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April 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Creating One Big Happy Group Dive Trip

from the April, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Getting a group together for a dive trip can make a vacation more fun, memorable and even less expensive as there are more people to split costs. But it’s not as easy as it might seem, especially if you decide to be the point person and handle logistics. There inevitably will be a few people who bail out early when they hear the total trip cost, or late, when their investment portfolio goes south or they hurt their back. There’s the diver who forgot to mention he’s vegetarian and another who wasn’t expecting so much current.

If you’re the trip leader, expect to be blamed for problems you never even expected, as one of our subscribers Greg Mac Pherson (Carrollton, TX) pointed out. “Like when TSA removed a knife one group member accidentally left attached to his regulator he was carrying onboard, and he wants to know why you did not warn him.” Regardless, many Undercurrent readers who have organized group trips say it’s worth the effort.

Use Dive Travel Pros or Do It Yourself?

But first you need to decide how big a role you want to play in the trip planning. Do you have a small group? Do you have organizational and negotiating skills? Do you want to save yourself some extra money by doing the grunt work? Then you can volunteer to be the trip leader and handle the bookings for everyone. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to handle every single detail, then go to a trip-planning pro like a dive travel agent, dive shop owner who offers trips (make sure he has a track record), or a professional trip leader. It’s also a good idea to get assistance when your group is in double-digits, as handling special requests and flight arrangements for multiple divers can overwhelm even the most enthusiastic trip planner.

One of the advantagess of being a do-it-yourself trip leader is you can also save yourself money or maybe even pay for the trip, as Dennis Jacobson (Lakewood, CO), whose groups may be as small as four, points out. “For exotic trips to faraway lands, I am all for latching on with a sponsored group. But to Florida, the Caribbean or Hawaii, I’ll [pocket] the 10 to 25 percent savings by being the planner and booker. . . . By booking a trip for ourselves, we avoid the contribution for the divecenter trip leader to travel for free. It’s very easy to book airfare and rental cars online. Direct contact with hotels, condo managers and dive concessionaires is a snap online, too, and they are always willing to discuss discounts and sometimes actually give them.”

But if you’re going to let the discounts pay for your trip, recognize there is a lot of hard work to do, before and during the trip, depending upon your group’s expectations. Deb Fugitt (Fort Worth, TX) organizes dive trips to Indonesia and says most divers don’t realize the time, financial risks and stress involved. “While they’re napping between dives, I’m checking dive sites, organizing divemasters, and helping someone with a problem.”

The honest thing to do is discuss the money you saved with your fellow divers – some groups let the trip leader pocket the discounts or get the free cabin since she did all the work, while other groups share the savings among everyone. You don’t want to keep mum about discounts and then have the group stumble accidentally across the fact later - - that may make for a tense dive trip.

If you go with the same group of divers for years, you may be able to “surprise” them with the destinations. That’s what Les Trumbull (Somerset, CA) has done with his dive club, arranging three “mystery trips” so far to Puerto Rico, the M/V Sea Dancer in the Turks & Caicos, and St. Croix. “The only thing I divulge is the cost, the dates, and that it’s warm water someplace I haven’t gone before. As the trip draws nearer, I give clues to help them guess the destination. But the place isn’t divulged until we arrive at the airport (I book all air and land arrangements). They all worked out good, and everyone had a good time.” Just be sure, however, that the destination you select doesn’t require a visa.

Even if you’re going to use a travel pro to make all the bookings, it’s still up to you as the trip leader to do advance planning, says Stan Holz (Whitefield, NH). “I’ve planned so we can get our group’s annual Caribbean vacation for many years now, usually for a group of 10. We’re all friends but not all divers, so planning is a challenge. I try to find a dive operator who will accommodate snorkelers as well as the divers on the same boat. Choosing a locale with good diving and nothing else doesn’t work. Some of our group likes to play tennis, so I try to ensure tennis courts are at or near our hotel. I use a democratic process in filtering locales. Links to every place that looks promising are e-mailed to everyone, and they have the opportunity to make suggestions, add to the list, or veto a place. After two or three months, I get in touch with a travel agent who checks the connections, flight schedules, and pricing. That information is forwarded to the group for their review. Eventually, we always find a place that suits all our needs. If you’re planning a group trip, your own preferences must take a back seat to the group’s goals. Everyone has to have a say, and a consensus must be reached.”

Holz says the best trips were Curacao and Bonaire, while the least successful were Grand Turk and Cayman Brac because of marginal resorts and poor snorkeling. “Unfortunately, not every desirable dive destination works for us, which can be a problem, as the divers in our group are still clamoring to visit Dominica. This year, the group decided to return to Bonaire for the third time, even though two couples bowed out because they’ve been to Bonaire several times already. Next year, I’ll ask those couples what their first picks would be and go from there.”

Or you can do as Jeff Bloomer (Saint Charles, IL), who researches destinations on Undercurrent’s online reader reports, coordinates trip details, then lets divers make their own bookings because, he says, divers are a fickle bunch. “You have people commit to go, then back out and expect their down payments refunded.There’s the cheap traveler wanting to be refunded for dives they didn’t take. Because there is no money in it for me, it can get old. So now I only set up the trip, tell people the cost, give them plenty of notice, and it is up to them to get there.”

When and Where to Book

Whether you’re handling all the travel details yourself, letting an expert make the bookings, or just a diver along on the trip, it’s good to know this information below so you know what to expect during all phases of trip-planning

A year in advance is a good time to start planning, although give up to two years time to faraway locales that book up quickly, like the Galapagos and Sipadan. Most airlines won’t let you book until just under a year before your trip dates, but you can still get price quotes from a travel agent.

Before selecting a destination, consider your group’s overall dive experience, and the trip leader’s own experience in planning. Ron Carmichael, who plans multiple dive trips through his Splash Dive Center in Alexandria, VA, says the Caribbean is a good place for a first-time dive group. “The less experience divers have, the more I would stick to traditional dive locations like Fiji, Bonaire, Cayman and Roatan. Most new divers are checking those off their list anyway. Also consider the length and economics of the trip. For Palau or Truk, I’ll need 18 months’ advance time, while a trip to Carolinas for $500 will only need three months. I took 22 people to Antarctica last spring, which meant chartering a boat from Argentina and arranging for arctic training and gear. Logistics like that are not what a new trip leader is experienced to do, whereas places like Cozumel and Bonaire are filled with experienced dive operators who can set up things for you.”

When Wendy Pacofsky, vice-president of Outdoor Travel Adventures in San Diego, CA, gets a trip leader in her office, she has a list of questions to ask. “First, I ask what the group budget will be, because that affects everything. It will narrow down destination accommodations, airfare and ground arrangements.” If they don’t have a place in mind, she asks these questions: What’s the group size expected to be? What time of year are you traveling? How many days do you have, including travel time? What type of diving are you looking for – easy reef diving, big animals, photogenic dive sites? What’s the group’s diving level? Is your group small enough for a liveaboard, or will you need a lot of rooms? Are you okay with red-eye flights and multiple connections, or do you want one-stop travel? Do you need land-based interests for non-divers?

For overseas destinations, the trip leader should keep up with current events there. “My friend had a group departing to the Solomon Islands a few days after a coup in 2000,” says Fugitt. “I informed him of the situation there and advised him to postpone their trip. He did not inform his group and they all went. In the end, they had to be airlifted out by the New Zealand air force.”

Equally momentous are special events, festivals and holidays that can affect travel. “Try to find out a year in advance what will be happening there,” says Tim Webb, president of Caradonna Dive Adventures in Longwood, FL. “That also applies to events happening in the U.S. If you plan a dive trip during Super Bowl time, don’t be surprised if a few bail out.”

- -Vanessa Richardson

Next time, we’ll look at how dive groups can negotiate discounts, what details trip planners need to give to -- and get from -- their fellow divers, and best ways to manage the tricky process of getting deposits and payments from divers to travel operators.

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