Tauck program lets customers give a little bit at National Parks

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Information please...

Taucks World of Giving

For more information on the programs, contact Lora Shapiro at:

Phone: (203) 899-6702

Fax: (203) 899-6612

E-mail:[email protected]

Web:www.tauck.com/docs/giving.htm

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -- It is so remote out here that its hard to grasp the fact that youre in the U.S. My cell phone can barely catch a signal. I havent seen a TV since I got to Yellowstone. My mind struggles to absorb the magnitude of panoramas that surround me.

Walking through the thermal basin, with snow-covered peaks looming on the horizon, steaming geysers spurting all around, sapphire blue pools of clear, boiling water welling up from deep within the earth, brilliant stripes of yellow, orange and green lining the steaming pools, I feel as if I strayed onto some distant planet.

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant set this land aside as the first national park. In every budget battle since, it has had to fight for its life as its fate is weighed in Congress against innumerable competing interests with much stronger lobbies.

I have come to Yellowstone to participate in Tauck World Discoverys volunteer park preservation program.

You may think Yellowstone is set aside and protected, but its not, Ashea Mills, an employee of Yellowstone Institute and a step-on guide for Taucks Yellowstone visits tells me. As she spoke, she was taking me on a hike through Biscuit Basin, about three miles from Old Faithful. 

The wilderness areas are under attack by many forces, both natural and man-made. My job is to make you love this place as much as I do, Mills said.

Though were at 7,000 feet altitude, the crust of the earth is thinner here than almost anywhere in the world, so the churning magma of the earths core is closer to the surface. Water from the surface trickles down through the crust, boils and comes gushing out of the earth as steam and scalding water hundreds of years later.

To know it is to love it

It doesnt take long at Yellowstone to be seized with a sense of the importance of its preservation and to want fervently to do something about it. Perhaps thats why so many of Taucks tour members respond enthusiastically to an opportunity to participate in its volunteer program to help maintain and refurbish the park.

Out of 41 passengers, 29 volunteered, said Linda Anderson, a Tauck tour manager who directs the Rapid City, S.D.-Salt Lake City itinerary that includes Yellowstone.

Though this nine-night trip includes only a couple of days in Yellowstone, most guests chose to spend two hours in white coveralls, performing manual labor. Tauck is a high-end operator serving affluent professionals and businesspeople, most of whom probably have little experience with manual labor. Yet many testify in the consumer surveys that it is the best part of the trip.

For people to pay for the opportunity to perform labor defies elementary business logic, and for Tauck to be able to break the rule it must be touching on a need not previously identified by most companies.

Tour members describe an increasing sense of urgency about protecting the environment and giving back, but many have known of no satisfying outlet for those feelings.

Tauck, through its particular business niche, has touched on a solution that gives customers a channel through which to make a contribution. And the National Park Service says the effort really matters.

The work is very significant, said Suzanne Lewis, the Yellowstone Park superintendent. In a park this big with this much infrastructure, every task that gets done has a budget impact.

Though budgets have seen small, steady increases over the years, Lewis says that costs have soared. Anytime we can save labor costs, that helps us get other work done that would have taken longer to get finished. We cant do it all. We can never get everything 100% done. 

Painting cabins

At the first volunteer session, during which the group painted a cabin, I met Herb Dawson, the historical architect of Yellowstone. It is his responsibility to oversee the restoration and maintenance of the historical buildings on the park grounds. Dawson also oversees the volunteer project.

To coordinate the program, Dawson hired a 34-year veteran of the National Park Service, Bruce Fladmark, who came out of retirement to run the program from May through September. Fladmark is a third-generation park services professional. He knows the business as well as anyone, and his well-honed organizational and people skills make him a good match for the job.

Tauck volunteers paint one of the cabins built in the 1920s to accommodate middle-class tourists. The National Park Service houses hotel employees in the cabins, but plans to use them for tourists again after they are refurbished. TW photo by David CogswellDawson hires Fladmark on a contractual basis using funds provided by a grant from Tauck World Discovery. Taucks grant also supplies a truck and virtually all the supplies needed for the projects. In the last three years, the company has invested more than $70,000 in the Yellowstone project.

Dawson said there was some understandable skepticism in the department when he first approached his superiors about a volunteer program. After all, a bunch of tourist volunteers could well have been more trouble than they were worth.

Bruce and I decided early on that we would do professional work and that the end result would be professional, said Dawson.The idea is to get the bulk of the work done, then Bruce and Dave [Holstrum, a full-time volunteer] come back and touch it up.

The strategy has worked.

We have no naysayers now, said Dawson. And we have a zero accident rate.

Work that makes a difference

The volunteer projects are kept within a couple of hours.

Theyre here to see the park, and we dont want to take too much away from their time, said Anderson.

But even in an hour, a significant amount of work is accomplished.

You turn 20 or 30 people loose on a building with paintbrushes, and they can get a lot done, said Dawson.

According to Fladmark, more than 4,000 Tauck customers have participated in the program at Yellowstone since its inception in 2003. And park services officials attest to the value of the work.

Its hard to walk around Old Faithful without seeing the results of our work, said Fladmark. Weve painted 20 buildings, three highway bridges, four footbridges and countless picnic tables, railings, hydrants and parking lot logs.

Tauck volunteers also pulled weeds, repaired erosion caused by a deluge using rakes and shovels, rehabbed a comfort station, painted four amphitheaters and picked up 3,000 pounds of asphalt pieces that had crumbled off walkways and melted into black muck in the wet thermal areas.

Having fun with it

As the volunteers work, the mood is jubilant and there is a lot of clowning around, but they are nevertheless earnest about their efforts.

Right now, as we speak, Ive hired someone to paint my house, and here I am on vacation painting this cabin, said one woman, whose paint-splattered coveralls were strikingly incongruous to her sparkling diamond earrings.

If asked about their work, the volunteers typically fend off the question with a joke but then become serious.

After joking that the project had been mass confusion, volunteer Bud Schwartz called the exercise an object lesson -- to get people thinking of what they could do in their own communities. You think what youve done is infinitesimal, but if everyone did the same ...

Im so proud of what we did, said another woman. Just think, well be able to go back and say, We painted a cabin at Yellowstone. We can tell our grandchildren.

People really do love it, said Anderson. Last week a group painted the Pelican Bridge. We drove over the bridge on our way out and they said, Look what we did! The people who didnt volunteer clapped for those who did, saying what a good job they did. They were were so proud, like little peacocks.

Don Dunkle, a tour director, tells his volunteers that its not what you do as an individual that counts.

Its what 20 of you working together will do that will make a difference. Its what 85 or 95 tour groups will do this summer, he said.

Measuring the benefits

Tauck does not know if the volunteer program has actually boosted business. According to President Robin Tauck, As a company we dont widely publicize it. We just do it because we believe in it. I truly believe most of our repeat customers are not aware of this foundation and the beliefs of our company and our family. It is in our brochures. I dont know if people would buy based on that.

But it does rank high in the surveys customers fill out at the end of every trip. In an anonymous poll of 600 volunteers, 86% said the volunteer work enhanced the experience, and 94% said they would do it again. The numbers indicate that the volunteering probably contributes to Taucks customer relations and to maintaining its 50% return-customer rate.

Ive only seen one comment that had a negative twist to volunteering in Yellowstone, said Arthur Tauck.

But how does one measure a life-changing experience? As an employee morale builder, Robin Tauck said, the effect of the volunteerism has been incalculable.

One office worker who was changed for life is Linda Anderson, who was a 15-year employee when the volunteer projects began. She changed jobs, left the office and became a tour director in Yellowstone.

I worked 15 years in the office, she said, Ive worked as a tour director since September 2001. My worst day as a tour director [is better than] my best day in the office. Where I am I can walk out and see the full moon, the mountains, hear the elk bugling. Its wonderful.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected]

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