Terrapin Tours: Creating the gold standard for group tours | Silver Linings

Amy Stewart

Today’s seniors do their research and know how to use technology on trips.

KELLY COOKE remembers when she went to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., to scope out an escorted tour for her clients. “I wanted a rooftop private reception with champagne and canapes,” Cooke recalled. Company representatives said, “Yes, we do that, but not for bus tours.” Cooke said she wanted the reception for her people, to which Biltmore staff countered, “But it’s expensive.”

Cooke remembers telling them, “But how many of them will have the chance to do this again?”

Cooke is the founder and principal of Terrapin Tours. She’s dedicated her career to changing the image of bus tours, senior tours, and tours in general, so her clients can experience more and make more memories.

Cooke began her career as a travel agent, then moved into tour directing and escorting in 1997. She liked her clients but didn’t like the “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” aspect of most group tours.

For seniors in particular, it was “a grumpy group of senior citizens being dragged from one spot to another,” according to Cooke.

She wanted to break that mold, to have her tours go at a slower pace, where her guests could “have fun, enjoy the moment, and enjoy the camaraderie.”

There are two main trends in escorted tours today, according to Cooke: student tours and senior tours.

Most of today’s seniors have the time and the financial stability to travel. But they’re wary of traveling alone, and many choose group tours because they’re safer. Cooke agreed that group tours are safer where crime is concerned, but she also pointed out they are safer for health reasons. If one of her senior clients has a medical episode, she’s right beside them, making arrangements and sticking by them until it’s resolved.

Offering more time is key

With her previous company, the philosophy was to stuff as many travelers as possible on the bus and to do “as many things as possible in one day.”

Her tours are about the journey, both literally and metaphorically, according to Cooke. “We don’t just hop on and off the bus.” She builds in time to enjoy whatever attraction they’re visiting.

For example, Cooke previously hosted tours of New York City where the guests stayed out of town, in New Jersey, because it was cheaper. “But they spent two hours on the bus each day, going to and from the hotel,” she noted.

Cooke found a good, safe hotel in midtown, and created a Big Apple tour with plenty of free time. “Our clients can shop, go up the Empire State Building, visit a museum — or just sit in a cafe and people-watch,” she explained. “Not every person has the same pace.”

“We could include more stuff, but that would be just people checking off boxes,” Cooke mused.

Today’s seniors are more adventurous

Today’s seniors choose the boxes they want to check off. When Cooke first started travel guiding, the older clients she served were products of the Depression. “In their 60s, they thought they were ‘old,’” Cooke explained. They were not technologically savvy, and they had a certain amount of fear of the unknown. “When we went to New York 20 years ago, they were afraid, and stuck by your side,” she said.

Today’s seniors do their homework, mapping out the restaurants they want to visit with their GPS. They have cellphones and can reach out to Cooke if there’s a problem, but they don’t need hand holding.

And they’re a lot more adventurous than their parents, seeking new experiences, she said. While she doesn’t do “adventure tours,” many of her trips, such as Iceland and Yellowstone, require people to be a little more active, she said.

Today’s seniors are also more comfortable financially, and willing to pay for experiences such as the Biltmore roof reception, she added.

She plans more intimate tours, with 36 passengers on a 56-passenger bus, she said. “Today’s seniors are willing to pay more for a more comfortable experience.”

Thumbs-up from a single traveler

Marie Jones, 67, of Contoocook is an experienced and enthusiastic Terrapin traveler. A day trip to a theater performance left a good taste with Jones, so she signed up for a multi-day tour to Charlebois, Quebec, a couple of years ago. The widow goes by herself most of the time, quipping, “I like having the bathroom to myself.”” But she makes friends easily, she added, noting, “We all take care of each other.”

Though Jones walks and is in good shape, she likes the way more delicate members of the party are treated. Even the bus driver is alert to needs, helping a nearly blind woman when she became disoriented during a Pennsylvania Dutch outing, she said.

Cooke plans meticulously, according to Jones, and she’s full of surprises. When a group did the Southern Holidays tour, “she wore a Christmas onesie,” Jones recalled. “She has so many trips up her sleeves.”

Jones has traveled with other groups, including a AAA trip to New Orleans, and said, “It was — OK.” But she likes the extra attention and care Cooke puts in her tours. “We went to Nashville,” Jones said. “Kelly not only arranged a happy hour at the Grand Old Opry, she got one of the performers to talk with us. And we had seats in the first and second rows.”

Jones’ trips for 2022 include 16 days in Newfoundland, and shorter trips to “Hamilton,” the Nantucket Daffodil Festival, the Brandywine Country, and Quebec in December.

Two thumbs-up from a traveling couple

Cynthia Williams and her husband, Garry, know travel — they spent most of their marriage living abroad and took countless trips to corners of the globe. When they retired to their vacation home in Glen, they found a new social circle, and their new friends spoke often of Terrapin Tours. The couple wasn’t ready to hang up their walking shoes or put away their passports, so they gave Terrapin a try in 2017. “I think it was to Canada,” Williams said.

They have since been back for a range of experiences with Terrapin. “I consider it a boutique company,” Williams said. “It’s a small group, Kelly gets us the best hotels, and we eat at the best restaurants.” They’ve made friends through the group and they also know all the drivers and all the tour guides.

Williams has traveled a lot, but, she said, Cooke seems to find new sights and events in places Williams has already been.

Williams has been on day tours, multi-day tours and Cooke’s “signature” tours. While she doesn’t have a favorite, she has fond memories of a Christmas jaunt to Canada. “We stayed at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City and we went to the Christmas markets,” she said. “Then we went to Montreal. There was snow everywhere. It was like a fairy tale.”

But with Cooke at the helm, Williams has also enjoyed the seemingly mundane. When COVID was finally breaking up, the couple signed up for a Terrapin Tour titled, “Visiting Europe Without a Passport.” She had her doubts when she learned the trip was to Ohio, but she had a great time. “We went to Dublintown, Germantown, each of these towns with a European flair,” she said. They saw Irish dancers, ate at a German restaurant, and experienced European culture in the heartland.

The couple has 12 Terrapin tours booked for 2022. “The tours fit our lifestyle,” she said. “We’re still very active — but we’re careful.” On the Ohio trip she observed a fellow traveler fall down granite steps and hit her head. “Kelly stayed with her until her family members could get there,” Williams said, adding, “Garry and I know this is a safe place for us to be.”

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