In a 2015 Bloomberg article about Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on tour, reporter Joel Stein introduced an “impeccably dressed, handsome, long-haired” man, referred to by members of the orchestra as “the international man of mystery” or “the most interesting man in the world.” He didn’t mean Dudamel. Stein was referring to Guido Frackers, the president of TravTours, an agency specializing in orchestral tours.
Fracker’s aura of intrigue likely comes from his schedule, which resembles that of George Clooney’s character in the 2009 rom-com “Up in the Air.” In 2019, Frackers traveled some 300 days of the year. But his professional life has been remarkably stable. Born in Amsterdam, he got his start in classical music travel in 1992 on a Pittsburgh Symphony tour. In 1999, he moved to Rancho Mirage, California, to take over TravTours from its retiring owners. Now 55, Frackers has spent over half his life booking tours for orchestras, with just one break: a yearlong stint teaching scuba diving in the Caribbean when he was 29.
In a recent phone call, we talked about how COVID-19 has affected Frackers’s business, the art of catering to classical musicians, and the future of touring in a climate catastrophe.
VAN: The pandemic has obviously decimated orchestral travel. Have you had work since it began?
Guido Frackers: Since the pandemic started there have been no new bookings. The first three to four months, we were literally cleaning up the mess, trying to get out of all the contracts we had going for the tours on our agenda. It was tedious and very labor-intensive for our team. It was as if the pandemic never happened, but with the wrong things. Canceling and canceling and negotiating and negotiating.
The first tour that got canceled on our end was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s tour to Asia. That tour was canceled one year ago, almost to the day. The only tour we’ve had since that first cancelation was a small tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Florida in February 2020. It probably won’t be until the third quarter [of 2021] before orchestras are allowed to travel and perform in the ways, shapes, and formats that they were accustomed to.
Was your company able to receive at least partial remuneration for the work that you already put into those tours? So much of your effort goes in upfront.
Especially because canceling the tours was almost more labor-intensive than physically going on tour and making the tour happen. The final contract negotiation that we got out of was not until three weeks ago, for something that should have happened in March of last year. It was with the French railroads. [Laughs.] I do think that none of our clients have lost any deposits due to the pandemic.
Going back to your pre-COVID work: What is the difference between booking travel for classical musicians and for regular customers?
The answer is that I don’t know, because I have never really booked travel for anybody else other than classical musicians and people affiliated with performance travel. The purpose of our studio is to take the musicians from their home base to wherever they need to go, on and on, until they need to go back; and to make that travel as hassle-free as possible. Take the travel out of the physical movement, if that is at all possible.
Like removing the annoying little things from the experience?
Everything that you can possibly imagine. It’s like a mix of taking care of a two-year-old toddler and a 92-year-old grandmother. Combine their worst travel possibilities, and take care of that.
What has changed in your experience about booking tours for orchestras between 1992 and before the pandemic started, say until 2019?
The internet. Musicians—people in general—can now book their own travel easier. But we also see that, when things go wrong, the people who use the online booking tools will come back to us for the service. Back in the ’90s, we didn’t have to worry about that 10 to 20 percent of “what if” cases: What if their online tools don’t work? We took care of the entire orchestra. It was more of an orchestrated travel pattern. Whereas now, instead of taking care of all 150 people in the orchestra, we may take care of only 120, and then deal with the issues that the other 30 have because they’ve booked online and can’t figure it out.
That doesn’t seem fair.
No, but it’s a service that we offer.
Do you usually go with the orchestras on their tours?
I do travel with most of our orchestral tours. I also travel about a year in advance with an orchestra manager and a musician to go through the itinerary, to select the hotels, to look at every piece of infrastructure that could potentially create hassle or a challenge, and to explain why we would recommend one property over another.
So I’ve seen the environment at least one year before. And we have a “bulldozer” who goes in 24 hours before the orchestra arrives to pave the way, to line every hotel up, so when the musicians arrive at the hotel, checking in is basically as quick as it takes them to pick up an envelope from a table with their room key.
How long is your workday when you’re on tour? How long are you available to the musicians?
Pretty much 24/7. And that also goes for our office hours. I often joke that, in our office, we only work half days: We only work 12 hours a day. The rest of the day, you can do whatever you want. That’s in the office, when it’s quiet.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I used to see a lot of social media campaigns against airlines when musicians were unhappy with how they or their instruments were treated. From your perspective as a travel expert, do those campaigns work?
No. Well, let me put it this way: They work because, in general, it makes the person who posts the message feel good. But it doesn’t necessarily give you the result that you want the next time you travel with that airline. Most of the time you face situations like that, they are caused by a miscommunication from somebody down the line. It could be the travel agent who booked the wrong aircraft type. It could be an airline employee who doesn’t understand the rules. Or it could be a musician who thinks that, simply because he or she plays a certain role in a certain orchestra, the rules of common sense no longer apply. And it’s almost like the perfect storm: If you take those four or five elements together, then it’s only a matter of time before it goes wrong.
What are some of the most absurd or complicated travel requests you’ve had from musicians?
There was a conductor with a performance in Costa Mesa, California, who was staying in Los Angeles. It’s only about 40 miles, but because of rush-hour traffic the drive can take up to an hour or an hour and a half. And we highly, highly recommended, for his own sanity and for increased comfort, that the conductor stay in an excellent, beautiful, five-star hotel on the coast, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
But he wouldn’t have it. He had to stay in downtown LA and take rush hour for granted.
We double-checked and made sure, and we explained that the 35-minute drive could possibly take 90 minutes, whereas the five-star hotel would be a leisurely 10 minutes. But he insisted.
We provided the driver. This particular conductor preferred to sit next to the driver, rather than in the back. And the assistant, who sat in the back, had to deal with this rush-hour traffic.
Now the conductor was already late departing the hotel. And the assistant, looking at her watch, realized that the rehearsal was not going to start on time if this traffic kept getting worse. Sure thing; it did.
The conductor got to the concert right in time, because the driver maneuvered his way through traffic like a bat out of hell. The poor assistant, sitting in the back, got so sick from the stop-and-go traffic that she vomited in the car. There was no time to stop. They had to keep going.
So the conductor got to the hall and got out of the car and he said, “Guido, you were right. Traffic was rather challenging. For the rest of the stay, why don’t you get me a helicopter?”
In a recent interview with VAN, violinist Julia Fischer said, “I was never a fan of measuring the success of a career by the number of frequent flyer miles you racked up. I think it’s nuts that each orchestra thinks they need to play in New York and Tokyo every single year.” How can orchestral touring become more sustainable?
That’s basically impossible. You have to give in somewhere. Either the product doesn’t go to where the audience wants to hear it, or you go with the means available to you. And it is a fact that the industry as a whole, the planet as a whole, is trying to become greener. But is it ever possible to bring an orchestra from one end of the city to another end of the city without any carbon emissions? Unless they go by foot or by bicycle, I don’t see that happening. And mind you I’m an avid cyclist. But it’s very difficult to combine international travel with environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
At what point does it become more important for orchestras to reduce emissions than it does for them to tour as much as they do?
That is a question for every concert hall globally. Maybe the concert halls should not invite foreign orchestras. Orchestras could possibly contemplate not going every year to New Year and Tokyo. Maybe every other year, or don’t send the full orchestra.
On the one hand, you’re a cyclist, you obviously care about the environment. On the other, your business is sending orchestras around the world. How do you balance that?
There is no balance. I’ve traveled ever since I was in my late teens. Almost everything you do comes at a cost. Unfortunately there comes a point where you have to say, The cost is not worth what I’m doing. Maybe orchestras should focus more on their local or their national audience than international audiences. Then again, the grass is always greener on the other side. If the demand is there, I think the supply will almost always be met.
If you’ve been traveling for so long, do you have things that bother you, or that you are very particular about?
I’m a good traveler; nothing bugs me. Flying doesn’t affect me at all.
Not even the jet lag?
No, and you know, in 1992, when I was brand new to the world of classical music, maestro Pierre Boulez flew in to Rome from New York, and we picked him up at the airport. He went straight to a rehearsal at the Santa Cecilia, and after the rehearsal he had an interview, then another obligation, but he was on for another hour to hour and a half after the rehearsal, after the transatlantic flight. He then had a quick lunch and went to his hotel, where he could only have had a short nap. Then he came back to the concert that night to conduct. And after the concert he was expected to go for dinner with the local concert organizer.
I asked him, “Maestro, how do you do this? What about jet lag?” And he looked at me and he said, “Guido, jet lag is a weakness of ze mind.” He looked at me, put his coat over his arm, and walked away to go to dinner. I yawned. ¶