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Hitting the Road without Breaking the Bank

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For choral directors looking to increase chorale morale and school-wide interest in their programs, there’s nothing like a well-planned trip. It can develop group cohesion and a sense of purpose and accomplishment like no other performance can, create memories and goals for all levels of students, and make for a great punctuation on any season’s progress.

But as any teacher knows, these trips aren’t cheap. From transportation to registration costs to housing, there are all sorts of financial obstacles to overcome when planning to take your school’s choir on the road. Choral Director invited four directors from around the country to discuss their strategies when it comes to setting up travel plans for their choirs each year.

Affordability

The first thing we learned was that, maybe now more than ever, affordability plays a key factor in decisions about planning a trip. Adam Beeken, of Kentucky’s Lexington Catholic High School, says plans have been altered according to the slackened economy. “We have been scaling back from taking one significant trip each year ($350-750 for a trip) to alternate years for more and less expensive trips he says, “Location is impacted to lower the price by traveling to appealing locations that are closer, this lowers bus expense and the number of nights we need to stay in a hotel. With this plan we encourage parents and students to save money over the span of two years for more expensive trips.”

Stan Scott, from Grand Junction, Colorado, puts it succinctly: “With the economy the way it is and unemployment at a pretty high rate, keeping trips affordable is very important. The school that I am currently teaching is mostly middle to middle low income. So even doing fundraisers is somewhat difficult, because people just don’t have the money to spend.”

Beverly Laney, from South Pointe High School in Rock Hill, S.C., notes that inclusivity is important. “It is always my goal that every student be able to attend our trip,” she says. “So I try to make sure it is attainable for all through fund-raisers, and payments that are small and spread out.”

Joyce Bertilson, the director at Phoenix’s North Canyon High School, pointed out that she looks more at the value of each destination, but also makes sure to space out the trips to relieve the burden on parents. “I do try and space out expensive trips every two to three years though so parents aren’t getting hit hard financially every year.”

Well-Laid Plans

A good plan is always the best tool in making sure every trip is manageable. From timing out trips properly to planning for meals, it always seems to pay to have your accounts in order in advance. Beeken: “The biggest way to save money on a trip is to plan one yourself. That way, you’re not also paying for a tour guide, tour company overhead, and insurance coverage that is already covered by your district. Also making connections or using connections in the location we are traveling can lower expenses. So instead of going to a festival that has really high cost and not great incentives and feedback, I can work with a college director and alumni I respect to have a clinic or perform at a church with amazing acoustics for little to no expense to my group.” Bertilson echoes that sentiment. “I can save up to $1,000 by booking with a charter bus company directly instead of having the travel agent do it,” she says.

Laney looks more toward a careful cost-benefit analysis. “I make sure when traveling by bus that we fill however many buses we are using. Nothing wastes more money than paying for a bus that only is filled half to capacity. Secondly, I try to include almost all meals for students in the price. Parents seem more likely to respond to trip price if it is more of an ‘all-inclusive’ kind of deal. In my experience, trips that don’t include meals can end up disastrous with students who have run out of money, lost their wallet with large amounts of cash, etc. Thirdly, on trips with eight hours driving or more, we tend to depart for our destination and back home at night to save nights in the hotel. Students will sleep through the night on the bus and then hit the ground running once we reach our destination. When coming back home, we spend the whole last day at our destination, and once again, they sleep all the way home.”

The overnight route is a favorite of Beeken’s as well, and he notes one other added benefit if the itinerary has the bus rolling into destinations in the evening. “This insures that students will be tired when you get to the hotel – I try not to have much free time in the hotel.” He does note a few downsides in that it decreases the flexibility of the bus schedule because of professional drivers’ limited hours, and it also makes it slightly more difficult to find chaperones that want to endure the overnight rides.

Meanwhile, Stan Scott notes that it always helps to remind participants to start saving as early as possible. “The biggest factor I believe is letting parents know about the trip that you are taking at least a year or more in advance,” he says. “I typically give them a chart that states how much money they should be putting away a month to save for the trip.

Making the Most of Housing

Though housing costs can be cut down by overnight travel, a few nights’ stay in destination cities is inevitable. Our round table had a variety of ideas about how to make the most of your budget for student housing during these trips.

Laney goes against conventional wisdom and seeks out hotels with good rates on suites. “I like to look for hotels that have suites that fit more than four students in a room and also include breakfast,” she says. “If I have 10 boys on a trip, it actually can work out cheaper to have them in suites than can fit five to a room rather than use three regular hotel rooms.”

Beeken agrees. “I also tend to try and book hotel suites so we have five to six students in each room as opposed to four or less,” he says. “When traveling with a small group in a tour situation I prefer to do overnights in high school or church facilities. They’re not the most plush accomodations, but it helps the group grow together and is much, much cheaper.”

Bertilson reiterates the idea of booking housing that includes breakfast in order to cut down on the cost of one more meal (not to mention the assurance that everyone’s eating well in the mornings). She adds, “Believe it or not, I also often find that when traveling with one of my smaller ensembles, using something like a AAA discount gets me a better price than a group rate. Some hotels won’t give a group rate unless its over 10+ rooms.”

Fundraising Programs 

Finally – the subject of fundraising, seemingly a cornerstone in any school program hoping to set up ambitious travel plans. While many use sales and pledging programs as a surefire way to gather up community support, it’s not a clear-cut winner for everyone. Scott gives an enthusiastic “Yes!” to the idea and loves the idea of bringing the community together through activities like his group’s “Rake-a-Thon.” “Students get pledges for the amount of yards they rake… usually only five or six.  One day is picked to go rake leaves and 14-16 students descend on that lawn to rake up the leaves. We put out a public service announcement that says we will come rake the yard of anyone who is over 60 years old or who is disabled for free. (Typically they pay us some money anyway).”

Also on board is Lane, who makes sure students can raise more money than they need for future trips. “Each student is set up with a trip account and, before the payment is due, I update the profit from the last fundraiser and send the statement home to the parent,” she says. “When parents and students see the small, manageable payments and the fund-raisers they can utilize for their benefit, it no longer is just a ‘dream’ for many lower income students to be able to participate in the trip.” For Lane, an important aspect of the choir in general is getting everyone to feel like family, and that comes in handy when making sure every student gets a chance to travel. “If you create that environment, students don’t want to leave anyone in the ‘family’ behind. It spills over into the parents and other significant adults in the student’s lives. Before you know it, everyone has had a way made for them to go on the trip, which for many is a once in a lifetime experience.”

Conversely, Beeken notes the sensitive nature of fundraising and cautions that it must be approached properly. “Sometimes fundraisers can cause resentment and more financial strain, especially dealing with tax inurement issues and people raising funds that have to be distributed equally across the group, he says. “On the other hand it helps parents and students feel like you are making efforts to lower the cost of the trip. Unless you are making a lot of money on a fundraiser, I find that we are making a negligible impact on the cost of the trip. I find community targeted fundraisers are the most beneficial overall.”

Finally, Bertilson notes that circumstances in her home state ease the financial burden of travel. “In Arizona, we have extracurricular tax credits that students can use toward trips. This alleviates a lot of fundraising for us.” Perhaps our next trip should include one-way tickets to Phoenix!

Stan Scott
Choral Director
Central High School
Grand Junction, Colo.

Beverly Laney
Choral Director
South Pointe High School
Rock Hill, S.C.

Joyce Bertilson
Director of Choral Activities
North Canyon High School
Phoenix, Ariz.

Adam Beeken
Lexington Catholic
High School
Lexington, Ky.

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