Last updated: 01:50 AM ET, Mon October 29 2012

The Civil War with Tauck

The day after I attended the Civil War event hosted by Tauck in Washington, D.C., I woke up feeling better than I had in a long time. I suppose that after living in intimacy for a few days with Lincoln’s problems, and those of ordinary Americans during the Civil War, my own problems seemed very insignificant.

This was Tauck’s first production of its new Ken Burns Journeys program, a collaboration with the documentary filmmaker who created the PBS series “The Civil War.” The Tauck Civil War Event was held in Washington, D.C., where 300 Tauck guests were housed in four hotels, divided into 10 groups of 30 and taken through a revolving program of activities designed to create an intense immersion in the history and in the experience of the American Civil War.

The itinerary was designed by Tauck’s product development people in collaboration with Burns and his historian/writer partner Dayton Duncan. It was then implemented by Tauck’s small army of destination management specialists using a different theme for each day. One day, for example, focused on “The People’s War,” examining how the war affected millions of ordinary Americans. Another day was focused on “The Meaning of Freedom,” looked at the largely overlooked history of Black Americans in the war. And a third day was titled “Lincoln’s War,” focusing on President Lincoln, what he did and how the struggle affected him.

The schedule was dense, packing many diverse experiences into a few days and leaving participants with a myriad of impressions to assimilate and ponder. Tauck’s coordination of 300 people through all these activities was a wonder to behold. There were a few events where everyone came together as a single group. One of the most notable of those was the night when Ken Burns addressed the entire group in a theater at the National Archives.

After the speech Burns met personally with guests, who lined up to see him a few feet from the where the original Constitution and Declaration of Independence are mounted for viewing. Tauck was able to use its well-established insider access to get authorization to hold a reception with food and drinks in the National Archives just steps away from the nation’s founding documents.

For most of the daily touring, however, the 10 groups traveled separately in rotation to the various sites. Guests traveled with their own groups of 30 and rarely saw evidence that they were part of a larger group of 300. Tauck CEO Dan Mahar described the process using the analogy of a swan that glides smoothly across the surface of the water, while under the surface the feet are paddling vigorously.

At the farewell dinner, Mahar thanked an extensive list of the indispensable members of the crew who pulled it off. It was a massive challenge in logistics, which in that context made me appreciate even more the enormous problems of moving thousands of soldiers in order to fight the Civil War.

Tauck’s itinerary included things like the Manassas National Battlefield, where the first major battle of the war took place; the new African-American Museum of Civil War museum; Washington’s U Street and its monuments to the African-American soldiers, who were only 1 percent of the population but 10 percent of its army by the end of the war; Frederick Douglass’s home on the outskirts of Washington; a nighttime visit to the Lincoln Memorial; Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated; the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum; and President Lincoln’s Cottage, where he spent much of his time during his presidency.

But these itinerary listings don’t begin to convey the entire experience. I was deeply moved at many points over the four days of the tour program. At times, I felt I had undergone a transformation and I have no doubt that all who participated could say the same thing.

As a company, Tauck has been a major force in defining the tour industry since 1925, when the company was started by Arthur Tauck Sr., the 27-year-old son of German immigrants. He had worked as a bank teller, inventing a new style of coin tray (which is still in use in banks today), then went on the road to sell his coin tray to banks. Relentlessly enterprising, the young inventor-salesman enjoyed his travels through New England so much that he decided to take people with him.

Tauck put an ad in the paper, started a new business and became one of the first modern tour operators. In his ad he wrote, “I just want a grand party, no grouches.” It was always about travel, but it was also something else. It was the organization of an event and a group experience. The itinerary was a program that if followed, just like a recipe, would produce an experience.

These days Tauck executives talk about “lagniappes,” those little “something extras” that every Tauck tour must have to make it transcend the details of the written itinerary. They use the word “choreograph” to describe the way they weave together the various components of the itinerary, bringing theater to mind. Indeed, this is particularly appropriate because Tauck’s work resembles theater production almost as much as it does tour operation.

If it was not already established, Tauck’s new collaboration with filmmaker Ken Burns has certainly taken the company to a jumping off point at which the term “tour” no longer describes what the company does. Tauck confronted the obsolescence of the word “tours” a decade ago and changed its name to Tauck World Discovery. Then in recent years it quietly dropped the latter two words and became just Tauck. Now the company’s product has crossed over into a realm that is difficult to name.

Ken Burns spoke for more than an hour at the national gallery. This is a man I believe has elevated the filmmaking art. In addition, he has contributed powerfully to many Americans’ understanding and appreciation of their heritage. One has no right to expect him to be a moving public speaker as well. But he mesmerized the audience and when he took questions after the speech he spoke even more movingly than during his prepared speech.

Audience members were utterly silent in rapt attention until the final moment. then burst into an exuberant standing ovation. Arthur Tauck Jr., son of the founder, still chairman and still deeply involved in the day-to-day operation of the company, turned to his CEO and son-in-law Dan Mahar with tears in his eyes and said, “We took touring to another level.” And indeed they did. For more information on Tauck, visit www.tauck.com.

David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours for TravelPulse.com.

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