Last updated: 06:50 PM ET, Thu March 24 2016

Tauck and the National Parks: One on One with Dan Mahar

Tour Operator | Tauck | David Cogswell | March 24, 2016

Tauck and the National Parks: One on One with Dan Mahar

Photo courtesy of Tauck

Founded in 1925, Tauck’s very first tour included a visit to the American historical sites Lexington and Concord, which were later named Minute Man National Park. National Parks figured heavily into Tauck itineraries from the beginning, first in the east with Acadia National Park, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Later the company started to explore the American West and Yellowstone, Grand Tetons and Grand Canyon national parks became staples of Tauck tours. That makes the year 2016, the centennial of the National Park Service, a big event for Tauck as well.

TravelPulse spoke to Tauck CEO Dan Mahar about Tauck and the National Parks.

TravelPulse: Tauck was founded only nine years after the National Parks Service and included Lexington and Concord on its very first tour. So Tauck has, in a sense, grown up with the National Parks.

Dan Mahar: That’s true. But nothing stays the same. Everything keeps moving forward, and that’s still very true in the national parks. Our company literally grew up in and around national parks. They were a component of our very first tour. From that period up until today, national parks have been a key element and still a very popular and very large contributor to our business.

We started in the New England area, Massachusetts or up to Acadia, down in Shenandoah, the Great Smokey Mountains. Then the company evolved and began to move out west to the western national parks in the U.S. The Western Canadian national parks as well became key. Today those regions are bigger.

READ MORE: Celebrate 100 Years of US National Parks

TP: You said it had changed. In what way?

DM: In the early days, the primary motivation was just to see the parks. People in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s didn’t venture very far from their place of origin and residence. So back then people would just to go out and see the parks and take it all in. It was awe inspiring and truly special. That even happened in the ‘60s when people from the east would travel to the west. It was very undeveloped.

It was a real adventure even then to travel across the country. As things have evolved to a point today where the world is much smaller, much more accessible for people to travel all around the world. People are much more traveled themselves. I think their desires and needs, expectations etc. have evolved considerably as well when they go to the national parks.

Today it’s much more. Obviously they want to see the parks. They are so beautiful. But they also want to experience them in different ways, whether in an active way, which certainly gets a lot of publicity, hiking, biking or rafting… flightseeing, all those types of experiences. But I think the mental part of it is equally as important to the guests we serve.

It’s learning the stories about the parks, the stories about their origins, the geology behind them, the natural history, the Native Americans. There are all these different elements that people have a thirst for learning more about when they travel generally, and certainly when they travel to the national parks.

That’s why we have some of our partnerships, like the partnership with Ken Burns. He is a storyteller himself. We tell lots of stories on our tours, whether it’s through our own guides or through people we hire and partner with. And we have been able to complement another way with stories from Ken Burns and [Burns’ partner] Dayton Duncan telling different stories. Hopefully they all complement each other and give our guests a deeper understanding of these places and ultimately help them understand the importance overall.

TP: What do you think it means for your guests to have Ken Burns' films available on Tauck’s Ken Burns American Journeys?

DM:  I had an interesting experience recently when my mom took the Canyonlands tour, which visits the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion and Lake Powell. She would call each day and say, “Danny, here’s where I am. I’m on the floor of the Zion looking up at these mountains. It’s so beautiful. Danny, now I’m at the top of Bryce Canyon. I took a horseback ride today.”

She’d call me each day. The best time was when one day she called me and she said, “Danny, I’ve been to all these places before, but I had never really seen them until traveling with you.”

I said, “Mom, I think that’s exactly what our guests want.”

It’s possible to just travel around from park to park and that’s what a lot of people do. But if they learn the stories, that makes it more of an experience for them. It’s something that they take away and remember long after they return home. That’s for me one element that is very special.

Yes, you can be active, and I think that is super. But it’s the active and using your mind in learning while you travel, being a knowledge-seeking explorer when you travel. People think that has to be in museums or art galleries or places like that. But these parks themselves are amazing monuments and places to learn and discover.

READ MORE: National Parks Fever Drives Tour Operator Business

That’s what we enjoy doing and that’s what we enjoy sharing with our customers.

The type of experience has evolved, and it’s also the markets we’re serving. We have a range of different experiences today, whether we’re serving customers or families, whether they are multi generation families, just parents with children, or grandparents traveling with their grandchildren. We’re serving more active people, who want more active enrichment. And then we have our core knowledge-seeking experiences as well... We’ve broadened our product line and then tried to find original content to add in to make our experiences more immersive for our guests. That’s probably one of the biggest evolutions with us and the national parks.

Another key element is to truly immerse in a destination you must free yourself from some of the hassles or challenges of travel. I think that is true everywhere. I think the more that we can take care of and eliminate those things people have to worry about or organize, it allows them to freely immerse themselves more and connect with whoever they are traveling with and with the destination. That is a key element of what we do, and I think all tour operators do, to varying degrees.

At the end of the day we’re trying to really help our customers enhance their lives through the travel we give them. If you’re worrying about checking in and checking out, which room and I going to get, how to get from A to B, how am I going to organize this flightseeing trip or this raft ride or whatever, that’s going to take away the energy that could better be spent connecting with whoever you are traveling with and the destination.

I was on Bridges Alaska tour and I had a top exec from Coca Cola with me and he leaned over to me at Day Three and told me, “I would be toast right now if had to do this on my own. My kids would be killing me.”

I just smiled and said, “That is one of the key benefits. We deliver these experiences and we set up all of these experiences for them, so they can connect with their kids at the destination.”

TP: Is the National Parks Centennial driving a lot of demand for visiting the parks?

DM: We have been seeing strong demand. I think for this year it’s partly driven by the external volatility in other parts of the world. And some part is because of the centennial. I think the centennial will have a pretty big impact on 2017. I think as Ken Burns’ series gets re-aired next month and other awareness increases, the demand will grow. People may have already made their travel decisions for ’16, but now they’ll be thinking about 2017. I think this will have legs for longer. I’m certain it will.

The benefit we can provide to families has always been there for Tauck. We come to it in a very pure way. We’re trying to bring family members closer together and to connect more deeply with the destination. We believe that if we take care of all the little details they can be free to have that connection with each other and with the destination and create those memories forever. As you well know those moments are fleeting. Children grow up fast. You’ve got to take advantage of the window when you have it. It may be the only time you’ll have that vacation at that destination.


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