Focusing on astronomy buffs

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life042808Oklahoma agent Gary Spears promises his clients the moon and one star, and he delivers -- every time there is an eclipse of the sun.

His specialty is astronomy-themed group tours. The clients are mostly amateur astronomers plus clusters of NASA professionals on research assignments, and the destinations are just about anywhere the moon and sun can be expected to put on one of their better shows.

One could say this business fell from the sky. Spears, executive vice president at the $30 million Carlson Wagonlit/Spears Travel in Bartlesville, Okla., said a friend announced he had blocked rooms in Hawaii so he and other astronomy buffs could watch the 1991 total solar eclipse there.

The friend, who also was the national president of the Astronomical Society, asked Spears to "work with him" on the trip.

Spears said his first comment was: "What is a total eclipse?" He knows now and is hooked.

He said the agency, in cooperation with the Astronomical Society, took 325 people to the Big Island. There is always the risk of clouds. In this case, Spears said, his group was in two locations; the bulk of them (275) were "clouded out."

Nevertheless, Spears and the society wasted no time planning the next trip. In the early days, the tours were based on a partnership with the society. Spears promoted to the group's membership, and the agency paid a finder's fee for members' bookings.

Now, Spears relies on his own well-honed database of prospects, and he posts trip details, as well as a booking form, at the agency's Web site. These days, he said, "I couldn't do these trips without the Internet." He announces tours in e-mails to his mailing list but hardly ever advertises. About 30% to 40% of participants are repeaters.

Along the way, Spears adopted a pied piper and astronomy guru, NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak, aka Mr. Eclipse, who accompanies all trips and provides expertise on the science and photography.

The tours, about one per year (although there was no trip last year), focus primarily on total solar eclipses -- when the moon completely blacks out the sun, the penultimate event for any astronomer -- amateur or not, Spears said. Other events worth targeting with a telescope have included annular solar eclipses, when the moon partially blocks the sun, leaving a ring of light around it; and, in Greece in 2004, the first transit of Venus in 100 years, when the planet passed between Earth and the sun.

These trips are, of necessity, custom-designed, and most are "trips to nowhere" inside the destination country, in order to see the full eclipse. There were a couple of relatively easy ones, the first to Hawaii and another on a cruise ship to Aruba. Trips to Bolivia, India, South Africa, Turkey and Zambia were tougher, but the most difficult was Libya in 2006, Spears said, partly because he was "sweating" the visas until 10 days before departure.

His Libyan ground operator built a temporary tent city in the desert at the eclipse site for the group. Everything worked out in the end, Spears said, but he was more involved than usual in seeing to details because the Libyan ground operators, while as good as those elsewhere, are not as experienced at planning complicated custom trips.

The typical trip is eight or nine days, with pre- and post-tour options, and generally includes two or three days at or near the eclipse site. The itinerary features the local sightseeing first, "building up to the big event toward the end."

Group size averages 80 to 90, but in reality ranges widely, from 40 to 500 on the Aruba cruise. Many participants carry telescopes and multiple cameras, so Spears adds vans to the transport equipment.

Before every trip, Spears and Espenak do a run-through of the itinerary, one of the smartest things he does, Spears said. For example, the next two eclipses, in 2008 and 2009, will be in China. In the pretrip inspection for 2008, the pair sampled a planned train service, but "after an hour, I knew: No way would we do that. The group would kill us." The group will fly instead.

Spears' other "smartest thing" is using walkie-talkies. He puts the communications tool in the hands of local partners for resolving issues quickly.

He said he also has learned the hard way not to distribute itineraries that are too detailed.

While astronomy clients are quite tolerant of unique travel situations and sudden changes, he said, there are still those who "will let you know if things don't happen as written."

The astronomy business is a small share of sales at the $30 million agency, but if it is a big one, a single trip can account for 4% of the agency's revenues, Spears said.

Overall, the agency is 40% leisure, 60% corporate; it employs 38 people in six locations and hosts 15 contractors. The agency was founded by Spears' parents, Charles and Charlene, when they bought a small local agency in 1958; they are still CEO and president, respectively. Spears and brother Greg, senior vice president, are also shareholders now.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].


Perfect Itinerary
Following the stars in Libya

itin042808The following itinerary was prepared by Gary Spears, executive vice president, Carlson Wagonlit/Spears Travel in Bartlesville, Okla., for a group of astronomy buffs who went to Libya to see an eclipse in 2006.

Day 1: Arrive in Tripoli from an international flight. Group is then transferred to the hotel. In the evening, a welcome dinner with fellow guests (including Mr. Eclipse, Fred Espenak) is planned.

Day 2: After breakfast, travel to the Roman ruins of Sabratha. A World Heritage Site, Sabratha was founded by the Canaanites in the sixth century B.C. and ruled at other times by Carthage, Phoenicia and Rome. The most outstanding site here is the theater, built in the second century, with its three-story backdrop of columns. Other monuments and areas of interest include the Temple of Libber Peter, the Basilica of Justine, the Capitolium, the Temple of Serapis, the Temple of Hercules and the Temple of Isis. Return to Tripoli for dinner and an evening to relax.

Day 3: Transfer to Tripoli's domestic airport for a flight to the Benghazi region. On arrival, travel by bus to Cyrene, the spectacular setting of Greek occupations from the early seventh century B.C. From there, a 12-mile trip down the Green Mountain to the ancient Greek city of Apollonia. Dinner at the hotel.

Day 4: A short walk to the entrance of the Greek ruins of Apollonia, followed by a leisurely stroll with a magnificent backdrop of the Mediterranean. Drive back to Benghazi with a stop en route in Ptolemais, which was founded in the fourth century B.C.  At night, a session with Espenak, who will talk more about the upcoming eclipse experience.

Day 5: A long drive southwest to Jalu, crossing Libya along the coastline and down through the Libyan Sahara moving toward our private eclipse camp, where we stay for two nights. The camp will include a fully staffed kitchen preparing regional foods, solar showers and outdoor toilet facilities. Tents will include mattresses, sleeping bags and pillows. Evening is the perfect time to set up and align telescopes, enjoy a Libyan Desert sunset and do some stargazing.

Day 6: ECLIPSE DAY
First contact: 11:08:04 a.m. (local time)
Second contact: 12:26:49 p.m.
Third contact: 12:30:53 p.m.
Fourth contact: 1:50:09 p.m.
Totality duration: four minutes, four seconds.

Day 7: Chartered flight back to Tripoli. Group is free for the remainder of the day to explore the ancient city. With the hotel centrally located, members can do some shopping in the medina.

Day 8: Drive to Leptis Magna, another World Heritage Site, acknowledged as the best preserved and most extensive Roman ruins in the Mediterranean. One of Leptis' signature monuments is the Arch of Septimus Severus, built in 203 to honor the emperor and mark his visit to his native city. Also, the Hadrian Baths, one of the city's social hubs, offers a glimpse of the Romans' luxurious lifestyle. By the 11th century the city, which had originated as a Berber settlement, was abandoned to the encroaching sands. During 20th century excavations, archaeologists found the sand dunes had preserved the ruins extremely well. Return to Tripoli for a farewell dinner and time to recount the entire Libya eclipse experience.

Day 9: Transfer to the Tripoli airport for the flight home.

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