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Festivals and Travel

SBO Staff • Travel/Festivals • June 1, 2003

Fundraising. Booking flights, buses, hotel accommodations. Recruiting chaperones. Organizing the itinerary. Answering multitudinous questions from students, parents and administrators. As if music directors don’t already have enough to worry about when planning trips for their ensembles, recent world events have added more apprehension to the equation.

Concerns about national security, the war in Iraq, SARS and the weakened economy have combined to create a much more cautious student travel climate in 2003, according to travel and festival companies that serve the school band and orchestra market. In recent months, a significant percentage of band and orchestra trips have been cancelled, re-routed to different destinations or postponed until 2004. But, despite existing concerns, festival and travel companies continue to see a growing interest in student travel and attendance at band and orchestra festivals.

The Impact on Student Travel

Across the board, the impact on travel and festival business has been varied, but companies report, on average, an overall 15 to 20 percent decline in band and orchestra travel and festival attendance this year.

For some companies, the war has had the greatest impact on business.

“There is no doubt that this atmosphere has affected our business,” Joe Simpkins of Dixie Classic Festivals reflects. “Ever since September 11th, there has been a pronounced caution regarding student travel. Prior to the outset of the war, festival participation was down approximately 20 percent, and this number did not change much after the war started.”

At American Tours & Travel, student travel decreased less than 10 percent as a result of fears related to the unsettled political and economic climate.

“Most groups rescheduled instead of canceling,” Sarah Porter at American Tours & Travel notes. “For us, the greatest impact was for groups in the decision-making phase. With all the uncertainty, it appeared decisions were delayed and trips that might have taken place earlier in the spring were postponed to another date.”

John DeCrotie, at the Universal Orlando Resort, attributes the estimated 15 percent of group cancellations and postponements to fears surrounding the war.

“In addition, fundraising suffered as some groups delayed this activity until a majority of the war effects had ended,” DeCrotie suggests.

In 2003, Music Celebrations International has experienced a 13 percent drop-off in business, according to national marketing director Michael R. Peterson, who adds, “Simultaneously, we experienced no curtailment of interest in 2004 travel. Most people seem to be of the mindset that this will be behind us by then, and Americans are slowly coming to the realization that we actually live in a far safer environment than we did on September 11th.”

Peterson continues, “The effect [of the war] has been quite varied. We had a number of groups that departed for Europe on the second and third days of the war. Virtually all of these groups, most of whom were repeat clients, reported that their tours were the best ever. All of them reported warm, hospitable audiences and friendly interactions with everyone. People felt safe and secure the entire time.”

According to Debbie Laferty, director of marketing and communications for Bands of America, the war has had no tangible effect on participation in BOA events.

“It does not appear to have affected enrollment at this time,” she says. “Our National Concert Band Festival and National Percussion Festival started on Thursday, March 20, the day after the initial attack on Baghdad. The threat of war loomed in everyone’s mind the week preceding and we informed our participating groups of the heightened security measures undertaken by the host hotel, the concert venues and Bands of America to help ensure the safety of everyone at the festival.”

In addition, Laferty points out that enrollment for the fall 2003 BOA Marching Band Championships, which began earlier this year, has not been diminished by world events.

Kathy LeTarte, president of New Horizons Tour and Travel Inc., says her company noticed increased caution from traveling music student groups as the threat of war escalated.

“With the added uncertainty of war, we began to see caution from those groups who chose New York City or Washington, D.C., as their preferred destination, as well as renewed concern of flying,” she recalls. “While directors were prepared to continue with travel plans, we began to receive questions that came from parents as well as concerns from administrations.”

For student groups traveling with New Horizons Tour and Travel Inc., the greater concern has been SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), an outbreak of “mystery pneumonia” – which, in about 5 percent of cases, has led to fatality – that has been reported in Asia, North America and Europe.

“Overall business that dropped due to SARS was about 20 percent of Toronto trips, but less than 1 percent overall,” LeTarte reported. “Since SARS has appeared, we have spent a great deal of time with teachers, parents and administrators in providing resources for information and updates on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization reports.”

Alternatives and Solutions

Having endured the travel slump that followed the September 11th terrorist attacks, many travel and festival companies employed similar tactics for dealing with the war in Iraq and the SARS scare. For the most part, festival and travel companies worked with directors to reschedule trips whenever possible or refund money when rescheduling was not possible.

“We did lose a few schools at the outset of the war and, due to our careful planning, we were able to be flexible with our cancellation policy,” Simpkins, of Dixie Classic Festivals, explains. “In most cases, our refund policy was more than 80 percent, and we also plan to apply a majority of cancellation fees as a credit on next year’s participation. We feel every effort should be made to return as much money as possible to school groups, even at the expense of operating at a loss. We should extend the utmost flexibility and concern to schools who have had a sudden change of plans due to circumstances that they could not control.”

Advance notice from school music groups enabled New Horizons Tour & Travel Inc. the flexibility necessary to provide travel alternatives, LeTarte points out.

“As the war was about to begin, we had cancellations for Washington D.C., New York City and Orlando. All but three were made with advance calls to our office, which gave us the opportunity to discuss options: postpone the trip or move to an alternate location,” she says. “We aggressively proceeded to obtain whatever refunds we could from vendors and apply them to new dates or destinations. We also looked at ways to reduce the stress and work involved for the director and boosters. The good news is that everyone wants to travel! By offering alternatives in dates, destinations and cost, we have been able to meet the individual needs of each group and address their concerns.”

American Tours & Travel discovered a new niche for providing group trips in the face of travel concerns.

“We offered other destinations to many groups, especially those who could not travel out of state. Our in-state trips, especially for groups in Florida, became very popular,” Porter notes.

To make travel to its events more appealing, Universal Orlando Resort/Universal Studios has been working to expand the educational content of its programs for school music groups.

“Our music programs and their attendance have been growing at a record pace over the past two years. Universal continues to improve its programming substance and options as the solution to the travel slump,” DeCrotie explains.

Bands of America has taken measures to ensure that each of the event venues has a documented emergency and security plan in place.

“We discuss that with the venue security and administrative personnel and then pass on the relevant information to the participating band directors,” Laferty explains. “We take our course of action from our nation’s leaders in terms of reaction and heightened awareness. When the President says to go about our regular activities, we do just that, with extra care and caution taken to ensure the safety of our participants, spectators and staff.”

Music Celebrations International has invited concerned band and orchestra directors to speak with directors who have already taken trips through its program.

“We are continuing to offer our same programs because we believe them to be safe for everyone,” Peterson states. “If they weren’t, we would not continue them nor recommend that anyone tour to our various destinations. The best strategy has been to have current clients who have not yet traveled and who are uneasy talk directly with those clients who have traveled.”

Travel Turnaround

While music festival and travel companies could not have predicted a year ago that the U.S. would now be dealing with a weakened economy, a war, a mysterious and potentially fatal illness and other concerns, they are optimistic that the coming year holds a bright outlook for student travel.

“It’s going to increase. Groups will continue to travel because directors know the value a fun festival performing opportunity has for inspiring their students,” insists Porter, of American Tours & Travel.

Peterson, of Music Celebrations International, agrees.

“I’ve personally noticed a tremendous ‘up tick’ in confidence since the war has been effectively over, and people are excited about taking their groups out,” he says.

As student travel picks up, LeTarte, of New Horizons, anticipates changes in the roles and responsibilities of travel and festival companies as the needs of music groups change.

“I believe that the desire to provide travel experiences in the future will continue to be strong. Directors continue to see the value of both the educational and public relations, as well as program benefits,” LeTarte concludes. “Parents and boosters clearly will continue to want to provide the exposure and opportunities to broaden their students through music travel experiences. However, we do see changes in both the needs of the directors, boosters and administrations, which, if we are to succeed, must be addressed.”

DeCrotie, of Universal, expects to see the last-minute planning trend continue into the coming year.

“As happened after September 11th, many schools continue to delay making their final travel plans until the very last minute. As a result, many festival and performance venues have relaxed their cancellation policies,” he states.

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