Ten years! My how the time has flown, it seems like that was just a few months ago.
It all started quite unexpectedly. In autumn of 2005, I was approached by friends who wanted some help in planning their “perfect” Irish experience. They just knew that I was the one who would make their trip magical and unforgettable. Upon their return, they began telling everyone about their trip, how well suited it was for them and passing out my phone number to others wanting to plan their own Irish sojourn. This was the beginning of the grand adventure called Byways & Backroads of Eire.
Over the past ten years, I have helped many couples, families and singles explore the off-the-beaten track spots in Ireland. In the beginning, I worked with large tour companies to offer adventure tours but that went by the wayside the past five years, as individual tours became my mainstay. Thanks to the wonders of internet, face-time and email, my clients hail from across the United States and Canada. The range from those traveling over for their first time to experienced travelers looking for something they haven't seen yet.
I have never been a huge fan of the "Around Ireland in 8 Days" whirlwind tours. After several inquiries from elder travelers and hesitant travelers, I began looking for small, Ireland based companies who could provide a more uniquely Irish experience for my clients who didn't want to drive on their own. One of those companies I am looking forward to adding to my list is our very own Wild West of Ireland. I look forward to sending clients to them.
I personally have stayed in or inspected ninety-five percent of all the lodgings which I offer up to my clients. The other five percent comes from trusted friends who are also in the Travel Planning business. Those people have mentored me every step of the way.
I keep files of every B&B, Hotel and Self-catering that I offer to my clients. I rely on their feedback upon returning from or sometimes during their trip to keep my lists updated and rotated. One bad client experience may not get you rotated to the "C" list but three complaints will and a fourth will see you in my "Not until my return stay" file. I am good at communicating back to my hosts/hostesses any and all feedback, both positive and negative. Their response to my feedback also moves them up or down in my rotation.
My full service clients receive a personalised binder filled with daily driving routes in what has been referred to as “Big Blue Crayon – Never Fail” style, a laminated map and either day trip suggestions or fully plotted day trips, depending on what they’ve requested. Along with that comes my assistance in booking your car, lodgings and airfare. If you just want a route drawn up, you still get my big blue crayon routing and lodging suggestions but the rest of the research is up to you. I rarely have anyone take the lesser option, most prefer to leave it to me to make Magic happen.
My clients have returned to me for many reasons but the one constant reason is that I am always accessible during their travels. Whether they’ve a problem and need a solution or just want to share their joyous discoveries, I am available via email or text to assist or celebrate. A recent returning client told me that it was so nice to not have everything cookie cutter and that she felt truly listened to when she told me her want list.
I have learned much from my clients and I have seen the heart of all of them. Whatever their niche, I will try to accommodate it.
From the father who was approaching eighty who wanted to show his son, approaching middle-age, the Ireland of his Grandmother, I learned the art of patience and acceptance. That lesson came in a frantic phone call from the son. It was his first time traveling abroad and the airlines had lost their luggage. I could hear the elder man in the background making his own call, “yes, well, they’ve lost our suitcases. It’s a good thing I have a wallet full of credit…Time to take the Boy shopping!” Their luggage finally showed up a week later during their Dingle stay. The father quite cheerily texted me: “After an extended tour of the continent, our luggage has decided to join us!” I think that is the best travel attitude to have, humour and tolerance.
From my Vegan clients, I learned that there is a much larger tolerance and acceptance of Vegans in Ireland than I had thought. My one contact in Cork who got them sussed in their B&B and then gave me contacts for each of the rest of their stops, taught me that there truly is a place for everyone in Ireland. The delightful hosts of a favorite B&B up in Donegal, who hadn’t ever hosted Vegans before, taught me flexibility with their “We’ve got six months to perfect some delicious Vegan recipes! Don’t you worry about a thing!” From the clients themselves, I learned that life really can be a bright place as long as you embrace each new experience wholeheartedly: “Never driven on the other side of the road before but there’s a first time for everything!”
A more personal planning came when I arranged to bring FLANO’s family over to Ireland for two weeks in what would be his brother’s final trip and his nieces’ very first. Those were different challenges, finding medical equipment rentals for his brother, locating hospitals close at hand “just in case”, dealing with adolescent American girl attitudes in a very culturally different country… “No you cannot wear camisoles and hot pants here, you are only 9!”… “No, we are NOT eating every meal at McDonalds and Burger King”. The laughter and good memories are mixed in with some darker humour moments and more than a few tears but it was a great way to trace family roots, create a sense of belong in his nieces, fulfill a promise of returning their Father to the earth of Clare and to send his brother off on his own long journey the following April with a knowing that he had fulfilled a promise to his girls and his mum.
This year has been a busy one; a couple fulfilling a lifelong dream to spend a month in Ireland is now in the final days of their trip and texting me that they don’t want it to end. Another couple will make their sojourn to the Wild Atlantic Way and the Coastal roads of Antrim in September, a beautiful time to experience the North of it all! Yet another family journeying over to set their daughter up for her studies at Maynooth, also in September.
In amongst all of that, FLANO asked if it might be possible to offer a Centennial tour through our Celtic shop here in Tucson. It had been a while since I had planned a group tour. I knew that I didn’t want it to be large scale. In order to allow for the best Centennial Celebration experience in Dublin, it had to be small and intimate. I had made friends about nine months prior with Mary O’Grady who operates a tour planning service based in Ireland. She had expressed a desire to work with me “one of these days” and so off went an email to see what she thought of the timing, too short or just enough? Back and forth the emails flew as we two honed the tour and what it could be. It took close to twelve emails back and forth before Mary finally really understood that when I say “off the beaten” and “unique experience” that is truly what I mean. Eighty-one emails later and Centennial Sojourn has been launched.
An eleven night/twelve day sojourn through five counties: Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Clare and Galway, that isn’t your ordinary tour. I am looking forward to introducing my tour guests to the Beautiful Beara, Sheepshead, Dingle, Loophead Peninsula, Kilkee cliff walk, Doolin, Inis Oirr, Clonmacnoise & Fore. Our stopovers will be lovely hotels & B&Bs in Baltimore, County Cork, Dingle, County Kerry, Doolin, County Clare, Galway, County Galway and of course Dublin, city centre to bookend it all.
Ten years since the launching of Byways & Backroads of Eire and it is time for us to evolve. I will be investing in classes and certifications to advance my skill set and knowledge in order to provide even better quality service for my clients. As I have expanded my travels to include Scotland and Wales, so too has my itinerary planning evolved to include both of those Celtic lands, as well. So it has come to the time when “Of Eire” isn’t the end, rather it is now “of Eire & Beyond”… To borrow from Dr. Seuss, “Oh the places we shall go!”
It has opened up a whole fresh avenue for Byways & Backroads and will lay the groundwork for my retirement plan in five years. The goal is two tours of Ireland per year and a single tour to either Scotland or Wales. That should keep me hopping in my retirement years!
Along the way, I have met some wonderful people, established lifelong friendships with a wide cross-section of folks, from former Irish presidents to wandering “minstrels”, and come to the realization that I may never truly find ALL of the hidden treasures Ireland might have. I certainly will give it my best shot though!
Here’s to the next great adventure! Wherever the wild road might lead, I’m ready, are you?