Early Planning – The First Step to Tour Success

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • February 13, 2017

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With the new year begun and 2017 a few weeks in, it’s time to start thinking about…2018. Wait a minute, you might be thinking. I just now finally got my holiday cards in the mail.

But when it comes to large­-scale plans, particularly as related to student performance group travel, now is an ideal time to begin work on that spring trip that may be only 12­15 short months away. The benefits to early planning are many, and can make the difference between just a “good” experience and a truly life­-changing and program-­altering one.

Certainly over time the planning arc has changed. When I was in high school in the early 1980’s, we found out in February that we were performing in the National Independence Day Parade five months later. When I finished my career as a travel planner in 2012, the planning window had grown to 9­12 months or longer.

The reasons for this were many. Economics were certainly a part of it, with expenses growing at a faster pace than the capacity of typical fundraisers. Tours experienced a longer, more involved period of scrutiny by school boards and administration, due to reasons ranging from concern of student absences and the impact on test scores to safety concerns in our post­9/11 existence.

This is the time of year those of us in the travel and festival planning field see groups forced to cancel a planned tour 60­ 90 days out from departure, in most cases due to low participation commitment which prevented the tour from being musically and/or financially viable. More times than not this stemmed from breaking news of the trip plans far too late in the fall.

While early planning cannot always prevent this kind of disappointment, it can certainly reduce the possibility and put you on a better footing to success in numerous ways.

Early commitment from participants. This is, in my opinion, far and away the easiest way to help ensure the success of the tour. Getting the students engaged and excited about the next tour event early on not only can establish the mindset that this is a “don’t miss” opportunity, but also more likely places it on their calendar before other school or family commitment options arise.

I’ve seen many directors who decide to wait until the fall to unveil the tour proposal, because they feel they need to wait until the incoming eighth graders are part of the process. By then it’s often too late, and as well “overwhelmed” freshmen parents may pass at the thought of another new aspect of high school life. The better approach may be to use this as part of your spring recruitment drive to your feeder programs, now making it an enticing opportunity to add to their reasons for joining your ensemble when they transition to high school.

An early announcement is crucial especially if it is a large­-scale tour, involving air transportation, international travel or other high-­cost items, because….

Ample time for fundraising efforts. This is likely the second easiest way to ensure the success of the tour. Having more time can allow you to spread out fundraising efforts over a longer period which may ease the support needed from the community. It also gives you extra time for additional efforts should your initial plans fall short.

More time for more creativity. As a travel planner, I enjoyed having more lead time to design a tour for a client because it gave me the freedom to brainstorm and do more research as needed to find the experiences that would make their tour extra special. Many directors will have their specified checklist for the tour of which hotel, theme park, festival, and restaurants they want included… and that’s certainly helpful in providing direction. But given time for creativity, the truly GREAT travel planners can go beyond “order taking” and adapt your concepts to include alternatives that could boost the quality of your experience (and that helps them love their job and do better work for you too!). Having more budget to work with (see “fundraising” above) contributes to creativity as well. From this is where the truly memorable “wow factor” comes.

From the event planning perspective, knowing the level of participation early on may provide an opportunity to “plus” the experience…perhaps adding an additional unexpected benefit.

Better availability. Again from my travel planning days, being able to work far in advance gave me the opportunity to not only research more creative options…but also to have them booked and secured while they were available (and often at a better rate for my client than it may have been later). Usually this also meant the best pick of admission times, options for shows, and meal reservations. Some festivals allow you to choose your performance time based upon how early you register.

Time for a “Plan B.” While it’s a noble effort to wait as long as possible to give any stragglers a chance, a late cancellation means that now there are a number of disappointed students (and directors) who are left with no experience for this year. A better solution may be to make that call much earlier in the fall, while you and your travel professional still have ample time to craft and promote an alternative plan that might have less cost or otherwise be a more successful fit for their program. Starting the entire process earlier gives you a bigger window for a “rebound” should you need it.

Early planning puts the odds of “best laid plans” in your favor. The future starts today!

Tom Merrill is a music educator and the Executive Director of Festivals of Music. A lifelong musician, he plays clarinet in the North Suburban Wind Ensemble in Chicago, sings in his church choir…and still gets his engineering fix by watching the NASA Channel.

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