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Making the Where Match Your Why – Essentials of Performance Travel

Tom Merrill • June 2022Travel/Festivals • June 14, 2022

Performance travel is one of those subjects that often gets covered quickly in your music education courses. You might remember a short conversation sandwiched somewhere between “how to do uniform bids” and “choosing the best fundraiser.” Granted, there is much to cover to equip you for the real world, and no matter what, much will be on-the-job training. But because of the far-reaching impact and potential it can have on your program and your students, it is a subject that should be approached thoughtfully to have the most positive effects.

I’m living proof. In 1983, leading into my senior year in high school and my second year as drum major, our marching band from our small town was selected to represent the state of Iowa in the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C. Being a small-town kid, I had never been anywhere bigger than Des Moines or Minneapolis. When I found myself leading the band down Constitution Avenue past the White House—it was a pretty impactful moment. So much so I can look back at that moment as one of the points in my early life that set me on my course as a music educator and travel planner. You never know where a path may lead.

Recently I was talking with a music education class taught by a longtime friend in California, and he reminded his students travel is an extension of the work they do in the classroom. That’s a wise and educationally sound approach to taking these adventures. So, where to start in developing a philosophy? It really starts with five basic questions of journalism:

Who?

What?

When?

Where?

Why?

For performance travel planning, it’s the same questions—but in the reverse order.

Most will tend to jump to “where” first—and that’s only natural. It’s the fun part! It’s the “dreaming” part where you get to envision your group in a destination…thinking of a bustling city with skyscrapers, or roller coasters, or warm beaches, or lots of great food. But consider this: if you’re going to spend your spring break, or winter holidays, or part of a summer with 50-100 young people who are not your own, every couple of years for the next 30-40 years of your life…shouldn’t there be an exceptional WHY supporting what you do?

As music educators, having a music focus as your WHY is critical to not only the success of the tour experience but also the long term benefits it will bring to your musicians and program. Because of this the first thing to decide is what type of musical experience is going to be the right fit for your ensemble, considering where they are now and where you want to lead them in the future. Is it a clinic experience with a leading music educator? Is it an adjudicated festival performance offering helpful feedback? Is it a public performance at a theme park, major concert hall, or bowl game halftime? Is it an opportunity hear a performance by a major symphony or military band? A combination of these? All have value in different ways. Consider what will foster the best musical growth and addresses the current needs of your students, what will give them the best opportunity to “shine”, and what will help propel them to the next level of musicianship.

The other key reason to have the music focus front and center: it makes the justification to administration, the parents, and the community much easier. Rather than being viewed simply as a “vacation” (that they are funding), it has educational value with long term dividends.

Here’s the fun part we promised earlier! Now that you know your WHY, you get to find a WHERE that achieves those goals. During this step you’re finding out which locations have the opportunities you seek and will generate the “buy-in” of your students. If a primary goal is to hear a major orchestra or work with an outstanding conductor—a location better known for theme parks might not be the best fit. However, just about any location will have opportunities for the students to have some fun recreation time alongside the educational aspects. Don’t feel they need to be “entertained” every moment; what truly makes a tour fun is the students being together as they explore and experience an unfamiliar setting. This time spent “group bonding,” a term we often toss around when discussing group travel—can develop mutual trust between individuals that carries over into the rehearsal room and the performance stage.

The key here is balance. This is also the step where finding the match between dreams and practicalities will set you up for success. Too often I have seen directors set their minds on a certain destination—thinking it to be the end-all, be-all for their students to experience—only to have those plans not materialize for various reasons, usually financial in nature. Or worse…to pull off the trip only to have it be a hurried, cut-rate experience to meet budget parameters. Or having that “dream trip” come back to haunt them because of overextending community resources to make it happen, and now the well has gone dry when seeking replacements for equipment and uniforms. 

Just like your major equipment purchases, uniform replacements, and the arc of performance goals and repertoire choices from year to year—performance travel should be integrated into your multi-year program plans to ensure the greatest possibility of success. 

Remember “big does not equal distance”—keeping your tour regional rather than cross-country means less resources spent getting there and more dedicated to unique opportunities that can truly make a difference. One only needs to look at the gas pump in 2022 to see how distance will affect the bottom line. Think “big experiences” rather than “big mileage.” If it’s a location close to home, remember much of what you can incorporate into the tour are things they would not do on a family vacation visit. 

For our purposes here, WHEN refers not to your dates of travel—that usually is dictated by school calendar—but the timeline of process. Earlier is always better, especially when doing a large scale or international tour. Early commitment on the part of the students can be key to ensuring the success of the tour (and the subsequent fundraisers). Most importantly—especially now in the wake of COVID and the retention challenges it created—this can be a recruitment “goldmine” with those incoming freshmen in the challenging transition from middle school. Waiting to announce the tour for the year until fall prevents you from using that as another tool to motivate those on-the-fence students to stick with it, including those returning upperclassmen. 

WHAT goes somewhat hand in hand with WHERE, because this is the point where you consider the content that enhances your WHY focus (the music part). Balance once again comes into play, avoiding “overstuffing” the itinerary so it becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed. 

During my time working with an organization that produced mass choir concerts with amazing guest conductors at Carnegie Hall, it was painful watching students struggling to stay awake during rehearsals and not benefitting from the incredible musical wisdom being shared with them. They were exhausted from being on the run every moment while in New York, taking in all they could during their visit. It’s far better to whet their appetite to return to a location in the future than to have them too tired to appreciate the experience in the present. It’s hard to have a memorable trip when you can’t even remember what you were doing!

Taking a “cross-curricular” approach to your tour content can help win allies among the faculty at your school. We all know how much the other teachers “love” when you take students out of their classes. How wonderful to tell the art teacher you’re including the Art Institute of Chicago on the spring tour, or the science teacher you’ll be visiting the famous Field Museum with its dinosaur artifacts? 

Finally, make sure the content you are including is of quality and relevant to the location. We are all familiar with the term “tourist traps”—those museums, attractions, and themed dinner shows that would be the same no matter what city they were dropped into. While these have a time and place, I encourage you to use your limited time and resources wisely by taking in meaningful opportunities. 

WHO can plan this is the final key question, and the emphatic answer should be NOT YOU! As a music educator, you have multiple hats you wear (with more added to the hat rack in your office every year) demanding your time and focus. And while this may sound self-serving, a professional performance travel planner is really your best solution. Beyond the expertise they bring to the table, they also take an enormous amount of work (and liability) off your shoulders. 

You may have a parent who volunteers to do the planning for you, usually with the idea to save money. What happens if it is a disaster? There will be a lot of stress and bad feelings, with tens of thousands of dollars involved. Don’t hire a parent you might have to fire.

If you teach in a town with a local travel agent, you may be pressured to use their services to “keep the dollars local.” First and foremost, Cancun honeymoons and family trips to Disneyland are VASTLY different from successfully moving an ensemble with all their musical and equipment needs. You don’t buy your tubas at the local hardware store! Even someone who plans class trips to Washington, D.C. and foreign language trips overseas doesn’t possess the experience that makes a music ensemble tour successful. You need someone with performance group experience. 

In the world of improv comedy, there is a concept called “Yes, and”—where one person will present an idea and the second person will respond with “Yes, AND….” completing the first thought by building upon it with a second idea. Find someone who will do more than just plop your ideas into an itinerary but take those ideas and develop them to a next level experience. 

Talk to colleagues and mentors about who they have worked with, both with good and bad experiences. Sometimes the best travel planners are the ones who have demonstrated the ability to rescue a problem into a winning solution. Finally, look to organizations like the Student & Youth Travel Association whose travel planner members are held to a higher standard of quality and ethics. 

It all starts with your WHY, with the remaining four questions providing the framework to build upon that foundation and bring your vision to reality. Having a WHY- focused approach provides you the best opportunity to create memorable performance travel experiences with the power to change young lives. 

Tom Merrill is a travel consultant with Bob Rogers Travel. He has nearly 30 years of experience as a music educator, festival and event organizer, and performance travel planner.

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