St. Olaf Magazine | Fall 2019

St. Olaf Magazine Q&A: A Conversation with Alumni & Family Travel Director Heidi Quiram

Eilean Donan Castle, Highlands, Scotland Photo by Xinyi Zhang ’19

Kayaking through Alaska’s inside passage, listening to classical music in Vienna, exploring historic temples in Bali — these are just a few of the tempting options offered by St. Olaf College’s Alumni & Family Travel department. Each year, Director Heidi Quiram P’21, helps organize a dozen trips across the globe for alumni, parents, and friends of the college. We caught up with the 21-year travel office veteran in July — just after she’d returned from her sixth trip in seven months — to talk about the college’s travel programs.

Q: Are non-Oles allowed on St. Olaf trips?

A: Yes! From our start in the 1970s, we’ve always been open to the public. This has long been one of the central tenets of our department, that we should be a front door for the college, inviting people in to experience everything St. Olaf has to offer.

Q: What considerations do you keep in mind when choosing tours? 

A: We try to offer a wide variety of destinations around the globe, to spread our trips throughout the year, and to vary the lengths and price points so there’s something for everyone. But our main consideration is this: can it be a program that is faculty-led and custom-designed?

Q: Are all your programs led by faculty?

A: All of them were until a few years ago. Recently we have broken away from that model a bit, with some of our programs — especially the river and ocean cruises —hosted but not designed by a St. Olaf staffer. But we strongly prefer that as many of our tours as possible be faculty-led and custom-designed. That’s what set us apart early on and what we still consider a St. Olaf hallmark.

Q: How do you choose your destinations?

A: Lots of ways. Our frequent travelers might suggest that we visit a country like Bhutan, as we did in 2017. Or we look at trends and ask ourselves if we can get somewhere before it’s too popular and crowded. For example, for two years in a row we took a group to Croatia, a country that is beautiful and interesting and still affordable. Another new destination for us is the Republic of Georgia, where we’re headed next fall. It’s a fairly unknown destination — rich in culture and history and cuisine. And soon we’ll add a trip to the Indian Ocean’s Vanilla Islands and Madagascar — a destination not many people have on their radar. We want our travelers to see and do and learn about things that often exist only in that one place.

Q: What future programs are you most excited about?

A: Three programs next summer, all customed-designed: a Norway multi-generational program — for children ages 3 to 12 with parents and grandparents — led by Norwegian Professor Kari Lie Dorer; a pilgrimage walking the Camino de Santiago, led by Spanish Professor Gwen Barnes-Karol; and a Farm and Sea to Table Japanese food traditions tour to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Niigata, led by Political Science and Asian Studies Professor Katherine Tegtmeyer Pak P’19.

Q: Many tour groups are big — up to 50 people. What size are your tours?

A: We typically need at least 12 people to keep the fee reasonable, but we cap our tours at 23 participants plus host or leaders. We’ve never filled a bus. With a smaller group, it’s easier to move around on foot, and we believe the best way to experience a place is on your feet rather than from behind a bus window.

Q: What are some of your most popular tours? 

A: Popularity often has to do more with faculty leaders than destination. People are looking for robust, educational programs, ones they can tell will be a good value. Bhutan is a great example — we filled that program in 48 hours and ended up offering a second one. Greece is always popular, so Professor Emeritus of Classics Jim May P’06, P’08, leads a group there every other year. And the Theater in London trip is in big demand — it fills up every time.

Q: Describe some challenges you’ve encountered. 

A: On the recent Music in Norway tour with the St. Olaf Choir and St. Olaf Orchestra, the country’s many narrow and winding roads meant that drive times were longer than expected. So, each day we had to review the following day’s plan and determine whether it was still realistic. Frequently we had to start out earlier to reach our destinations on time. The Norway trip was also logistically daunting. We had two alumni and family groups on different itineraries starting and ending in the same cities and weaving in and out of the choir and orchestra tours. Then there are things like strikes, which break out regularly in Greece and Italy. You have to be flexible with situations like that.

Q: What were some memorable moments in Norway?

A: My group happened to be visiting Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim when the St. Olaf Choir and Orchestra arrived to rehearse. Every visitor in the place stopped to listen to them. Also, it was moving to see parents watch their children perform in such prestigious international settings.

Q: What would most surprise people about your job?

A: Probably that I am an introvert, because traveling with a group of people 12 hours a day for 12 days in a row could exhaust even the world’s biggest extrovert. But I spend most of my days in my Alumni Hall office, alone on my computer. I love that my job is both creative and organizational: each program is a puzzle — it’s tough to create an itinerary with good flow that gets people around without wasted time but also allows for some spontaneity.

Q: What else should readers know about Alumni & Family Travel at St. Olaf?
A: That they should set aside their preconceived notions of group travel. This is not all white-haired people shuffling along in lockstep. Our tours take the planning pressure off you, but they are rich, educationally focused programs with free time so you can make them into the adventure you want.