Early in February, winter storms Maya and Niko cut across the northern United States and the east coast, bringing with them advisories ranging anywhere from “blowing and drifting” to “repent your sins.” And as I watched the coverage on the news, one thought consistently went through my mind: thank goodness it wasn’t peak tour season.
Even though I don’t plan group travel anymore, I have many longtime friends and colleagues who do...and I feel their pain. When the weather wreaks havoc like this, it can be an extremely stressful time for even the most seasoned travel experts. I remember many times in December or March or April, being glued to The Weather Channel, watching radar reports and looking at my list of what groups were where and when. It didn’t even have to be bad where they were going, or where they were leaving. A shut down of a major transportation hub like Denver, ChicagoO’Hare, or anything in the New York area could put a full stop to plans simply by the ripple effect it creates.
Travel planning is not for the faint of heart.
I was extremely fortunate...meaning, I was extremely lucky. I only had a handful of groups that were adversely affected by travel weather conditions over a twelve-year period. One of those was a group that couldn’t return to Colorado because of a blizzard there, and were forced to spend another day at their destination. Sunny Orlando. I’m sure the kids were heartbroken.
I was also fortunate in that, even though I was the travel planner, I had a support team of people in my organization who were true experts when it came to working with the airlines and navigating the waters when weather created challenges. It is not a job that I would have wanted to take on.
Unfortunately, in a lot of ways dealing with weather situations while traveling has become even more difficult in recent years.
• Global warming arguments aside, weather events appear to be more extreme and happening at stranger times of the year. It isn’t just snowstorms that can throw a wrench into the works. Consider the recent extreme rain conditions in southern California.
• The trend I have seen with airlines is that they are downsizing more aircraft, which means fewer seats. For large groups this means you are on more flights, creating more exposure to delay potentials due to weather.
• The other trend I have seen is a tendency for airlines to preemptively cancel flights before weather sets in.
Consider those last two points. You have lots of cancelled flights, with far fewer available seats. And everybody wants them. While the circumstances may not change—either way your group is going to be stuck on Concourse B for a while — you must ask yourself this question:
“Do I want to be the one trying to fix this?”
There are many groups that for varied reasons will make their own travel arrangements. They want full control of the plans, they’re familiar with the destination, or they want to save cost by doing the work in house. And that might seem OK when things are going great.
Here’s the thing: if you’re in line at the ticket counter and Jim Cantore and the Weather Channel crew are walking past with microphones and cameras...things are not going great.
A travel professional working on your behalf is vital in conditions like this. Because their relationship with the airlines involves not just your group, but spans multiple groups over several years of experience, they know how to best advocate for you. They can help you make the best of a bad situation.
Once you have the flight crisis solved, what’s next? Do you need hotel rooms for an additional night? Do you need a bus to get there? Something to do the next day with a hundred bored teenagers who just wanted to go home? Or worse thought they would be spending the day at a theme park and instead are devising ways to turn the baggage carousel into a thrill ride? They can solve multiple concerns for you.
Perhaps most important, and often overlooked. With them focusing on the travel issues, you can focus on your students and make sure they’re in good shapekeeping morale up against the disappointment of delay. They need reassurance from you that work is being done to get their adventure back on track as soon as possible.
If you already work with a trusted travel planner, you know that these are the moments where they truly shine and their value is pure gold. If you don’tyou might be asking yourself if whatever you saved was worth it at a time like this.
My advice? These people are professionals. Don’t try this at home.
Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. Prior to festival management, he was a high school band director and a student performance travel planner.
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