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Around the world in 80 years

Arthur Tauck. Founder of Tauck Tours

There was no farewell banner, no gold watch, no retirement dinner--not even a whisper of a warning. But after more than three decades of inspired leadership, Arthur Tauck, founder and president of Tauck Tours, walked into the office one morning, handed his keys to his stunned 27-year-old son, and retired with the words: "I'm going fishing." He never looked back, never set foot in that building again. For his son, there was only one thing to do: pick up the ball and run with it. And run he did.
 
Arthur C. Tauck Jr. '53 had been with the company full time for only a couple of years on that morning in 1958, but he'd already shown the same knack for inventive thinking that had inspired his father to create the world's very first motor coach tour 33 years earlier. In fact, just a few months before, young Tauck had come up with the idea of chartering a tourist flight to Nova Scotia every Sunday--also a world's first. The only other way to get there was by car, so a plane ride would save a week's travel time. His father, however, had been less than enthusiastic about the idea.

"He said I was going to put us out of business," Tauck remembers, "because at that point only 5 percent of the American public had ever been on a plane."

To make matters worse, the company had to fight for special dispensation from the Civil Aeronautics Board to run the charters, because it wasn't a regular passenger carrier. Fortunately, Tauck has since seen some vindication for his efforts. Today, a half century later, the Nova Scotia tours are still running and profitable. Only now the company is called Tauck World Discovery, and Tauck has transformed it into one of the largest and most prestigious tour operations in the United States.

To the tour business born

Although Tauck had been working full time for only a few years when he took over the company, he wasn't exactly a newcomer to the travel business. In fact, it had been an ever-present part of his childhood in South Orange, N.J. By the year of his birth, 1931, his father had already launched a number of motor coach tours that took travelers from New York City to New England and back, mostly over hundreds of miles of back-country dirt roads. He had established the routes while selling the first aluminum coin trays (which he had invented) to banks all over the Northeast.

He ran the tour business out of their home.

"My mother used to answer the phone and took the bookings," Tauck recalls. "My father drove the tour bus. He'd stop in a town--say Portland, Maine--and he'd tell people where to go for lunch and what sights to see. While they were out doing these things, he'd run around to the local banks and sell his coin boxes, which he'd stowed on the roof of the bus along with the guests' luggage. By the time I came along, the business had grown, and he was doing very well."

Unfortunately, the good times didn't last. Like many businesses, Tauck Tours struggled during the years of the Great Depression, and by the time it began earning significant profits again, World War II put two new barriers in the way--gas and rubber rationing. As a result, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a cease and desist order to the tour company, putting it out of business until more peaceful times.

Some families might not have survived a sudden and total loss of income, but not Tauck's. His father, with characteristic ingenuity, came up with an idea. Commercially produced vegetables were needed to feed American troops overseas, so the government had been urging civilians to grow their own food in "Victory Gardens."

Because wood was rationed, however, people had no stakes for their tomato plants. Tauck Sr. seized the opportunity.

"My dad got these lumbermen from way up north in New Jersey to cut lumber into sticks, and they'd deliver them into our driveway," Tauck recalls. "My sisters and I would quickly stack them, carve one end to a point, paint them green, and wrap them in packages of a dozen. I'm always amazed that I still have five fingers on my left hand because we used to point the sticks with a circular saw with no guards on it. We'd do maybe a thousand in an afternoon that way."

They would then transport them into the center of town on a casket-hauling truck and sell them to passers-by.

It wasn't a formula for wealth, but it put vittles on the table until 1947, when the travel business began operating tours again, now to New England, Florida, and Niagara-Ontario. By the following year, Tauck Tours was also taking people to New Orleans, Canada's Gasp Peninsula, and Williamsburg, Va.

Out of the nest

After high school, young Tauck decided it was time to take a couple of tours of his own--to college and the military. He left home that September to study marketing at Lehigh University, where he also found time to play lacrosse, serve as a member of the sophomore and junior class cabinets, and hold the positions of vice president, treasurer, and house manager of the Delta Upsilon fraternity. Even as a student, however, the travel business was never far from his mind.

"I remember that I took a transportation course," he says, "and I was supposed to write a paper on railroad loading tariffs. Instead, I went to the professor and told him that my family was involved in a transportation case before the Interstate Commerce Commission. I asked if I could research and write on that case instead. The point is, my head was with the company all the time. During the summer months, I escorted tours to Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, and Concord."

His preoccupation with the family business, however, had its biggest payoff when he enlisted in the Air Force after graduation and ended up stationed in Germany for two-and-a-half years. He noticed that European road maps of the day offered an interesting feature: Roads less traveled, with their undiscovered tourist sites, were drawn in yellow. That piece of information, which he tucked away in his memory, surfaced again many years later when he created the Yellow Roads of Europe Tour Packages. Those tours eventually came to represent more than half of the company's business.

Seeing the world, from buses to balloons

With his discharge from the service came the opportunity Tauck had always been waiting for: He went to work for the company as a tour operator. The rest, as they say, is history. After his father's surprise retirement in 1958, Tauck went on to create a series of innovations that transformed the face of the travel industry.

He first took aim at the Canadian Rockies, which held a special attraction for him.

"Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper is probably the most beautiful area in all of North America," he says. "But in those days, it was a frontier land, and the only way you could get there was on either the Canadian Pacific or Canadian National railroad."

To Tauck, that offered both a challenge and an opportunity--two things he couldn't resist.

As with Nova Scotia, his idea was to link air travel with the West. Perhaps predictably, however, the hotel managers didn't take him seriously.

"They would laugh at me," he recalls, "and they would say, 'What audacity you have to come here and ask for rooms and bring people by airline. Don't you realize that this hotel was built to serve a railroad?' Every year they would tell me the same thing, and I'd say, 'Well, air travel is coming, so I'll see you next year, and I'll ask the same question.'"

Eventually, his persistence paid off. Starting with the Banff Springs Hotel, managers began setting aside rooms for Tauck, and before long, he was filling them. He also went to work on linking America's great canyons and national parks by air.

One, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, site of the sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires that make an appearance in many television commercials and Hollywood Westerns, posed a particular problem, as there was no airport of any size nearby. There was, however, a dirt landing strip accessible by small, single-engine planes.

To this day, tourists land on that strip to transfer to a waiting Jeep with a local Navajo guide.

Tauck is particularly proud that his company was the first to introduce helicopter sightseeing in the Hawaiian Islands. Later, the company pioneered the use of helicopters to carry older people--often in their 70s and 80s--to mountain sites in the Canadian Rockies they might never otherwise be able to visit.

"This was not flight-seeing," he explains. "This was not going up and everybody's looking out of windows. We'd pick up 10 people and leave them on a glacier with a very experienced Alpine guide for maybe an hour and a half. In the meantime, we'd pick up the next group and put them in a meadow somewhere, then pick up the next group and put them someplace else. Then we'd hopscotch the groups around.

"We made less profit on that program than on almost anything else we ever did, but the beauty of it was that it gave people such a strong emotional response. In fact, afterward you'd see them with tears in their eyes because they'd done something they never thought they could do."

The "heli-hiking" program, started in 1978, is still in operation. Tauck Tours officially changed its name to Tauck World Discovery in 2000 and now, more than 80 years after its founding, goes around the world, offering 130 unique trips visiting 60 countries and all seven continents (yes, including Antarctica) via every mode of travel from buses to balloons. It has won every award in the industry.

Arthur Tauck Jr. has done more than pick up his father's ball and run with it: He has scored touchdown after touchdown.

The Journey Continues

Tauck still retains the title of Chairman of the Board, but he's left the day-to-day operations of the company to his daughter Robin Tauck, company president, and his son-in-law Dan Mahar, CEO.

Still, he keeps his hand in.

"I'm not in the office. But in my study at home, I tune right into all the systems over there, so I can find out what's going on," he says.

He has also found ways, beyond the travel business, to make a contribution to others' lives: He has remained a dynamic supporter of Lehigh University, and he has become an active philanthropist.

At Lehigh, he has funded a chair in international marketing and a classroom in the Rauch Business Center, as well as the Arthur C. Tauck Scholarship and the Tauck Scholars Program, which provides opportunities for students during their junior and senior years to take international summer internships and other learning opportunities in foreign cultural settings.

He pursues his philanthropic interests through the Tauck Foundation, established in 1994. Although he originally used the fund as a vehicle for his own private giving, it has since expanded its mission under the stewardship of his daughter Elizabeth Walters, the foundation's managing director.

The Tauck Foundation helps others in many ways, including:

  • Destination grants, which fund historical, cultural, and environmental preservation projects at sites where Tauck World Discovery currently takes visitors
  • Youth funding, which supports after-school and summer programs for disadvantaged youths ages 12 to 18
  • Community giving, which supports community organizations primarily in southwestern Connecticut
  • Special community grants, which support one-time project needs of local organizations in Connecticut that have received past funding from the Tauck Foundation
  • Discretionary giving, which matches the charitable donations of family members

With all of his philanthropic and alumni activities, as well as a current avocation of managing four investment portfolios, Tauck still has to deal with one old challenge that has hounded him all of his life.

"My waking hours at night--you know, we all wake sometimes in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep as something roams through our head--they have something to do with the travel business all the time. I just can't get away from it." But that's what happens when you love something. It's always on your mind.

Story by --E.A . Tremblay

Posted on Thursday, January 28, 2010

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