Last updated: 04:28 PM ET, Mon November 30 2015

Tauck at 90

The renowned tour operator continues to forge the leading edge of travel innovation

Vacation Agent | Tour Operator | David Cogswell

Tauck at 90

PHOTO: The first Tauck Tours group in 1925.

Tauck, the Norwalk, Conn.-based tour operator, marks a rare milestone this year — its 90th anniversary. While few tour operators have achieved such longevity, Tauck has the added distinction of being one of the longest-running travel companies to still be owned and operated by its founding family.

Regarded in the travel industry as the archetypal tour operator, emblematic of what a tour operator can be at the highest levels, Tauck has succeeded by building a strong base of loyal customers, who are its best, most enthusiastic sales force.

Tauck symbolizes for the travel industry the kinds of values portrayed by the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”: Do right by people and you will succeed in the long run. In the hard-edged business and political climates of today, such values may seem “quaint.” But Tauck’s success is proof they can work.

The history of Tauck is point-for-point parallel with the history of the tour industry. Often it was a development introduced by Tauck that expanded the range of what a tour operator could be, spurring the expansion of the choices provided by the entire industry.

Now Tauck is evolving into a travel company that transcends the tour operator category it was instrumental in defining, by adapting the basic formula for tours into a new paradigm in which the tour creates special events that provide clients with life-enhancing experiences.

It’s a direction the whole tour industry is taking, but once again Tauck is at the leading edge of that progression.

In the Beginning…

PHOTO: One of the first Tauck motorcoach tours visited Crawford Notch, N.H.

Tauck’s rich history is as singular as its central role in the tour industry. The company started at a time when few people would have heard of a “tour operator” when the young Arthur Tauck Sr. was on the road selling “the Tauck tray.”

Arthur Tauck Sr. was a bank teller who was fired when he had an accident one day, spilling coins down a dumbwaiter. But he turned his mishap into a business, inventing a coin tray that would make the handling and counting of coins easier, safer and more efficient by, in effect, automating the counting of coins. The Tauck coin tray is still used by banks today.

While traveling the New England countryside calling on banks to present his coin tray, Tauck Sr. found that he was enjoying the travel immensely, and decided that he wanted to share that experience with others. It could even be a viable business venture, he figured.

Tauck put an ad in the Newark Evening News asking for a few companions to join him on his travels and pitch in on the costs. “All I want is a congenial party,” the ad said. “Ten minutes after leaving Newark, we shall be just one happy party, properly chaperoned, out for a real good time. I want no grouches or pessimists. There will always be from one to three cars in the party. The more the merrier.”

Thus the genesis of a renowned tour company that has played a pivotal role in the industry — one even involving the U.S. Supreme Court in what was known as “the Tauck case.”

A Place in History

PHOTO: Tauck’s first charter air tour group.

“The Tauck case” proved to be the make-or-break judicial test of the tour industry’s right to exist. The Interstate Commerce Commission had declared the whole tour operator industry illegal, but Arthur Tauck Sr. appealed the ICC ruling, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where Tauck and his allies won.

When Tauck’s son, Arthur Tauck Jr., was in his 20s, his father turned over the reins of the business to him. Arthur Jr. took the core values his father had built into the brand from its motorcoach tour beginnings into the age of international air travel. Tauck Tours also was a principal actor in the foundation of both the National Tour Association and the U.S. Tour Operators Association that set standards for the modern tour industry.

Today, Arthur Jr. as chairman still has his finger on the pulse of the organization. He reads and responds to customer feedback forms every week even as the third generation of Taucks is at the helm of the day-to-day operations. The Tauck 3G family management team includes Peter Tauck and Robin Tauck, Arthur Jr.’s son and daughter, and Dan Mahar, Arthur Jr.’s son-in-law.

The company continues to expand and come up with more innovations and new products, including its Bridges family travel programs, its river- and small-ship cruising businesses, its special events programs and synergetic partnerships with filmmakers Ken Burns and BBC Earth.

The collaborations with Ken Burns and BBC Earth demonstrate how Tauck is focusing its programs on the experiential and cultural aspects of travel. “Earth Journeys Created by Tauck” with BBC Earth, for example, incorporates the expert knowledge of BBC’s wildlife filmmakers into some of Tauck’s nature-based tours.

The partnership with BBC closely mirrors Tauck’s relationship with filmmaker Ken Burns, which dates back to 2010. Burns and Tauck collaborate on tours called “Ken Burns American Journeys,” which incorporate the perspectives, knowledge and behind-the-scenes stories from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and his longtime collaborator, Dayton Duncan, to provide first-hand travel experiences during Tauck’s tours to the places that were the subject of Burns’ renowned documentaries.

Marking 90 Years

PHOTO: Arthur Tauck addressed Tauck Tours’ employees and partners at the comapny’s 90th Anniversary celebration in Banff.

In February, the Tauck organization gathered for a celebration of its 90th anniversary. Nearly 500 Tauck employees, board members and business partners met at Chateau Lake Louise Hotel in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, for a four-day celebration.

Addressing the group were Arthur Tauck Jr. and CEO Dan Mahar. Arthur Tauck spoke of the company’s history and the role of circumstance in its evolution. He illustrated how accidents and misfortune can be turned by a creative person into breakthroughs that lead to achieving higher levels of accomplishment.

“If Arthur Tauck Sr. had not spilled the coins down the dumbwaiter, we wouldn’t all be standing here now,” said the younger Tauck. It was also because Tauck Sr. had a highway accident with his first tour bus that changed the company’s paradigm from a fixed-cost model to a variable-cost model, in which transportation costs are outsourced. If Tauck had not been able to pay his bills during the Great Depression, the company would not have been able to expand to offer tours to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, noted Arhtur Tauck Jr.

Tauck CEO Dan Mahar, in his remarks on the company’s 90th anniversary, focused for a short time on the company’s history, and intentionally put most of his attention on the future and on how the company will continue to grow and spread the Tauck culture.

PHOTO: A tour program created with BBC Earth last year featured “A Walk with Dinosaurs” in Canada.

He described the company’s four principles that, he said, “are integral to why we are here today.”

  • A sense of purpose;
  • Putting people first;
  • Doing things right;
  • Moving forward.

The overriding mission of the company, said Mahar, is to enhance the lives of its customers. Tauck has evolved beyond being a business or an organization to encompassing a culture whose essential element is service — the service of enhancing the lives of its customers.

He noted that he has embarked on a quest to spread the Tauck culture of service beyond the company to the hotels where Tauck takes its guests in Europe. During his visits to these properties, Mahar speaks to employees about service and the Tauck culture so that they will be more likely to treat Tauck’s guests well, providing the high levels of service that Tauck itself delivers. The mission goes beyond that to spreading the Tauck culture itself.

As Mahar noted in his keynote address, only 12 percent of family businesses survive into the third generation of family ownership. And well into its third generation, Tauck “isn’t just surviving — it’s absolutely thriving.”

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the May 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.