The Future of Student Travel
To get a clear picture of the state of student travel, we asked those who know best: tour operators.
To say the last few years have been a bit rocky is an understatement. But positive changes are on the rise — and that goes for the travel industry too. According to the Skift Research’s State of Travel 2022 report, globally the travel industry is nearing full recovery and is just 15% below 2019 levels. Even better is U.S. passenger movement, which is back to 95% of 2019 levels, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration.
So, what does that mean for student travel? Plenty say the tour operator experts we spoke with.
“After a challenging couple of years as an industry, we are thrilled about the current state of student travel,” says Katie Conaway, Director of Marketing at Global Travel Alliance. “There are certainly impacts to the industry that we are navigating, but overall, we feel positive about the direction and look forward to the coming years.”
Brian Nowak, President of Nowak Tours, is feeling optimistic too. “We had a very good year in 2022 and 2023 looks to surpass and be one of the best yet. Schools are traveling again, and many are making up trips for those who missed during the pandemic.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Keith Snode, COO of Kaleidoscope Adventures, who says that 2022 was a year of growth for them, albeit with a limited focus on destinations with most groups traveling to southern U.S. destinations. This year, however, he is seeing a return to some normalization with many groups back to traveling to other U.S. destinations as we well as Ireland, the UK and Europe.
For Michael Embrey, National Festival Director of FunME Events, the return of student travel has been a bit slower. “A lot of performance groups have declined in numbers due to the Covid mandate of allowing students to be together,” he says. “This will take two to three years to rebuild music and art programs back to the numbers in 2019, while funding will remain the big concern.”
After the complete shutdown of student travel in 2020, Dr. Michael A. Mazzarisi, President of Performing Arts Consultants, saw the desire to travel return for performing group directors but not much support from school administrations or communities. In 2022, he saw student performing groups receive approval to resume travel once again but not to all destinations. And now?
“It’s 2023 and our student cruise programs have jumped from 0 in 2022 to over 30 groups on ships alone,” says Mazzarisi. “All our music festivals and dance programs are now taking place in all major cities, with New York City leading the way.”
Overcoming the New Challenges of Student Travel
That’s not to say there haven’t been and continue to be challenges.
“The cost of goods and services has increased dramatically limiting the experiences for some groups,” says Embrey. Those increases include hotel rates, theaters, shows, special events, and transportation costs. Additionally, he says, manpower is an issue. “The challenges of finding the sales reps for hotels, attractions, and other venues has delayed in getting bids and pricing. Some Convention and Visitors Bureaus [CVB] and Destination Marketing Organizers have changed leadership creating a networking problem, with select organizations dropping the tour and travel area of the CVB.”
To combat the increase in transportation, Nowak has been encouraging clients to travel in the off season and even earlier in the week when buses are more readily available. “We have been giving customers more options on ways to cut cost,” he says.
Snode has found some ways to address transportation issues as well, including booking earlier and managing the coaches they have already booked to ensure they utilize them all. He’s also seen a large shift in groups who have them collect the funds from individual passengers instead of group pay as was done extensively prior to the pandemic. “This has caused us to re-work our team to ensure we can meet that demand,” he says. “We have also upgraded to new technology extensively to help with this change and ensure we can still deliver a consistent product for our customers.”
For Conaway, the change in prices has meant carefully assessing necessary budget increases and balancing those with keeping travel accessible to students and families. Additionally, her company is investing in strategic partnerships and continuing to expand their network to deliver the best travel experiences at competitive rates.
Student Travel Growth
Those challenges, however, have led to a rebirth of sorts in once-popular destinations in the student travel sector that had lost some of their sheen. “We are extremely excited about reinventing new destinations and rekindling other destinations that were once a student tour option,” says Embrey, adding that cities like Denver and St. Louis now offer affordable options while also providing unique student experiences. He’s also seen special events helping to provide experiences and travel options for some school groups.
Mazzarisi agrees: “Smaller cities are now receiving more recognition than in the past.”
Overseas travel is also getting some traction now due to domestic inflation. “Groups are finding that if they are going to pay higher rates for domestic travel, they should at least research an overseas trip,” says Snode. “Often, they are finding the cost isn’t that much higher and so bookings in this area are increasing dramatically. People are seeking a high value experience for their travel dollar and that idea is even more relevant today than it was in 2019.”
Another positive shift in student travel, says Nowak, has been schools doing more intimate trips. “While 8th grade educational and high school band trips are most common, we are seeing some schools do smaller class trips,” he says. “Maybe an honors history class does a trip to Williamsburg, Philadelphia and a more focused DC trip.”
And don’t be surprised to see more student groups doing non-school-sponsored trips in the future, although that comes with a caveat, says Snode. “Making sure we have the processes and infrastructure to help them plan a seamless, easy experience is going to be key to our success.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of shared, in-person experiences. If anything, says Conaway, it’s been amplified. “Based on the pent-up demand and interest in new destinations, we predict continued growth and focus on these impactful life-changing experiences,” she says.
By Lisa Shames
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