ara DelliPriscoll calls the 400 people who attend her conference every year "the fringe" of the travel industry. Though they sell travel, they wouldn't describe themselves as retailers or wholesalers. They serve members rather than clients. And if something goes wrong on a trip they've sold, the consequences can reverberate among some of America's most venerable institutions.

DelliPriscoll is the organizer of the Educational Travel Conference. Her "fringe" confederation sells group affinity travel through institutions -- museums, universities, charities and foundations. Among the organizations represented at the conference, held earlier this month in Washington, were representatives of Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, the Philadelphia Zoo and the National Wildlife Federation.

The attendees seek out world events or help arrange tours that appeal to their travelers. For example, the Boston Museum of Science delegate keeps track of where and when the next total solar eclipse will occur; the 20-year veteran of the University of Notre Dame's travel program arranges behind-the-scenes tours of the Vatican.

It's worth keeping an eye on this fringe group -- its innovations and problems have, in the past, made their way into the mainstream. It points out with pride (and some resentment) that the practice of having expert lecturers or guides as special guests began in its niche and is now a standard component of even mass-market cruises.

So what are its current trends?

Incorporating volunteerism in visits to developing countries and encouraging traveler philanthropy. Creating programs to attract the boomer, luxury and youth markets. Investigating the possibilities in Cuba, Afghanistan and Libya.

More generally, the attendees were interested in finding points of differentiation and focusing on service. Adding the words "Stanford University presents" at the top of an established operator's tour catalog, even a high-end tour catalog, is not enough -- there must be special touches throughout a package that recognize the common interests of their groups. When interviewing conference attendees, I sometimes felt as if I was talking with event planners, not travel arrangers.

A significant part of the attendees' mission is to create a closer connection and involvement between their travelers and their institutions. As a result, there's an intense focus on customer service.

Institutional trustees and officers -- their bosses -- are frequently on trips, as are donors and patrons. If something goes wrong, a donor can become a former donor, and a president can become a very unhappy president. It would then follow that a tour arranger will become a former tour arranger. This is a somewhat nervous group, keen to make sure trips go smoothly.

At the trade show were several well-known, mainstream wholesalers. They sighed and confirmed attendees were especially demanding. One operator, picking up on the "fringe" theme, thought "lunatic fringe" was more appropriate.

But they also recognized that any seller of travel who can involve and please customers to such an extent has an advantage.

"The institutions have a certain brand strength," an east Asian specialist said, "but they have no monopoly. It's open territory for anyone who identifies a neglected niche and builds a reputation for excellent service."

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