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Like a wannabe travel agent, I qualified my first - and probably last - client. No one had warned me not to work with family, so I accepted my dad's request to plan a family vacation that included a visit to my mom's childhood home.
If my mom had been born in the U.S. like my dad, it might have been easier. But she was born in Poland and left the country when she was just 3 years old, never to return.
Until now — so long as my consultation was fruitful. My mom hadn’t been back to her first home in more than 58 years, and not a single member of her family still lives in Poland. But she did have a few facts to share, as well as some colorful memories.
My mom was born in Gluszyca, a town that barely exists — if you measure existence by number of Google search results. Gluszyca is located in Walbrzych County, Lower Silesian Voivodeship, in southwestern Poland, about an hour away from Wroclaw. Before 1945, the town was part of Germany. After World War II, Germans were expelled. And displaced Poles, including Holocaust survivors such as my mom’s parents, were sent to live in Gluszyca.
Even though my mom spent the rest of her childhood in Israel, she did have some memories from her time in Poland. She lived across the street from the elementary school, and her dad — the only tailor in town — made her a school uniform, even though she wasn’t old enough to go to school. In another story, she was walking with a friend and his mother, when an acquaintance of her dad’s bought her ice cream in a waffle cone. The friend’s mother took the ice cream and ate it.
Despite the childish viewpoint, these stories contained concrete clues to her past. Her dad was the only tailor in town. They lived across the street from the school — the only one in the area at that time. They could walk to an ice cream shop. And there were other clues, such as how my mother remembered living in a two-story building that had red wood inside.
While I was impressed by her memory, I had no addresses, so I knew I had to call an expert to track down this home. It didn't have to be a genealogist, since I had some relevant information, but rather someone who could at least pronounce Polish words and arrange on-the-ground connections in the country. Besides spending the day in Gluszyca, my parent-clients wanted to sightsee in Russia and Poland, comfortably and freely.
After some research, I settled on Exeter International, a tour operator known for its expertise in Eastern Europe. I forwarded my mom’s birth certificate and the memories I had cobbled together to Dasha Harrison, manager for Exeter, who was handling our trip.
“We’ll send this to our local office and see what they can do,” she said.
Truth be told, I didn’t expect much.
Travel With an ImpactThe growth of heritage-related travel is a reasonable result of the greater trend of tracing family roots. According to a multicountry study done by Ancestry.com in November 2014, online family history research in the U.S. has grown fourteenfold in the past decade. It’s easier than ever to fill in some branches of the family tree with just a few clicks of the mouse. But there’s also the fact that two-thirds of respondents say that family history has become more important than ever, motivated by the belief that knowing about the past is essential to understanding who we are now.
Relationships between younger and older generations have strengthened, as well; nearly 72 percent of respondents report that they feel closer to older relatives.
“The interest in heritage travel has been a steady climb,” said Dan Austin, founder and president of Austin Adventures. “It seems that sites such as Ancestry.com have made it easier for consumers to look into their heritage and get excited about visiting their homeland.”
The popularity behind the PBS television series “Finding Your Roots,” now in its third season, is also telling: Viewers are drawn to the show for its ability to explain how figures in popular culture have gotten to where they are today. In a recent episode with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, the show’s host informs the business mogul that his great-grandfather was born in Chennai, India. The host asks a surprised Branson why his ancestors from London may have wanted to travel to India.
“I would hope it was as entrepreneurs, to make their fortunes,” Branson said.
He was right — they became shopkeepers and auctioneers and opened businesses. A genetic test and a missing name on a baptismal record also led to the revelation that Branson has an Indian ancestor. During the televised revealing of his family tree, Branson appears humble and vulnerable. By the end of it, he proclaimed new aspirations for his life.
By now you’ve heard it: Today’s travelers are looking for travel that makes an impact on them.
“In one way or another, probably 25 to 30 percent of my trips are heritage-related,” said James MacPherson Ferguson, a travel agent at Yorba Linda Travel/World Travel Bureau in Yorba Linda, Calif. “It’s been growing each year. This is a booming market — people are finding out it’s important in life to know where you’re from in order to know where you’re going.”
Indeed, it’s primarily baby boomers, such as my parents, who are at the forefront of the trend — and they’re bringing their families along.
“The boomers — with discretionary income, time and access to the Internet — are wanting to reach out,” Ferguson said. “They have done the cruise to Alaska, and they have done the Caribbean. Now, they want something more in-depth and enriching. I guess you could call it the meaning of life.”
Where in the World?America is a melting pot (or salad bowl, depending on your worldview). We’ve immigrated from far and wide, but when it comes to heritage travel, some destinations are requested more often than others.
“We’ve had the most easily identifiable ‘tracing family roots’ requests for Italy, particularly small towns outside Rome, Abruzzo, Sicily and southern Italy,” said Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations. “Other popular family heritage countries include Ireland, England, Scotland, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Some going to central Europe want a personal visit to the site of a concentration camp where family members perished during WWII.”
About 10 percent of Exeter International’s total trips across mostly Eastern Europe involve a heritage aspect. For Poland, though, that number is significantly higher: 75 percent of clients traveling to Poland go with the intention of discovering their heritage.
“So many American Jews can trace their lineage back to that region,” said Gwen Kozlowski, general manager of Exeter. “The thing is, it’s not just Poland, but Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania, too. Their heritage might be Polish, but the town is now in Belarus, such as Grodno, or the town is now in Ukraine, such as Lviv.”
What Kind of Trip Is This?Sometimes clients can find an escorted group tour that satisfies their needs, such as CIE Tours International's Irish Heritage itinerary. But their best bet is usually an FIT tour that mixes traditional sightseeing with visits to ancestral towns and includes a private driver-guide. According to Dalgaard, the “heritage umbrella” includes personal motivators for travel, such as wanting to connect with a culture, a language, a cuisine, a religion or family members who are still living in “the old country.”
Each of these trips is unique, but they are usually big bookings, spanning multiple regions and involving multigenerational groups. Agents can even create their own group tours to explore shared ancestry.
“With one of our top group agents, we ran a number of family name tours, such as the 'O’Brien Tour,'” said James Myers, director of product development and logistics at CIE Tours. “We designed the tour around all the sights associated with the O’Brien family name, starting with Brian Boru and tracing back all the way to the Earls of Thomond and Dromoland Castle. This tour pulled O’Briens from around the U.S., many of whom had never met before the tour.”
FIT tours tend to be larger, too.
“For me, it’s never just a couple going,” said Daniela Harrison, a travel agent for Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz. “It’s a big, multigenerational trip of eight to 20 people. They might not do the whole trip together, but they are visiting the heritage sites that are important to them as a unit.”
Trips will also vary depending on what the clients want to know.
“I have clients who want to meet someone who knew their relatives,” Kozlowski of Exeter said. “Others just want to stand in the streets that their people are from and take some pictures. We have to tailor it to the comfort level of the person who is doing the touring.”
Ferguson of Yorba Linda Travel says that first-timers to a country, such as Scotland or Ireland, are usually not looking to go in-depth.
“They want to see the castle named after them, certainly,” he said. “It’s more of a destination where there is appreciation, rather than a personal thing.”
However, some clients who start off with a broader-scope trip, spurred by watching “Braveheart” or “Downton Abbey,” will often return for a more personal trip later on.
“One out of three wants to get to the core of it,” Ferguson said. “The next step is usually to go back on the next trip and really spend a week or more in their ancestral town and see how life is now compared to back then.”
Dos and Don'tsUnfortunately, there are no education platforms that teach agents the best practices for planning these kinds of trips. But most operators agree: Agents should ask careful questions and get the bulk of family information from the clients.
And don’t assume anything — the client might not even know they want a heritage trip.
“Sometimes you have to put it out there,” Ferguson said. “You have to plant the seed.”
This happened to travel agent Harrison when she was planning a trip to the Azores islands in Portugal. The clients told her that there was “some family stuff” in the area, but they didn’t say they wanted to research any of it.
“I said we could try to dive in a little bit, find out more information and then re-create the things that happened back then,” she said. “We did an in-depth consult; otherwise, I don’t think I would have known that’s what they were looking for — and they wouldn’t have known, either. It’s all about letting people know what we can do. I think that’s the reason clients keep coming back.”
During a client consultation, Kozlowski recommends that agents also ask for the names of people a client wants to investigate, dates related to life events and, of course, how much detail they want to know about their ancestors' lives.
Flexibility is key. The amount of information needed from the client varies from trip to trip. For instance, destinations that have endured war and natural disasters, such as major fires and floods, may have lost records, while other destinations have a great deal of ancestry information available to clients.
“The problem with Poland is that the borders have changed so many times,” Kozlowski said. “I just had this come up today: Clients gave me a name of a town, and there are three places with that name in Poland. So I had to ask: ‘What were the other cities nearby the town?’”
In this case, destination knowledge and experience is helpful.
Due to good scouting of DMCs and her Signature Travel network of suppliers, travel agent Harrison has handled bookings for clients with ancestry trips to places with no connection to her — such as Portugal and, currently, Japan.
Ferguson, who has Scottish ancestry, believes a personal connection to the destination makes the job much more fulfilling and fun.
“If an agent has an ethnic background, the passion will overflow,” he said.
Whether or not agents are destination experts, it’s helpful to work with an operator that knows the region well.
“If it seems to be complex, I’ll ask the travel agent to set up a conference call with all of us so we can be on the same page,” Kozlowski said. “It depends on the agent — some are more comfortable with me talking to the client than others. My motive in all of this is just to get the most personalized itinerary for the client. So if the agents take the lead, they control the communication flow.”
Many operators and agents agree that it’s important for clients to do the bulk of the ancestry research themselves.
“The more travel agents can find out and pass along to our expert reservation agents about their clients’ objectives and preferences, the better we can create the experience the clients are looking for,” Dalgaard said.
Some requests will be easier to fulfill than others, Kozlowski warns. Don’t ever promise an outcome on very specific or hard requests, which can be a gamble.
“I had clients a few years ago who had some street names in Rzeszow, Poland, east of Krakow, and my guide met them in Rzeszow,” Kozlowski said. “She left the clients in the car and went knocking on every door in the street until she found someone who knew their family. Of course, they invited them in. It was a very meaningful experience because it was so personal. I hate to put it so bluntly, but it’s almost a crapshoot every time. There’s just no way to tell.”
A local, private driver-guide is often the best thing an agent can provide for clients. Even if they are well-researched, clients often request some on-the-ground help or need access to non-digitized archives in their ancestral homeland.
The upside is that agents can find an additional revenue stream if they hire someone, usually a DMC’s on-the-ground staff, to conduct research. DMCs charge a fee for the research they have to do, which may include going to libraries in search of local, non-digitized census records or other historical documents. The fee is typically an hourly rate set by the DMC and passed down to the client. The fee might be nominal in countries that offer a better value, such as Poland.
“Depending on the comprehensiveness of the trip, it can be $200 to $300 more per person,” Ferguson said. “For my research and time to put the program together, for them, it’s worth much more than the money.”
Harrison recommends negotiating with the supplier about the fees and making sure to get the client's approval. For example, if a client approves only three hours of work, be upfront if it looks like an additional hour or two of research could uncover significant information.
So, Why Bother?Complex, customized trip planning that involves attention to the client — as well as attention to detail — is certainly not for everyone. But for ambitious and capable travel agents, these kinds of trips are fulfilling and worthwhile. Harrison’s current ancestry trip to Japan, for instance, involves a booking for 16 people, many of whom wouldn’t have traditionally consulted a travel agent.
“It’s a really good way to get to know the clients better and bond with them,” she said. “You get to know the entire family — the cousins, nieces and nephews. And the little things you can do that they didn’t know were possible gives you a chance to blow them off their feet and wow them. If you plan it right, you make a client for life.”
I’ll never forget when my family and I descended on little Gluszyca, a town of some 7,000 people, way off the beaten path in Poland. Accompanied by a local driver-guide and a Gluszyca native, we searched for people who might know my mom’s family. No elderly person we came across was left alone. We stopped a man walking along the lake with his dog; we knocked on doors and interviewed locals in their hallways.
Through the combined efforts of our guides, my mom’s toddlerhood memories and many on-the-ground conversations, we found her family’s apartment across from the school. We found the location where the ice cream shop used to be, and we walked to the spot where her dad once worked.
I saw my mom’s face as memories began to resurface and, for the first time, I got a glimpse of my mom as a little girl.
Last year, the author worked with a tour operator and her parents to trace their family roots in Russia and Poland. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
In Russia, the family explored the country’s culture, rather than tracking down specific family heritage. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
The itinerary also explored Jewish history in St. Petersburg (here) and Warsaw. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
The family visited Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where a grandfather had been taken prisoner. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
The most specific request was to track down the mother’s birthplace and first home in a small village in Poland. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
Exeter guides were able to find the site of the grandfather’s workplace. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
To find the home, the family knocked on doors and interviewed locals for clues. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
After some searching, the family was able to find the apartment building along with other related sites. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
Three Ancestry Trips We Love"Last year, Gina Bang, one of our product managers who is now an inside sales manager, and the local guide helped a traveler figure out how to find and visit a tunnel where he had spent the night during World War II in Remagen, Germany." - Harry Dalgaard, Avanti Destinations
"A family traced their roots back to Alnwick Castle in the U.K. We worked with them to create a customized itinerary that took them through the sights of London and then culminated with two days in Newcastle upon Tyne, where they experienced a private tour of the castle and grounds just for their family." - Jules Metcalf, Go Ahead Tours
"A few years ago, I had some people who went into Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. It was sort of an odd route, but that's where their grandfather was hidden by farmers in a barn from the Nazis. They went back and found the descendants of the people who hid the grandfather." - Gwen Kozlowski, Exeter International