A well-traveled friend referred me to Rachel Dicker, a Virtuoso travel advisor in Austin, Texas. We’d never met before, but that didn’t matter. Within the first few minutes of our initial phone call, she got us.
“It’s absolutely all about experience, not just seeing things,” says Dicker. “That’s why people go to a travel advisor – because they don’t want mere surface interaction; they want to experience the culture of a country in a more interactive way.”
Dicker books trips for clients around the world, but about half her business involves Asia. She’s traveled extensively through China on trips both personal and professional, and she and her family spent a decade living in Shanghai. As a mother of two, she also knows the importance of seemingly minor things, such as naptimes and knowing where to get a good burger.
She began by asking about our hobbies, what we liked to do together as a family, and what we’d enjoyed about previous trips. She parsed meaning from my stories of hiking Honolulu’s Diamond Head (and the Portuguese doughnuts we devoured afterward) and how we had our fortunes told through our fingers in Hong Kong. The itinerary she created as a result was rooted in what we loved, a perfect balance of “see” and “do.” That meant we spent a mom-pleasing morning at the National Museum of China, followed by a family-friendly lunch at a stretch-your-own-noodle restaurant. Later, we toured old hutong neighborhoods by rickshaw, with a stop for hot chocolate.
Dicker recommended an acrobatics show rather than the opera, saving us from a wave of teenage whining. She also saved us from a potential nightmare-on-the-tarmac scenario by suggesting we opt for the high-speed train over a domestic flight to see the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, thus avoiding sudden delays – wise advice that we hadn’t found online.
In addition to setting our course, she turned to one of Virtuoso’s in-country tour connections to make it all happen. WildChina, founded by Harvard-educated entrepreneur (and mom of three) Mei Zhang, specializes in tailor-made luxury travel. While some companies cater to tourists with a bucket list, Zhang aims to appeal specifically to those who want a deeper dive into the culture – to “experience China differently,” she says.
An increasing number of her clients are families with children 12 and older, she notes. Parents hope a visit to China will inspire their children to study the language, and they also want to convey how important China could be to their future careers, she says, adding that several young people who had traveled with WildChina decided years later to study diplomacy.
“Our mission is to create life-changing experiences,” Zhang declares. “It sounds so big and hollow, but that’s what happens when you go beyond the tourist sites and meet real people – that’s how you find the beauty, and that’s when the best comes out.”
Zhang and her team definitely made the best come out for us. Our guide in Beijing turned our visit to the Forbidden City into a game of “spot the architectural element,” which kept our kids engaged the entire time. He also brought the Summer Palace to life during our visit by regaling us with mostly true tales of royal intrigue and murder. When we mentioned how much we loved weird potato-chip flavors, he took us to a local grocery store where he and his family shopped so we could enjoy making our own selections.