“The Footsteps tours also evolve, to a large extent, on the ground. So while we use very good suppliers, and the structure is very sound. Because Cindy and I run the tours ourselves, it’s very fluid. So if one day we see that people are exhausted and they’ve hit the wall, and they just need a good laugh, then we’ll find something that will suit them.” ~ Brett Kaye (founder, Footsteps tours)
When Brett Kaye isn’t dazzling audiences with his sublime opera voice, he’s taking tour groups on unforgettable ‘Footsteps’ cultural tours throughout the world as a luxury travel designer. Having recently taken a small group to Israel, he explains just why this new type of experiential tour has everyone singing and dancing. India is next in January 2019. What makes this carefully customised tour experience so special? TDL editor Scott Podmore finds out in a candid conversation with a passionate tour operator armed with the voice of an angel.
A tour with cultural interests at heart
Q: Hello Brett, tell us about your Footsteps cultural tour concept and how was the Israel experience?
Brett Kaye: Israel was part of a new initiative for Executive Edge, a leading luxury travel design agency, called Footsteps. The idea is to take various locations around the world and find particular cultural interests in those areas and create tours around them. So, our first Footsteps tour was in Israel. I partnered up with a friend of mine, Cindy Berg, who is a speech pathologist but she’s also an Israeli dancing teacher.
So, given you’re an opera singer and Cindy’s a dancer, I imagine there was a bit of singing and dancing on this one?
Correct (smiling). The idea for this particular tour was a dancing and singing tour through Israel. So creating and establishing memories and pockets of happiness, I suppose, in Israel through the prism of singing and dancing. So that’s what we did. We started off with the concept. We discussed it. We built an itinerary and together … you know, I sing. Cindy dances (laughing).
How much fun was that?
It was. It was awesome. We had 20 people on the trip and we didn’t want more than that for the first Footsteps tour — they were mostly from Melbourne and a couple from Sydney. We really had a brilliant time. It was well structured.
“The idea for this particular tour was a dancing and singing tour through Israel. So creating and establishing memories and pockets of happiness, I suppose, in Israel through the prism of singing and dancing.”
Israel, from north to south
So how many days was the Footsteps Israel tour?
It was 14 nights staying at four-star accommodation throughout Israel. Great boutique properties. We visited Israel literally from the north to the south, pretty much we drove the full length and breadth of Israel, and then we went to Jordan for two nights. We spent a night in Wadi Rum in the desert and we did a Jeep safari at sunrise. We spent a day at Petra.
Was it hot?
No, beautiful. December and January in Israel is winter.
So is a Footsteps tour the kind of trip you need to have a fair amount of energy for?
Energy? Passion, I’d say more than anything. We did a few hikes or strolls or walks and for those people who didn’t feel up to it, you could take it easy and not do any of the more strenuous activities.
Okay. Let’s look at you and Cindy, the tour operators. Your background is opera singing?
My background is education. I’m a teacher and a singer. I studied commerce arts here at Monash University in Melbourne and then did education and I worked at schools, and I still do, for the past 25 years. I’ve been a director of Jewish education. Now I consult at schools. I work with schools on compliance curriculum and I’ve also written a program on the dangers of cyberbullying and that program this year is at about 130 schools throughout Victoria. I run it through an organisation called the Anti-Defamation Commission. I sometimes go and present, but I don’t have the time because I’m pretty involved with travel.
So travel is your second life and you’re a part of the team at Executive Edge Travel and, of course, singing?
Exactly. I work here, and I like to share what it is that I do in other places as well. In terms of my singing, I’ve always sung since I was about 7 or 8 in shows. I was home-schooled for three or four years. I sang with the Victoria State Opera for three years, and I still do bits and pieces with the opera, but now I do mainly concerts, corporate work and I’m very involved in Jewish music. I sing professionally.
Singing and dancing on the double
Right. You don’t intimidate the guests too much, did you, with your powerhouse voice?
No, we had lots of fun. Because I love to be around people, it works well for me. Cindy too. She’s very passionate.
So tell me about Cindy.
Cindy is a speech pathologist and she loves to dance, and she teaches Israeli dancing with very dedicated students. Israeli dancing is quite interesting phenomenon because, for example, it’s very big in Singapore, but there are very few Jews who actually do it. It’s huge in China, but the people aren’t Jewish.
Can you explain that for me?
So, on our tour, for example, we had people who were of Chinese Malaysian origin, non-Jewish people, and serious Christian people. One lady, in fact, was actually baptized in the Jordan River as part of the trip. They’re all Israeli dancers. So Israeli dancing is not just for Jews. Folk dancing is a big, big cultural experience worldwide, whether it be Bollywood dancing or Israeli dancing or Japanese dancing. So that’s something we’re tapping into at the moment. It’s a cultural tour. We also did cooking classes, visited Arab homes. We visited Jews’ homes. We visited Christian people. We visited Messianic people.
So you had some real home experiences?
We geared it around that. Authentic traditional experiences. So for people who had been to Israel — quite a few people had been to Israel many times — the feedback was that they saw things that they would never have dreamed they would be able to see because Israel is a tiny place. You can cover the whole country within a week. You can drive from north to south in four hours.
Wadi Rum – a biblical landscape
Tell us more about the sunset tour you mentioned earlier and this incredibly fascinating desert?
Wadi Rum in Jordan. A lot of iconic films were filmed there, including The Martian, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a Biblical landscape. Kind of like the Red Centre a little, maybe not as red, but it’s pretty and those tones are strong especially when the sun is coming up. Surfing down the sand dunes was insane fun, the camel rides were incredible, and exactly what you would imagine a quintessential desert experience to be. Of course, singing and dancing across the dunes as well, which was pretty crazy!
Some great photo opportunities?
Amazing, yes. That’s another thing too. We really tried to allow people who have particular passions to be able to explore their passions further. We had a couple who were photographers and along the way we gave them the opportunity to be our official photographers, well almost. So to use their skills to enhance the rest of our journey was fantastic. Some people are great storytellers, and they got up on the bus and got the microphone and told stories. Some people just love to share. Some people love cooking. So we really decided to customise and build our tour around the passion of the participants and the way we did that was by having two meetings before the trip. We explored everybody’s passions, and we looked for experiences that could highlight what it is that they really wanted out of the trip. It wasn’t a private tour for the participants. We took into account in a very strong way the likes and also the dislikes of the participants.
So the Footsteps tours, no one is the same really, could you say?
They also evolve, to a large extent, on the ground. So while we use very good suppliers, and the structure is very sound. Because Cindy and I run the tours ourselves, it’s very fluid. So if one day we see that people are exhausted and they’ve hit the wall, and they just need a good laugh, then we’ll find something that will suit them.
“For the people who love the concept of farm to plate, it’s an ideal place because everything that you eat is grown literally within a half an hour away. So a lot of the places that we visited, the food was actually grown within their agricultural precinct, and sometimes, we actually would see the food being harvested and then cooked.”
Middle Eastern culinary classics
Fantastic. Okay, tell me about the food. You touched on the food and those home experiences. What sort of food are we talking about?
In Israel, the food is obviously based on its geography. It’s Middle Eastern. For the people who love the concept of farm to plate, it’s an ideal place because everything that you eat is grown literally within a half an hour away. So a lot of the places that we visited, the food was actually grown within their agricultural precinct, and sometimes, we actually would see the food being harvested and then cooked. But I think for us, the most exciting element of the food was the diversity in terms of viewing the way that people eat through the ethnic backgrounds of the cooks.
I was watching the video just briefly that you guys put together from the trip and the dancing looked so much fun. As far as the singing and dancing, you got to see some shows or performances as well?
We did! And we did a lot of our own performances. I took my pianist with me, who’s my accompanist when I sing, who’s incredible. She came with us as one of the participants, which was incredible too because she gave lots of performances herself. In Israel, they put pianos all around just outside where people can just stop and play and go. They have that all over Israel, too, so Tamara would play. We’d sing. The other misconception that some people had is if they weren’t singers or dancers, was this trip still for them? The answer is absolutely because while it sounds like it was a big focus, and it was, it was more an enhancement than the primary goal. We did all the general touring as well. We just amplified it by having a bit of fun along the way. You don’t have to be a singer or a dancer to enjoy a Footsteps tour.
Footsteps India is on the way
Beautiful. Is there another Footsteps tour coming up?
Yes. The next Footsteps tour is going to be Footsteps through India in January and we’ll be staying at some beautiful Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces. We’re going to have an 11-night program with an extension of a week through Rajasthan. This particular Footsteps will have a feel of Jewish interest as well for those people who would like to see the remnants of what the Jewish community was and still remains a little bit in India today. Definitely not just for Jewish people, but once again, it’s going to have a strong focus on cultural aspects such as Indian dancing. We’ve got some good Bollywood experiences, too, and the food is a big factor in India, obviously. So there will be time spent at homes once again.
So what parts of India are we talking about?
The tour is going to start in the south in Cochin, Kerala, one of the main hubs of the Jewish community in India. In fact, the old city in Cochin is called Jewtown. We’ll then move to Mumbai and spend some time there. We’re then going to fly to Delhi, then on to Varanasi, which is the spiritual hub of India. And then we’re going to end that part of the tour in Calcutta which for me is one of the most fascinating cities in India. I love it. It’s crazy. It’s insane. It’s busy. It’s dirty. It’s smoggy. But it’s just got so much to offer that I think a lot of tourists who come to India don’t really get to experience. And then we’ll have a week in the Golden Triangle for those people who want to go.
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