Student Travel Business On the Rebound

By Mark Walsh — May 01, 2002 6 min read
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For about 20 years, students from the European history course at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., have traveled to Europe in the spring to visit some of the cities they have studied in class. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as in many places, there were doubts about whether this year’s trip would take place.

“At first, we weren’t sure, but parents really wanted us to do the trip,” said Michael J. Palermo, a Yorktown High teacher who led the group of 75 students and chaperones. The only concession to terrorism fears was that rather than return to Greece and Turkey, which the school visited a year ago, officials opted for a nine-day tour of Italy and France.

The resilience of students from the 19,000-student Arlington district and elsewhere is leading to a faster-than-expected recovery for the growing student-tour industry in a school year marked by unusual worries over travel.

Student travel came to a virtual halt in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. Many school boards prohibited out-of- town travel and canceled trips for the rest of the school year. Even many local field trips were canceled out of a desire to keep close tabs on students in the event of further terrorism against Americans at home or abroad.

Business dried up so much for Buchanan Tours Inc., a student-tour operator in Buffalo, N.Y., that its owner sought financial help from the federal government.

When the Small Business Administration extended an emergency-loan program beyond the New York City and Washington areas, the sites of the September attacks, company owner and president Tim Buchanan decided to apply. He received a $109,300 SBA loan for his business, which specializes in sending student music groups to festivals and competitions in the eastern United States and Canada.

“I thought, ‘This can help me survive,’” he said last week.

But by January, business had picked up so strongly that Mr. Buchanan didn’t have to tap in to the federal loan.

Other tour operators agree that business has rebounded sharply since the Christmas holiday season.

“By early this year, when New Year’s and the Super Bowl came and went without incident, the travel plans for a lot of groups were resurrected,” said Kent Smith, the president of Heritage Education & Festivals, a Salt Lake City operator that focuses on student band and choir travel. He also operates a tour company called Bowl Games of America, which brings high school bands to Thanksgiving Day parades and several major college football games.

Sept. 11 didn’t discourage Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., from sending students on a European trip, which included a stop at St. Peter’s Square, above.
—Courtesy of Laura Comeau

That business was affected heavily in November and December,” Mr. Smith said. “About one-third of groups canceled.”

Both Heritage Education and Bowl Games of America are owned by a larger student-tour operator called WorldStrides, which is based in Charlottesville, Va. The company, which bills itself as the biggest in the U.S. student-travel market, provides updates on its Web site about the status of popular student destinations.

A Matter of Timing

Fred O’Connor, a sales director for the company, said business has rebounded so well that sales this school year are ahead of last year. Most operators specializing in the competitive student-travel arena are small, privately owned concerns, and they would not disclose detailed data on sales and number of travelers.

The Student and Youth Travel Association, a Lake Orion, Mich.-based trade group representing 44 companies, said its members were responsible for $2.2 billion in sales to 1.5 million students last year. Numerous other student-travel specialists don’t belong to the group.

Over the past decade, the industry, which typically involves group travel by students through age 25, has been growing at least 20 percent a year, said Michael Palmer, the association’s executive director.

The effects of Sept. 11 were muted by the fact that most student travel occurs in the spring and summer, he said. Still, fall is when many decisions about spring and summer travel are made, and many school districts extended their travel limitations through the school year.

As a result, the association went into a crisis mode, Mr. Palmer said.

“Last fall, a lot of misinformation was being spread,” he said. “We hoped to reinforce the president’s message that it was time to get back to normal.”

The trade group published a special issue of its magazine, aimed at school board members, with articles such as “Go Hug a New Yorker.” One central message of the industry is that now more than ever, student travel is important for promoting understanding of American ideals and world cultures.

“The way to fight terrorism is to fight ignorance,” Mr. Palmer argued. “It’s a shame we’re not doing more travel to expose students to other ways of life.”

While New York City and Washington were hurt throughout the fall, some school groups simply shifted destinations. “Second tier” cities such as St. Louis; Nashville, Tenn.; and Savannah, Ga., saw increases, Mr. Palmer said.

Music Travel Consultants, an Indianapolis tour operator, found that many Indiana districts did not want students flying.

“One high school band had planned to fly to California, but when its school board said it couldn’t, the students got on buses to Orlando” in Florida, said Greg Moore, a company executive. “People in Indiana are a somewhat conservative bunch. When 9/11 happened, I thought we were in for the toughest times of our lives.”

But like others’ experience, the Indianapolis operator’s business has picked up significantly since January and is now on track for a 50 percent increase over 2001, he said.

EF Educational Tours Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based student-travel operator specializing in international tours, reports that a year of disrupted travel plans can lead to pent-up demand and brisker business when things settle down.

“Our experience during the [1991] Gulf War was that the following year was one of our best,” said Lori Van Dam, an executive vice president of the company.

On its Web site, EF Educational Tours promotes a “peace of mind” plan, which provides more flexibility for refunds to students who elect to cancel a trip.

“We did lots of modifications,” Ms. Van Dam said. “School boards are doing their best to make decisions, and we’re trying to make it easier.”

Some international trips scheduled for this school year were switched to domestic destinations, but interest in overseas packages has picked up again. EF’s most popular student tour is a classic London-Paris-Rome whirlwind, Ms. Van Dam said, but this spring has seen more interest in Mexico, Germany, and Costa Rica.

EF handled the tour for Mr. Palermo’s group from Yorktown High, which traveled to Rome, Florence, and Nice in March. When they got to Italy, the students had to deal with news of the assassination of a prominent labor leader and with a labor demonstration that kept them from visiting the Colosseum.

And it was only after they had moved on to France, where they strolled along the Riviera, that they got word that the U.S. Department of State had issued a terrorism alert that included Florence.

“It was really too late to affect our outlook on the trip,” Mr. Palermo said. “The students got so much out of the trip, they weren’t fazed by the warning.”

Funding for the Business page was provided in part by the Ford Foundation

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2002 edition of Education Week as Student Travel Business On the Rebound


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