Traveling with a performance group is often one of the most memorable and exciting aspects of a school music program, for students and directors alike. The opportunity to set a goal far in advance, and then put in the hours of preparation to actually achieve that goal serves to bring a group together like little else. From performing and preparing musically to the process of fundraising and even developing the maturity necessary to venture afar, there is so much to be gained from taking a school music group on the road.
Yet, planning a successful performance tour with a group of children (or young adults, if you prefer) is no walk in the park. Between current economic hardship and ever-heightening security concerns, not to mention rising costs for airfare and even gas, directors looking to take their groups on the road have some significant hurdles to clear. To gain a better understanding of how current affairs are affecting the world of school music travel, Choral Director caught up with a number of industry professionals, who were eager to share their thoughts on the subject while providing some vital travel tips.
“Safety is of paramount importance and actually involves the totality of the organization, planning, and travel process,” says Ronald Blake, manager at Casterbridge Concert Tours. “There is no substitute for proven experience and continuity over decades of operating safe and successful performing programs overseas. Look for a specialist company accredited by international travel associations, such as ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents), ETOA (European Tour Operators Association), IATA (International Air Transport Association), that specializes in performing tours and educational group travel with staff that have extensive travel backgrounds. This will bring benefits from the outset, including a unique level of expertise and personal attention. It is also imperative that a group travels with a professional tour operator who can provide some degree of protection and peace of mind.”
When thinking about safety and security, Kyle Naylor, vice president of Heritage Festivals, also advises that school music directors stick with established professionals. “Make sure that the trip provider is experienced, stable, and adequately insured. Many ‘mom and pop’ operations are sweet and nice to deal with before departure, but ill-equipped to handle many kinds of emergencies.”
Jane Larson, a manager at Witte Travel Tours, suggests that student discipline is a large part of travel safety. “The primary safety concern for any student group is to make sure that students follow the rules and do not do things they shouldn’t,” she says. “The following suggestions are applicable regardless of the destination: First of all, there should be a ‘conduct contract’ that parents sign. The parents must agree that the student will be sent home at the parents’ expense if the students break the contract. Second, the group’s director (choir or band director) must be considered as the overall group leader working in partnership with tour personnel (tour manager, driver, et cetera). And thirdly, the chaperones should be assigned to a particular group of students (and when possible, they should not be the chaperone for their own child). The chaperones must support the rules and decisions of the director. The safety of the students must be their number one priority.”
While there are a number of precautions one can take to help ensure a safe trip, travel and tour professionals are split on how national security concerns have impacted traveling school music groups. “To this point, we have not seen national security issues affecting our group travels,” says Donna Adam, general manager of Educational Tours, Inc. Heritage Festivals’ Kyle Naylor, on the other hand, disagrees, noting, “It has certainly made it more difficult to secure permission from administrators and school boards and drastically impacted international travel including in and out of Canada.”
And then there are financial realities that school districts, parents, teachers, and students must contend with. Some programs find an increased need for fundraising, while others opt to save on costs by reducing the duration of the trip or simply not going as far. However, one thing is for certain, and that is that student music groups are still hitting the road. “We still have a lot of groups traveling,” says Todd Rogers of Bob Rogers Travel. “We have found that parents overwhelmingly still want their children to have the travel experience that their siblings or they had as students. Fundraisers are key during tougher economic times. We are also seeing many groups get donations from local businesses to help fund the trip.”
As for cost-cutting measures, for groups flying domestically, Rogers recommends renting a van for the equipment and having two parents volunteer to drive to the destination. “This alleviates extra charges for luggage and equipment at the airport,” he says.
While perhaps immune from security concerns, Donna Adam admits that she has seen the down economy affecting school music ensembles. “Many of our groups are staying closer to home, with many groups having lower than normal participant numbers,” she says. “Some have had to postpone their trip for an additional year, allowing more time to raise funds. To address the economic situation of many group participants, some groups have shortened their trips from three or four nights to one or two nights. Some have revised their itinerary to a destination closer to home. This can significantly reduce the cost of the motorcoach to the group, and can then make the trip affordable for more students. Many are also choosing activities that are not quite as costly, while still ensuring their students are getting a great experience.”
Directors looking to travel on a tight budget should also be on the lookout for “free” opportunities that student groups can participate in or visit. “The CVBs (Convention and Visitors Bureau) in each area can assist the travel planner in finding these activities,” continues Adam. “Dining options should also be reviewed. Less costly meals can significantly reduce the trip cost. Also, doing a performance and clinic rather than a festival can help considerably with keeping cost down. Be open to shortening the length of the trip. A group can still have a wonderful experience with only one or two nights at a destination rather than three or four nights.”
Tim Hill, director of Special Programs for Disney Destinations, also has seen that many groups have been affected by the rough economic climate, but notes that this hasn’t translated into a decline in attendance at Disney programs. “We continue to see students, schools and families want the best for their children and they continue to support student travel because it is an important educational and performance moment for student’s growth,” he says. “We hear from our traveling groups that the economic cutbacks have been significant in the schools and they are relying more on fundraising.” Yet, Hill notes, “Disney Performing Arts has not experienced a significant decline in traveling groups.”
Keith Snode, president of New Horizons Tour Travel, suggests pooling knowledge and resources as a cost-saving measure. “One of the best ideas is to talk with other school groups that travel about combining trips. If you don’t have other groups in the same school, talk to educators at neighboring districts. When planning the tour, start out conservative in your inclusions. If you end up making more money than anticipated in fundraising, you can always add items to the itinerary. This way it makes the trip more affordable, upfront, for more people.”
“The surprising thing is that the student groups are still traveling and not just from the more wealthy school districts,” observes Jane Larson of Witte Travel Tours. “If the teacher or music director is committed to the value of travel, the parents will make other sacrifices so that their child has this opportunity. We have found that more and more student groups are choosing to travel off-season for international travel (spring break instead of summer). Also, the typical international tour is now seven or eight nights instead of 10 or 12. If international travel or long distance travel is not within the budget, groups are planning shorter tours closer to home.”
Larson also suggests combining school groups, and perhaps planning shorter trips closer to home, but there is one aspect of traveling that she thinks absolutely must remain in the budget. “We do not recommend taking out all of the sightseeing and meal costs out of the tour cost to lower perceived expenses,” she cautions. “The students will still have to pay for these things. If some of the meals are optional, they need to make sure there are inexpensive options.”
Casterbridge’s Ron Blake recommends taking a “holistic” approach to planning a tour and starting the planning early. “Think about the most cost effective times of the year to travel and bear in mind that at some point in the cost cutting process quality of the tour experience can start to be eroded. Begin planning as early as possible. Simply adding concerts to a sightseeing tour does not make a performance tour. A holistic approach to music and art does. Daytime activities should tie in with concerts. The cultural and educational content should be a natural extension of the performances. These tangible ingredients can add to the full musical experience of a performance tour. Truly remarkable performance tours are composed of many layers and details.”
“Plan as early as possible and give your students plenty of time to pay for the trip,” reiterates Keith Snode.
Although some people might not fully grasp the value of getting a performing group out on the road, the potential positives must not be overlooked. As Ron Blake notes, “Performing overseas offers a unique musical and cultural experience. Today more than ever before, travel is an invaluable means of personal growth and promotes cultural understanding.”
Donna Adam concurs, noting, “So much can be gained from traveling with your peers. Group trips during the school years teach kids to take care of themselves when they’re away from home and give them the confidence they need to go out into the world after graduation. Traveling opens up a whole new world to these young adults, many of whom never would get to have such an experience if it weren’t for these school trips.”
Factors like group security and fundraising might complicate the planning process and deter the undetermined, but for those directors who are intent on bringing their performing groups on the road, where there’s a will, there’s a way.