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Talking with a Travel Planner: an Interview with Kate Sanders

Feb 13, 2020 | | by Lindsay Taulbee

Kate Sanders is the Director of Alumni Programs and Alumni Group Travel at Oregon State University. In this interview, she shares some of the insights she’s gleaned from years of managing a robust travel program that coordinates more than 30 trips annually, and she offers advice for others looking to expand their own travel program.

How long have you been planning travel programs for Oregon State University? How did you get started?

I've been at the Alumni Association for about seven years now. I didn't start off working on the travel program. About a year after I started with the association in event planning, by luck, a colleague of mine decided to take on a different position elsewhere. And so as people move and change, sometimes jobs do as well, and she left for new experiences. That left the travel program role open. I was asked if I wanted to take it on and of course said yes. So I was just lucky to really be in the right place at the right time.

How did your background prepare you for what you do now?

My background is mostly in environmental education and event planning, a combination of the two. I worked at nature centers as an interpretive planner for a long time, connecting science and information. I did research, designed exhibits, and created road signs. Environmental education has always been a big part of my background. Also I was an event planner for a private company. So the combination of the two is actually a perfect fit for the travel program as we're educating our travelers wherever they go. I'm always looking for those nuggets of teaching somebody something about where they are. When you're traveling, you're learning about different cultures, meeting people, and learning about the natural resources that you're visiting. It's that educational experience that travel brings, especially alumni groups - firsthand experience - of living and breathing, being there and touching, and holding and seeing.

Does your travel program have a mission or focus? How is it different from a typical tour?

Oregon State University is recognized as the best research university in the state, with the #2 ranked Forestry program and #3 Oceanography program in the world. We draw students from all 50 states and more than 100 counties. The OSU Alumni Group Travel program strives to showcase the impacts we have around the world. With the help of our travel providers like Holbrook, and our academic resources, we look to have our travelers learn first-hand about the places we visit and sometime struggles of living around the world. Traveling opens minds. All that research and work really comes into perspective – you see why we are trying to discover stronger and more sustainable building materials and why we want to improve the health of communities. Travel brings all of it to life.

When you're planning OSU travel programs, what are some of the important considerations?

We look at where Oregon State has an impact, the expertise of our faculty, and where we can showcase what they're doing all around the world. We do also want to make sure we hit a variety of different countries for individuals to visit, as well as types of travel. Some people really enjoy riverboats where they want to unpack once, some individuals love trains, and others like covering territory by land tours. So just trying to have a mix of different ways of travel and locations. But always, we strive to have our mission at Oregon State University mixed in with all of these places, and asking, what can I share with travelers in that place, what research have we done there? So it all comes into a fold to make our programs different.

Is there a secret to how you integrate your mission into travel? What strategies can you share?

I call it a curiosity and a willingness to talk with individuals. You can't do this job just behind a desk, you actually have to go out and get into the university, talk to the professors, learn about what they're doing. There's so much that happens within the university. You can’t find that information just by Googling it. A lot of it is cutting-edge information that hasn’t been published yet in a journal. We might have a professor doing some amazing work in a community, and they're just about to publish an article about the work they're doing, but it could correspond with us traveling to that same area and being part of that experience. Another big part of it is also doing the same thing with our travelers, learning about what they want to do and what they want to see, because there's no point in developing a program that nobody is going to go on. You have to balance it with who's traveling with you and their interests.

What are some of the more challenging aspects of your job?

Trying to find time to do everything I want to do! As the Director of Alumni Programs and Alumni Group Travel, I not only manage the travel program, but am the lead on many of our high-profile events. As with many individuals in positions like mine, we wear a few hats, and juggling duties always keeps me on my toes! But, I have always said I have the best job in the world and I stick to that. I love doing what I do.

What do you find most rewarding?

Everything [laughs]. I love the personal connections. It may sound cliché, but for me, it is my groups that really make a trip. I actually don’t like traveling alone. I love traveling with others. I love sharing an experience with someone, having friends to talk to about what we are seeing and doing. We experience and grow together and we develop a bond. When I look back on my tours, I really remember the people - laughing so hard that we were crying in the back of the bus in Costa Rica or remembering the time my travel companions and I missed lunch as we watched orcas chase humpback whales in Alaska’s Inside Passage. People make these experiences better and memorable. It makes me smile just thinking about it.

Do you see any shifts or trends in the educational travel arena right now?

Yes, I see all sorts of trends. I see trends of working to bring group sizes down, and to add in more customized and exclusive experiences, while keeping the tours related to our institutional missions. Alumni group travel is not about seeing sites through bus windows. It is about broadening horizons with expert guides. I see a trend to being more mindful of the locations we're going to and what footprint tourism is doing in these locations. It's like, we're going to these wonderful places and then what can we do to help these places that we're going to and really thinking about what our impact is. Sustainability is a huge theme through group travel right now. We just had our annual conference and it was weaved throughout the entire conference: “Are we being as sustainable as we can?” Another great trend is thinking about the diversity of who our travelers are and are we interacting appropriately in each one of those places? You know, we want to be the traveler that respects where we're going. That's always front of mind wherever we go. So that's a really great trend.

As travel can be unpredictable, how do you ensure a program has been vetted before travelers depart?

That is a good question. We research, do a deep dive into the company’s mission, policies, and practices. We learn about their guides and in-country providers. Talk to individuals who have traveled with them in the past and get a sense for their experience. Learn about the quality of their customer service and how they handle difficult situations. And of course we go through all the legal and liability side of things. It usually takes a few years from initial conversations to deciding what trip we will partner on together. It is not a quick decision, but very methodical. The process can be long and arduous, but it is worth it. We are not going to send our alumni out in the world with just anyone.

Do you have any advice for less experienced travel planners?

I'd say the biggest thing, if you're just getting into this field, is to really know your organization. People have so many travel options now. You have to think about what makes your program stand out and what your mission is, and stick to that. I want my trips related to my institution and what we're doing. The reason why they're traveling with us is because I have that connection with my university. Otherwise, I mean, they could just go on Travelocity and book their own trip. And does your leadership want your travel program just to be donor-based VIP travel? Or are you trying to build a membership program? What are those top things that your leadership wants out of your program? And then build your program appropriately. Without that, then you're just another travel agent.

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Holbrook Travel thanks Kate for sharing her story at Oregon State University. To learn more about the OSU program visit the alumni travel website pages