Traveling with a school choral group is an adventure for students, and even more so for the director. From the initial planning phases to hammering down the logistical details to execution of those plans during the trip itself, directors have their hands full making sure everything goes smoothly at every step along the entire process. There’s also the constant balance of opportunity versus cost: deciding what elements are essential and worth paying for, as well as what can be trimmed to adhere to budgetary restrictions without negatively impacting the overall experience.
For some perspective on the latest trends in choral travel, Choral Director reached out to a number of travel professionals, who shared their thoughts on the most important components to a successful travel experience, tips for keeping costs down without skimping on the experience, as well as what they’re seeing as the latest trends in school music ensemble travel.
Plan ahead. The further out you start the planning process, the more likely you are to get the transportation and attractions that best meet your needs. Communicate directly with the parents concerning the cost of the trip, payment deadlines, and cancellation policies. Use a travel planner: their knowledge and experience are invaluable, especially if something does not go as planned.
Be realistic with your time and with your budget. Allow time for traffic and weather issues. The more affordable the trip, the greater number of students can participate. Often the best part of the trip is the group just being together. A pizza party at the hotel can be just as much fun as a sit down dinner in an expensive restaurant.
The number of performers in ensembles is decreasing. We are seeing more small ensemble travel such as a jazz band or chamber choir.
When I speak to ensemble directors about planning a prospective performance tour, one of the first questions that comes up is, “How much is this going to cost?” Our company specializes in international tours, so many directors assume our tours won’t come close to matching their budget. Surprisingly, this is often not the case. There’s no question that the cost of touring has risen significantly over the last few years, but there are many ways a director can keep costs more reasonable for his/her students, such as traveling during low season. For a European tour, this means late winter/early spring – perfect for spring break tours.
Consider combining with another ensemble or inviting parents/friends to join the group. Every empty seat on a motor coach adds cost to the tour, so the goal is to travel with a full coach-load.
Many of our loyal clients continue to tour abroad with us, as they know the huge value these tours add to the future of their program. A consistent international tour schedule is a great recruitment tool for the program, no matter what the level. Today’s tours tend to be shorter in length, but the quality of the programming is still intact.
It’s not impossible to plan a tour that fits one’s budget, but it does take careful planning with a tour company that understands the needs of the ensemble.
The most important components to a successful travel experience include a thorough and patient consultation with the decision maker that matches up the goals and dreams with the practical reality of what the group believes they can achieve. A good discussion with some guidance from a consultant with a background in teaching and experience planning trips with student groups is really helpful. The group needs to have someone (assistant to the teacher or volunteer parent) who is willing to keep financial records and assist in getting payments processed in a timely fashion – keeping the burden off the shoulders of the teacher.
Being willing to consider staying a little outside the metro area of the city (as in Newark when going to Manhattan) is a way to save a considerable amount of money. Using public transportation whenever possible, rather than charter buses, and allowing the students to find good food options in a nice and safe mall location can also help the budget.
In our area, I find more schools deciding to not travel every year, but when they do, they are making it a bigger trip – sometimes even international.
The most important component to a successful travel experience for music students is the ability to provide both worry-free and cost-effective programs. Our model allows a music director to turn as much of the itinerary planning as they wish over to our destination specialists so that we can chase down the time consuming details while they focus on their musical preparation.
Controlling costs will always be the challenge and rightful responsibility of each music director on tour and can be done without compromising the quality of the experience. Allying themselves with an expert for their desired destination is the best way to control those costs. Experienced professionals have put together hundreds of itinerary plans and have dealt with budget ranges from slim to extravagant and everything in between. They can give good counsel on what to see, where to eat, and so on, providing a wonderful experience packaged within a budget that the music director provides.
The latest trends we’ve noticed among our traveling ensembles is an ever-increasing usage of technology. Our festival teams are able to communicate with the music director with real time updates on what may be happening in a given city, both pre-departure and during the actual trip. This certainly allows for better planning and has resulted in greater safety and security for each of our student travelers. We also digitally record and archive all of our adjudication sessions to make them available immediately after the event. This allows the different ensembles to immediately implement the musical suggestions of our adjudicators to improve the quality of their performance. Social media at our events keeps parents and friends at home updated on festival fun and achievements.
Since there is so much to experience, knowing your goals and focus of the tour is very important to creating an efficient tour plan that takes full advantage of your time (and wasting less of it in traffic). It is also important to schedule enough time at venues so students can appreciate them and learn more about where they will be performing. It’s a good idea to take into consideration the interest of your group: they will enjoy it more if they know they will be performing at a venue they’ve been particularly excited about.
Realistically estimate the number of travelers in your ensemble. If you have 100, chances are that 10-15 will not go right off the bat. So plan for taking less than 100 percent of your ensemble. Prepare your students for the trip and the costs; don’t just spring the trip on them with a payment schedule. Allow time to present the trip and for the families to plan financially for the tour.
We would always suggest using a travel operator that can offer experience and expertise, to help you make the most of your investment of time and resources. Communicate with your travel planning partner often to be sure you both have an understanding of the budget as well as the educational goals of the trip. But also planning ahead can help you recruit enough students, or allow for time if you need to fundraise. Too little time may not give the financial options to all students who wish to attend. In many cases it is wise to organize and include a team of parents and students who can take ownership of helping you insure a trips success. Here are other tips:
Consider driving instead of flying if time allows.
Prioritize your venues with your travel coordinator weighing cost vs. options.
Consider a day of public transportation in venues such as New York instead of needing to rent a coach.
We are seeing a resurgence of the longer trip, and larger numbers of passengers on each trip. The focus of trips has also changed so that the music education curriculum portion of the trip is much more apparent than it used to be. The performance trips are having to conform to points in the state education curriculums.
Also, performance opportunities that connect to the venue such as Voices on Broadway or the experience at Third Man Records at Jack White’s live recording studio are gaining a lot of interest. At Voices on Broadway, students have the chance to perform with the real Broadway cast. Third Man Records offers “School Choirs & Bands at Third Man: A Vinyl Recording Experience,” a program that exposes the MP3 generation to the world of vinyl, analog recording, and the recording industry beyond the performance. These types of exclusive programs connect students directly with the artists, making for a truly unique experience.
For music groups, the performance opportunities are what make the difference in a successful trip. Performing at a unique location with a good audience is what can really make a performance special.
There are many ways to keep the cost down without compromising the value of a student trip. Location can make a difference. Choosing a location like Washington, D.C., where many of the attractions are free but still very worthwhile, can help. Also, staying closer to home helps save on transportation costs. Staying at hotels where breakfast is included is a good idea.
We’ve heard from a lot of our school groups that some of the best times the kids have take place right at the hotel. So staying in for pool time or a game night with their piers at the hotel is a good substitute for an expensive evening activity, and it can help to save on costs.
We are finding that a lot of our performance groups are trending more toward performances with clinics for their ensembles instead of expensive competitions. Economic concerns are also leading toward shorter trips and fewer participants then trips we have had in the past.
Cathy Skinner, Cultural Tour Consultants
Organization is very important. Directors should try to designate a tour director to handle the travel details, so the director can concentrate on the musical aspect of the tour. Try to start planning as far in advance as possible to be sure the concert venues and other tour components will be available to your choir.
To keep cost down, maximize the cost of shared tour components, such as the touring coaches, by increasing the number of participants. Listen to ideas and be flexible.
We find that choir groups are more interested in spending more time at destinations, town and cities to absorb the culture and learn more, rather than traveling long distances on extended tours in Europe.
If this is the first time the music director is planning a tour (and especially an international tour), it is important that he or she does some research and asks for references from colleagues so proposals are requested from companies that specialize in performance tours. Once the music director has selected a tour operator, collaboration and communication between the music director and tour operator is probably the most important key to success. From the very first planning, there needs to be a discussion of the performance and educational goals-as well as planning a tour that matches the group’s budget.
Probably the easiest way to keep costs down is to plan on having a nearly full motor coach and the minimum number of complimentary trips required. If your ensemble is not large enough to fill a motor coach, you may want to consider combining with another group or opening your tour up to supporters. We also recommend having a shorter, all-inclusive experience instead of a longer tour that might include too many options or extras that the students have to pay for on their own. For international travel, often a big cost savings is to travel during spring break instead of summer.
I have found that more groups are choosing to cover less ground so that they can have a deeper immersion into the culture. For student groups, performance and educational goals are often equally important. For example in addition to giving concerts and visiting the main sites, a performing group might also want to have an exchange concert with a local choir at the destination or have workshop with a local conductor or composer. There is also more interest in learning about the music history and composers from the destination they are visiting.