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May 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Organizing a Group Dive Trip: Part II

handling group discounts, deposits and important details

from the May, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

As we said in Part I of this story last month, planning an international group dive trip is plenty of work and plenty of hassles. But picking a destination and the group of divers is relatively easy - - it’s getting money out of them and managing the special pre-trip requests that could create the biggest headaches. Here’s more advice from travel pros and Undercurrent readers about putting together an enjoyable, affordable group dive trip.

Use Your Numbers to Negotiate Discounts

If your group can fill a liveaboard or a dive shop’s boat, you have more weight to negotiate, says reader Deb Fugitt (Fort Worth, TX), who regularly organizes photo dive trips to Indonesia. “Ask the dive operator with arbitrary rules to make an exception. I have successfully negotiated away 45-minute dive limits, three-dives-per-day limits, and extra charges for single divers and night dives. In this poor economy, there will be many willing to work with you.”

Reader Ken Paff (Detroit, MI). “My partner and I like having a dive boat of friends, and by e-mailing the dive operator in advance, I usually get 10 to 25 percent off the posted price.” To get the most flexibility for her friends, Glenda Cole (Atlanta, GA) tries to book an entire dive resort or liveaboard. “I negotiate to have our group in our own boats. If we are at resorts with smaller boats, then we match people based on experience. We are able to tell the divemaster who needs the most attention and who has more experience.” Cole also works to get extras like a free night dive and lights thrown in, discounted rental gear and a special farewell dinner or cocktail party.”

Most traveling dive groups average six people, but it’s worth a shot for the trip leader or the travel agent to ask for a group rate on air travel if most or all of the group is traveling together. Fugitt saved 20 percent per airplane ticket with a group rate for a trip in January. But it may not be so easy with this economy or if you don’t have a big enough group to meet an airline’s standards, says Wendy Pacofsky, vice-president of Outdoor Travel Adventures in San Diego, CA. “Airlines are becoming less accommodating to groups, not doing special seating or offering frequent flyer mileage. Group fares are less so they come with more restrictions. Frequent-flyer miles usually need to be booked directly, decreasing chances of a group discount, or else people may have to pay $200 more to use their miles.”

Ron Carmichael, who plans multiple dive trips through his Splash Dive Center in Alexandria, VA, doesn’t bother negotiating airfare for small groups. “They’ll laugh if you want fewer than 25 tickets; some airlines require 40 or more. That’s why you should go through travel wholesalers like Caradonna or Trip-N-Tour. They can buy 300 tickets to Bonaire this year for big groups and therefore get better deals on airfare.”

To get a better deal on general airfares, plan a year in advance. However, don’t assume the least expensive air travel option is the best. The economy is making airlines cancel flights and change schedules more frequently. “I am planning more aggressively, getting options for alternate routes and asking divers to arrive earlier so that a change of plans doesn’t ruin the trip,” says Fugitt.

Essential Info from Every Diver

As the trip nears, a trip leader needs to give more details about the trip, and he also needs to collect essential information from everyone to hand to the agent and travel operators. That will eliminate crossed wires, misunderstandings and the “But no one told me about” replies that can ruin a trip.

To avoid that, send a FAQ document two months in advance, with details about entry requirements for a foreign country, luggage weight limits and overweight charges, recommended thermal protection, what to pack, an estimate of additional expenses and how they can be paid.

Pacofsky asks the trip leader for every diver’s passport information, special dietary and medical needs, flight seating preferences and room arrangements. “It’s hard to contact 10 people at a time, so it’s good to work with one point person who can collect all that info.”

One headache of group travel is checking passport details. Each diver needs to check their passport expiration dates, and make sure the name listed on it is the same name on their airline ticket. “Many dive destinations, from Indonesia to St. Lucia, want six months of validity on your passport,” says Tim Webb, president of Caradonna Dive Adventures in Longwood, FL. “For any international destination, the client name should be as it appears in his passport. When the name is different on the airline ticket, you may get stuck in that country, and it costs around $125 to make the name correction on a ticket.”

Another issue: Many countries require arriving travelers to have four blank pages in their passports. If you don’t have them, officials will send you to another country that will admit you, where you must go to the embassy. We’ve had Undercurrent readers traveling in Asia tell us of being delayed for days, at great expense.

Carmichael finds it useful to get a copy of everyone’s certification card and passport to have at the dive store and on the trip leader. “The dive shop or agent can help when the worst happens. When the big tsunami hit Thailand in 2004, five of our customers saw their hotel wiped out, and their money and passports gone. Because we could fax or e-mail passport information meant the difference between waiting six weeks and three days to get a replacement.”

If you’re organizing a group, require everyone to get dive travel insurance, available through your travel booker or online at Divers Alert Network’s website. It’s also important to give contact information and itineraries to the agent or dive shop organizing the trip in case there’s an emergency or delay on either end. “I was once boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Indonesia when I heard my name over the intercom,” says Fugitt. “The Tropical Princess’ engine had broken down, and the dive trip rescheduled for six months later. Luckily, the agent had my full itinerary and cared enough to find me.”

Handling Deposits and Payments

It’s amazing how many divers jump overboard when trip payment or deposit time arrives. Payment is the trickiest part of any dive group’s relationship, especially for a trip leader. If he collects deposits from everyone and hands them in altogether to the dive operator, he’s seen as the person in charge – and the person responsible for filling slots if group members flake. Joe Cesena (Petaluma, CA) was in charge of a dive trip for four people, who agreed to split all expenses. “I decided on a charter boat in the British Virgins Islands. Each person would pitch in $2,000 to cover all expenses. I personally covered the $2,000 deposit to reserve the boat. Then my two dive buddies backed out at the last minute and the other did not want to pick up the additional monies to cover the trip. I was stuck and lost my $2,000 deposit. Luckily, the charter let me use part of my deposit toward a land-based vacation it offered.”

Ed Franks (Albany, NY) was the leader for a six-person group for a Golden Dawn trip in Papua New Guinea last November. He had everyone pay their own $1,000 deposits, although he paid the deposit for another diver. Over the summer, she had to drop out for health reasons. Golden Dawn owner Craig de Wit asked Franks to fill her slot, saying in an e-mail, “All correspondence for the booking has been through you, so if somebody in your party has pulled out for whatever reason at this late stage, then you are responsible for that slot to be filled and payment made accordingly.” Franks was out $1,000. De Wit told Undercurrent his policy is to refund deposits six months prior, and only refunds afterwards if the space was filled, which didn’t happen on Franks’ trip. Also, because Franks had initially asked for a full boat booking and negotiated a discount based on six divers, de Wit didn’t feel remorse for keeping the deposit.

To avoid those snafus, set specific deposit and payment amounts and dates, and stick to them with no exceptions. “I’ve learned most divers won’t cancel until a payment is due, so I require a substantial nonrefundable deposit,” says Fugitt. “Schedule a partial payment due about the time you can easily find a replacement diver. And final payment should be due when there is still time to find a replacement. Don’t think that anyone, including a good friend or business associate, will be ‘good for it’ and pay later.”

Carmichael has divers sign an agreement to follow the payment schedule. “If someone cancels, trip insurance is a buffer. But at the end of day, you must communicate that deposits are not refundable, and make sure they understand and sign to it.”

Webb suggests offering payment plans to everyone. “If each group member owes $2,400, give every person a 12- month coupon book that says ‘you owe $200 a month’ to make it as easy as possible for both of you.” If you’re handing deposits to a travel agency, look for one certified by the U.S. Travel Association because it carries a bond that reimburses clients in case the dive operator you’re booking with goes bankrupt.

Calming Everyone’s Ruffled Feathers

All the details are handed in, paid for and finally you can enjoy your trip, right? But the trip leader is the point of contact between divers and the dive operator for the entire trip. Calming ruffled feathers and readjusting hotel rooms will be common. The best thing to do is not get frustrated, says Jim Lyle (Hermosa, CA). “Leading a dive trip is much like herding cats; not the easiest thing to do but nothing to fret about.” He keeps spirits high by printing T-shirts or caps for everyone to wear on the trip, and follows up later with a shared photo album or a keep-in-touch potluck dinner.

Greg MacPherson (Carrollton, TX) says problems often bring the group closer together. “Another diver who had joined our group for a night dive claimed someone had taken his flashlight. I asked the group to make an exhaustive search that was fruitless, as we knew it would be. But it brought our group together even more because the guy had been a jerk on the dive. Later, we all had the opportunity to share our stories about this guy and laugh about it.”

If you do happen to overcharge or have extra money left over during a trip, don’t keep it to yourself. Be a good dive buddy and either divvy it up the best you can, or, as Carmichael recommends, add a fun surprise during the trip for everyone. “I buy dinner on the trip or give a free round of drinks. If it’s only a two-dive day, I buy an island tour in advance and surprise them. It’s nice to add something good they weren’t expecting.”

- - Vanessa Richardson

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