As a travel planner, it’s the phrase I always dreaded hearing on the other end of the phone: “The school makes me bid this out.”
Don’t get me wrong. I viewed it as important to demonstrate value while keeping costs reasonable and accessible so that my clients knew I wasn’t gouging them. But at the same time, the bid process—as it was often carried out by the decision makers, rather than the music director—tended to kill the opportunity to create the most unique and memorable experience possible.
While this has always been present in regard to major school purchases, it seemed to become more prevalent in the fallout following the 2008 economic downturn. Groups needed their tour experience to be affordable for families during hard times…a reasonable and smart approach in order to maintain the tradition of the experience and, in the words of my old boss, “keep ‘em traveling.” Because if the tradition went away, it would be very hard to get it back.
As a result, often the top priority for bid award consideration became lowest cost. The tour content became a “spec list,” sent to multiple planners who—in the hyper-competitive market that existed—knew that the lowest cost likely had the best chance. It became commoditized by those making bid award decisions…with all hotels, all restaurants, all museums, all attractions viewed as “the same” regardless of varying degrees of content or quality. A food court voucher or a four-course dinner—they both got the job done.
The process superseded many things, among them even long-term relationships between music directors and trusted travel planners, where differences of mere dollars outweighed years of collaboration. As a longtime friend in the industry once told me, “It used to be directors gave us a budget and said, ‘use it’. Now, it’s ‘I need all this as cheaply as possible’.”
“Good enough” became good enough. And it became the new normal.
While subjective (and politically charged) arguments could be made about whether the economy has rebounded, there are ways you as a director can retain control over this process. The good news is, it requires what you are best at: educating.
The apples to apples myth
In student group travel there is No. Such. Thing. Objectively, there are too many different variations. The same group restaurant may have multiple menus at different price points. A museum admission may or may not include special exhibits or similar add-ons. A Broadway or symphony concert seat could be orchestra level, third balcony, or anything in between. Which of these variables are included on any given proposal? Find out.
Subjectively, it’s as challenging as evaluating a performance. Hotel quality goes beyond a “star” rating to take in factors such as client care reputation and how well they work with student groups. Bus companies have different sizes and ages of fleet, as well as safety records. Most importantly, every travel planner brings a different set of experiences, expertise, and industry relationships to the table—as well as a knowledge base related to those subjective hotel, bus, restaurant, and similar factors.
Value comes in many forms, not just dollars
The objective and subjective points listed above relate to this statement. And it requires you to establish what is most “valued” in your program in terms of the experiences you create.
Here’s an example. Previously I worked for a Carnegie Hall festival concert organization, where the event format generally included extended rehearsals in a mass group with a well-respected conductor—culminating with a performance in the legendary hall. It was a combination of a deep-dive educational experience in a masterclass type setting and a once in a lifetime concert opportunity. Yet many times groups would opt instead for a New York tour of similar cost consisting of more attractions, Broadway shows, and activities while settling for a performance standing outside near the Statue of Liberty. The reasoning we were often given: with the other option, the parents or school board felt the students got to “do more.”
Granted, there can be financial aspects at play in this example as well. But as importantly, they didn’t appreciate the value of the experience of the concert option.
What’s the solution?
Lobby to your administrators and school board that, while you will supply multiple options if that is required, you need to have the final say on the selection—whether that means the choice of activities or travel planner. They defer to your expertise for purchase of instruments, music, and similar needs…they should defer here as well.
Communicate the value of your vision of the tour experience to the parents and students. Showing how this can be life changing—both for the individual students and the program—can be the key to their “buy-in.” (Similar to how a certain theme park brand paints a picture of a magical family experience that can be yours.)
THEN—you need to be able to explain and defend your selection. Show how your choice will have the best long-term benefits for their students and program. Do your homework so that you can demonstrate the quality of the inclusions, or how your selected planner has a proven track record or particular expertise they bring to the table.
These steps can help you guide them to an experience they’ll remember for a lifetime.
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.