Groups Today Mar/Apr 2023

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Groups Today





Published by Serendipity Media, LLC Volume 21 Issue 2 MAR/APR 2O23 THE RESOURCE FOR EVERYTHING GROUP TRAVEL. +
explore the GREAT


Volume 21, Issue 2

GROUPS TODAY IS PUBLISHED BY: Serendipity Media, LLC 866-252-7108


Kasie Smith


Courtney Van Hagen


Sarah Suydam

Josh Veal


Emily Alspaugh


Megan Marshall


Loren Eisenlohr


Jasa West

Natalie Villar


Maggie Mutch


Haleigh Gerwig

MEMBERS OF: Student & Youth Travel Association

American Bus Association National Tour Association Circle Michigan Ontario Motor Coach Association

Groups Today is published bimonthly by Serendipity Media, LLC; 535 Cascade West Parkway SE; Grand Rapids, MI 49546. Periodical postage is paid at Grand Rapids, MI, and additional mailing offices. Subscription information may be obtained through the above address, by calling 866252-7108, or by visiting or

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© 2023 Serendipity Media LLC 1 PLANNER PROFILE Lori Visser, VTA page 4 5 MINUTES WITH... Brian McInerney page 27 THEME EXPLORE THE GREAT OUTDOORS page 8 DESTINATION SAVOR THE SPIRIT OF LOUISIANA page 18 ISSUES How Travel Insurance Has Changed page 6 EDUCATION Tips for Catching Quality Shut-Eye While Flying page 24 IN EVERY ISSUE Editor's Letter 2 | Online 3 | Spotlight 14 | Ad Index 28 IN THIS ISSUE


Happy spring! Well, almost.

As spring begins to show us its yearly promise of arrival, we hope you and your groups are looking forward to setting out and seeing all that blooms this time of year. If outdoor adventures among nature are on your radar, flip to page 8 to explore the many open air offerings that are sure to invigorate and restore. We also travel to Louisiana on page 18 to soak up the vibrant and unique soul, spirit and flavors of this historic and diverse state.

And while traveling is always a great time, getting to your destination might not always be the most comfortable experience. Flip to page 24 for tips on getting some quality rest while flying—a challenge we understand all too well.

It’s no secret interest in travel insurance over the last few years has increased. But what changes have happened that we need to know about? On page 6, we get some expert insight and discuss what travel insurance looks like today.

We also took the time to sit down with Lori Visser, VTA to learn more about her industry journey to becoming a successful travel advisor (page 4), as well as with Brian McInerney, Director for the Visa Office with the U.S. Department of State, to gain knowledge on the latest visa happenings (page 27).

Wherever you and your groups find yourselves venturing to this spring, we here at Groups Today hope this issue offers helpful information and wish you safe travels and sunny days!

2 GROUPS TODAY March/April 2023 Send your stories, suggestions and thoughts to: 535 Cascade West Parkway SE Grand Rapids, MI 49546 SARAH SUYDAM Managing

Following Her Heart to Travel

WWhile Lori Visser, VTA knew she wanted to work as a travel advisor after high school, she initially followed a different path—one that led her into accounting and later as a corporate controller for a construction, manufacturing and commercial real estate business. She was used to often being the only woman in the room. Eventually, Visser returned to what she calls her first love: travel.

“My mom was an immigrant and my dad a railroad engineer, so I think travel is in my blood,” said Visser, who now works as a travel advisor and is owner and operator of a Cruise Planners travel agency franchise. “Back in the day, it was much harder to break into the field, needing experience and connections—of which I had none back in the 1970’s.”

In 2014, Visser decided she’d had enough of the corporate world and decided to jump right into the world of travel, despite not having any industry experience at the time. She did, however, possess plenty of business experience that she knew would serve her well. While she began with no clients or leads, she’s now able to support her family doing something she loves.

“I do a lot of training, including conferences and conventions, and since I work with over 40 cruise lines and dozens of land-based travel suppliers, there’s a plethora of training resources,” Visser explained, noting satisfaction in her choice to opt for the franchise route. “I don’t need to spend my time on systems, websites and software, and we have a great

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Photo © Snap Studio


Visser is also an adoptive mother, having adopted two daughters alongside her husband when she was ages 44 and 46. Visser quipped, “I’m an old lady with teens to keep me young!”

‘home office’ that backs us on our road to success.”

When thinking about challenges faced in her career so far, Visser—like most travel industry professionals—looks back on the pandemic and its many obstacles as a tough time. From booking and canceling trips without pay, to waiting on hold for hours on end, to keeping up with worldwide travel restrictions (some of which continue today), Visser acknowledges what many felt:

“We became experts in cancellations.”

Because Visser herself loves to travel, she considers helping give others once-in-a-lifetime trips an experience that’s second to none. She reflects on memorable trips she’s organized for clients (a complicated couples trip to Africa and South Africa and an Alaskan cruise with 47 cousins come to mind).

Lessons learned abound, from finding the best approach for advising clients when the unexpected happens, to balancing always being on-call, to encouraging clients

to never skip travel insurance. And while Visser enjoys accolades like earning various sales awards, she says her career highlights undoubtedly stem from receiving amazing reviews and unexpected testimonials.

“I have a federal judge who is a fan!”

Visser says industry newcomers should recognize that success won’t happen overnight. She suggests getting to know local Business Development Managers and training resources and considering specializing in a certain niche.

“If you’re invited on a FAM, be on your best business behavior; it’s a business trip—not a boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s weekend,” Visser said, emphasizing the importance of dressing appropriately, respecting hosts by being on time, using your manners and being attentive. “Keep quiet when walking the resort, move over for guests, and don’t touch things in rooms set up for guests.

“Overall, it’s harder than you expect it to be. Don’t get into the industry just because you ‘love to travel.’” 5

How Travel Insurance Has Changed

GGroup travel and travel insurance go hand-in-hand, now more than ever! While the urge to travel is booming, travelers still have some apprehension about their travel investment. In response, tour operators should encourage all customers to consider purchasing travel insurance.

During the pandemic, tour operators returned money to their clients when trips could not operate, and in turn, sought refunds from their suppliers, impacting the entire travel value chain. Travel businesses were ground to a halt, forcing operators to rethink their risk management strategies to avoid future no-fault refunds. For many, the solution was to proactively provide a travel insurance offering to the traveler alongside the trip purchase.

Practice pointer: When booking group travel, operators normally interact with trip organizers— not necessarily every individual

in the group. Regardless of the organizer’s personal opinion on the appropriateness of travel protection plans, operators should insist it be made available to the trip participants.

According to a recent NerdWallet survey, only 20% of U.S. travelers protected the value of their leisure trips with travel insurance pre-COVID. The same survey reported 45% of U.S.based travelers were likely to purchase travel insurance post-pandemic. With more restrictive terms and conditions limiting traveler refunds and tour operators more aggressively encouraging (and in some cases mandating) that clients purchase travel insurance, it’s no surprise the number of travelers interested in travel insurance more than doubled from pre-pandemic levels.

A word to the wise: Be careful about describing coverages available or the amount that may or may not be paid on a claim. This can be difficult


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JEFF MENT is Managing Partner of Ment Law Group and has decades of experience in counseling travel companies, from operators to vendors and trade associations. TED MUHLNER is Co-President of Redpoint Travel Protection, a provider of travel protection solutions including medical and security evacuation and assistance services to travel organizations, corporations, academic institutions, and consumers.

since the traveler is relying on your advice. Like your professional liability insurance, all travel insurance policies have exclusions and claim limitations. These exclusions, which have all been approved by state insurance regulators, can be challenging to understand so it’s best to refer the customer to the travel insurance provider. It’s also important for operators to investigate which travel insurance provider it chooses to partner with. Decisions shouldn’t be made based on commission percentages. Rather, operators should try to partner with a company that offers the broadest coverage with the least number of exclusions.

New operator risk management strategies are just part of the story though, as travelers themselves lost billions due to COVID cancellations and country closures. Forbes estimates half of Americans lost between $500 and $1,500 in 2021 because of canceled trips—$75 billion on the low end. Losses of this scale made travelers more aware of all the benefits of travel insurance and made them more willing to spend above the value of their trip to protect the value of their investment.

While travel insurance companies have seen premium increases because of motivations grown from operator and traveler losses, the most significant change in the travel insurance purchase rate is due to travel insurance companies liberalizing policies to cover COVID. These changes provide coverage for

cancellation and interruption if a traveler or travel companion becomes ill with COVID and cannot travel or is forced to interrupt their trip. The presence of this new coverage has provided many previously timid consumers with the confidence to book travel. This increased demand has also enabled many operators to get back to (and in some cases exceed) pre-COVID revenue levels.

Despite the strong urge to sell, recommend and purchase travel insurance, for some group travel it may not be necessary. Factors to consider and understand when declining travel protection include the cost of the trip, how liberal the refund policy is and

whether or not some of the coverages might be provided by other sources (i.e. health insurance plans may cover medical expenses incurred in the U.S.). When faced with a group declining insurance, it’s important to obtain a written declination of insurance, in turn providing you with protection should the group try to later blame the operator when the unexpected impacts the trip.

In conclusion, there’s no doubt that we will continue to see an uptick in the purchase of travel insurance while the pandemic continues to languish. It will be interesting to revisit this issue in five years to see how the industry has shifted, if at all. 7



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TThere’s nothing quite like taking in a breath of fresh air and spending some quality time in nature. Thankfully, whether your groups are looking for a high-speed adventure in the swamps or a moment of peace in a serene Japanese garden, there’s much to discover in the great outdoors. Come along as we explore some of the many outdoor attractions worthy of landing on your group’s itinerary. 9
Photos (LtoR) © Pikes Peak, Biltmore Estates/The Biltmore Company, Ravinia Festival


Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan is recognized as one of the nation’s most significant sculpture and botanic experiences, having attracted more than 13 million visitors since its opening in 1995. Among the many outdoor experiences available is the eight-acre Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden, designed by Hoichi Kurisu. Groups will feel peaceful tranquility as they wander and admire waterfalls, elevation changes, extensive boulder placement, authentic Japanese structures and a functioning teahouse.

Meijer Gardens is also home to an outdoor amphitheater, a children’s garden focused on experiential learning, a 30-acre sculpture park featuring an internationally-acclaimed permanent collection and dynamic exhibition programs, walking nature trails, a shade garden and much more.

Situated in Asheville, North Carolina is Biltmore, America’s largest home built by George Vanderbilt. In addition to the stunning home itself, Biltmore’s 8,000-acre Blue Ridge Mountain backyard offers groups a bounty of options for taking in the

sights. An extensive trail system beckons hikers and walkers, while the estate’s equestrian center offers groups an opportunity to horseback ride through pristine forests and gallop over green pastures. Additional guided outdoor activities, including kayaking, rafting, sporting clays and falconry, are also available.

Be sure not to miss Biltmore’s historic grounds and gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the father of American landscape design. Described as a horticultural paradise, the gardens provide groups with an abundance of flora to appreciate, including a rose garden featuring more than 250 varieties. While visiting, they could even take part in a free gardening seminar!

Continue by venturing to Nashville to visit Cheekwood Estate & Gardens , a 55-acre, award-winning botanical garden and art museum located on the historic Cheek estate which offers year-round programming. Connecting with nature is easy here, as groups of all kinds could experience self-guided and guided tours (tailored to their specific interests) of the estate’s 13 distinct gardens, showcasing spectacular color and horticultural diversity, and a 1.5mile woodland trail, featuring monumental outdoor sculptures.

Groups with young ones will also enjoy Cheekwood’s Bracken Foundation Children’s Garden, in addition to their interactive outdoor TRAINS! exhibit. G-scale train engines and cars ignite imaginations as they chug through tunnels and bridges, passing fairy houses, secret gardens and animal habitats.

From May 4 – October 27, 2023, groups could also experience LIGHT: Bruce Munro at Cheekwood , an indoor and outdoor exhibit immersing visitors in a world of wonder and light.

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Photos (LtoR) © Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, River & Trail Outfitters, Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures Photos © Cheekwood Estate & Gardens


For groups looking to make a splash, an adventure with River & Trail Outfitters is just the thing. The oldest and most experienced adventure company in the Harpers Ferry region, River & Trail offers groups a variety of thrilling water experiences on the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in the tri-state area of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. From rafting, tubing, kayaking and canoeing to airsoft, camping, ziplining, hiking and biking, there’s an outdoor thrill for every group.

River & Trail welcomes groups of all sizes, in addition to offering trip customization. And, groups can rest easy knowing River & Trail prioritizes safety and works with the Shenandoah and Potomac Riverkeepers to help keep their waterways clean and healthy for years to come.

If picking up the speed sounds like your kind of trip, Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures in Kissimmee, Florida should be on your radar. Providing airboat tours since 1994 within the Central Florida Everglades, Boggy Creek offers groups a chance to see native wildlife in their natural settings (think bald eagles, sandhill cranes, turtles, armadillos and more). Take a sunset airboat tour to admire the glowing evening light, or opt for a night airboat tour, where groups are guaranteed to encounter nocturnal hunters including the American Alligator.

In addition to airboat rides led by Coast Guard-certified captains and other park adventures, Boggy Creek has recently added a variety of new experiences groups could enjoy, including a Butterfly Aviary, Bat Education and Conservation Zone and Bald Eagle Education Area. Private nature and birding tours are also available. 11


Elevate your group’s experiences to new altitudes with a visit to Pikes Peak , recognized as one of the most accessible mountains in the country and located in the Pike National Forest—minutes from downtown Colorado Springs. While full-size motorcoaches are too large for the Pikes Peak Highway, the mountain can still be easily enjoyed enjoyed by car, van or bus, by train on The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway (which was recently updated and rebuilt entirely), on a downhill bike tour and on foot using the Barr Trail.

Once groups reach the top of the mountain, they could stop at the new Pikes Peak Summit Visitor Center, an accessible and sustainable building completed in 2021 offering expansive views of Colorado Springs and beyond. Interactive exhibits within help groups interpret the geology, flora and fauna of the mountain, while a cafe offers a chance to refuel for your next outdoor adventure.

In Highland Park, Illinois, groups will find Ravinia Festival , an outdoor music venue and North America’s oldest music festival. Each summer within the enchanting 36-acre park, groups could enjoy over 100 events in various genres, including the annual summer residency of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With different stages offering both reserved and general admission seating, a Ravinia show is an ideal opportunity to soak up summer’s splendor while taking in world-class performances. Depending on the stage and event, groups could even picnic on the lawn by bringing their own chairs, tables, blankets, and food and beverages (including alcohol).

An array of group-specific experiences are also available, from public and private dining in Ravinia’s entertaining outdoor spaces, to catering on the lawn and full park rentals.


Home to more than 1,000 animals from around the world, Zoo Atlanta is an inspiring and educational experience groups of all kinds will love. A lush botanical oasis situated mere minutes from Downtown Atlanta, the Zoo is one of only three in the U.S. housing giant pandas, and is also home to one of the largest populations of great apes in North America. The Zoo’s most recent transformation—the African Savanna—features new and expanded habitats for African elephants, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, bonteboks, warthogs, meerkats and southern white rhinos.

Conservation and protection of wildlife is a large focus at the Zoo, which is why they offer an array of opportunities for visitors to learn more about the role their personal actions play in saving the species that inhabit the habitats they are exploring, in addition to creating lasting connections between people and animals. Group tickets (which can be purchased a year in advance), are eligible for a discounted rate upon inquiring.

Photos © City of Colorado Springs, Ravinia Festivals, Zoo Atlanta 13
Photos © City of Colorado Springs, Ravinia Festivals, Zoo Atlanta


Help your clients discover their next great vacation by bringing them to the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota, a region full of stunning scenic drives, the spirit of the Old West, rich Native American culture and groupfriendly attractions. Your group will be planning their next trip before they even leave.


From the faces carved high at Mount Rushmore National Memorial to the otherworldly buttes of Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota are home to truly monumental places. In fact, this area has one of the largest concentrations of national parks, monuments and caves in the Midwest.

Custer State Park should be at the top of your travel to-dos. The towering pines, gentle creeks and massive granite outcroppings captivate all who enter, while wildlife abounds throughout the park, including the herd of 1,400 bison. Learn the herd’s fascinating story at the new Bison Center, and book a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour in the park’s backcountry to get up close.

Groups could also embrace the spirit of the West on the park’s Chuckwagon Cookout, featuring an old-fashioned hayride and a chuckwagon feast.

Another essential stop is Crazy Horse Memorial®—the world’s largest Mountain Carving in progress. Tour the campus to see what it takes to carve the memorial and immerse yourself in Native American culture. We suggest taking a rustic bus ride—or your motorcoach—to the base of the mountain or go on a van ride up the carving for a face-to-face view.

Photos © Black Hills & Badlands Tourism Association


The lifelong learners in your group can deepen their appreciation for Western South Dakota’s geology, history and culture at immersive museums and galleries.

Collections tell stories from the area’s prehistoric beginnings and Indigenous residents to explorations for gold, Old West pioneers and more. The Journey Museum & Learning Center in Rapid City is a great place to start.

Find legends, lore and good old-fashioned entertainment in Deadwood, which was born of the 1876 Gold Rush. The museums of this historic town keep its fascinating history alive! Groups could also dig in at educational centers focused on South Dakota’s fossils, plants and animals, such as the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, which boasts the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world.

Visit attractions, museums and art galleries that honor the Lakota Nation’s important heritage and time-honored traditions. Attend a powwow for a front-row seat to the pageantry of Indigenous song and dance.


Cruise through one of the national and state scenic byways and drives that put the region’s breathtaking beauty on full display.

Hire a local motorcoach to thread around pigtail bridges and through tight one-lane, rock-walled tunnels on the extensive backcountry lanes of Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway in Custer State Park.

Twist through towering limestone palisades and treelined landscapes through Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. Stop to view rushing water cascading over the canyon walls at Bridal Veil Falls.

Meander through towering buttes and dramatic cliffs

on Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway. Stop at an overlook for sweeping views of these formations. While in Badlands National Park, look for bighorn sheep, pronghorn, prairie dogs and the herd of bison.

Whatever route you choose, you’ll see how these stunning drives can be the most electrifying part of a vacation.


The Black Hills and Badlands region is full of group-friendly attractions. There’s something for everyone in your group!

Rapid City is home to some of these top group stops. Explore statues of our past presidents on sidewalks Downtown—the City of Presidents. See how Black Hills gold jewelry is made on a tour of Mt. Rushmore Gold & Diamond Factory Outlet, then drive through Bear Country U.S.A. to see bears, elk, bison and other wildlife up close. Wind through the shops at Wall Drug Store that have something for everyone before savoring home-style dishes, like their legendary hot beef sandwiches and famous doughnuts, surrounded by an extensive Western art collection in the restaurant.

Don’t forget to add the Tri-State Museum & Visitor Center in Belle Fourche to your itinerary so your group can stand at the Geographic Center of the Nation. They’ll also love the scenic, narrated trip aboard the 1880 Train. In Spearfish, be sure to visit the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and Archives— one of the oldest operating hatcheries in the country.

Find all the resources you need to plan your group trip to the Black Hills and Badlands at . 15


Sandwiched between the Mason-Dixon line in the north and the Potomac River at the south, Frederick County was located on the perilous border between North and South. Slavery took root in Frederick County in colonial times, where owners of farms, plantations, and even iron furnaces, benefitted from the toil of enslaved workers. Frederick’s close ties with Pennsylvania ensured, however, that a sizable free Black population called Frederick County home.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Frederick County experienced the tramp of armies, the shot and shell of battle, and the sufferings of the wounded. Black residents assisted in the hospitals and volunteered to serve in the United States Army. The Civil War’s aftermath brought a new birth of freedom to Frederick County, and in its wake African Americans opened schools, churches and built entirely new communities.

In the century and a half since emancipation, Frederick’s

Black community has faced adversity with grace and perseverance. Despite Jim Crow and segregation in the early 20th century, African American innovators and change-makers shaped their community. Local leaders brought the Civil Rights Movement to Frederick, ushering in an era of increasing inclusivity and opportunity.

Explore these three sites that bring Black history to life in Frederick County, Maryland.

Feel the heat of smelters at  Catoctin Furnace  in Thurmont, Maryland, where expert African metal workers helped build our nation by forging an array of ironworks, including cannonballs used to win American independence. Experience the  Museum of the Iron Worker  in the village to come face-to-face with the furnace’s enslaved workers and the iron products they assembled.

With Frederick County’s strategic location in Maryland, the region became the heart of the Civil War. The area

Photos © Visit Frederick

became a battleground in the fight to end slavery, with Frederick’s Black community serving important roles as laborers, medical caretakers and soldiers. And in the years of struggle that followed the war, this community charted a new course of freedom. The fraught journey from slavery to war to freedom can be traced on the hallowed ground

of  Monocacy National Battlefield

These sites will take your group through a landscape that was shaped by Frederick’s Black residents dating back to the founding of the United States, exploring how the community changed not only the course of our region’s history, but the nation’s as well.

See 17 to learn more.

When it comes to cultural heritage, distinctive cuisine, diverse terrain, musical significance and an overall festive vibe, there are few places in the U.S. that can boast all of these appeals more than Louisiana.

Named after King Louis XIV of France, and home to a population with African, Canadian, French, Native American, European and Haitian roots, the Bayou State offers a wealth of activities and attractions to explore.

DESTINATION FEATURE Photos © Lafayette Travel



Did you know? Louisiana is the only state in the country that has parishes instead of counties. That detail dates back to when it was under Roman Catholic rule, and the territories were delineated by church parishes. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist! With that in mind, there’s no better starting point than St. Landry Parish , where Academy of the Sacred Heart resides. It’s not only the second-oldest school in the U.S. west of the Mississippi River, it’s also the site of a Vaticanrecognized miracle. In addition to its 225-acre grounds, formal gardens and oak-lined paths, there’s an educational tour that includes Le Petit Musée and the Shrine of St. John Berchmans. Here, photo opportunities abound!

St. Landry Parish is also a great place to dip your toes into an immersive swamp adventure. Cajun Customized Excursions, led by the highly knowledgeable Captain Mark, takes groups deep into the Atchafalaya Basin where there’s an abundance of wildlife and natural beauty, as well as the likelihood of spotting a few gators. This activity is best planned with smaller groups, as their maximum on their “Wood Duck” vessels is six. 19
Photos © St. Landy Parish

Other musts in the area include the Cajun French Music Hall of Fame, Creole Heritage Folklife Center, Evangeline Downs Racetrack and Casino, NUNU Arts & Culture Collective and Savoy Music Center. The Louisiana Orphan Train Museum is also not to be missed, according to our experts. Round out your visit at Bayou Teche Brewing for craft beer and live music on the weekends and a tour at Tony’s Country Store, where Tony Chachere’s Creole spice blends are made and sold.

Next, venture south to Lafayette , known as the Happiest City in America. One of the draws that’s particularly popular with groups is Vermilionville, a historic park that recreates Acadian, Creole, and Native American life from 1765 – 1890. There’s also the 20-mile Azalea Trail, which is especially stunning when in bloom starting in March, but enjoyable year-round for its historic and cultural areas and wide variety of architectural styles. To take it all in, go on a trolley or self-guided tour that runs through downtown, garden neighborhoods and university districts.

An additional point of interest is Martin Accordions, which offers tours of the shop, a musical performance, and demonstrations of the instrument that’s central to the Cajun and zydeco musical sounds. For another classic Cajun experience, visit the TABASCO® Brand Factory and Museum. They offer tours, cooking demos, and a culinary course, plus they have an on-site restaurant. While there, head over to Jungle Gardens on Avery Island to see the birds, indigenous wildlife and botanical specimens that inhabit the 170-acre expanse. Before you leave Lafayette, don’t forget to stop at Gator Cove and have a taste of Wildcat Brothers Distillery’s craft rum and cocktails.

Next on the itinerary is Pointe Coupée , which is nestled amid the glistening inland waterways of the Mississippi River, Old River and the Atchafalaya River. As a community that’s older than the state of Louisiana itself, it has a vibrant history and many attractions that tell its early stories. The Pointe Coupée Parish Museum is a great jumping off point, where groups can tour the 19th-century Parlange Plantation on the banks of False River. Julien Poydras Museum and Art Center is another favorite stop. Home to the Pointe Coupée Historical Society, the 1924 school hosts history talks and exhibits, roundtable discussions, concerts, plays, films and more.

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Photos © Lafayette Travel, Visit Baton Rouge

Also recommended is the New Roads Visitor Center for its many exhibits, featuring vintage boat motors, local art, agriculture and memorabilia from New Roads’ Mardi Gras of years past. While there, hit downtown Main Street, a hotspot for shopping and dining.

From there, venture over to Baton Rouge , Louisiana’s capital city and residence of Louisiana State University. Step back in time at the LSU Rural Life Museum, which offers insights into 18th and 19th century Louisiana life and culture. To get a view of an authentically restored 1792 French Creole plantation home, plan a trip to Magnolia Mound, which includes a historic museum 21 / (504) 666-8300 NOT YOUR ORDINARY CHEAP THRILL!! Fun, Aff ordable, All Ages Welcome Your group will have a blast with our Master StoryTellers! Custom Private Tours with flexible starting times to fi t your schedule. Contact us today, let's make a memorable experience for your group! GARDEN DISTRICT TOURS | GHOST & VAMPIRE TOURS | VOODOO TOURS FRENCH QUARTER HISTORY & CULTURE TOURS | TREME' TOURS | MUSIC TOURS


house, an open-hearth kitchen, overseer’s house, quarter house, crop garden pigeoneer and carriage house. Louisiana’s Old State Capitol provides more history of the area for groups to dive into, and the Louisiana Art & Science Museum and Irene W. Pennington Planetarium offers an intersection of art and science to fuel discovery, creativity and knowledge building.

Before moving on, be sure to visit Electric Depot, a 103-year-old building that was once an energy plant, but has since been transformed into a bustling entertainment center with shopping, food and spirits, live music and bowling. A short drive away and right near the Mississippi River is Oxbow Rum Distillery, where groups can take a tour and do some tasting.

Now, onward to New Orleans ! There’s a tremendous amount to do and see in The Big Easy; following are some of the most loved options. First up is the National WWII Museum, which has been a NOLA landmark for more than two decades. Filled with exhibits, multimedia experiences, and personal accounts, it also has recently introduced its Expressions of America exhibit, an immersive light and sound show that wows audiences with music, special effects, and 90-foot-tall projections capturing the lives of those who served.

Also newly opened is Vue Orleans, located on the top floor of the Four Seasons. Offering 360-degree panoramic views of the city and waterfront from its indoor and outdoor observation decks, it’s an ideal way to absorb the sights and sounds of this magnificent metropolis.

Groups could simply wander the streets of New Orleans and encounter curiosities galore, but for more structure, consider stops at Mardi Gras World, New Orleans Museum of Art, Audubon Zoo and JAMNOLA (Joy, Art & Music), described as a “Cultural Funhouse.” You could also take a carriage ride, riverboat cruise, or airboat swamp tour to carouse the town by both land and water. Whatever you do, don’t leave without embarking on a ghost tour with French Quarter Phantoms , New Orleans’ premier walking tour company. There are a number of chilling options, from vampires to voodoo; saints to sinners. Plus, walks through the Garden District, French Quarter and more.

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Photos © Visit Baton Rouge, New Orleans & Company


St. Tammany Parish is ready to welcome your group! Located less than an hour from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Louisiana Northshore is a destination in its own right. With exciting group-friendly amenities, the Louisiana Northshore welcomes you.


Stroll Old Mandeville with their Historic Marker Tour! This QR code tour shares the history of 41 historic sites along the Mandeville lakefront. Walk or rent bicycles from Brooks' Bikes/Trikes & Beyond to visit all the sites at your own pace.

On the National Register of Historic Places, the historic St. John district makes up a portion of the walkable, downtown area of Covington. Explore local shops, galleries and H.J. Smith & Sons General Store and Museum. Familyowned and operated since 1876, the museum houses hundreds of items from 1870 through the early 1900s. Groups can visit the general store and museum Monday through Saturday while taking in all that Covington has to offer.


Located on the northern shores of Lake Pontchartrain, Pat’s Rest Awhile boasts an upscale menu, casual atmosphere, and both indoor and outdoor dining. The waterfront restaurant is under the helm of St. Tammany Parish restaurateur extraordinaire, Chef Pat Gallagher, a former Ruth Chris’ executive chef and owner of four other Tammany Taste culinary havens. This new addition to the Mandeville lakefront is just one of the many restaurants that offer beautiful lake views and exquisite sunsets.

Sitting on the beautiful Bayou Bonfouca in Slidell is Palmettos on the Bayou, with a menu featuring classic Louisiana cooking and seasonal specialties. An amazing brunch is offered on both Saturday and Sunday, which can be enjoyed on the large outdoor patio while listening to the jazz musicians perform music that feeds your soul.


Tour the Honey Island Swamp with Cajun Encounters Tour Company in Slidell. On this boat tour, your group will learn about the rich ecosystem of the swamp and get to see the native animals such as alligators, raccoons, feral hogs and many others. Each boat fits up to 20 passengers and tours are two hours in length. After your group tour, plan to have an on-site seafood boil at the Cajun Pavilion, located steps away from the boat dock.

Cruise along the Tchefuncte River with a pontoon boat tour! Louisiana Tours & Adventures is a licensed barge that seats up to 10 people. Captain Mike provides a brief history of the Tchefuncte River and its surrounding area. Bring your own meals onboard to enjoy while cruising or when you reach the mouth of the river, where breathtaking sunsets can be seen.

welcome your group.


stay at

The Louisiana Northshore is brimming with adventure and activities to Discover many reasons to choose St. Tammany Parish for your next group Images © Louisiana Northshore Louisiana Tours & Adventures pontoon boat tour. Palmettos on the Bayou, Slidell. H.J. Smith & Sons General Store and Museum in downtown Covington.



CCatching some quality shut-eye on a flight isn’t always the easiest task, especially when it’s not necessarily always the most predictable experience. Thankfully, there are some tips, tricks and gadgets sure to make the process a lot more comfortable, whether you’re traveling a few hundred miles or a few thousand.

THINK ABOUT YOUR LAYERS. Planes are notorious when it comes to being either freezing cold or scorching hot, making it a tall task to nail your travel outfit every time. A way to mitigate this? Dress in layers! Choosing items with zippers or that are looser fitting (and don’t have to go over your head) are smart choices. Also, opt for some cozy socks to keep your feet warm and consider packing a small throw or large scarf to wrap up in for extra coziness.

INVEST IN NOISE-CANCELING HEADPHONES. Whether you’re hoping to listen to a podcast, music or audiobook—or are simply looking for some peace and quiet—noise-canceling headphones should be on your radar. Because they’ll be on your ears for a good while, ensure the fit is comfortable and test them out around the house before embarking on your trip. You can thank us later.

BLOCK OUT UNWANTED LIGHT. Close your row’s window shade if possible and pop on a light-blocking mask to give yourself as dim an environment as possible. Thankfully, you’ve got options when it comes to choosing an eye mask to suit your needs. From luxurious washable silk to weighted masks, there’s something for everyone’s needs. There are even molded options that provide a wider and deeper eye space than most conventional models, perfect for those who don’t want to ruin eye makeup or want the ability to blink freely. If you’re in a pinch, a hoodie with the drawstrings pulled tight also does the job, even if it’s not the most fashionable choice.

A PILLOW OR TWO CAN GO A LONG WAY. A quality neck pillow is an absolute must. Opt for an adjustable, ergonomic option that not only provides comfort, but actual support, as well. Some neck pillows are even designed with chin support in mind to keep you from feeling like a bobblehead or like you’re going to wake up with a kink in your neck. Another addition to consider is a lumbar support pillow, ideal for keeping that lower back in check.



According to the CDC, crossing your legs on a long flight restricts blood flow and increases your chance for a blood clot. Instead, stretch your legs out in front of you while keeping a slight bend in the knee. Depending on your height, you could even bring a foot sling/hammock with you to lift your legs off the ground and relieve pressure in your hips. It’s also smart to do some stretching before you board to give your limbs some room to move around and to relax your muscles.


Because caffeine and alcohol can lead to less quality sleep and are both dehydrating, be sure to drink plenty of water before and during your flight. You could even opt for a caffeine-free tea for a low-stress warm up. Sure, it might lead to more bathroom trips but we’d like to think it’s worth it in the end to wake up sans grogginess. You may also consider taking some melatonin to aid in falling asleep on longer flights and starting a probiotics routine (if you don’t have one already) two days beforehand to calm a sensitive stomach. 25
26 GROUPS TODAY March/April 2023

BBrian McInerney has been a Foreign Service Officer—or “U.S. diplomat”—for more than 20 years. From Ireland, Dominican Republic, South Africa, Mexico and Iraq, McInerney has served as a Consular official in five countries spanning four continents.

Throughout his career managing consular sections, McInerney has managed the full spectrum of issues tied to facilitating safe, legitimate travel for business and tourism. While he sometimes helped Americans abroad, McInerney’s bread and butter has been handling visa issues. In his current role, McInerney oversees field operations for worldwide visa services, formulating and implementing new and existing laws, regulations, policies and procedures tied to the worldwide adjudication of visas.

Groups Today sat down with McInerney to learn more about the current state of visas and the travel industry.

Brian McInerney

Director, Field Operations

Visa Office, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State

What are the most interesting changes you’ve experienced related to visas and the travel industry?

The change that’s happening right now. In the past, I felt like we had to innovate out of necessity because of budget cuts, but now we’re innovating because of the built-up demand, and we’re given the resources and room to be innovative. We can do things now we could not have thought possible even a few short years ago.

In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges currently facing visas and the travel industry?

Even with our list of 2022 accomplishments, challenges remain. We recognize some prospective applicants are still facing extended interview appointment wait times. We are working to reduce these wait times, we won’t rest until we are done, and we are optimistic that the positive trends begun in 2022 will continue.

Our organization embraced technology, innovation and change—something the government rarely gets credit for—in order to return our consular sections overseas to their full working capacity. Our intention is to improve our organization, not simply return to the way things were before the pandemic.

What opportunities do you see for the travel industry as it relates to visas?

Let’s face it—visa requirements are detailed and complicated, and what I’ve found to be important when working with the travel industry is to ensure the Bureau of Consular Affairs provides easy-to-understand information, 27

instructions and statistics on visas to help the industry understand the state of play and, in turn, educate travelers.

For those who need interviews, the travel industry can play an important role in sharing information about the application process, promoting U.S. embassy instructional websites and their content, and helping applicants avoid fraud and understand our processes.

The focus on visa interview wait times is a good example. Long wait times do not mean that people are not being issued visas. They simply reflect an extremely high level of demand. In fact, in several countries with longer wait times, including Mexico and Brazil, we issued more visitor visas in 2022 than we did in 2019.

Only seven of the top 20 inbound nationalities require a U.S. visitor visa. Putting that into global context, this means the overwhelming majority of visitors—more than 90%—have not required a visa interview or renewal in the year before their travel to the U.S. So people are getting visas and millions of people have visas: We estimate there are more than 56 million valid visitor visas in circulation worldwide. And in any given year, most international visitors enter the U.S. without a visa—they come from Canada and the 40 countries part of the Visa Waiver Program. Or, they travel on previously issued visas, since most B1/ B2 visas for visitors are valid for 10 years with multiple entries. That means those potential visitors can come to the U.S. for vacation whenever they want.

What’s your advice for those in the travel industry as it relates to visas?

I want the travel industry to know that we are partners, with several shared priorities. We in the Visa Office recently created an “industry liaison” position to engage specifically with businesses as they return to pre-pandemic operations. We welcome feedback and are constantly looking to expand our efficiencies as we promote legitimate travel to the U.S. for business or leisure. We are happy to meet you all where you are to explain what we are doing. Putting those accomplishments into the context of most international visitors not needing a U.S. visa, I’d like to see the travel industry helping those who do need visas to learn about the application process, plan ahead, and ensure they have everything they need for their application to be complete.

To facilitate this partnership, we work constantly to improve our processes and share information, which is why we expanded an interview wait times tool on our website to include much more detailed information and additional visa categories ( as well as to highlight global wait times (

See for more.

28 GROUPS TODAY March/April 2023
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