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The Healthy Traveler

Group Travel Travails

September 22, 1996|KATHLEEN DOHENY

The evening barbecue at famed Ayers Rock in the Australian outback was meant to be a high point of the tour. But the night turned chilly and the wind kicked up, blowing sand into diners' faces. So Audrey Jurgens, a Maupintour tour manager, scurried about, whisking off tablecloths and wrapping them around her shivering guests.

Most of the tour participants managed to have a good time despite the conditions. But not all.

One man began to call for a taxi, loudly and obnoxiously.

Chalk it up to the 2% rule, said Dave Wiggins, with a laugh. As president of American Wilderness Experience, he takes groups of vacationers white-water rafting, horseback riding and hiking. And he has found that for about 2% of participants, "nothing can make them happy."

According to veteran group tour organizers, troublemakers usually fall into one of four categories: latecomers (who are never on time for the bus), whiners (who complain about the itinerary, the food and their problems back home), sourpusses (the man who brought a laptop to run spreadsheets of the day's expenses and then complained he was being ripped off) and compulsive shoppers (who can't even pass up window shopping).

Tourists unfortunate enough to book a trip with these folks can be in for a miserable time unless they heed the advice of mental health experts and tour operators. The first step, these experts say, is to pave the way for cooperation at the outset of the tour. If that fails, next best is to know how to handle the troublemakers.

At the start of a trip, expect a period during which people are apt to complain, Wiggins said. It's normal, he added, especially when travelers have been rushing to complete work and family responsibilities before leaving home.

Meanwhile, introducing oneself can change the atmosphere and elicit cooperation down the line, experts said.

"Try to create a positive relationship from the beginning," advised Dr. Mark Goulston, a Santa Monica psychiatrist who specializes in conflict resolution. It can be as simple as introducing oneself and smiling. "You're not perceived as the enemy," Goulston said. "You're seen as friendly."

Take into account cultural differences before introducing oneself, advised Blair Harrington, who organizes Journey of Discovery personal growth tours. Even from one part of the country to another, interpersonal styles can differ. People from Los Angeles, she said, tend to "get in people's faces." When dealing with a reserved East Coast tourist, she said, better to be a bit less aggressive. As Harrington advised: "Don't pounce on people."

It's even good to point out how difficult it is for groups of strangers to try to get along for a week or two, Goulston added. Then encourage everyone to cut each other slack, he advised.

By suggesting compromise early on, Goulston said, travelers can set up an expectation of fairness. And that can go a long way to smoothing over potential conflict both on a tour and in life in general, he said.

"What tends to trigger nasty behavior is the feeling that something isn't fair," he said.

If an unpleasant atmosphere persists despite friendly overtures, there are still solutions. Suppose a traveler is face to face with the No. 1 complainer on the tour. "Don't buy into it," Wiggins said. "Don't let them corner you and tell you how terrible the food is." If they've already done that, mount a counterattack, Wiggins said. "Ask them, 'Wasn't that the most beautiful sunset you ever saw?' "

Peer pressure can help discourage unpleasant behavior, Jurgens said. Take the couple on the tour bus who were chronically tardy. "When they came in late one time too many, the other people all applauded," Jurgens recalled. The latecomers were humiliated, but they shaped up.

Enlisting the help of the tour guide to smooth over interpersonal friction is also advised. Good tour operators discourage friction before it begins, often using humor.

"No one spends money on a trip to listen to someone else's problems," Jurgens tells her travelers, encouraging them to come to her with problems relating to the trip so she can try to correct them.

She also encourages people to tell jokes during long rides, and she brings along humorous audiotapes to play during down times.

In addition to humor, Jurgens relies on the "kill them with kindness" principle. On a recent tour, one couple made more demands than the rest of the group put together, but Jurgens tried to accommodate by arranging special meals and getting them the extra bedding they requested.

A sense of perspective can help travelers cope with some behaviors. When travelers complain about having to wait for the inveterate shoppers on a trip, Jurgens points out that they are usually less-experienced travelers and haven't had the sightseeing opportunities her veteran travelers have.

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