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Buyers Guide: Learning as they go

Courtesy ACFEA Tour Consultants

Go to any given street corner in downtown Washington, D.C. If you’re there in the months of April or May, you can stand there for 20 minutes and watch dozens, if not hundreds, of tour buses roll by. If you were able to peek inside those coaches, you would find that a surprising majority of them contain a payload of middle school students.

For decades, Washington has been a mecca for student travel, as groups of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders from around the country make annual pilgrimages to America’s capital. For many students, this trip is a rite of passage, creating memories that will last into high school and beyond.

The educational trip to D.C. may be the best-known form of student travel, but it is by no means the only form. Student and youth groups travel everywhere, from the historic Northeast to the West Coast, Hawaii, Europe and beyond. Although education is a part of most tours, youth and student groups bring a surprising variety of agendas, and often fill their time on the road with musical performances or sports competitions.

And student travel is growing, as band, team and class trips go from being considered a treat to being an essential part of a curriculum or a childhood experience. If youth and student travel isn’t on your radar, here’s an introduction to this fascinating sector of our industry.

An educational process
There’s plenty of fun to be had on a tour, and student and youth groups do their share of recreation on the road. But at the core of student travel is the educational opportunities these experiences provide.

Kate Scopetti, president of Mid-Atlantic Receptive Services, believes that the educational value of student travel has helped keep her company’s youth business strong, even as other tour sectors have foundered in the weak economy.

“I haven’t seen student groups getting smaller,” she said. “I think that’s because it has become more of an educational process, part of the curriculum, instead of being seen as a special extracurricular activity.

“People expect that trip to be part of their middle school experience, and I think parents are committed to their children participating.”

Middle schools still make up the bulk of youth traffic to Washington, but Mid-Atlantic Receptive Services takes high school groups on educational tours of Williamsburg, Charlottesville and Richmond in Virginia, as well as Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Their itineraries include visits to plenty of historic and educational sites, from the Smithsonian museums to Independence Hall and Boston Harbor, as well as to attractions such as Busch Gardens and Broadway.

That balance of work and play, along with the high energy levels of most students, allows for tour itineraries that might dizzy older groups.

“Students are much more able to run many hours on end than senior [adults] are,” Scopetti said. “The pace of the tour is very different.

“And we try to manage the student itinerary so that their attention at a museum is broken up with going to a physical activity. They can walk at a monument or at Arlington Cemetery, and their mental focus is enhanced by the variety of the activities.”

Because student groups often require lower tour prices than adult leisure tours, the company works hard to plan itineraries that don’t include too many expensive activities and to catch hotels at the right time for optimum rates.

In Washington, hotel rooms are lower on weekends, although rates fall midweek at other destinations. So tour operators try to time their travel to catch the best hotel rates as they go.
Student operators must also work more closely with hotels than others might to make sure the properties are prepared to meet the specific needs of a student group.

“They [hotels] need to have interior corridors and have enough double-double rooms on each floor to accommodate the group so that they’re not spread out all over the hotel,” Scopetti said. “Having a relationship with the hotel is very important, and it’s important that the hotel understand student travel.”

Getting an audience
Although some student groups take to the road looking for a place to learn, others go out looking for a place to play — music, that is. Band, orchestra and choir tours have become a big business, and numerous companies specialize in taking young musicians around the country or around the world to perform.

Hugh Davies is managing director of ACFEA Tour Consultants, a performance tour company with offices in San Francisco, Seattle, New York and numerous foreign countries. A former professional singer, Davies understands the importance matching young performers with the right audience.

“Groups have many different goals,” he said. “We’ll work with top-quality high school choirs that are worthy of singing in excellent venues anywhere in the world and deserve to have a good audience. We might also work with a group that has more modest abilities, that doesn’t expect and wouldn’t be comfortable in a major venue.

“Our job is to find the right place and the right audience for them.”

In addition to handling the usual travel logistics of a group trip, performance tour operators must also help their groups secure performance venues, rehearsal space and safe passage for their valuable instruments.

For choirs, that often means lining up performances at churches or schools where they’re visiting; bands and orchestras, which have the advantage   louder music, can draw a crowd in parks, city squares and other public places.

Davies said that most band or choir directors look for destinations that fit their group’s performance needs and that also offer good educational opportunities.

“Some groups are looking for something educational, and others want to attend a performance of the local symphony,” he said. “A busy day would be a sightseeing tour in the morning, a rehearsal in the afternoon, dinner and then a performance in the evening.

“Most groups in the U.S. want to perform every day or every other day. In Europe, it’s more like every three days, because there are greater distances to travel.”

Most bands and choirs that travel do so on regular schedules, often alternating short domestic trips with longer foreign tours. And although the Northeast and California remain the most popular American destinations for performance groups, Davies said that wonderful opportunities also exist in places like Chicago, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Canada and Mexico can also offer exotic appeal at reasonable prices.

“We see it as part of our job to offer advice, even if it’s counter to what the group initially thought they wanted to do,” Davies said. “So we spend a lot of time trying to convince groups that there are other parts of the U.S. that are every bit as interesting, and they might have a better musical experience.”

Friendly games
While one group of young people sets out on tour to play music, another will take to the road to play sports. Sports team travel is a growing part of the group travel market, with most participants under 18.

Travel International Sports specializes in competition tours in Hawaii, Europe and the continental United States. President Dov Ascoli said that the makeup of his tours changes with the sport.

“The main reason to go is the sport itself,” he said, “But the secondary reason is because it’s a family vacation that has the sport as an added attraction. But it associates directly with the personality of the sport.

“Swim teams will go primarily for the event. Soccer, baseball or basketball will go for the combination of the vacation and the sport.”

Soccer teams, for instance, average a load of 30 to 40 passengers, as many parents will travel to see their children play. Other sports, such as water polo, bring smaller groups of 20 or fewer.
Ascoli also said that the price point of the tour can vary with the type of sport, with baseball at the lower end of the spectrum and aquatic sports at the upper end.

For their trips, sports teams seek out either “friendly games” or competitive tournaments. Teams of lower skill level will often play in low-key exhibition matches with local clubs; more competitive groups, however, want to challenge themselves by taking on top-tier opponents in a tournament format.

“For friendly games, we are like the matchmakers that introduce the group to the local club or coach to communicate directly regarding the sport end of the trip,” Ascoli said. “For tournaments, we have to rely on our experience to tell a team which tournament fits their strength.

“The higher competitive teams are more concerned about who is going to win. They will be looking for tournaments of the same competitiveness.”

According to Ascoli, trip lengths differ according to destination. Many teams will spend four to five days on a domestic tour, often stretching it over a long weekend. Teams will spend seven to nine days on a sports tour in Hawaii or Mexico, and go to Europe for nine days to two weeks.
While they’re there, sports teams often have a more narrow focus than traditional tour groups.

“They are more cohesive, because there’s a common denominator for the members of the group,” Ascoli said. “They will have a more strict itinerary. And rather than going to five countries in 10 days, they will narrow their destinations down to one or two major cities.”

Putting it all together
The three branches of student travel intersect in places like Orlando, Fla., where the convention and visitors bureau works with travel attractions and suppliers to help meet the diverse needs of youth and student groups.

“When you look at the major theme parks that we’re so fortunate to have, they do a lot to address these groups and provide experiences that are both educational and fun,” said Peter Cranis, vice president of leisure marketing at Visit Orlando. “That’s one of the things we’re obviously known for.

“Beyond that, there are many other cultural and ecotourism experiences here in Orlando that it makes a rich environment for student groups to come here, get an educational experience and have a lot of fun.”

At Orlando-area theme parks, staff members work with hundreds of performance groups each year, setting them up with concert times within the parks. Disney and other organizations organize musical competitions throughout the year, attracting scores of student groups, as well as athletic events and tournaments that draw sports travelers.

More than 40 Orlando attractions have also put together experiences and programs to satisfy the educational needs of student groups.

“Some groups are just coming for an education trip or just trying to learn something different about wildlife or ecotourism,” Cranis said. “They’re trying to make it a learning experience, and there are dozens of venues that provide those types of opportunities.

“Sea World has some great conservation programs and trainer-for-a-day programs. And Arabian Nights can take you back to see their horses and learn about them.”

For students with open minds and bright futures, a great travel experience can be the first step in a lifelong career of music, sports, education or travel.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.