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Ready When You Are! How to Plan and Organize Your Performance Trip When the Coast is Clear

Cathleen Johnson • Features • April 30, 2020

As you sit in your home, sheltering in place while your kids and students practice with their instruments in a half-hearted attempt to keep up their musical skills, there is a lot that you can do as a director to keep your eye – and your students’ eyes – on the prize of the long-awaited performance trip. One terrible fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is that thousands of kids have been deeply disappointed by the cancellation of their spring trips.

Our hearts particularly go out to the seniors of the Class of 2020 who haven’t been able to travel to Orlando, New York City, or Dublin for their senior band trip. But the good news is that travel will rebound, and student tour operators are hopeful that this Fall will see a recovery of performance trips, and want you to be ready to go as soon as the green light shines.

“I feel very positive about the fall season,” said Denise George, Chair of Receptively Yours, a receptive student tour operator specializing in band and performance travel to Orlando, Florida. “Students are very resilient – if they are allowed to go, they will go! I believe that all of the groups that had to cancel this spring will want to come to Orlando in the late summer or fall.”

Any music director who has planned a student group trip knows that it’s a long, involved and complicated process. Student group trips typically take 12-plus months of planning for a domestic trip, and 18 to 24 months or more for an international trip. If you have tried to organize a trip on your own, without the help of a tour operator, you know just how much time it takes to make the decision to go, decide upon a destination and a venue, make various reservations and payments and confirm all of the arrangements before the trip even begins. Oftentimes, one tour can involve working with up to 20 different vendors – each with their own policies and intricacies.

That’s why now is actually the right time to start planning optimistically for your performance trip. The Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA), which is the premier association of tour operators specializing in student travel, is an excellent resource for help in this planning process. Using an experienced, reputable tour operator that is licensed to sell travel in your state is recommended. Especially during these still uncertain times, you want to ensure that you have expert advice on the most appropriate places to go, and have a tour operator who will be your advocate in the event of further travel complications from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Planning and Booking Process

From the first teacher or director call inquiring about a performance trip, the tour operator sets in motion a process of setting educational and performance goals for the group, presenting travel options, checking availabilities and making presentations to their client, whether that be the school administrator, teacher, director or parent booster group. Some of the considerations that must be discussed and decided on from the start include:

• What are the ages and experience of the group?

• What are the educational and skill building goals?

• Are there specific performance venues, festivals or destinations that you will consider?

• Are there special needs within the group of students?

• What are the budget parameters of the group, per student?

Once these basic questions are answered, the tour operator must begin an intensive, time-consuming process of responding to these needs. Reservations are usually made two to four months after the contract is signed with the “client” (that’s you, the music educator), then the tour operator must make deposits to hold those contracts. These payments are typically made from the deposits required upfront, but sometimes are paid in advance by the tour company.

Throughout the process, the tour operators act as tireless advocates on behalf of teachers, parents, schools and the students who travel, negotiating resolutions with each vendor for each trip. This has been crucial during the COVID-19 crisis as many groups have sought to get refunds for trips that had to be cancelled.

Letting the Teachers Teach

Tour operator Jon Locke, owner of Director’s Choice and a former band director, knows about planning band travel from both sides.

“As a former band director, I know how time consuming it can be to plan a trip for students,” said Locke. “That’s why I know the value I can provide as a tour operator. I understand how important it is for a teacher or a band director to have an expert in the travel industry to talk to parents about things like safety issues, insurance, transportation options, etc. These are things a band director may not know a lot about.”

Bruce Rickert, owner of Peak Performance Tours, adds that tour operators understand the details of performance requirements and ensure everything is taken care of.

“We know the ins and outs of the performance venues, like whether they have enough chairs, adequate electricity and staging,” Rickert said. “We provide tour directors who travel with the kids to make sure the bus arrives on time, that groups don’t have to stand in line. We take care of these details so that the band director can do what’s most important – teach, and take care of their kids.”

One of the greatest advantages to using a tour operator, rather than plan a student group trip on your own, is benefiting from the relationships that operators have with the various suppliers, such as hotels and theme parks. Operators cultivate these relationships over many years through networking, conferences and meetings with associations such as SYTA. As a result, the tour operators build volume over time and that means leverage in securing group rates, VIP access and tickets that an individual would not be able to get on their own.

These relationships have proven their value during times of crisis – particularly the COVID-19 national emergency. As destinations and attractions have closed, and airlines cancel and reduce flights, the tour operators have been able to take advantage of their relationships with suppliers to get faster, more accurate, and better resolutions to problems.

“The larger attractions have a relationship with their tour operator partners due to the volume the operator brings,” said George. “When there is a problem, we are more likely to be fast-tracked for changes and refunds than an individual. What we were hearing at the height of cancellations was that if you were a ‘one-off’ customer, you couldn’t reach anyone.”

Rickert agrees that the advantage of using a tour operator becomes most evident in crisis situations. “A tour operator can help you to secure insurance, which in some cases has helped clients get a greater percentage of their trip costs back during the pandemic,” he said. “And, we take the director out of the transaction process – they don’t have to collect the money, and when refunds are involved, I’m the guy writing the checks, calling the suppliers for refunds, doing all of the transactions.”

The vital lessons that are being learned during the coronavirus crisis are being incorporated into the Crisis Plans of the SYTA tour operators, according to Carylann Assante, CEO of SYTA. “To look on the bright side, so much of what we are learning during this time is invaluable to our members so that we can make our trips even safer and smoother in the future,” she said. “We are learning better ways to handle cancellation and refund procedures and insurance best practices, and very importantly, the best ways to handle a student that may become sick on the road. It is by working with schools and administrators that we develop processes that enable students to continue to travel in the safest way possible.”

The Student & Youth Travel Association

Experience, safety and professionalism are among the many reasons to work with a professional travel planner. The Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) is the premier organization for businesses dedicated to providing young people with life-enhancing travel experience. The association of 140 tour operators, and more than 900 suppliers and destinations, sets the student travel industry standards to help students, parents, educators, performance leaders and directors experience travel’s social and educational value.

The majority of SYTA members are former educators and band directors, or their families have been in the business for years. They attend conferences, meet new suppliers and learn about new destinations, attractions, restaurants, and hotels that provide further customer options. They participate in education and webinars, learning and improving their safety, crisis, and emergency response plans; they are equipped with the knowledge to lead and support your group during an emergency and provide critical support to youth and their families. They know where emergency and medical facilities are located, at all points along your travels.

Safety is the highest priority for the SYTA members. The association developed the Certified Student Travel Professional (CSTP) and Certified Student Travel Organization (CSTO) programs to raise the level of safety standards and best practices in the industry.

“We believe that our quality and safety standards instill greater confidence in parents, teachers, music educators and travelers themselves,” says Assante. “SYTA members are held to higher standards, sign a code of ethics, and carry significant general liability and professional liability insurance—typically far greater than a school or school representative. They have relationships with travel insurance companies and service providers to get special rates and negotiate the best terms, resulting in greater trip value.”

Teachers and directors who are interested in becoming a part of SYTA’s educator network can subscribe to Teach & Travel magazine and join the Teach & Travel community at https://syta.org/subscribe.

Working Toward Recovery

The collaboration between tour operators and their partners at destinations, attractions and music venues will be invaluable as the industry begins to recover.

“Many of our student operators are looking for ways to keep kids connected to travel virtually, and they are working with their supplier partners to make travel as accessible and affordable as possible in 2021,” adds Assante. “I’m trying to stay positive and see what we can do to help the educators, said Rickert. “We are working to create new programs to help teachers continue to teach kids while they are at home. It may take up to two years for the student travel industry to come back, but I know it’s going to come back stronger than ever.”

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