Mapping Your Way: Finding the Best Travel Planner

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • September 8, 2017

Share This:

At some point in your music education career, and by some point I mean “every couple of weeks”, you will likely be posed the following question from a student, a parent booster, an administrator, or all of the above: “When’s our next trip?” 

When that moment happens, know that there are tremendous people and organizations available as resources to guide you through this adventurous process. But let’s first address the typical reaction of “why pay someone to do this?” 

First of all, if you didn’t read my article in the March 2017 issue of SBO Magazine (“Preventing a Blizzard of Worries”) check it out in the archive. But here’s the short version: 

When things are going great while planning and on a tour, you probably won’t feel like you need a travel planner. Things will not always be going great. When that happens, you want an advocate working for you. 

Second, but equally important—you were hired as a music educator. Yes you will wear a tremendous number of hats that inherently go with this: fundraiser, repair technician, counselor, negotiator, librarian, politician, among others. “Travel planner” is one that can be delegated, allowing you to keep your focus on the tasks and projects that are going to best serve the musical and educational goals you have for your students and program…the things that truly only you can accomplish. 

Given that, what qualities are important to consider? 

Creativity. Do you know what makes for great improv comedy? The concept of “yes, and…”—when an idea presented by one actor is taken up by another who then adds their own spin to the story. Find a provider who both listens to your ideas and develops their own. You don’t want an order taker who will simply say “yes” to everything you want…why would you need someone who doesn’t bring their expertise and creativity to the table in the process? Rather, find someone willing to say “yes, and…” where they take your ideas and build upon them to create something spectacular. 

Reliability. Seek someone who has credibility within the student travel industry. An important hallmark of this is membership in the Student Youth Travel Association (SYTA). This is a group that advocates for the student travel industry and holds its members to high standards of business ethics and quality. Being a member of this organization places them in a well-connected network of vendors in the industry—hotels, attractions, restaurants, tour experiences, transportation, and so on. I just returned from the annual SYTA conference where I had the opportunity to meet with many travel providers who bring groups to our festivals, as well as representatives of nearly all of our awards ceremony sites. The quality and passion these fellow members bring to the industry results in exceptional experiences for student travelers all over North America. 

Experience. This can be measured in several different ways. While numbers of clients is an easy one, it may not tell the full story. Remember, a well-known burger chain has billions and billions served…but that doesn’t necessarily make them the best. Referrals from other directors—especially those you trust and respect—can be a great measure of “real world” experience. Asking clients of a planner how they have responded when things don’t go well is as (or more) important than when things are great. These are the times when a travel planner shows their true colors…good or bad. A travel planner with knowledge, strong vendor relationships, and resources at the destination can be a strong precursor to having the best itinerary for your group. It’s not the sole determining factor to success, but it certainly gets you further down the road towards a quality experience. That said, one of the best things you can hear a travel planner say is, “I don’t know … but I’ll find out.” This demonstrates that rather than make up an answer and fake their way through, they are confident enough to admit that they need to learn more in order to give you the best service. 

Location. Having someone who is local or relatively so can be nice, but in our internet world it is not as necessary as it used to be. It can however be helpful to have someone who knows your local landscape in terms of economy, demographics, etc. There is certainly an inherent trust level that can come with this. Plus, it is nice when you can have the tour consultant attend the parent meeting where you unveil the tour plans to answer questions and help generate enthusiasm for the tour. 

I’ll qualify this with the following: experience with student performing group travel trumps being local. One of the biggest mistakes I have seen groups do over the years is choose a local travel agent—meaning, someone who plans family vacation type travel— to make arrangements, usually due to pressure to “keep the business local” or give the opportunity to a parent who happens to be a travel agent. Consider the following points: 

Group travel versus family travel are as different as apples and pot roast. 

If the execution of the trip really goes south, do you want the awkwardness of having that person present within your community? It’s awfully hard to fire a parent. 

You also purchase instruments, music, uniforms, and a myriad of other things vital to your program. Are those also all produced locally? Enough said. 

Most importantly, a travel planner who mirrors your values in terms of the quality and educational vision for the tour is critical to planning a successful venture. Taking the time to find someone who aligns with your goals can lead to a beneficial long-term relationship that provides consistency of excellence for your students. 

Tom Merrill is the Executive Director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer. 

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!