Increasingly, wealthy parents are pulling their kids out of school for lengthy periods of time for trips of discovery and learning that are very expensive and require many months of planning.
Dana and Alex White at Machu Picchu during the family’s round-the-world sabbatical. (Photo courtesy of Dana White)
Dana and Alex White at Machu Picchu during the family’s round-the-world sabbatical. (Photo courtesy of Dana White)
Ten years ago, Dana White and her husband did what many people dream about doing but most don’t dare: They pulled their four kids out of school and embarked on a yearlong, round-the-world adventure.
As expected, it changed their lives. It also changed her career.
“When we came back and the kids were back in school, I was trying to figure out how to spend my time,” said White, a former Wall Street investment banker and nonprofit leader. “I would get calls from people asking for advice on how to manage that kind of travel. … One night I got off the phone after a two-hour call and my husband said, ‘You know, there’s probably a business opportunity there.’”
So White went about setting up her own travel agency. She tapped into the network of tour operators around the world that helped her travel agent, Samantha McClure at Small World Travel in Austin, Texas, with her trip, then joined the Traveller Made network of independent advisors.
Today, she has a successful business called Lead Explorers that specializes in planning experience-based family travel, including sabbaticals.
Indeed, planning lengthy family getaways is a high-dollar niche that offers growing potential for travel professionals. But it’s also an area that requires complex planning skills, a network of partners and, most importantly, the time and patience to learn as much as possible about clients and their families.
Prioritizing speed and space
“It’s complicated,” said George Morgan-Grenville, founder and CEO of Red Savannah, a luxury tour operator and villa- and yacht-rental specialist that began helping advisors plan sabbatical travel about six years ago. “It’s not like organizing a holiday at all. The biggest challenge we have is getting people to understand they need to go half the distance and take double the time.”
Morgan-Grenville focuses on the planning process.
“You can do two weeks traveling Egypt and Jordan or Thailand, and you can spend a couple nights here and three nights there and have an amazing experience,” he said. “But you can’t do that for six months. So speed and pace is an important component.”
Of course, speed and pace vary by family. So the up-front planning process is key, and it can take as long — or even longer — than the actual sabbatical.
White, who has put together a dozen around-the-world itineraries for clients over the past six years, said, “It can take anywhere from three months to 12 months of planning.”
She called the work “a big puzzle,” adding, “It’s putting together the places they want to go,” and there are a number of questions to be answered: “What’s their definition of success? What’s their vision for time? What’s their idea of pace? What areas in the world are most important to them? Sometimes there is a family background or an area of the world they have studied, a language they want to work on. Then it’s putting all the pieces together based on time of year and efficiency of travel.”
Red Savannah travel-planning specialist Melissa Matthews said the process starts with calls to find out as much as possible about the family, including ages and everyone’s likes and dislikes.
“Then we go away and work as a team and put together an outline for an itinerary,” Matthews said. “It’s still very much a skeleton at this point.”
After that, she said, comes the real planning, with calls and consultations and the swapping of proposed itineraries.
Simon Greer, who took a four-month sabbatical to Asia with his wife and two kids last year, said his advisor at Valerie Wilson Travel referred him to Gerald Hatherly, head of Abercrombie & Kent’s Hong Kong office, who spent an hour a week for six months on the phone with Greer to plan the trip.
Greer said they chose an ambitious pace, booking 27 cities in 128 days, something he couldn’t imagine doing on his own.
“All the internal planes and trains, I wouldn’t have known how to book all of those,” Greer said. “And he found us more local hotels. Maybe the most important thing was having someone to call if we needed. We didn’t have any problems, but there were protests in Hong Kong on our way. It was nice to be able to call and say, ‘How disruptive is this? Should we still go?’ And we got tired in China, so we called to change up the itinerary. With young kids, I don’t know how we would have done it without the support.”
White said that when her family traveled in 2011, they also chose a relatively fast pace.
“We were in each country on average 10 days. But even at that pace, we tried to plan rests along the way where we could have some down time, catch up on schooling, do laundry,” she said. “But I’ve planned everything. … I have one family on the road right now that has purposely chosen a number of cities for three to four weeks at a time, with shorter travel in between, because that was right for their family.”
Another family, she said, did six months in Paris on a language immersion, then six months of travel.
White said that part of her job is encouraging clients “to take things out.”
“A family can’t go from 8 to 5 every day for 180 days,” she said. “You just can’t. It’s trying to balance the family experiences with the travel experiences.”
Indeed, making sure there is plenty of time for “serendipity” is key, said Red Savannah’s Matthews.
Having the support of good on-the-ground regional partners, such as her preferred Asia partner, Remote Lands, is also crucial, White said.
“Remote Lands has planned many trips for me,” she said. “Those guys are able to make changes on the fly. Things change. Things go wrong. Someone’s sick. Someone wants to sleep in. A good partner’s ability to make those game time decisions helps immensely on the trip.”
A range of costs
As with pace, the cost of sabbaticals can vary widely. White said the 12 round-the-world family trips she has planned ranged from $100,000 to well over $1 million.
The big cost drivers, she said, are the number of days and destinations; choice of economy, business or private air; and epic experiences such as Antarctic voyages, African safaris and yacht charters.
Red Savannah’s Morgan-Grenville said the company has planned about a dozen sabbaticals in recent years, all but one for families with kids and most in partnership with the families’ travel advisors.
The average length of those trips was four months, and the spend has ranged from a quarter of a million dollars to “somewhere north of a million,” he said.
In addition to complicated itineraries, Morgan- Grenville said, there are a host of other needs travel planners looking to book sabbaticals need to address, first and foremost being that “open, honest conversation beforehand [about] whether it is the right thing for them.”
“If families have issues, very often travel is not the solution,” he said. “It often exacerbates the problem. If the family is essentially a happy, unified family, there is nothing better in the world than a sabbatical.”
‘There is nothing better in the world than a sabbatical.’
But even happy families can have issues that need to be addressed up front, Matthews said.
“If you have a professional couple wanting to bond with their children, they need to work out whether they can actually be parents the whole time or whether they need a nanny or a tutor. It’s a very personal experience.”
‘Parents might need a nanny or a tutor. It’s a personal experience.’
Catherine Heald, CEO of Remote Lands, said some families bring teachers with them.
“What they do is spend half the day, like in the morning, doing classroom,” she said. “In the afternoon they will go out and have their experience. For example, if they are in Cambodia, they will spend the morning learning about temples and the ancient history of Cambodia. Then in the afternoon, they will go and see those places.”
Greer said his family had the support of their children’s school when they pulled them out eight weeks before the start of their summer break.
“They did their homework,” he said. “But there were also things we created. [In] a couple of places, I noticed the kids were tired of museums or temples. So I would do some Google research and put together 10 questions. … They had to figure out the answers.”
White said she and her husband home-schooled their kids during their trip, “just enough to get them to the next grade. We had wonderful support from their school. I love the family sabbatical because it is an education for your children. It is such a complement to what they are learning in school.”
She concluded: “I think it gives them experiences and changes them in ways that you can’t even anticipate when you are on the road.”
‘It was the six of us against the world’
Paid sabbaticals have long been a benefit for workers in certain sectors, such as technology and finance. Increasingly, however, travel planners say they are seeing more people with or without paid leave taking their kids out of school for monthslong, even full-year trips.
“I think that people are so stressed out these days they get burned out,” said Catherine Heald, CEO of Remote Lands, a tour operator that she said has worked with agents on a number of such adventures. “People are searching for more work-life balance.”
‘People are searching for more work-life balance.’
George Morgan-Grenville, founder and CEO of Red Savannah, another luxury tour operator that works in the sabbatical space, said he sees the trend being driven by four factors: industries that offer or have made it compulsory for workers to take paid sabbaticals after a certain number of years; people taking an extended vacation in between job changes; people working too hard and realizing they are missing out on crucial time with their families; and health.
Simon Greer, a New York-based business consultant, said he and his wife, Sharna, decided to take their 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter on a four-month trip through Asia in 2019 after his wife published a book and the nonprofit she runs offered her a paid sabbatical.
He said he had just turned 50 and was having “is this all there is?” types of reflections.
“It’s not like there was something wrong; we’re happy, healthy,” he said. “We just wanted to get out of the daily routine. So we decided to do this great adventure. We live in New York. We’re white, Jewish. We don’t stand out in any way. We really wanted to see what it would be like to be the visible minority and what that experience would be like.”
Besides, he added, “In the future, when our kids are adults, Asia will be a major player. … We thought it would be a great opportunity.”
For the entire 18 weeks, Greer said, he didn’t check his phone or email.
“We live in a time where books have been written about why having family dinner is good,” he said. “This was like family dinner on steroids — 128 days, three meals a day. But tack on top of that just exploring. Every day was an adventure. … I went to bed many nights feeling like that was the best day of my life.”
While Greer cites highlights, including walking with his kids on the Great Wall of China, holding his wife’s hand while snorkeling with sea turtles and singing and dancing in the Mongolian desert, he said the seemingly mundane was also memorable.
“Like navigating the Tokyo subway and getting lost and having to ask someone to help you who doesn’t speak the language you speak,” he said. “Seeing my kids see us befriended by people who have nothing in common with us except that we are humans.”
Dana White said she and her husband, Greg, pulled their four kids — then 13, 11 and 10-year-old twins — out of school for a full year in 2011 to travel around the world.
“We did it for two main reasons,” she said. “One, to make sure they became citizens of the world and two, to understand that where they were growing up was a privilege, not an entitlement. And it was amazing. We explored all seven continents, 31 countries, in 350 days.”
While she said making such a trip had long been a dream for her and her husband, the “unexpected benefit that we didn’t even anticipate was how wonderful spending 350 days together would be: the family time. It was the six of us against the world. There were shared experiences that brought us together. There are stories and laughs that we still have as a family because we were sort of pushing our collective comfort zones together and then solving problems, because things go wrong.”