Adrian Mourby checks out a nice little earner for academics who fancy a spot of lecturing to well-heeled travellers, in the first of our summer series on intellectual tourism.
Cultural travel is big business these days. In fact, it may be worth as much as £50 million a year. That means a lot of people going abroad to look at art galleries, listen to operas or discover the joys of "Dark Age Brilliance" in Croatia. It has also turned into a lucrative sideline for some British academics, who are recruited to lecture to the punters and sign up with companies such as Martin Randall, Ace, Page&Moy, JMB and Travel for the Arts. The job of "guest lecturer" is a curious cross between tour guide and resident guru. As one old hand put it: "One moment you're deconstructing Piero della Francesca, the next you're trying to show the woman in No 6 how to work her shower."
"First and foremost, lecturers have to know their stuff," says Martin Randall of Martin Randall Travel. "And they have to be good at presenting what they know. That cuts out a lot of academics. But they also have to be worldly wise. We need people with their feet on the ground. That also cuts out a lot of academics."
Randall's company dominates the cultural travel market, but he claims that his annual turnover amounts to no more than an 11 per cent share of that £50 million. "It's highly competitive. I would say we have about a dozen significant competitors. Then there are the smaller companies and, of course, the amateurs - societies that hire a local bus to take their members abroad."
Nevertheless, Randall has shaped the market over the past 20 years. He expects all his lecturers to audition, and he turns down more academics than he accepts. There are a number of professors who may have their own chair but have failed to make the grade with Randall.
Randall himself considered becoming an academic. He attended the Courtauld Institute of Art and was a postgraduate at York University: "But I was not offered a serious job. Two years later I realised I was now too far away, so I went into this business."
Martin Randall Travel has been employing academics since its inception in 1988. On top of a generous daily fee for its guest lecturers, the company pays for all their meals, fares, accommodation and incidental expenses.
"It's like winning the pools," one junior lecturer says. "A choice band of really enthusiastic students - and no paperwork."
Those who are invited to attend an audition in the company's London headquarters find themselves giving an impromptu talk to Randall and selected members of his team, some of the best-paid multilingual women in the travel business.
The few who are successful are invited to bid for trips that Randall's team is setting up across the world, although these can be cancelled if the client take-up isn't sufficient or the festival folds for local reasons.
The first time most lecturers meet their clients is at the airport, when a collection of MPs, professors, retired businessmen and judges find themselves checking in. The clients will have been given a schedule, so will the lecturer, but at Martin Randall Travel the lecturer's schedule will be detailed to a degree that is rarely found outside the military.
Room and seat allocations are noted, dietary preferences are recorded, as is the number of times each client has travelled with the company. Menus of what will be provided at each restaurant are also given in advance. Martin Randall Travel even specifies in minutes how long should be allowed when walking from the hotel to where coffee is taken each morning. Nothing is left to chance. One lecturer has observed that if the company could organise the weather, the sun would shine on schedule.
Most clients are over 50, with the average age 65. While clients will all be affluent - cultural travel does not come cheap - there can be a big variation in how much knowledge each brings to the trip. Some may never have visited an art gallery or opera festival before and want the reassurance of a well-known tour operator. Others probably know as much as the guest lecturer, but have signed up with an operator because they want company.
The range of tours on offer these days is huge - Rubens in Belgium, Persian architecture in Uzbekistan, cooking in Burgundy, Le Corbusier across the Alps. "We run about 170 tours a year, and only about 30 of those are repeated," Randall says. "If we were interested solely in profits, we'd have only 50 tours in our brochure and run each one four times a year." But profit isn't the primary consideration in cultural travel. "I am a designer of other people's time," Randall explains. "Those people pay a lot to come on these tours. What gets me into the office every day is getting it right and getting it better."
Ultimately, however, operators such as Randall are in the hands of market forces, and the market for cultural tourism cannot be predicted with any accuracy. "We have staples such as opera in Verona or Sicily, or 'Ruskin's Venice'. Italy accounts for 35 per cent of our tours, always plenty of take-up - but other destinations go in cycles. Prague was very big when the Iron Curtain came down, but it's losing its appeal now - not because people aren't interested in Prague any more but because it's getting easier and easier to go on your own. When I first went out there, I think there was possibly one English-language guidebook. Now there are 30. 'Dark Age Brilliance' flared brilliantly for a while, but now it's fading.
'Wellington in the Peninsula' is attracting a lot of attention this year.
That may have been influenced by the TV series. In fact, we saw a sudden revival of interest in Florence three years ago after a series on TV. It wasn't very good, and not many people saw it, but suddenly Florence was in the air and the tour began to do well again. Caravaggio did well after the exhibition at the Royal Academy."
In total, Martin Randall Travel visits 40 countries, more than any other company operating in this crowded market, but this fearless approach can bring problems. "Ukraine's been difficult to deal with. In fact, Eastern Europe in general can be a beast because there is a sense there, still, of doing things exactly to the letter of the contract and no more. No sense of keeping the customer satisfied."
Randall has also found France problematic. Last year, a workers' strike that delayed the opening of the Aix-en-Provence festival cost the company Pounds 40,000. "Spain can be tricky, too. Italy is pretty reliable, although there are oddities. We hired a certain church, which I won't name, but it is the most expensive music venue in the world and behaves as if it has a hotline to God - although if He were on their board they'd probably only make Him an executive director. Anyway, one month before the concert was to be given, they decided to increase the fee we'd agreed. By two-thirds. That's the kind of thing that can happen."
This year there will be between 90 and 100 guest lecturers taking Martin Randall tours, although the total number of academics moonlighting in cultural travel at the moment is probably closer to 300. And why not? As Arthur Daley would have remarked: it's a nice little earner.