Sophia Harler has a deep understanding of just how important it is to experience a destination like a local. Her company, Colonial Connections, a receptive tour operator in Williamsburg, Virginia, helps plan, coordinate, and deliver hyper-local experiences in and around Williamsburg to student groups. The company also provides adult tours. Harler shares her perspective on why receptive tour services are key for travel that leaves a lasting impression on customers and her insights on the state of the student group travel landscape today.
Q. Tell us about Colonial Connections. What’s the history behind the business?
A. Back in the early 1990s, retired Army colonel Philip Merrick moved to Williamsburg and started his second career managing hotels. Phil noticed that groups were arriving at the Historic Triangle with little knowledge of where or how to visit. Over time, larger tour operators were starting to send representatives to stay at local hotels for the entire spring season in order to help facilitate those groups traveling to Williamsburg. Phil saw a huge need and opportunity to support these groups and the tour operators who were guiding them in this region.
As a result, he opened Williamsburg’s first receptive tour operator, Colonial Connections. Flash forward to today, we continue our over 30-year journey in helping assist and support group tour operators in bringing their tours to Williamsburg.
Q. Colonial Connections provides receptive tour services. What are some of the benefits of working with a receptive tour operator?
A. The benefit of using a receptive tour operator is multifaceted. Our services give our tour operators a home office in Williamsburg. We provide a local perspective and a personal contact who cares about their groups’ needs. We provide extra staff to help with logistics, planning, and emergencies, and we also provide tour guides and docents who help navigate local attractions—from booking and timing to providing the best experience possible for their customers.
As a local receptive, we sell our area attractions and hotels. We are best able to make suggestions on any new attractions or restaurants. We know how to curate itineraries that are much more inclusive and mindful of local knowledge, and we’re experts in our destination. I would say it’s nearly impossible for most tour operators to be experts in every destination they service. Because we are local to Williamsburg and Coastal Virginia, we know our destination better than anyone else.
Q. What do you think is driving the growth of student group travel to Williamsburg?
A. Despite all the ups and downs, and even with the pandemic, student travel has always moved forward and they’ve always moved first. Yes, of course, it shut us down for a while. But I would say that the student group travel market came back faster than any other market in the group travel industry.
Regardless of what happens in the United States in terms of our economy, I feel that student group travel rarely slows down. Families will forgo even their basic needs to enable their children to participate in school trips. It’s amazing to me.
Teachers see the difference in testing when they are able to take their classes on in-person field trips to learn about the same material they’re reading about in books. Being able to see and experience the living history museums we have in our area is a way to help the students understand and retain that knowledge firsthand. Teachers understand the benefit of student travel and by going on a trip students just get it. Many students that do not have the opportunity to travel other than a school trip will learn and experience more than just museums or amusement parks when they take a school-led trip to Williamsburg. Here they get a feeling of a bigger world, learn about our country’s history, and have access to greater opportunities.
Q. What makes or breaks an experience for students and/or adults on your tours?
A. I think it’s the personal touch. It’s having that tour guide who knows the area like it’s the back of their hand or their own backyard. Our tour guides know Williamsburg because it’s what they do day in and day out. They’re experts. We are able to take groups to experience the most exciting trades in Colonial Williamsburg, climb ships at a Jamestown Settlement, and visit an army encampment at the American Revolution Museum to see a cannon display up close.
Tour guides are able to help the visitor better understand the importance of the relationships in Jamestown between the English settlers and the Native Americans and the difference between the gentry, middle class, and poor. Our guides help bring history to life for travelers so that they can envision how people lived and worked in these times.
Q. Can you talk about some of the highlights—the sights, sounds, and experiences—visitors will have on Colonial Connections tours?
A. Colonial Williamsburg is the most attended attraction we have here because it’s a true living history museum experience. Visitors love to see people in costumes demonstrating 18th-century trades like blacksmithing, cooper, and wheelwright, or watch a debate between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. At Historic Jamestown, they get to observe one of the first and oldest industries of glassblowing. At Jamestown Settlement, they get the chance to dress up as a colonist. At Yorktown, they can be a pirate, a farmer, or learn about the tools that a Revolutionary doctor would use out on the battlefield. These are experiences that students don’t get to see in a video game, book, or movie. That’s why visiting here is so exciting and important.
Q. What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
A. I love when teachers and parents say to me, “We had a wonderful trip and our kids were just so excited to see and experience the area.” I also have to laugh when I hear, “Our students talked about that ghost tour for weeks—it was the best part of the trip.” It’s also very rewarding when a tour operator says that we made their job easy and that they look forward to sending more groups to our area.
Sophia Harler, owner
Article by Erica Zazo