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Group Dynamics on Escorted Travel Tours

By guest blogger and professor Hazel Warlaumont, Ph.D.

Thinking of an escorted travel tour?  Sharing pleasurable and positive travel experiences with others can bring lasting memories . . . and lasting friendships! Researchers investigating group dynamics agree that group synergy; that is, increased benefits from a group experience, can far surpass the experience of acting alone. Escorted tours not only have economical and practical advantages, but they can satisfy members' interpersonal needs such as inclusion and the need to develop close, caring relationships by sharing interests in common.

But horror stories abound from seasoned travelers and tour guides who relate unpleasant situations that can create tension and even ruin a trip. When you get 35 people from different backgrounds and often with different agendas in close quarters for the first time, there's bound to be some tension. Understanding how groups interact and process a new group situation can help alleviate many of the difficulties and make group travel work for everyone.

Stages of group dynamics on travel tours:

Getting oriented
Upon meeting for the first time, tour members enter the orientation phase of the group interaction process. Members naturally feel some primary tension marked by the expected uncertainty of meeting for the first time. This often happens on the first night when many tour directors gather their flock for a welcoming dinner or reception. Tour members tend to be polite and formal with one another and do their best to avoid controversy. They engage in surface-level chit-chat during this period of "social reconnaissance" while they get a sense of each other's interests and personalities.

Group dynamics form
The second or conflict phase is often marked by some secondary tension when members become aware of individual differences within the group. This may take place during the next few days as members ease into the routine of traveling together. Tension during this period can come from a number of situations, some identified by people's behavior and key personality traits. For instance, tour members might encounter

  • the recognition seeker, who spends time boasting about accomplishments thereby distracting others from the travel experience;
  • a self-confessor might distract the group by disclosing personal problems and by using the group for personal therapy;
  • the special-interest traveler has an individual agenda and might try to steer the tour in that direction (wants everyone to go fly fishing as opposed to touring the local castle); and
  • the dominator refuses to allow others to express their opinions and dominates discussion.

Showing patience with this initial posturing and knowing it will diminish as the tour progresses, is usually a winning strategy.

Personal space
Tension during the second stage of group integration can also arise from perceived violations of personal space. Territoriality is a basic human need and excessive invasions of our space can create heightened arousal and anxiety that may lead to verbal and physical aggression. A tour guide told me on a recent excursion that she had witnessed pushing and shoving over seat and room assignments, and instances of some members leaving a tour because of space issues. While rare, these situations are often the result of insensitivity to another's need for personal space and the inability of the offenders to make a commitment to the group experience. Expecting and accepting that you may need to share space on the bus or at your table, is a soothing strategy here.

Harmony and group unity
With a helpful tour director, secondary tension can be alleviated and even prevented through effective leadership and establishing a protocol for touring. In most cases, this happens right away, allowing the group to pass into stage three, the emergence phase of the trip where members begin to feel harmony. Potential problematic members have backed down, sensing the disapproval and counter productiveness of their behaviors or attitudes, leading the group into the final or reinforcement stage. At this point, members bolster the group experience through favorable comments and positive reinforcement. The spirit of unity pervades and group members are jovial and focused on the purpose of the trip and the travel experience.

Lasting friendships through traveling together
Although many escorted tours experience some tension, the best way to handle it is to keep a positive attitude and allow each member some room for personal adjustment. Anticipating periods of conflict and knowing that in most instances, these situations will resolve themselves quickly, is probably a healthy strategy. Most tour directors and tour members will recognize the value of a positive climate and set this as the primary goal. In most cases, travel excursions result in very special bonds and lasting friendships among members for having worked through minor periods of tension, and from sharing the fun of traveling together.

Hazel Warlaumont is a professor of communication at Cal State Fullerton and the University of Washington, and draws from her teaching and travel experience to share some observations about escorted group tours.

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