Smithsonian Lends Name to Tour Operator

Tour operators say the Smithsonian's deal allowing a student-travel agency to use the institution's name is unfair.
Tour operators say the Smithsonian's deal allowing a student-travel agency to use the institution's name is unfair. (By Chip Clark -- National Museum Of Natural History)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Smithsonian Institution's noncompetitive contract giving a Massachusetts travel agency exclusive use of the Smithsonian name continues to anger other agencies two years after the deal was first struck.

Behind the scenes, representatives of several tour groups have been negotiating with the Smithsonian to elaborate on, and perhaps change, its contract with Education First. The Smithsonian is standing by the contract, which is one of many licensing agreements run by its for-profit business unit.

The deal has been good for the Cambridge, Mass., tourist firm. "The response has exceeded our expectations," says Skip Carpenter, the president of Smithsonian Student Travel, an arm of Education First, a firm founded in 1965. Smithsonian Student Travel organizes group tours of Washington, which include the nation's museum complex as well as other sights.

Jim Hall, the president of WorldStrides, a veteran travel group based in Charlottesville, says his competitor's use of the museum's name gives teachers and students choosing a tour the impression that Smithsonian Student Travel is part of the government and therefore official.

"For me I feel we are competing against the U.S. government. Maybe they are not the government but they are close," Hall said. WorldStrides has been in business for 41 years and Hall says he is losing business to Smithsonian Student Travel. . "We have taken a couple of million students to the Smithsonian," he said. "It is a little disheartening that they are competing against us."

The Smithsonian has refused to reveal specifics of the deal, including how much Education First is paying, how it was negotiated or how long the contract runs, though officials say it is less than 10 years. The agreement was called "a natural extension" of a prior relationship with EF for the Smithsonian adult travel program. The Smithsonian will say Education First gets nothing besides the use of the national museum's name and assistance from its education office.

Additionally, the museum says people taking Smithsonian Student Travel tours do not get any special access to the museums, such as tours of labs or meetings with Smithsonian experts. The Smithsonian says the educational materials provided to Smithsonian Student Travel groups are available to anyone else who asks.

The competitors of Education First say, however, even the name gives EF an unfair edge. They argue the name suggests that Smithsonian personnel were leading the tours. Both the Smithsonian and Education First say that is not the case and the tour guides are contract professionals paid by the tour company.

This month, after talks with travel groups and questions from Congress, the company clarified its the connection with Smithsonian in its printed and electronic materials.

The material now explains that the tours are operated by Education First "on behalf of the Smithsonian."

SST promotional materials say the company's tours are "the best way" to create a learning experience.

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