Although most student travel—field trips, performance tours, athletic team travel, etc.—was canceled this spring due to the coronavirus scare, it’s certain that school groups will hit the road again in the future. They’ll travel to learn, to sing, to play, and to broaden their minds.
Two experienced tour operators, Julie Kozikowski, CTP, president of Destinations Unlimited (Plymouth, Connecticut) and Jorge Pardo, founder/president of Vámonos Tours (San Juan, Puerto Rico), share their views on what the virus means to student travel.
What are the rewards of working with student groups?
Kozikowski: I love to see the smile on a student’s face when they see something for the first time or realize the significance of what they are seeing or doing. I know so many people whose career choices were affected by student travel—language teachers, tour operators, hoteliers, etc.—that I often think about how this trip might affect a student’s life in the future. I find their excitement for what they are experiencing to be infectious.
Pardo: There are so many rewards! Students are more flexible and eager to follow a guide’s plan and itinerary than any other age group. Seeing the thrill in the eyes of students who are experiencing an exotic destination for the first time is an uplifting reward. I also love the humanity and diversity students experience when they interact with local people, especially other students. For many, their tour abroad is positively life-changing.
Are there unique challenges that come with this age group?
Pardo: There are some challenges with any age group. Here are some I see especially in this market: allergies and illnesses during the tour, homesickness here and there, and unrealistic demands from school boards and administrations (at times). And for us, there’s the responsibility we take of making sure kids will be safe without their parents on tour.
Kozikowski: I think one of the challenges with a student group in today’s society is to keep their attention. Students are used to finding entertainment at all times on any number of electronic devices. So not only is it key to get their attention, but also to keep it for more than a few minutes. We need to remind students often to not walk and text at the same time, as they could look up and realize that the rest of the group is no longer around them.
Also, with a phone in every student’s hand, they communicate with home at a moment’s notice. This can be good and bad, as sometimes the old-fashioned “telephone game” can come into play. I once had a motorcoach with a faulty belt that smoked a little. We pulled over, the driver dealt with the issue, and we were on our way. When we later pulled into the school, a parent was frantic because her child had texted to say the bus was on fire!
How does the COVID-19 crisis compare to previous challenges?
Pardo: After handling unforeseen circumstances such as the Zika virus, earthquakes, hurricanes, and economic woes in some of our destinations, we thought we could handle anything. I think we still can, but this pandemic is unlike any other situation. It’s global, so it’s not as if we can tell our client, “Don’t worry; we’ll take you to another destination instead.” Unless we start taking travelers to a different planet, COVID-19 has neutralized us.
After months secluded in their homes, though, travelers will be thrilled to reconnect with our amazing world and experience the human bond through travel again. I can guarantee our destinations, partners, and staff will be better prepared to care for them and keep them safe. For example, the San Juan airport in our top destination, Puerto Rico, is the first in the U.S. to create a 24/7 human-fever monitor for all arrving travelers. It works through a sensor camera that catches everyone’s temperature from a distance. Pandemics and viruses will have a harder time slipping by in the future.
Kozikowski: What makes the current crisis different is that we don’t have a firm end date. It is hard to know what a week from now will look like, never mind months. Several of our schools are already looking at 2021 and making their annual plans, though, and we’re telling those schools and parents that we strongly encourage taking the trip protection plans, because they have a “cancel for any reason” clause that will provide a 75% refund. We are using the COVID-19 crisis as an example that you just don’t know what may be happening in the world at the time of your trip, and this is the best way to offer financial protection. Some schools have even decided to require everyone to take the trip protection plan.
What one thing do most single-trip travel planners fail to consider?
Kozikowski: I often say I wouldn’t try to conduct a band, so why does the band director think he can book a tour? I think most single-trip planners not only underestimate the time it takes to move groups of 50 or more people, but they also fail to consider that not all businesses are set up to take large groups. Many attractions that you might visit with a family cannot take groups of 50 or 100. And just because a restaurant provides a good dinner for 10 people, it does not mean they can handle 100. Even hotels are not all created equal, as some focus on family travel or corporate travel. The hotels we use specialize in the student market and are familiar with the security needs that we require. These security requirements and our experience help put a group leader’s mind at ease.
Pardo: They might not consider the liability of running the tour and its consequences. It’s also important to have a solid plan B when plan A isn’t available, whether it’s my tour or a provider’s tour that hits a snag. I would also say a company having available staff on-site is important to the success of a tour.
What the pros tell parents
Julie Kozikowski has had enough experience with student travel to know just what to tell parents prior to a trip:
- If you send snacks with your child, please put them in gallon zip-lock bags to prevent a mess on the bus.
- Encourage your child to eat a good breakfast each day on the tour because the days are long.
- Make sure your child packs a pair of good walking shoes, as we will be walking several miles each day. Flip flops and slippers aren’t great for touring.
- See that your student packs in layers and packs a coat (rather than just a hoodie), as it will be cooler in the evening.
- They should not pack their gaming system.
- A frequent question is “How much money will they need?” Most of our meals are included on the tour, so there really isn’t a need to bring much money. But, as I have two children of my own, I always tell parents that whatever you give them for spending money, they will spend.
For more travel industry resources on COVID-19 click here.
Top photo ©Vadym/Adobe Stock