The Traveling Cyclones, Iowa State University’s Alumni Association travel program, is venturing on over 50 trips across the globe this year, including a recent trip with us on “The Best of Tanzania Safari.”
We spoke with alumni magazine editor and trip host Carole Gieseke about alumni travel and her group’s time in Tanzania after the trip.
Q: What’s your case for alumni travel? What makes it special compared to the myriad other travel experiences today?
A: Iowa Staters are excellent travelers. Based on my experience hosting 13 trips over the past 20 years, most Iowa State alumni grew up in the Midwest; they have already had lots of travel experience; they are looking for new experiences that aren’t quite so easy to have on their own; they are humble, flexible, and easy to get along with, which really helps when traveling with a group. Many are older and like the fact that they don’t have to worry about the travel arrangements and logistics. They feel safe traveling in a group.
Iowa State alumni meet the Maasai.
Traveling with Iowa State alumni is special because you have that common bond of having spent some of the best years of your life in Ames, Iowa, and no matter when you were there you still have similar experiences and great stories to tell. Iowa State travelers really care about the university, and even if they haven’t been back on campus in many years, they want to know what’s going on and feel pride in their Iowa State degree.
Q: How does alumni travel fit into the broader visions of an alumni office?
A: An excellent travel program is just one service the Alumni Association provides, along with awards, reunions, communications, events, and other engagement and outreach programs. Our alumni have come to expect top-quality travel opportunities from the ISU Alumni Association – they know we have experience and choose our travel operators carefully.
Q: How does it elevate alumni engagement? Can you share any memorable examples?
A: Travel is an extra-special alumni engagement tool. Rarely do you have alumni this close for two weeks at a time. Travelers really bond with their ISU Alumni Association hosts; they keep in touch with us for years after we travel together. Once they do one ISU trip, they’re very likely to do more. We have hundreds of repeat customers. They trust that the trips will be top quality and that the group will be pleasant to travel with.
Travel brings people together, Iowa State alumni around campfire in Tanzania.
My favorite example: I hosted a trip to Italy, and the group had an extraordinary experience. On our last night at the farewell dinner, I actually choked up when I made my remarks. We were just that close. A few months later, before a football game, I made an Italian dinner at my home and invited everyone to reunite. Most of the group attended. It was such fun. Group travel truly does create lifelong friendships.
Q: Let’s talk about the Best of Tanzania Safari. How did it compare to your other trips?
A: This trip felt special. It was an adventure like nothing I’d ever had before. I started dreaming about going on an African photo safari more than 30 years ago, and I had it built up in my head for all those years, but this trip did not disappoint in any way. You really can’t compare a trip like this to a Greek Isles cruise, or to a tour through the French countryside. It’s rugged, and you’re in close physical contact with the other travelers, and you see the coolest animals…it’s a blast. I felt really lucky to be there.
Q: Can you tell me a little about your group?
Celebrating with Champagne after a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti.
Iowa State fraternity brothers enjoying the forests on Ngorongoro Crater’s rim.
A: Our group was so great. We were a group of 12: Four women, four men, and two couples. Our ages ranged from 41 to 81. We were all really happy to be there, and we all wanted to experience everything that was offered. Each of us had some Iowa State connection, but not all were Iowa State grads (two were sons of an Iowa Stater; two were married to Iowa Staters). One woman had been to Africa many times, and I have visited Uganda, but this was the first trip to Africa for everyone else. We all became friends really fast. One cool part of our group: We had two old college friends (fraternity brothers) who came, along with one of the men’s two adult sons. It was a very cool chance for the old friends to bond, and for the “boys” to spend time with their dad and with each other.
Q: What were some memorable moments from the adventure?
A bush breakfast in the Eastern Serengeti Nature Refuge.
A: So many memories! The first time we saw a lion. The time we were counting hippos among the rocks…until our guide told us that all the rocks were hippos. “Jambo jambo” every morning in the tent camps: hot, strong coffee delivered to our doorsteps by the nicest guys anywhere. The cheetahs that started out as specks on the horizon but slowly, slowly came closer and closer until they walked right by our land rovers and to the other side of the road. “Checking the tires.” (This was easier for the guys.) Taking a walk at the Eastern Serengeti Nature Refuge camp, followed by a bush breakfast. Getting together for breakfast each morning in the camps and comparing the animal sounds we heard the night before. (I was so excited the first night to hear zebras and wildebeest running on the path right by my tent!) Drinking a cold beer before dinner and telling stories.
Q: Was there a favorite part of the journey? A location? Camp? Activity?
A: A favorite part? The one thing that sort of stands out above the rest was the balloon safari in Serengeti National Park. Nine of our group did the balloon, and it was just spectacular. But it was all just the BEST.
Q: Did Thomson do anything to elevate the experience?
Wildlife viewing with Thomson Safaris in the Serengeti
A: Thomson did everything right. The camps were so comfortable and felt so safe. Everything was clean. The food was amazing. Our guides were so skilled – they were great drivers, knew everything about the animals, birds, and plants we were seeing – and they made sure we had everything we needed to make our safari special. The itinerary was just right (although I could have stayed much longer!), and everything was well-organized, from the time we arrived at the airport the first night until we left to go home. Gibb’s Farm was a real highlight; it was lush and tropical and felt like paradise. I’m not sure I’ve ever stayed in a nicer room. All of the “extras” like the Maasai boma visit, the tour of the school, and the conversation with Daniel Yamat, the Eastern Serengeti Nature Refuge program manager, really added to our understanding of the local people and the country itself.
Q: Was there something unique about this trip that you haven’t experienced on others?
A Serengeti Nyumba tent
Ngorongoro Nyumba camp
A: Tent camps! I don’t have a history of camping, and I wasn’t sure what to expect with the Nyumbas. I actually found them to be extremely comfortable – the bed and linens were great; I didn’t mind the camp toilet; and the bucket showers were so much fun! You have total privacy, but you sort of feel like you’re showering outside, even in your very own tent. The water was always just the right temperature, and the water pressure was fine. Big towels, too! The fact that there was no actual running water in the tent was not a problem. We had large pitchers of water for handwashing and bottled water for drinking/brushing our teeth. In the morning, our Nyumba crew brought us a jug of warm water so we could wash our faces, etc. Everything we needed, we had.
Q: What was the response like from your group after they returned?
A: I sent a “jambo jambo” message to the group the morning after I returned, and I immediately heard from the majority of the group. Everyone was still basking in the experience and eager to share photos. One of the guys created a Dropbox for file sharing, and people have been adding to it all week. One of the women sent me some pictures she took of me. I became Facebook friends with one of the couples. We’re all still riding high from the experience.
Q: What is your best piece of advice for other professionals in alumni travel?
A: Give travelers a lot of choices in destinations, in price points, in types of travel (land, cruise), and in length of travel. Take risks! Provide the best, most personal service you can. You want alumni to trust you.
Q: What about the travelers themselves?
A: Advice to travelers: Group travel is not the same as individual/personal travel, and you have to be aware of that going in. There’s a certain amount of compromise that has to occur. The itinerary is basically set, and it’s not going to change because you suddenly want to do something different. But group travel at its best A) allows you to focus on the experience and not worry about any of the logistics, B) provides an extra layer of safety from any problem that might occur, and C) creates a group of surprisingly wonderful, lifelong friends. That’s the thing that surprises many first-time group travelers: that the group itself enhances the trip.
Thomson Safaris guides Ojukwu and Mohdy
For Best of Tanzania specifically: You really can’t do this on your own. You need to choose a safari outfitter. There are plenty of them out there. Most of them are probably very good. All I know is that Thomson is extraordinary. The guides, the lodging, the food, the special care – it’s without a doubt one of the best companies I’ve traveled with.