Patrick Clark of Avalon Waterways inspects the Century Paragon. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Avalon Waterways offers guests on its Yangtze River cruise itineraries special perks onboard. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Gene Feng of Globus Family of Brands and Richard Xie of Century Cruises on a shore excursion during a Yangtze River cruise // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Vicky Qin, a tour director for Globus Family of Brands, on a gondola to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain’s Spruce Meadow in Lijiang, China // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Every night before Vicky Qin goes to bed, she lies down, closes her eyes and visualizes the next day, from morning to night. She considers everything she has to do and what could happen to affect the day’s itinerary. She comes up with alternative plans — Plan B, Plan C and so on — and, only then, does she go to sleep.
I was on my way to meet Vicky, a tour leader for Globus Family of Brands, in Beijing via Yichang. Unfortunately my flight from Yichang was delayed after I boarded and, as is often the case, the details of the flight delay were not openly shared — at least not in a language I could understand. I was concerned that I would miss my connecting flight in Beijing because I had a very tight transfer and the Beijing airport is quite large. Vicky text messaged me before I even had a chance to piece together the circumstances. She was tracking my flight online, and she had several options lined up in case I missed my flight. She also provided me with crucial tips that saved precious time, like the location of my next gate and what I needed to tell my flight attendant in order to be the first to leave the plane. I was already feeling the value of hassle-free travel, and I hadn’t even started my tour.
I travel often and consider myself fairly independent and capable, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t appreciate passing off the responsibility of planning, back-up planning, procuring special requests and figuring out how to create and then experience a dream itinerary. It’s best left to the pros, especially when the destination in question is off the beaten path and generally difficult to traverse or if the itinerary is complex and far-reaching, such as my recent visit to China.
A good tour operator does more than merely handle the details, though. It must have outstanding relationships with its partners — not only among the CEOs and the sales and marketing directors, but among the people directly handling the clients. With a good rapport with a partner’s staff, tour directors can personalize a third party’s product, tailoring it to maximize the clients’ experience — an underrated value. On Yangtze River cruises, where Avalon doesn’t have its own ships, Vicky’s relationships with onboard staffers, with whom she has developed friendships, come into play.
“Because I know the staff, I can do little things — like ensure that my group gets off the ship first during shore excursions,” said Qin. “That way they don’t wait when transfers off the ship get backed up.”
In addition to traveling with some of Avalon’s most experienced tour directors, Avalon clients onboard Century Cruises’ ships receive special meal seating at the VIP restaurant for all meals, complimentary wine with dinners and the choice of Western a la carte dinners. Avalon guests also get access to the Executive reception area with all-day coffee and tea and complimentary Wi-Fi access; reserved seating for evening entertainment; exclusive shore excursions and the use of a porter during disembarkation, so clients don’t have to do lug their own baggage.
These subtleties sweeten what’s probably the best part of the deal: the use of local experts who can navigate tricky travel situations with grace.
For instance, the amount of red tape one must tear through during a visit to Lijiang’s gorgeous Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is dizzying, with none of the steps apparent to the English speaker. First off, guests need to arrange transportation to get to the entrance where they will need to present their passports and pay an entrance fee. Then, they will need to line up to enter a terminal for a mandatory group bus, which also requires tickets. Our local guide ran around to procure the tickets, and utilized his experience with these lines to figure out how we could bypass them — we breezed past large Chinese groups and got first pick of seats on the bus. Our local guide continued to dazzle with his elegant performance of expertise, and my reward: to experience so much in the little time I had.
Later, I found out that one of my favorite parts of my trip — viewing Zhang Yimou’s Impression Lijiang, an unforgettable performance featuring more than 500 local minority Chinese sharing their cultures against the backdrop of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain — was an old Plan B of Vicky’s. A scheduled visit to Tibet was no longer possible because of reasons out of her control, so she had to come up with a way to make it up to her group. Having always wanted to view the performance personally, she pitched it to her boss, suggesting it would help compensate for the Tibet loss. Because of its immense popularity, it was added to Avalon Waterways’ Lijiang itinerary. The outdoor show is rain or shine which, I learned, is also how a good tour director operates.