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Lessons Learned: Student Travel Focuses on Recovery

Student travel, a segment of the tourism industry that would normally be gearing up for peak season at this time of year, was hit particularly hard by pandemic restrictions. And though there are still a lot of questions about when educational and performance groups will return to travel in force, signs point to a student travel recovery on the horizon.

For more on the state of student travel and its comeback prospects, we spoke to three industry leaders. Here’s what they had to say about the challenges they have overcome and the opportunities they see ahead.


SYTA: ‘Anxious for Students To Travel’

For the Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA), an organization that represents some 150 student tour operators and the suppliers that serve them, the COVID-19 pandemic brought extreme challenges.

“Everyone would tell you that 2020 was going to be a great year for student travel,” said Carylann Assante, SYTA’s executive director. “We were seeing very positive growth. But when the pandemic hit, the priority was to get everybody back home. Then, it was six months of refunds, cancellations and rescheduling.”

Assante said her members reported that a high percentage of student groups were willing to postpone their scheduled trips. Some are still hopeful that those trips can be operated this spring or summer, with the pandemic receding and vaccinations advancing.

“About 20% of our operators’ groups are still on the books,” she said. “We don’t know what June will bring, and we don’t know about July and August.”

Complicating the matter, she said, are the numerous layers of gatekeepers and decision makers that can veto a student trip. In some places, school administrators have imposed districtwide bans on travel.

“We anticipate teachers and students and parents will be anxious for students to travel,” Assante said. “But on the administration side, schools are sensitive to the risk management piece. That’s a key focus for SYTA and all the organizations that work in student travel.”

In other cases, school administrators and educators are eager to restart travel but are being held back by restrictions put in places by the destinations they planned to visit.

“We have groups still holding on for May and June, hoping that Washington, D.C., will start to open up soon,” Assante said. “It’s really about the destinations. We have school groups, but where can they go?”

In spite of the difficulties, Assante remains optimistic. SYTA’s tour operator membership has grown since the beginning of the pandemic. And although members have been financially challenged, most remain in business.

“The lights are on, and people are answering the phones,” she said. “We’re looking at a three-year recovery trajectory. We see spring 2022 in a positive way. The numbers are good; then, after that, it’s constant growth.”

Peak Performance Tours: ‘We Know We’re Going To Make It’

For Peak Performance Tours, a student operator based in Jamison, Pennsylvania, the pandemic has brought considerable challenges.

“Over the last 12 months, we have lost 90% of our business and given over a million dollars’ worth of refunds,” said president Bruce Rickert. “I’ve had to lay off my entire staff, although I’m hoping to bring them back slowly. But as a company, we know we’re going to make it.”

Beyond the initial shock of canceling trips, Rickert said the most difficult part of the last year was dealing with refunds. Groups that chose to roll their trips forward haven’t technically lost any money. But for those that chose not to reschedule, extracting refunds from suppliers has proven challenging.

“The biggest expense was the airlines,” Rickert said. “They weren’t giving money back. I have a bunch of groups that have credits for future airfare. It’s $50,000, $60,000 or $70,000 that the airlines were keeping. We just couldn’t get it back.”

Rickert said he had a sizable group go to this year’s Rose Bowl and another group planning a trip to Orlando, Florida, in June.

“The parents are gung-ho, and the teachers want to travel,” he said. “They don’t want their kids to lose money, so they’re just going to go for it. But what they’re doing is totally different than they planned. They were supposed to perform in a music festival. Now they can’t, so we’ve rebooked them into a Universal workshop instead.”

Rickert anticipates more interest in students traveling in the second half of this year, followed by a substantial rebound next year.

“I think 2022 is going to be a big year for us, and 2023 probably even bigger,” he said. “Kids are dying to travel again, and teachers need to travel for recruitment.”

WorldStrides: ‘It Will Come Roaring Back’

Like many tour companies, WorldStrides, a large international student tour operator based in Charlottesville, Virginia, spent the early weeks of the pandemic getting students home from foreign countries. After that, the next task was working with educators to reschedule trips.

“A good number of our teachers rescheduled from last spring, which is our busy travel time, to this spring,” said Terri Morgoglione, the company’s chief academic, health and safety officer. “We encouraged them to travel in the May-July time frame, and we’re hopeful that we can still run a lot of the ones that are still scheduled.”

For some students, though, rescheduling trips isn’t so easy, particularly trips that mark the passage from one level of school to another, such as eighth-grade trips or high school senior trips.

“We’ve actually gone out and contacted those students,” Morgoglione said. “We have career-focused individual programs they can sign up for. We also created group travel programs for individual students to sign up into with specific target itineraries. Students who missed their opportunities can sign up to go on one of those with some kids they may know and some kids they may not know.”

The WorldStrides team has spent much of the past year developing new sets of health and safety protocols that will be in place on all tours going forward, and Morgoglione said some groups have plans to travel to Orlando or the Washington, D.C., suburbs this spring.

As the pandemic continues to subside, she said, the company expects to see an enthusiastic return to travel.

“Educators and parents are excited to get back to travel as soon as possible,” she said. “They see the value. We think it will come roaring back.”

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.