As I am out and about across the American landscape on tours, I have plenty of opportunities to observe the hospitality (or lack thereof) that various suppliers provide to the traveling public. Here are some of my observations specific to the needs of group travelers.

The process of course, begins when you first contact a hotel for a group booking. Never a simple matter, it is complicated even more today by the trend toward smaller groups. Whether it is the economy or the entry of more independent-minded baby boomers into the group market, it is much more difficult to fill a coach than it was a decade ago. Fortunately, the more group-friendly hotels "get it." They continue to offer incentives to groups, and most will work with you if you fall below the minimum number of rooms.

Therefore, it is frustrating to see more and more contracts that actually include penalties for smaller groups, rather than incentives. The comp room for your tour director is much less common (and often tied to the nearly impossible number of 25 paid rooms), and the majority offer no driver rate at all.

I encountered a hotel this week that actually built in a "surcharge" of 20 percent if my group failed to reach 15 rooms. (Since this was a student group with four passengers to a room, I could bring a full bus and still not hit that 15-room mark.) This type of contract displays a complete lack of understanding of how the group market works: comps and driver rates are great when you have a full bus, but you really need them when you are struggling to bring your number of passengers up to the minimum.

Despite this trend, some tour operators have found a market for so-called "boutique" tours aimed at higher-end clients who are willing to pay a premium for the privilege of traveling with a smaller group. I love to see a creative approach to a challenging situation, but it may not be the answer for everybody.

I'm a tour planner, but I also act occasionally as a tour director. I am therefore particularly sensitive to the group check-in process at hotels. I've had my share of horror stories over the years, but many of these are avoidable by patronizing trusted and reliable hotels that have served me well over the years.

Occasionally, though, one has to be replaced, and that’s when life can get interesting. More than once on a recent tour, I was asked by the front-desk clerk what my name was when I was standing there wearing a name tag and clutching a rooming list.

Of course, the person behind the desk at 5 p.m. is rarely the sales director that you have been working with for many months. The sign of a smooth check-in process is that the two communicate with each other, passing along information pertaining to your group’s specific needs, including meal arrangements, baggage handling, check-out times, etc.

It’s hard to believe there are still hotels that think it is perfectly reasonably to ask 40 tired passengers (who have embarked on a group tour precisely so they won’t have to deal with such hassles) to line up at the desk, hand over their individual credit cards to be swiped (times 40) and sign a consent form before receiving their room keys.

I had the misfortune recently to encounter some front-desk personnel who couldn’t fathom that we needed someone to deliver our bags to their owners’ rooms, even though I had a contract clearly listing the fee for just such a service. It wasn’t the first time I’ve schlepped bags on tour — but the incident has cost that hotel any future group business with my company, despite the hard work of the sales manager.

You can imagine my relief then on arriving at the final hotel of a 16-day tour recently to find the sales director herself behind the desk to facilitate our check-in. After a long tour fraught with the usual challenges, I knew I was in good hands. This particular hotel was in the seaside resort town that happens to sit at the end of the Lewis & Clark Trail. I could only recall the famous William Clark quote upon finally reaching their goal: "Oh, the Joy! Ocean in view!"

My sentiments, exactly.