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Roundtable Recap: Discussing the Past, Present and Future of Student Travel

December 4, 2020

The year’s end is often a time for reflecting on the recent past and looking forward to the future. And in 2020, there may be more to ponder than ever before.

SYTA has been diving deep into these issues as everyone in the travel industry works together to navigate through the Pandemic. We are hosting a series of events on the “Past, Present and Future of Student Group Travel” collaborating with our research partner, BONARD. Our most recent event was a roundtable with SYTA and international student tour operators discussing the major concerns, strategies and lingering questions concerning the student travel industry moving forward in 2021.

More than 35 participants broke into small groups to discuss three major topics: Health & Safety, Innovations in Product and Marketing, and the Future of International Student Group Travel. A formal report will be sent to the membership. Here are some of the highlights of those discussions.

The Big Topics

  • Health and safety guidelines are changing rapidly, everywhere. Participants agreed that with a lack of uniformity in entry regulations country by country, it is the responsibility of the travel provider as well as the ground handler to inform travelers of regulations and requirements. Travelers and operators alike should plan on checking the guidelines in the days leading up to the trip, and even while on the trip, given the fast-changing rules, openings and closures.
  • The school board takes precedence. SYTA members have found that school boards will make or break trips, and they typically set the strictest regulations. Increasingly it is the school administrator who must be convinced of the safety and “doability” of the trips – parents and teachers are more easily convinced. Therefore, it’s important to work with them, not only to stay informed but also to remind them why student travel is valuable, and that student travel can be done safely.
  • Second-tier destinations are taking the lead. Student groups across the country are largely preferring smaller, more outdoor spaces. Use these destinations to your advantage—they’re less crowded, often more affordable, and have plenty to teach.
  • Marketing matters. As one participant said, if an operator just says they’re following CDC guidelines, “that almost means nothing. We need something beside it.” Designations like the “Safe Travels Stamp” from the World Travel Tourism Council show travelers that your organization or destination is going that extra mile.

Concerns & Strategies

  • Close partnership is key. When it comes to keeping up with all those changing guidelines, it’s important to have an open line of communication with people on the ground who know what’s going on. Most operators and ground handlers trust the governments for information, and organizations like CVBs can be a tour operator’s best friend, providing priceless guidance for the best way to travel to and around the area.
  • What’s the message? There was some divergence over whether the industry’s focus should be getting the word out about how important student travel is, or making sure people know that student travel is safe—but everyone agrees that the industry does need to communicate a message to our stakeholders of the importance of student travel. Tone and timing of these messages must be carefully crafted.
  • Equip the teachers. You can set up your teacher or group leader for success with their administration or school board by giving them the tools and talking points they need to know. If they can convey the safety protocols you have in place, what you’ve worked out with vendors, and other things you’ve thought of that the administration didn’t even consider, they’ll very likely be impressed with the teacher and you as a tour operator.
  • Keep your foot in the door. Over the years, some school administrators are going hands-off with student travel and letting parents take the reins, simply because they’re feeling overwhelmed. Watch out for this potentiality on the horizon—while it’s great to have parents involved, what we don’t want is trips becoming separate from schools altogether. We know the value SYTA members provide, we just need to demonstrate it. As one participant said, “The silver lining coming out of this is reestablishing tour operators as the professionals. … As an industry, we’ve really looked at how we manage health and safety in travel and moving forward, we want to be there for them.”
  • Safety costs more. Luckily, for groups who do want to travel, they seem largely willing to pay a premium to remain safe. In some cases, it’s gladly welcomed. One roundtable participant mentioned her clients seem “surprisingly excited” about being able to pay extra to have only one student per bed. Not only does it help the school board and parents feel safer, it makes the whole trip run smoother, and this practice may even stick around after the pandemic.
  • Who’s liable? The question of liability and risk management is always huge. There was much discussion over exactly what to do if a student is diagnosed with COVID on the trip. Do they quarantine in a room at the destination? Do the parents come to pick them up? What if the group flew out—the student wouldn’t be able to simply fly back. And most importantly: Who pays for this worst-case scenario? These are questions that need to continue to be discussed, as no one yet has the perfect answer.

Looking Ahead

  • Be patient. With “the COVID needle pointing up,” operators agree the marketing messages need to be more informational rather than pushing sales. We all have to be sensitive to peoples’ legitimate concerns and stories of how they’ve been affected by COVID. Rather than solely worrying about recouping your losses, keep your messaging respectful and simply let clients know you’ll be ready for them when they are.
  • Things change, but not always. A vast majority of SYTA members don’t seem to think the “product” of travel will be changing drastically, or at least can’t see how it will change after all this. However, there may be other changes like generally smaller group sizes and more health and safety precautions in general.
  • The return to travel will be massive. While we may be seeing smaller groups now, that’s certainly not the trend for 2021. International travel is picking up as many travelers feel optimistic about the coming year. Operators are seeing trips double in size due to renewed interest, as everyone comes out of “COVID fatigue.” People are incredibly eager to travel when they can, and if anything the issue will be a lack of capacity, especially when it comes to flights. Be prepared!
  • Carry on health and safety practices. One participant told a story of a student trip that always traveled to D.C. on an overnight bus. This led to frequent problems with viruses and illnesses, so they made three big changes: 1. Add a hotel night to avoid the sleep deficit of an overnight bus. 2. Keep a lot of water on the bus, because students will rarely hydrate on their own. 3. “Douse the heck out of them with hand sanitizer.” These changes drastically reduced sickness in future trips. The point being: health and safety practices aren’t only for COVID.

Stand-Out Quotes

  •  “We need to be proactive, because I think we need to plant seeds, as many positive seeds as we can—things that feel positive for teachers to grasp onto, that this is safe. This is something they can see we can do. So yes, I think we can’t afford to be reactive at the moment. Even if it is a huge amount of work ahead, I think it would bear fruit, to be honest.”
  • “I think it’s ensuring that as a collective, we have one voice, to push that confidence and trust back onto teachers, the school organizations and the parents, so they know that they can trust in us to deliver a safe a safe trip. It’s making sure we’re all coming from the same place with the same message for everybody, because we’re in this together.”
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