What Have We Learned from COVID-19?

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Friday, November 13, 2020. I’m not superstitious. That’s a lie. I’m a Chicago Cubs fan.

Eight months since the last Friday the 13th. March 13th. The end of that week. It’s really only been eight months?

These past months have upended nearly every aspect of music education, from a basic rehearsal to a performance tour, in ways that none of us could have imagined. It has been draining yet energizing, terrifying yet affirming. It has forced us to think outside of a box that no longer exists. What observations and lessons can we take away from the experience thus far, to help us persevere through challenges yet to come—pandemic or otherwise?

First and foremost: music educators are amazingly brilliant and creative people. We already knew that, but now we’ve seen those qualities truly put to the test. You have worked diligently to keep your students and programs engaged and it is this demonstration of care, of love for your craft and your students, that makes you special. And on a personal side note, my gratitude to you for the miracles you have been executing knows no bounds.

Don’t Panic. If you’re an ‘80’s child nerd like me you’ve likely read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. One of the consistent themes in the novel is, quite simply, “don’t panic.” It’s tremendously basic but priceless advice for any kind of crisis situation.

Don’t Shut Down. When there’s a tough decision to be made, it’s often human nature to revert to what I call “radio silence”—communication drops off when you need to troubleshoot a situation and determine the best path forward. It usually comes at stressful times with deep uncertainty, and where ultimately there’s a knowledge that people are going to be unhappy no matter what you do.

However, ignoring a situation doesn’t make it go away or bring about solutions. There’s nothing wrong with telling someone “I don’t know,” but that should open up an opportunity to collaboratively set a plan forth…even if that plan is only “check back in a week.” Often what’s needed isn’t a fully formulated path forward, but only the next step. The essential element of this is: decisions can’t be made in a vacuum.

The Situation Will Evolve. The reality is the situation may evolve quickly and constantly. That alone is good reason to not shut down communication. And in our social media/instant news cycle world, it’s important to be in touch with your planner in order to dispel rumor from reality. Everyone needs to be on the same page to provide consistent messaging to parents and participants. Because….

There May Not Be Black & White Answers. One of the things that people always want (and rightfully so) are concrete answers to their questions and concerns. Parents and administrators are going to want to know what’s happening, and how this affects everything, from the safety of the group to their investment — and they want to know now.

More than ever, particularly starting in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, travel companies have consistently refined crisis plans to address the “what happens if” questions that arise during an emergency. That said, if someone asked me a year ago what would happen if a global pandemic completely shut down travel worldwide, I would have been more likely to ask which Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy novel they just read. Rare events unfortunately go off the predictability charts—and at times like this, the best travel companies will draw upon all of their knowledge and experience and literally rewrite the solution book as they go.

Patience is the Virtue. Sometimes the better answer isn’t the most immediate one. For example—when the pandemic first broke out, before we really had a sense of how long this was going to be, many theme parks and ticketed events (like concerts and theatre productions) weren’t planning to offer refunds, instead offering credits to be used on dates a few weeks later or within a certain window of time. And based upon their contract terms, because many cancellations occurred only days or hours in advance, they were well within their right to do so.

As the magnitude of the pandemic began to appear, and the reality set in of how long places were going to be closed, those vendors became much more flexible and forgiving with their policies. We saw vendors evolve from “no refunds or credits” to “we’ll offer credit” to “full refund” within the space of weeks and sometimes even days. Had we leapt to accepting the immediate answer rather than a negotiated or “wait and see” approach, the outcome could have been significantly different. Give your planner time to do their best advocacy for you, and know that it may be a long process.

Travel Insurance is the New Normal.  This may have been one of the most revelatory aspects to come out of last spring, and something that is anticipated to be a significant factor moving forward. The first big lesson here was: if you hadn’t purchased travel insurance, you wished you had.

The second, and bigger lesson: if you had purchased travel insurance, you may have been surprised by what it covered. Or, more to the point, what it didn’t cover—cancellation due to a pandemic. Not all travel protection is created equal; basic policies will often have very specific conditions that must be met in order to submit a successful claim for cancellation coverage. And, amazingly, the occurrence of a global pandemic shutting down all travel was, in most instances, not considered a covered event last spring.

The key here is purchasing a more comprehensive plan that may allow cancellation for any reason (these policies are sometimes nicknamed “CFAR” for short). By that definition, it puts the participant more directly in control of their investment and any decisions that have to be made. This potentially then protects travel funds upon cancellation related to infinite reasons—including such things as “bad teenage decision” factors that might be related to grade eligibility or disciplinary situations.

The important thing to know is that these plans will likely be a bit more expensive (although when dealing with a high-cost tour, a worthwhile investment) and there may be additional parameters. They may need to be purchased within a certain window of time relative to trip payments, they may only allow cancellation up to a certain point, and they may only cover a certain percentage of your trip costs. Here’s where taking the time to read the fine print and ask good questions is vitally important.

The Recruitment Connection. As we have been having conversations with music educators in recent months, this effect on school programs is beginning to reveal itself as a significant concern. Because of the online nature of music education since March, typical program recruitment patterns have been disrupted in ways that are going to have a multi-year effect.

High school directors were not able to do their usual end of year “meet and greet” in person outreach to incoming eighth grade students. Beginner instrumental programs have in many locations been postponed with a plan to “double up” once schools are in session again. And, unfortunately, the reality of Zoom band, orchestra, and choir not being what students signed on for (despite the heroic efforts of music educators to provide some kind of normalcy) is already beginning to create dwindling retention rates.

While performance travel serves many purposes, its use as a recruitment tool has always been a successful by-product. Moving forward from here, it may become a key feature as directors seek an additional “carrot” to keep students engaged in their programs.

We’re Not Out to Get You. Holy cow, the conversations on social media in the spring… Comments directed towards travel planners spanned from enormous gratitude to unbridled rage and everything in between. We understand; directors were processing disappointment from students as well as pressure from parents and administration for financial resolution on a promised experience that didn’t happen, all in the midst of the emotional cauldron that had been thrust upon us all.

After 20 years in this industry, here’s what I can tell you: far and away the vast majority of people in this business are ethical, client-focused individuals who do this because they understand the positive impact that travel can have on students. While any industry will have “bad eggs,” from my experiences the professionals with whom I’ve collaborated overwhelmingly place their highest value on doing the right thing for their clients (at times to their own financial detriment).

This could not be truer than in 2020. The pandemic has been devastating to all aspects of the student travel industry. There are many tour companies, motor coach lines, attractions, and restaurants that have or will be shuttered before groups are on the move again. The number of colleagues I have seen on social media with “I’m seeking a new chapter” posts has been staggering. Everyone grappled with the difficult task of doing right by their clients while balancing the need to keep their doors open so that they could be there to continue serving their clients in the future. They did their best in what can only be described as a “no-win” situation for everyone involved.

We’re All in This Together. That is really the best way to sum this all up. Students and performing ensembles need these traditions to continue. The student travel industry wants to be able to continue creating these life changing opportunities—not simply due to the economic aspects, but because of a deep fulfilling passion for this work and an awareness of how opening the world to a young person makes a better world for us all. Working together, supporting one another, is how we will collectively reach the other side.

And with one final bit of advice from Douglas Adams: “Always know where your towel is.” (Seriously, read the book. We could all use a laugh right about now.)

Tom Merrill is a travel consultant at Bob Rogers Travel. He has 30 years’ experience as a music educator, festival organizer, and travel planner.

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