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Group Travel from One of Its Pioneers

Thomas Palmatier • October 2022Travel/Festivals • October 13, 2022

SBO+: In the March 2016 issue of SBO+, regular contributor Tom Merrill wrote a fantastic article about James Wells, one of the pioneers of the band/orchestra travel industry. We checked in with Dr. Wells to get his perspective on the post-COVID travel industry. He is 92 years old and still going strong. Enjoy!

SBO+: You’ve been an icon in the music ensemble travel industry for many years. Tell us about how and when you got started. What was your motivation to get into the group travel business? What in your background prepared you for it?

RW: My family owned a bus company in the 1950‘s, and I was a part-time driver for about ten years. My route included the towns near Philadelphia. The experience of moving from town to town gave me a small taste of the travel industry and as time went on, music and travel became my main interests. In combining the two over the years, we have been successful in creating the Educational Programs Network (EPN). 

Since the early days of adjudicating, I spent numerous hours studying and understanding the educational value of traveling to music festivals in music education. My brother, Richard Wells, shared my interest in this correlation.

I was a young professor at the West Chester School of Music (now The Wells School of Music), during the late 1960‘s and 70’s and during this time, I administered the adjudication aspect of the National Music Festivals. I was also completing my doctorate degree at Columbia University. Columbia was one of the leading music education schools in the country. Concepts concerning education were abundantly available through what was categorized as cognitive, affective, and psychomotor educational principles. 

Studying these principles and working the festivals fueled my interest and helped me to formulate a plan for creating what is now the Educational Programs Network (EPN). EPN consists of three divisions: Festivals of Music, Music in the Parks and EPN Travel Services. 

SBO+: By being in the industry so long, you’ve weathered some tough times. Several economic recessions, the 9/11 shutdown, and COVID-19 are the obvious examples. How did you survive these rough patches?

RW: Having been born in 1932, I have seen many difficult financial times, both personally and professionally. COVID-19 was probably the worst, but at the same time, I was better prepared for it. My father was a CPA and had counseled me over the years to prepare for the possibility of unforeseen rough times, and I had some good ideas as to how to weather financial storms.

Through the years, I made sure any funds more than the next year’s startup costs, were wisely invested. Early on, there was little to invest. As the company grew and became successful, I made sure we continued to invest our profits for that “rainy day.”

In addition to wise investing, an employer must take care of his/her employees. Salary adjustments and seeking government assistance programs were a big part of getting through the pandemic’s halt on business. These measures allowed us to keep the business afloat and our employees paid until business returned. We have a loyal group and some wonderful advisors that helped us navigate the COVID-19 storm.

SBO+: I’ve been one of your clinicians/adjudicators for 30 years. I remember vividly my first event in Ocean City. You took me to dinner to explain your company’s philosophy that groups come there to get encouraged, not denigrated. I’ve never forgotten that. As I’ve gained more experience in how to fix problem areas, I always try to offer a solution when I point out a problem. Can you provide any more insight into how you and your team select adjudicators and how you determine which ones to keep?

RW: This was a true educational and motivational need encouraged by my days at Columbia. Educational philosophy: how to encourage a personal healthy educational environment, was part of the landscape. It became an objective for all our offerings. You were one of the educators who recognized the importance of teaching and motivating through your evaluations.

In selecting adjudicators, we are always looking for those whose comments and scores reflect not only their knowledge of music and performance, but also an understanding of the performers and their level of mastery. Being able to comment in a way that motivates the student (and their teachers) to continue to learn and excel is paramount. 

Motivation of the musician through positive and encouraging comments was, and continues to be, a theme with my brother Richard, and Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser. Dr. Tim has contributed a wealth of knowledge in the field of motivation and his suggestions have been invaluable to us. Motivating while expressing areas for improvement was always part of his teaching and we continue to insist our judges follow that philosophy and practice.

SBO+: Your company’s embrace of technology has been evident. I remember the days when adjudicators had to wait around until all computations were completed and checked before we could leave. Digital tablets, real-time scoring, and a powerful website are the norm in the industry now. What do you see as the next step in this process?

RW: We have always tried to be ahead of the curve in embracing technology in every phase and aspect of our programs. Much time and money has been spent building and modifying our platforms to create an easy and seamless process for the teacher registering the group, as well as the parent paying for the experience!  The days of paper, phone calls and calculators have been replaced by computers, mobile phones and emails. Some instructors want an experience that can be planned with several clicks and little personal interaction, and we can do that. Others, who value conversation and a personal touch, can still get that as well.

We are continually researching technological advancements to enhance our programs. Whether payment and planning programs for the festival client, advancements that make judges’ comments more accessible, or platforms that help us choose the right hotel and restaurants for your group, we are always searching for the most useful and advanced enhancements to our own technology. Perhaps the next step in the process will be the use of satellites, allowing connectivity and communication anywhere in the world.

SBO+: Improvements in virtual technologies might lead some to ask the question, “Why should we travel for festivals?” How do you answer that?

RW: When you watch a concert from Carnegie Hall on your computer, or view a video of a parade at Walt Disney World, do you get the same experience as being there? Travel related to music, or any other subject, involves not just the bus ride (although there is learning to be done there, too) and the foreign stage on which one performs. In a study done by the Student & Youth Travel Association to which we belong, teachers believe in student travel to foster cultural awareness, personal development, and educational and career awareness. Student travel reinforces curriculum and helps students develop a sense of pride in their school. It increases independence, self-esteem, and confidence, among other social benefits.

Festivals of Music awards the Esprit des Corps distinction to the school that displays “an exemplary attitude of support and outstanding personal behavior throughout the festival weekend. Personal integrity, quality character values, a desire for excellence, and a spirit of cooperation serve as the cornerstone qualities of the award.” This award, given at the final ceremony of each festival, helps kids learn positive social skills through their participation in an event with students from other schools.

When you travel to a festival, you not only hear the music, but you also literally feel the music. When you step into a big city you feel the energy. Virtual technologies are amazing, and a great asset to education, but they will never replace “being there”.

SBO+: You have two major programs, “Festivals of Music” and “Music in the Parks.” What’s the difference between the two?

RW: Festivals of Music has always been our premier festival experience. It is a two- or three-day event which emphasizes the musical and social aspects of the festivals. There are three adjudicators for all concert ensembles and each ensemble is offered a clinic. 

Music in the Parks includes admission to one of the many amusement parks in the United States, in conjunction with a performance at a nearby school or church. It is a one- or two-day program for any level of performance – elementary through and including high school. There are two adjudicators for all ensembles and awards ceremonies are held inside the park.

For both programs, each ensemble receives a trophy, there are written and verbal comments from adjudicators, groups can enter for rating only or for competition and an Esprit de Corps distinction is awarded at each festival. Both programs have a carefully selected staff of adjudicators that fulfill our musical and social goals.

SBO+: What do you see in the future for your industry?

So many worthwhile school programs have disappeared due to lack of funding, politics, and interests/perception of importance by the decision-makers of the schools. I do not think music and travel to music festivals will disappear, but much will depend on making our voices heard. Presenting a quality program that is continually looking to improve and innovate will help to continue our present path into the future. As COVID-19 kept us home and away from our peers and co-workers, it helped prove the need for social interaction in the development of our students. I believe a bright future is coming for our company and the students that attend our events. 

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