Just last month my husband Jonathan joined me in leading NoVA Travelers on a weekend escape to Seattle and Mount Rainier. One of our group’s assistant organizers (Leilani) provided excellent services as well in helping us manage the group activities and schedule as with a group of 11 it can get a bit hectic. I’d wanted to take the group to Mt. Rainier for a long time and last year I finally decided to put it on the calendar for one of our “National Park Series” trips of 2010.
The group flew into Seattle on a Thursday afternoon, with staggered arrival times based on differing flights. By the close of the evening, everyone was present at the hotel except for a few members whose plane had been delayed in Denver for a couple of hours (putting them into Seattle after one a.m.).
Friday morning we were up and on our way to Mt Rainier (a couple of hours south of Seattle, the mountain is a dormant –not extinct mind you but dormant- volcano). Jonathan, Leilani and I each drove one of the cars in our motorcade. Then there was the matter of feeding the flock. Finding a quality epicurean experience in the middle of nowhere is difficult but I’m happy to report that with a little research on the front end months before the trip I was able to assemble a good list of restaurant choices. For lunch, we stopped at Chopstix (in Eatonville, WA) which served up fantastic Asian fare. Everyone was very pleased with their meal and energized for the day of outdoor adventure that was before us. Spirits were high and we were ready to get outdoors!
Once we arrived at the Paradise Lodge we checked in to our rooms to get settled in. The Inn is ancient and rustic (no tv, no phones, no internet) but we’d been expecting just that and it was kind of nice to ‘unplug’ for awhile. Our first jaunt outdoors was a hike on the scenic Bench & Snow Lake Trail to get a taste of the landscape. With the elevation increase over Northern VA the hike was moderately challenging at times but well worth the views and exercise induced happiness. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and enjoying the grounds of the Inn. Dinner was onsite and the food was pretty good. Best bet on their whole menu is the crab macaroni and cheese. The one downside is that it took them 45 minutes or more to seat us.
One of the many beautiful lakes in the park
The photographers become the photograph
First view of Mt Rainier
The group poses at a scenic overlook. Lucky Jon: 1 man and 10 women
Beautiful scenery, still ‘defrosting’ in July
Tanja smiles as she poses before a river crossing
Our second day in the park was also spent outdoors. We started the morning off with a brisk 1.4 mile hike on the Nisqually Vista Loop Trail. Because of the particular weather patterns this year, the trail was still covered with snow with just a few flowers peeking out from beneath. We tackled the Alta Vista Summit Trail (1.4 miles) next which was pretty challenging for me due to the slope of the mountain and my just-below-the-surface fear of heights. At one point we had to get down on all fours and clutch the frozen icy snow in order to keep our balance. Invigorating but panic inducing. And it was a second example of a trail that is advertised as covered in wildflowers by mid July that was decidedly scant on such. Can’t always get God to cooperate with my trip timing it seems.
Waterfall near the inn
Local resident out for a morning stroll
Have you ever seen a glacier? This is what they look like. The dirty arch shaped structure in the middle of the valley with the small trail of snow and water running out of it is actually a frozen river covered in dirt and gravel. Somehow I expected them to be beautiful since environmentalists are always talking about their sad disappearance.
Another local resident bids us good morning
Jenni rests in a natural cubby
Views from the trail
After lunch our final hike in the park was a route from Naranda Falls to Reflection Lake (3 miles). Part of the group passed on this hike, opting for a scenic drive through the park to view an old growth forest of strong reputation. Naranda Falls is a lovely waterfall just off the park road that attracts thousands of visitors daily. Very pretty, but you need to hike down at least to the base of the falls in order to get a good view of the falls and the rainbow that is typically present. When you’re there don’t expect any moments of solitude to ponder the wonder and beauty of it all as you’ll be fending off constant elbows in your personal space from the hoards of tourists. (At least the other trails we did over the weekend were much more isolated.)
Trail to Reflection lake
We waved goodbye to the park, satisfied with our explorations, and headed back to Seattle. Along the way we stopped at Casa Mia (in Puyallup, WA) to enjoy a leisurely Italian dinner (very delicious; highly recommended). We took up two tables in the restaurant and had a lively conversation on life and families, getting to know each other all a little better.
Parting view of Mt Rainier from a distance of 40 miles
The members were divided among 3 hotels that evening (as more members sign up for any given trip, additional reservations are made to accommodate each additional block of 4 members and unfortunately the same hotel is not always available for the right price) and everyone settled in for a night of relaxation before our tour of Seattle the next day.
We met at the entrance to Pike Street Market next morning and before I released the crew into the wild of the market we set a rendezvous time to meet back up to transfer to Iver’s for brunch. The market is a fine mix of fish throwing fishmongers, gourmet meats, cheeses, preserves, wine, arts and crafts. Oh and the gum wall (ewww). The gum wall is a Pike Street market landmark- a random wall decorated with millions of pieces of tourists’ gum that they (the tourists) usually remove from their mouth in a long and dramatic flourish while friends/family snap their pictures just before sticking it to the wall.
Brunch was definitely one of the highlights of the day. Iver’s Salmon house is a Seattle institution serving an endless buffet of of fresh seafood including smoked salmon, chowders, three types of crab, and more. We laughed and celebrated and reveled in the joy that is to be stuffed and happy.
After lunch I gave everyone free time to explore more of Seattle on their own and provided some recommendations to get members started (such as the underground tour or the Space Needle). My hubby Jon ventured off with his brother’s family (they live in the Seattle suburbs) to get in some quality time with the nephews while I joined a couple of members to make our way slowly through the rest of Pike Street market and indulge in some wine tasting. It was really nice to have a chance to relax and have a mini-vacation in the middle of my job as organizer.
Our last group activity on the trip was a cruise I’d arranged from downtown Seattle to Lake Union. The ship provides fantastic views of the Seattle skyline and a little bit of something for everyone including glimpses of ‘Greatest Catch’ boats, the houseboat from ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and a pass through the locks that separate the sound from Lake Union. It was a great way to wrap up our entire experience in the Pacific northwest.
View of Seattle skyline with boatplane on the horizon
Space Needle at night
We did run into some unfortunate group dynamics at the end of the trip. I found out that some members were surprised and unhappy with the accommodations (not the hotel per se, but the quad occupancy and the fact that we had to check out and check back in to the hotel Sunday because Sat night and Sun night were separate reservations). The same subset of members were also upset to learn that my trip expenses as organizer are paid for out of the trip fees. Neither myself nor the assistant organizers turn a profit on the meetup group as a whole (I have a real full-time job in the IT industry for that) but we do try to balance our trip expenses against the trip fees as compensation for the time we put into researching, putting together, and leading these great trips. Anyway, in summary, this is why its *very* important for *all* members to read the group’s policies – both the room arrangement policy (quad occupancy in the states; double overseas but members can request a single for an upcharge) and the trip fee policy (that a portion goes to cover organizer trip expenses) are well documented in the terms and conditions document. I wrestled with the decision on whether I would disband the travel group (you can’t please everyone so is it really worth the headache?) but after receiving feedback from many members that have enjoyed the trips and stressed to me that the experience of traveling with the group has changed their lives for the better I made a decision to stick with it. Hopefully we will continue to enjoy many great trips for many years together. And I’m realistic in my outlook knowing that over an average trip frequency count there will always be a statistical presence of unhappy campers. It’s the way life goes.
Our next group trips are:
Australia (early Sept)
Taste of Chicago (mid Sept)
Fall foliage (early Oct)
NYC culinary tour (mid Oct)
Further to your post-script in which you indicate that you charge members a certain amount of money as: "compensation for the time we put into researching, putting together, and leading these great trips", it would be useful for members to have a breakdown of the hourly wage you pay yourself for performing this internet research. $5 per trip? $5 per day of research? $5 an hour? $20 an hour? Members of your travel group are entitled to know the amount of this self-payment that is built into the trip fee.
The answer is that there is no set hourly wage. Typically I calculate what my total trip expenses will be (airfare, hotel, meals, etc) so that I can be there to play tour guide for the group, guesstimate how many members are likely to sign up and use that to try out different price points on paper to see how it would break down (if 1 member signs up then x% of my fees will be covered, if 2 members sign up then y% will be covered, if 3…etc), and then finally choose a price point that likely to be a good spot where most of my trip fees as organizer are covered but yet doesn’t escalate the trip fee to a level where members would feel they were not getting a good value for what was included. Your time (that you don’t have to spend planning itineraries or tracking down reservations or researching restaurants, or arguing with airline reps if they get something wrong or there is weather problems, etc) is valuable (as is mine) and only you can speak to what it’s worth for you to have all those things taken care of for you. That ‘value’ you place on those services is the ‘magic’ price point I try to find and set the trip fee too. Too low and lots of people sign up for trips but I can’t afford to actually attend as your organizer (while members travel a few trips a year, as the organizer I am on every trip and that would get expensive quickly) and provide services; too high and my price would be covered but nobody would sign up to come with me and that would be lonely indeed. In short, my job as organizer is to plan out these trips and price them out to make it work for both sides. Your job as the member is to decide if you have the time and finances to travel on these trips and whether the price point of any given trip is a good value for you. I think we’ve got a great model b/c I’m not a travel agent, so I don’t have to earn a living doing this and can therefore price trips lower than a company that has to do precisely that, saving members money. At the same time I’m able to bring a lot of expertise to the table after doing this for two years and take a lot of the hassle out of the typical process you’d go through to do this all yourself and since I’m personally involved and attending the trip it’s a much more hands on experience than if you went to an actual expensive travel agent. Win-win for everyone.