Travel Planning Budget Myth Busting—Part 1

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • January 8, 2018

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About a year ago in this column, we ran an article about the advantages of early planning in relation to performance travel.

If you read that, you know that now is the ideal time to be thinking about that spring 2019 performance tour.

Over my past years of travel planning, I heard a number of common misconceptions about group tours that always seemed to be a source of questions. More often than not, these questions were related to the cost of the tour. Equally more often than not, they were questions expressed by parent boosters.

That’s not to say that they are bad questions, nor that the parents were being anything but good stewards for their pocketbook. But the group travel planning world has a lot of “rules” that often don’t apply to the regular travel world…so it’s easy to encounter things that on the surface might not make sense. To offer some helpful insight as you start your planning process and empower you to better answer those parent questions, let’s do some “Travel Planning Budget Myth Busting.”

The comps are free, right?

Complimentary packages, or “comps” as they are usually called, are the individual tour packages that are provided without the group being charged. Sometimes they are offered at a set ratio (for example, 1 for every 25 paying participants) or based on a specific number that you as the director may request.

In the end, those packages are ultimately built into the total group cost and divided evenly among the paying participants. When more comps are requested, the cost has to go somewhere…and so it ends up incrementally raising the price for the paying individuals.

If the expectation is that staff, chaperones, etc. don’t pay for their travel—and that is a philosophical decision made specific to your group—then in the long run this is where your budget road leads anyway. The effect is magnified if you have a smaller group, such as a jazz band as opposed to a full department traveling. Always remember that the more you ask for, the higher your student cost goes (which may affect participation). You know that saying about no such thing as a free lunch? That applies here. BUSTED.

My room as a director is free, right?

That depends on how the comps are designed, as they are usually set at a particular occupancy level. If comps are based on double occupancy (two to a room) that means the “comp person’s” portion of the room is covered. In other words, if a person traveling on a double occupancy comp package is in a room with someone NOT on a comp package, the second person will pay the full rate. If as a director you want a room to yourself, make sure a single occupancy comp package is included. And remember that it adds more cost (see above). PLAUSIBLE.

My group is smaller, so it should cost less.

True, if you are looking at it from the big picture. The check you write for 20 people will usually be smaller than the check you write for 50. But when viewing from the per person level— as most trips are budgeted—having participant numbers decrease will usually raise the cost of the tour per person because of the shared costs involved.

Here’s how the travel planner I worked with while I was a band director finally got me to understand this. Let’s say you and three friends are renting a car to go to a concert. (Yes, we all Uber now…go with me on this.) The car costs $100…so you each chip in $25 to pay for it. Now let’s say one of your friends has to cancel. The cost of the car hasn’t changed, so the three of you now need to make up the difference. Extrapolate that concept out to a bus, a tour guide, or anything else that is a fixed group cost. BUSTED.

I’ve got two bids and they are exactly the same.

No two bids are ever the same. No two bids are ever exactly the same. (See what I did there?) There are two primary factors here.

The first is the details, and this usually take some deep diving to show the differences. Two itineraries might show dinner at the same group restaurant. Is it only dinner? Or is it the menu with dinner and dessert? Or appetizer, dinner, and dessert? Are those Broadway show tickets orchestra level, or third upper balcony? Does that museum admission include the IMAX theater or special exhibit? What is the difference between a 2-star and 3-star hotel…and by what set of standards? Asking the questions will usually reveal the differences. And always remember as the saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

The second is in the intangibles. Every travel company brings a different set of strengths to the table—varying levels of expertise with a given destination, with certain types of groups, and a number of other qualities. This is certainly harder to measure than more black and white differences like menu choices or quality of show seats, but just as important to consider when evaluating your decisions. BUSTED. In the next issue, we’ll bust a few more myths—including why seeing it on the internet doesn’t make it so.

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.

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