Political uncertainty seems to be growing everywhere. Autocratic governments are rising up again in Eastern Europe. American-Iranian relations are strained. And trade disputes are even making longtime allies uneasy about America.
But, this is precisely the time that Americans should be traveling abroad, says Robert Drumm, owner of Alexander+Roberts, a Keene, New Hampshire-based adventure tour company.
“I think much of this reluctance [for some to travel internationally] comes from political controversy,” Drumm said, compounded by cable television’s focus on the drama of trade and other political conflicts, and the occasional terrorist incident. “Friends and relatives augment this political anxiety.”
While most American passports bear stamps from only a few dozen countries, for more than seven decades, Alexander+Roberts (originally founded by Alexander Harris as General Tours) has been inspiring travelers to visit places rarely seen in their neighbors’ social media newsfeeds.
Drumm, who purchased Alexander+Roberts in 1992, feels that his company’s track record is a perfect example of how fear of certain countries and cultures can be misplaced. “In our 71 years of experience in this exotic marketplace, carrying well over a couple of million travelers, we’ve never lost a guest to political unrest, terrorism or a weather event,” he told Travel Market Report.
Alexander+ Roberts seeks to create real engagement with local cultures in exotic destinations around the world, by hiring native-born guides and limiting groups to no more than 16 guests. The company finds ample consumer demand for countries with more tenuous political environments.
“This attests, I think, to our own people on the ground, careful long-term partnerships, thoughtful product development and the enduring fact that Americans are very popular visitors around the world. As a people, we are engaging, enjoy humor, food, ask a lot of questions, smile a lot and love to learn. A grandiose generalization, perhaps, but quite true still in this age of worldwide nationalism.”
A global life shapes international curiosity and a lack of fear
Son of a military father, Drumm grew up overseas, largely in Japan and France. After earning an MBA, he was a consultant and then worked in advertising before being recruited by a headhunter for a marketing job with Pan American World Airways in Asia.
He experienced the Cold War first-hand, when Pan Am began operating a non-stop to Moscow in the early 1980s, and Drumm was put on the advance team for the flight to plan tourism. That is when he met Harris, a founder of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA). Drumm left Pan Am in 1988, just before the Lockerbie terrorist bombing, and started his own tour operator working with Pan Am.
After purchasing what was then General Tours in 1992, Drumm added TBI Tours in 1995; and, in 1996, began building a network of tours throughout Latin America. General Tours added Africa and the Middle East in 1998.
“I personally scouted many countries, hired key staffers in Russia, Hungary, Egypt, Turkey, the Czech Republic and India during the 1990s, in addition to all the major markets in Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia,” Drumm recalls.
“Standing just outside one’s immediate comfort zone has been, for me, an expansive experience. For me, travel to untrammeled destinations is the most stimulating cultural experience I can conceive,” he said.
He continues to expose himself to new cultures as the president of his company, each year hosting one or two trips to places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.
“For Iran, as an example, in the 1990s, I had met the son of founders of a travel company from before the revolution, playing basketball. They continued in business, and he and I became buddies over the years. He was after me to develop a program to Iran and I demurred until he invited me to scout it out for myself,” said Drumm, who had visited Iran with his family when he was a teenager in the 1960s.
“I went again in 2014. I started in Tabriz, with the world’s oldest operating bazaar and an early Christian monastery (both World Heritage sites). Then to Tehran, and the last palace of the Shah – and its astonishing small private collection of some of the finest 20th century art I’ve ever seen (including Kandinsky, Chagall, Matisse and Warhol).”
Drumm describes Iranians as “warm, embracing people who love Americans. I once visited a small, just-opened family restaurant near the tomb of Cyrus the Great, with grandma in the kitchen and the son waiting tables … just wonderful Iranian home cuisine,” he said. With the recently imposed U.S. sanctions, Alexander+Roberts had to cancel its Iran tours.
Understand your clients and expose them to broader opportunities
While media portrayals of political strife can deter some travelers from visiting “exotic” lands, it also can encourage travelers to explore places they might not have had the courage otherwise to examine.
“I bet that all of our travelers to Iran saw Anthony Bourdain’s [‘2014 Parts Unknown’] piece on Iran,” he said. In the episode, Bourdain and his crew visited Tehran and Isfahan, filming at Imam Square, the city’s Borje Milad tower and mosques.
During the filming, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi served as guides to Bourdain and the crew, and were subsequently detained by the Iranian government. They weren’t released for more than a year.
Alexander+Roberts derives 90 percent of its business from travel agents, so Drumm has tremendous insight into the impact agents can have in encouraging travelers to get outside of their comfort zone.
“Agents vary tremendously in the audiences they serve. However, just as an agent should not advise a traveler based upon their own pocketbook, so too, they should not advise a client based upon their own fears or politics,” he said. “The agent relationship with a client is hard-built and is based upon trust. If an agent understands their clients and their interests, that’s the best way to engender interest” in a new destination.