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Fast Talk: Alan E. Lewis

Alan E. Lewis has a grand view of travel. As chairman and CEO of Grand Circle Corp.—the parent of such companies as Grand Circle, Overseas Adventure Travel, and VBT Bicycling Vacations—Lewis oversees more than 200 vacations with destinations as varied as Burgundy, the Galápagos, and Australia. And as founder of the nonprofit Grand Circle Foundation, he has ensured that his company gives back to the communities that have welcomed Grand Circle travelers. Travel + Leisure recently interviewed Lewis to find out—among other things—why physical challenge isn't a necessary condition of adventure travel, how a bad trip can take a turn for the better, and how retirement can change your outlook.

1. Where are you now, and why are you there?Is there any other place that you would rather be?
I'm back in Boston, where Grand Circle is headquartered. My wife, Harriet, and I recently returned from an amazing trip to Poland. We're glad to be home and getting settled for a while before we head out again. Business is booming, to the extent that we've just hired 60 positions in Boston to handle the call volume. Despite the SARS scare and the war with Iraq, we're experiencing record sales and departures, and I need to be here to run things. This is a great time to travel, and Americans 50 and older, in particular, are taking advantage of great values.

2. How often do you travel, and is it usually for work or for pleasure?
I travel about three months a year. Depending on the business, I usually have an off-site once or twice a year with the leaders from Boston and our 25 offices around the world. We were in Cuba with the foundation last January and about 30 Grand Circle leaders met in Morocco in September. For me, travel is always part work and part pleasure.

3. How did you get started in the travel industry?
I've been working in travel since I was 20. I began as a tour guide and was terrible at it. I was broke, because I rarely received any tips. I worked at United Travel and then launched a company called Trans National Travel before acquiring Grand Circle Travel in 1985. In between, though, I worked in or established close to 25 businesses. I had a lot of failures, particularly in real estate in the 1970's and 80's. Of the industries I've worked in, I've always been most passionate about travel. It's changed my life and my family's life is so many ways.

4. If you were not working in the travel industry, what would you be doing?
My models or inspirations have always been teachers or ministers. My father was a wild entrepreneur, so I guess that's why I went into business. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is strongly encouraging our employees to try things they aren't sure they can do and see them thrive. It's amazing what people can accomplish when they are willing to take some risks. I want our employees to feel that they've been challenged and that they've learned a lot every day. If I weren't in travel, I'd probably teach.

5. How often do you travel with your family?How do you make trips with your wife and two children different from your business trips?
We travel as a family at least twice a year, and Harriet and I go overseas at least once or twice on our own. We always try to get to know local people, culture, and customs. We have dinner at the homes of resident families, visit out-of-the way places, and get involved with whatever is going on in town—visiting artists' studios, talking with farmers, going places most tourists don't. Harriet and I recently explored the 10th Anniversary Stadium just outside Warsaw. There's a lot of questionable activity going on at this enormous market and the area can be dangerous, so our guide didn't want to take us. We insisted, and ended up experiencing a fascinating market that sells typical things like clothing, shoes, and food as well as questionably obtained items such as caviar, vodka, DVD's and videos, and hand grenades.

I don't separate business from personal travel. Something like the 10th Anniversary Stadium is exactly what we want our clients to experience—places most Americans miss. The opportunities we offer to experience local culture and to know the people is one of the things that separates Grand Circle from our competition.

6. Grand Circle Travel caters to travelers 50 and older, many of whom are retired. What is an ideal vacation when you retire, and why? And when do you hope to retire?
Although I am a Grand Circle traveler (in that I'm over 50), I don't have plans to retire for quite some time. The business is growing rapidly and we're doing a lot of great work creating true international learning experiences for our clients. We're also giving back to the countries in which we travel, through our Grand Circle Foundation. How can I walk away from that?I love what I do. I plan on working for a long time.

7. What is the most popular trip at Grand Circle Travel, and why do you think it is so?
Australia and Oceania are really in demand right now. Trip highlights include a dinner at a local home in Cairns; a talk with an Aboriginal speaker about the Aboriginal people and culture; an overnight at a home in Queenstown, New Zealand; and Fijian language and cooking classes. What our travelers like about the trip is that they meet the locals in an intimate way and become immersed in their daily life.

8. How is Overseas Adventure Travel different from other adventure travel outfitters?
When we talk about adventure, we're not talking about strenuous physical adventure, but of soft adventure: cultural interactions, meeting people, getting involved in a country's customs and activities. We pace the trips so that our travelers have a lot of time to explore a destination on their own. We visit schools, share family meals at private homes, and try traditional activities, such as kite flying or tai chi in China.

Additionally, we have small groups with a maximum of 16 people—most average 14. We take local transportation as much as possible, such as rickshaws, camels, elephants, jeeps, rafts, rice barges, and canoes. We stay in unique accommodations—small inns, lodges, luxurious (and exclusive) tented camps. Our trips are all-inclusive, while those of most adventure companies are not. Finally, most of our travelers are over 50 and so you get a pretty cohesive group of people with similar interests.

9. How do you encourage people who are wary of adventure travel to go on an OAT vacation?And what is your own favorite trip with OAT?
Adventure travel is not always about physical challenges. For us, it's more about challenging yourself to delve into another destination, to meet new people, and to try things that you may not be sure you can do. That's the type of adventure that's most worthwhile and memorable. Many of our travelers make lifelong friendships with people they meet overseas. Others tell us that travel has substantially changed their understanding of the world and of different cultures, customs, and traditions. I believe that if more people traveled internationally, the world would be a much more peaceful place.

I love our Ultimate Africa: Botswana, Namibia, and Botswana Safari. We stay in small, exclusive lodges with a maximum of 8-10 luxurious rooms. We visit children in a village school, go on driving and walking safaris every day, and have incredibly knowledgeable local guides. The wildlife and scenery are amazing. There have been few, if any, tour operators in Zimbabwe and Botswana during the past four years, due to the political situation in Zimbabwe, but we have been there and will continue to be there. I believe it's important to give our clients a choice and that we need to support our vendor partners and guides. It's a wonderful time to see these remarkable countries.

10. What is the worst travel experience you've had?
I've always learned something, either about a destination or about myself, from tough experiences. As I say to our employees, "In the midst of difficulty, always, lies opportunity." Three years ago, Harriet and I were planning on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. After months of training, Harriet became ill shortly after we arrived in Tanzania, and we couldn't continue with our group of friends. Instead, we asked our business partner from East Africa to take us to a Masai village. We visited Sinya in Tanzania and befriended the chairman of the village, Mr. Kipuloli Napiteeng. He and Harriet are both passionate about education, and they talked about the issues Sinya's children face and those that confront children in the United States. We ended up inviting Kipuloli and his chief warrior, Mr. Lamayani Malee, to Boston for two weeks that June. It was an amazing experience for them and for our employees, who were meeting in Boston from all over the world. We learned a lot from each other—primarily, that we are very similar despite living such different lives. Many of our Overseas Adventure travelers can visit Sinya during their trip. Harriet and I are grateful that we never got to do the climb, because with a simple change to our travel itinerary, we made some friends for life who changed our lives, the lives of many of our employees, and of their fellow Masai through an incredible cross-cultural experience.


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