s most people in the travel industry
are aware, Americans' understanding of geography falls somewhere
between abysmal and dreadful. The travel agent urban myth about the
client who wanted to travel from Los Angeles to Honolulu by train
may be apocryphal, but it isn't too far off from what real-life
agents hear day in and day out.
What's worse, there's a tremendous gap between the geography
education Americans receive and what's taught to most of the rest
of the industrialized world. As international commerce expands in
this century, Americans will be at a real disadvantage if they
can't even find potential markets on a map.
I recently heard a rare piece of good news about American
geography awareness. AAA has rounded up sponsors, including
Continental Airlines, Holland America Line, Marriott, Pleasant
Holidays, MBNA America and Universal Orlando, to fund and create
the AAA Travel High School Challenge, a high-tech geography quiz
that can earn geographically-savvy high schoolers some serious
college scholarship money -- $156,000, to be exact.
The scholarship money is being put up by the Hogan Family
Foundation, created by Ed and Lynn Hogan, founders of Pleasant
"I tracked Ed down on a golf course, and when I asked him for
support, he didn't hesitate for a moment," said long-time industry
consultant Marc Mancini, who designed the project and helped round
up the sponsors. (Other sponsors were equally willing, he
Mancini said he was approached by AAA's Lee Granger, managing
director of travel technology, whom he credits with conceiving the
idea. The project is now advancing under Lynda Gwynn, AAA's
director of travel training.
In order to attract the maximum number of students at a minimum
cost, and to make it universally available to all who were
interested in taking the test, Mancini and Granger decided the
first "rounds" should be conducted on the Web.
"Because this is an open-book test conducted on a medium that
also contains all the answers, it was challenging to figure out a
testing system that would eliminate cheating," Mancini said. "It's
a timed test, and that's critical. One simply wouldn't have time to
look up all the answers.
"Also, each test is, in essence, unique. Questions are drawn
randomly from a huge base of potential questions, and even the
sequence of the multiple-choice answers is random. And you couldn't
research the questions and try again because you've only got one
shot at it. Even if your friends were looking over your shoulder to
try to get a sneak peek at the questions, it wouldn't help -- their
questions would be different."
The highest scorers on the Web will be invited to participate in
statewide quizzes coordinated by local AAA clubs. State champions
will compete in a national round-robin tournament, which AAA hopes
will be nationally televised.
One differentiator between this effort and, say, the National
Geographic Geography Bee is that the questions are framed around
information that is pragmatic and travel-related. The underlying
message is that one of the most useful functions that geographic
literacy can play is in its application to future travel plans.
"We hope the Challenge may also lead to students considering a
career in travel," Mancini added. The test Web site links to a
"Travel Career Info Page" that includes further links to
appropriate pages of ASTA, ICTA, the Hogan Family Foundation and
TIA's Web sites.
Curious to see how you would do? When the challenge launches in
mid-January, it'll only be open to high school students. But there
is a sample quiz up on AAA's site now, and anyone can take it. Go
to www.aaa.com/travelchallenge and see how you fare.
The AAA Travel High School Challenge alone may not close the
geography gap between the U.S. and other Western nations. But with
the Hogan family and Pleasant Holidays involved, I suspect any
participant will end up knowing the realistic options to travel
between Los Angeles and Honolulu.