Jean-Pierre L. Conte approaches family travel planning the same way he approaches other aspects of his busy life.
"I hire the best people, they start out with a template, and I do the editing," said Conte, a single father of four children, ages 2 to 12, and chairman of Genstar Capital, a private equity firm based in San Francisco.
For the family's most recent trip, Conte turned to MyLittleSwans.com, a luxury family travel company run by Katrina Garnett, a software entrepreneur and startup investor. It planned the Conte family's rambling tour of Spain, with stops in multiple cities, including in-depth child-friendly visits to places like Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, the careful selection of hotels and enough downtime to do things like play soccer on the beach.
Depending on the destination, a family of five or six would spend tens of thousands of dollars on a custom itinerary from MyLittleSwans that links travellers to regional tour operators and is based on one of the dozens of trips that Garnett, an avid traveller, has taken with her own three children over the years.
Expensive? Yes. But for parents like Conte, family travel isn't just a luxury - it's an invaluable life lesson.
"I believe that as a parent, part of the mission is to teach your children about the world and different cultures," he said.
Conte is certainly not the only affluent parent intent on introducing his children to the world that lies beyond the confines of privileged neighbourhoods and private schools. Whether it is a Galapagos cruise, an African safari or a trip to Costa Rica that combines surfing lessons and luxurious eco-lodges with wildlife preservation and visits to local schools, parents with the financial wherewithal are pouring considerable amounts of money into expensive family trips organized by outside agencies - an outflow that some travel companies, including Smithsonian Journeys and Abercrombie & Kent, say has picked up significantly since the economy started showing signs of improvement last year.
"Interest really bounced back last summer," said Amy Kotkin, the director of Smithsonian Journeys, who said that bookings more than doubled last summer compared to 2009 on one of Smithsonian's most expensive family trips, "Voyage to the Lands of Gods and Heroes." The trip, a 10-night, small-ship cruise, stops at classical Greek and Italian sites and costs from $4,895 per child and $7,495 per adult excluding airfare.
"Twenty per cent of our bookings are now families," said Scott Wiseman, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA, which handles marketing for Abercrombie & Kent, the upscale travel company. "Four or five years ago, it was 4 or 5 per cent," he said, noting that the average amount of money spent by the company's clients to visit popular family destinations like East Africa or the Galapagos is $500 or $600 a day per person.
Both parents and travel professionals say that the goal of such trips isn't just to give their children a worldly education, but also for parents to spend quality time with them.
"Our lives are so hectic," said Charles Leiter, owner of a compounding pharmacy business in San Jose, Calif., who has taken his three children on trips to Africa, Antarctica, the Galapagos and elsewhere. Travel allows his family - a group that often includes Leiter's parents - to spend time together and exposes them to issues they would never encounter in their daily lives.
"We live in an affluent neighbourhood. I don't want my kids to think it is all like that. All the texting and Facebooking, it's crazy," said Leiter, who cherishes the memories of a side trip to a village in Kenya where the young girls were so busy carting water to the village that they didn't have time to go to school. When his daughter Rachel, now 15, returned home, she raised money to build a well there. That experience, he said, "will be there for a lifetime, whereas all the tangible things, they come and go."
The comparative satisfaction of purchasing prestigious objects versus spending money on experiences - particularly the kind of shared experiences that family travel offers - has been a recent focus of psychologists and behavioural economists. It is a topic that resonates in shaky economic times.
Parents spending a small fortune on a family vacation see "travel as an investment," said Garnett of MyLittleSwans. "Destinations are chosen not for bragging rights, but for the kind of culture children can't find in the classroom."
Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder and chief executive of Indagare.com, a luxury travel site that offers several family itineraries, said that "travel is a way to impart what's important. Even if it is a love of food and going to Italy, that's something parents can look back on as time and money well spent. The recession brought this into focus for a lot of people."
Some parents are taking it a step further and combining leisure with volunteer work that focuses on local schools, orphanages and conservations.
"They want to do something that makes a difference," said Dominique Callimanopulos, the founder of Elevate Destinations.
A recent client was Michele Gorski, of Glencoe, Ill., who, with her two children, 13 and 11, travelled to Costa Rica, where they hiked and surfed and stayed in a lovely eco-lodge. But their activities also involved hiking a mountain with a conservationist tracking wild cats, and painting a latrine in a rural community.
"When there is so much around you, you get no satisfaction of achievement. For my kids, climbing that hill, painting that bathroom were achievements," she said.
New York Times News Service