries.  Ports will include Vietnam, Singapore, Bali, Sri Lanka and several locations in India.  We’ll add Bhutan to our line-up of land tours and re-introduce Iceland in 2012. We’re also hopeful of traveling to Cuba in the near future.  It would be a first for Smithsonian Journeys, but the Smithsonian’s ties with Cuba go back literally to our founding in the mid-19th century. One of our earliest collections of fish specimens came to us in 1849 from a Cuban naturalist!

Smithsonian Journeys naturalist pointing out the wildlife in Panama.

EP: Where have you just returned from? And where are you going next?

AK: I’ve literally just stepped off the plane from Panama, where I visited with staff at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), one of the world’s most famous organizations for the study of tropical ecology.  Currently, we have a month-long summer course for college students there. It is an amazing program and one we hope will inspire students to choose biology as a career. Panama is a spectacular destination!  Within the space of one afternoon, I experienced a bit of nature when a three-toed sloth literally dropped to the ground right in front of me when he ventured too far out on a delicate branch. I then had an elegant lunch at the Miraflores Locks, watching giant container ships make their way through the Panama Canal, and then took a hard hat tour of the Bio Museo, a bold and colorful design by Frank Gehry, under construction on a small peninsula in Panama City. This will become one of the world’s great iconic sites – right up there with the Sydney Opera House and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, when it is finished in about two years. I’m particularly excited about expanding opportunities for Smithsonian travelers in Panama, utilizing our unique resources there.  Next for me is Quebec City – which has been a conspicuous omission on my travel resume!  My husband and I will celebrate our anniversary there in October.  For a weekend, it is a little closer than Paris, and (as I’m told by our travelers), pretty darn charming!

 

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