THE INTERVIEW: Amy Kotkin, Smithsonian Journeys
What is the leading educational travel company? It has to be Smithsonian Journeys, a company that hires experts as trip leaders, crafts unique itineraries and more or less patented the idea of "behind the scenes travel." To learn more, I caught up with Smithsonian Journeys director Amy Kotkin during the holidays.
WHERE ARE YOU NOW?
I am home, in Washington, D.C., packing up my home, ready to undergo that most quintessential American ritual — remodeling — so I am about to relocate temporarily across the border Maryland while my home is transformed. It has been decades since I’ve lived in a state!
WHERE HAVE YOU JUST RETURNED FROM?
My honeymoon! I was married three weeks ago and rather than do a big trip, my husband and I opted simply to cross the Potomac and head south into Virginia. We used the couple of days we had available to us to explore the historic towns, wineries and fine restaurants that were not more than a couple of hours away. We made wonderful discoveries in "the faraway nearby."
This past summer, we traveled to Belgium and southern Holland. My husband and I had never been to Belgium and we were totally bowled over by the architectural beauty and the astonishing art collections of Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges. It rained relentlessly while we were in Brussels, but we bought a map showing the most fabulous art deco treasures and toured the city by subway and foot for a glimpse of these exuberant buildings. At the end of the day, the sopping wet map literally disintegrated in our hands but we were greatly enriched by all that we’d seen. This trip also marked our first venture into southern Holland.
We were in the beautiful rolling hills of the Limburg region a vacation place for Europeans. There was a walking festival going on in the small village of Valkenburg bringing hundreds of convivial, multi-generational walkers to stroll along all the well-groomed footpaths. In the evenings, there was a continuous celebration along the winding lanes of this delightful village. The crowds of one outdoor caf melded seamlessly into the next. Each one was full of tired walkers downing beers and dining on hearty local fare. What a delight! We also explored Maastrict an extraordinary city where stately old buildings and cutting edge design seem to coexist quite naturally.
Smithsonian Journeys’ mission is to engage our members in the wide-ranging interests of the Smithsonian Institution, to expand their intellectual horizons, and to satisfy their curiosity about the world. The Smithsonian Institution, as you know, is exceptionally broad in its collections and activities. We have over 141 million objects in our collections, ranging from beetles and bats to locomotives and spacecraft. We have research stations worldwide where scientists study astronomical phenomena, coral reefs, bird migrations and endangered species, to name just a few our global activities. Smithsonian magazine, which is received in over 2.1 million households across the U.S., features articles drawn broadly from history, science and the arts. Happily, what that means for Smithsonian Journeys is that virtually any educational tour we wish to plan is embraced by the mandate. Our tours really do mimic the breadth of the Institution, from natural history, to cultural history, to the visual and performing arts. And like the Institution, we are dedicated to lifelong education.
YOU’VE BEEN WITH THE SMITHSONIAN FOR NEARLY 30 YEARS AND WITH SMITHSONIAN JOURNEYS SINCE 1994. HOW HAS THE CONCEPT OF "EDUCATIONAL TRAVEL" CHANGED IN THAT TIME?
When I first started with Smithsonian Journeys, educational travel was a new and tiny niche with a small but passionate following. The idea of traveling with a scholar to fascinating sites, to wrap each trip in a conceptual frame that was fleshed out by the order and pace of the itinerary, and by lectures that provided informed insights into what you were seeing all the while avoiding tourist traps was, well, a little esoteric. There were only a few museums and alumni associations that were offering this kind of travel. The biggest change over the years has been the proliferation of educational travel, well beyond the non-profit organizations that first offered it.
Besides the growing popularity of education on tour, we’re also seeing an expansion of what education is! Our travelers still value formal lectures by their study leader to enhance their on-tour experience, but they also seek more experiential learning, learning by doing. Our challenge is to offer more experiential opportunities while still maintaining the overall intellectual framework of the tour. For example, we are offering our first tour to Buenos Aires in 2007 where participants will not only watch expert performances of tango and hear about the dance’s history, but also try tango for themselves during a lively lesson with terrific teachers.
I’M INTRIGUED BY THE FACT THAT YOUR NEW TOURS INCLUDE ARCHITECTURE IN THE TWIN CITIES AND A BEHIND-THE-SCENES LOOK AT HOLLYWOOD. THIS SEEMS LIKE A FAR CRY FROM OVERLAND TRIPS TO BHUTAN OR A SAFARI TO AFRICAN GAME PARKS? OR IS IT? Yes and no! In my book, every tour tells a story, and our job is to find the best stories, and the best storytellers to transport our members into the particular genius of a culture or a region.
So, the fact that there is dazzling new public architecture in the Twin Cities is every bit as compelling a story as is the annual wildebeest migration. In both cases, we are looking for the best possible study leaders to provide context and background to help travelers understand why St. Paul and Minneapolis boast so many new, world-class buildings, and what causes the wildebeest to migrate hundreds of miles each year. In all our tours, we are trying to go beyond the "what" of travel to the "why."
That being said, we do think Smithsonian Journeys has a special reason to shine a spotlight on America. The Smithsonian is America’s national museum our collections are replete with Hollywood memorabilia, for instance, and our scholars spend a great deal of time figuring out what is important to save and interpret for future generations. Our U.S. travel program features those places that are unique, authentic, and a genuine part of America’s heritage. We are very proud of our U.S. programs — our staff develops many of them and they are simply not available elsewhere in the marketplace.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE TAKE A TRIP WITH A COMPANY LIKE SMITHSONIAN JOURNEYS RATHER THAN ORGANIZE IT THEMSELVES?
Four reasons come to mind. First, we make it easy. Take our performing arts tours, for instance. We offer programs at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Santa Fe Opera, the Spoleto USA festival in Charleston, and the Toronto Film Festival. We get the tickets, the hotel rooms and the dinner reservations the whole package. You don’t have to worry about purchasing each of these services yourself. Second, we assure you of privileged access: private back-stage tours, exclusive meetings with artists, prime seating at the operas, an "industry pass" at the film festival that enables you to walk in to any film you wish without standing in line. Third the company is always superb! We draw a curious, intellectual, but fun-loving group to our tours. Many people form important friendships during our tours, and then they come back and travel together on future journeys with us. Fourth, and most important we assure you of the best study leaders. I know I come back to that a lot these passionate educators are the backbone of what we do. Let me give you an example.
Our study leader for the Metropolitan Opera with his encyclopedic knowledge of opera assures us that we will be fully prepared for each performance. His personal friendships with opera luminaries mean that we’ll enjoy stunning private sessions with top movers and shakers. And his equally broad grasp of fine food and wine guarantees we will dine at some of New York’s finest restaurants while we are in the city.
WHAT’S YOUR CURRENT PERSONAL FAVORITE AMONG SJ TRIPS? AND WHICH ONES ARE YOU KEEN ON TRYING OUT YOURSELF AND WHY? Our trip to Southern India is among my greatest favorites. It combines the lush tropical attractions of Kochi and Goa with a fantastic four-day rail voyage aboard the luxurious new train, the Deccan Odyssey. I traveled with our first Southern India group last year. Our highest high? Visiting the astonishing Buddhist, Hindu and Jain rock-carved caves at Ellora and Ajanta.
I relived the whole experience reading the lead article about he caves in last week’s Sunday New York Times. Our final hotel the Taj Mahal in Mumbai overlooked the world-famous Gateway of India. Another overwhelming experience!
I am very keen to go to Viet Nam in 2007. Having grown up during the war, I am eager to experience aspects of the traditional culture to see how this resilient nation has recovered and surged ahead in economic development. I plan to be aboard the Spirit of Oceanus on our cruise along Viet Nam’s coast line next December. The small size of our ship (114-passengers) will allow us to make ports of call that the larger ships can’t do.
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU SPEND ON THE ROAD CHECKING OUT NEW TRIPS?
We divide research and development of new tours among all our senior program staff so that no one is out for too long. I simply take my turn. On average, I’m on the road about four weeks per year. It is essential to make sure that destination knowledge is evenly spread through our staff. We love this kind of travel experiencing new ships, hotels, destinations that are just emerging each of us imagines what it would be like to lead a group. Would the group like it? Will they see all the wonderful attributes of the region that I see? How can I make this experience even more special for our members?
WHAT ARE THE HOT DESTINATIONS THIS YEAR FOR SJ?
South Africa and the Columbia River top the charts! We’ve been operating our South Africa trip, which includes 4 days on the spectacular Rovos Rail train for 10 years now, and virtually every year it is completely subscribed.
The combination of a fascinating destination, a top study leader (a political scientist who was instrumental in the dramatic end of apartheid and the rise of democracy), stays at top game parks and at Victoria Falls, assures us of a winner each year. To accommodate the waitlist on our May departure, we’ve planned another in September. In the U.S., we offered a food and wine cruise on the Columbia River for the first time this year and it was an instant sell-out. We visited family wineries and farms, tasted the best local produce, visited specialty growers, and ate in top restaurants along the way. It was new and different. The reviews of the program were simply over the top one of the best ever. Coming up next summer is a new kind of trip for us, one that is focused on current trends and events, with access to leading thinkers and theorists. "A Symposium of Global Warming and Climate Change" will take place on the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov as we cruise through the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea. Joining us will be Tom Brokaw, who will monitor panel discussions on climate change with on-board experts including a physicist, a biologist and an anthropologist.
ANY SLEEPERS, PLACES THAT OFFER A GREAT EXPERIENCE IN YOUR CATALOG OF TRIPS BUT FOR SOME REASON HAVE BEEN OVERLOOKED BY CLIENTS?
Yes, a couple come to mind. This year we offered an intriguing program called "Great Spy Capitals of the World: Berlin and Moscow" that featured visits to the former headquarters of the East German Secret Police (STASI) and meetings with former KGB agents. It was an extraordinary tour but we would have loved to draw a few more members than we did.
The other trip is our French Spa Retreat at the magnificent Les Pres D’Eugenie near Toulouse. Spas are really new territory for us! What convinced us that this is an educational destination is that the Europeans have a long tradition of spas in the pursuit of wellness, and it’s quite different from our own. We often use such retreats to exhaust ourselves with non-stop rounds of aerobics, stretching classes, hikes and minimalist food. For the Europeans, however, spa life is more relaxed, calm, and focused on the "art of living," with great food and superb treatments. Our tour staff will be talking about European spas their history and philosophy and of course our members will sample the treatments! Our audience is so inclined toward touring world-famous sites in great depth our challenge at times is to focus them a little more on themselves, and the good life, as legitimate and pleasurable areas of study!
HOW OFTEN DO YOU TRAVEL? IS IT USUALLY FOR BUSINESS OR FOR PLEASURE?
Both, really. And sometimes the lines are really not all that distinct! Travel for business is usually a pleasure, and even on the pleasure trips, I am thinking about business. For example, as we visited the wineries of northern Virginia on our honeymoon, I could not help thinking that there was a real story here and that we at Smithsonian Journeys have access to the talent, expertise and resources to flesh out into a tour that would be of real interest to people from all regions of the country.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT TRAVEL? WHAT DO YOU DETEST?
I love the personal transformation that occurs when you land in a totally new environment you have literally left all your routines, your small concerns behind. This is a new reality! New rules, new experiences. All my five senses snap to alert in new destinations. Every sight, smell and aural experience is new and sometimes hard to interpret. For me, travel is always an optimistic experience. No matter how far you travel or how often, there is so much to be learned, so much more to be absorbed. That realization is a huge high, and gives me great energy. What do I detest? Well, airports, frankly. I had to fly to Europe on August 10, the day that the trans-Atlantic bombing plot was discovered in London. It was agonizingly slow-going at the airport, and imagine my surprise when I learned that the "no liquid" ban was broadened to include lipstick and mascara. There were giant trash barrels outside security filling up with stacks of expensive makeup, mine included. It was a crazy time. But I have to say, TSA handled it with aplomb.
WHAT CAN’T YOU LEAVE HOME WITHOUT WHEN YOU TRAVEL?
My black rayon pants from Chico’s! They have been everywhere with me for the past decade. They pack well, don’t wrinkle, you can wear them to a nice dinner and that elastic waistband is very forgiving!
WHAT ARE YOU READING RIGHT NOW?
I’ve been in a book group for the past 25 years — we started way before such groups became fashionable. Along the way, the other members have persuaded me to read books I would not have chosen and I’ve done the same for them. We just finished The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr, which took me right back to Italy with its fascinating art historical tale of a famous lost Caravaggio that was found in Scotland. Now we are on to Tim O’ Brien’s The Things They Carried, a very personal look back at the Viet Nam war very timely for me.
HOW DO YOU STAY WELL-INFORMED?
I am bombarded with travel e-mail newsletters, travel catalogs, and periodicals, so I know what is out there, what other people are reading and how destinations are being "spun." In addition, I subscribe to travel industry publications. The BBC is an important source of news and I keep abreast of Department of State Public Announcements and Travel Warnings. I also make a point of keeping up with my colleagues in educational travel and read everything I possibly can. And now I am learning to look at blogs!
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