As the clock counted down the final minutes of 2021, I walked students from our hotel at the foot of Calton Hill to an overlook of Holyroodhouse Palace to ring in the new year. After two years at home, the trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, was an exhilarating moment. I was accompanying a group of American and Argentinian students on a Hogmanay (the Scottish word for the last day of the year) trip with the Independent Schools Cultural Alliance. As we locked arms and raised voices singing “Auld Lang Syne,” I looked ahead to travel in 2022 with optimism.

Michael McLaughlin and Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland
Credit: Courtesy of Michael McLaughlin

I have been involved with student group travel since 2008. In my role at Austin Prep in Reading, Massachusetts, I oversee our school’s travel programs. I’ve had the good fortune to lead many of these journeys like a study-abroad experience in the United Kingdom and a choir pilgrimage to Rome. I’ve also worked with educators to bring service trips throughout Central and South America to life, to immerse students in French- and Spanish-speaking environments as part of their language programs, and to help colleagues access professional development experiences in Berlin, London, and Athens.

Students are eager to reengage with the rich stories of our world. The skies are opening back up for them to do so. The challenges presented by the pandemic, war, supply chains, and the economy continue to cause hesitancy to travel and slow the pace of the industry’s recovery. Teachers and guides must be prepared to adapt to a “new normal” as they navigate a complex global landscape that continues to evolve.

The evolving nature of student itineraries

Carylann Assante, chief executive officer at Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) and the SYTA Youth Foundation, says groups are opting for longer trips. Rising transportation costs are contributing to an increase of 5% to 15% in total trip costs. Groups are opting to maximize value and stay in their international destination a bit longer. The 2021 SYTA Business Barometer indicates an average trip duration of 10 1⁄2 days, up three days from planned 2020 itineraries.

Longer trips provide students with the opportunity to spend time beyond the capital or urban hubs. For students, these smaller cities offer an accessible way to interact with people and experience, for example, a France that is not just Paris. A 10-day itinerary provides time in “the City of Lights” as well as the freedom to explore places like the Loire Valley and the coast of Normandy.

“If groups have the budget to do it, many want to travel the whole country rather than stay in one city for an extended period,” says Alexis Biron, director of sales at Jumpstreet Tours, headquartered in Montreal. “These additional stops on the itinerary provide an opportunity for teachers to customize their tour and create a truly unique experience for their students.”

Westminster Bridge, London, England
Credit: EF Educational Tours

Private group tours are gaining popularity

Pre-pandemic student travel often combined several groups of varying sizes onto a larger motorcoach. While groups needed to compromise on dates and cooperate with the goals of other leaders, it permitted even the smallest group to take advantage of economy-of-scale pricing.

Though there is an associated cost increase, private tours allow for group leaders to customize the itinerary to more closely align with their learning objectives. Groups typically need around 15-20 full-pay travelers to keep costs affordable for families.

“We are seeing more groups interested in booking private tours, as opposed to being consolidated with another school,” says Adam Bickelman, vice president of public relations at EF Education First, which has offices in Miami, Zürich, Dubai, and London. “We believe this is due to group leaders who are really excited to get back to travel after the pandemic, and who want to have more control over their itineraries and the student experience.”

Smaller groups allow tour leaders to adapt to real-time conditions. “Many of the main attractions still have very strict restrictions with group sizes,” Biron says. “A smaller private group has the nimbleness to be able to pivot and be flexible.”

“Group leaders are less inclined to mix with other schools due to COVID-19,” Assante adds. “Teachers are concerned that students remain healthy.” A private group allows for student groups to implement additional testing, masking, or other protocols that are not realistic to impose on another group in a consolidated group structure.

Where students are traveling next

While the domestic travel market is expected to recover more quickly than the international sector, student groups are starting to stamp their passports.

Bickelman shares that many of his 2022 and 2023 bookings are concentrated in major European cities that were perennially popular prior to the pandemic. “London, Paris, and Rome are still among our most popular destinations. Overall, there is a very strong interest among groups wanting to travel internationally.”

“Europe will always be important as it connects to American students studying European history and languages,” Assante says. “The English-speaking countries like Canada, Great Britain, and Ireland continue to compete for a large share of the international student market.”

Fritz Moriarty is the co-owner and executive director of Global Works based in Louisville, Colorado. Focusing on service-learning and language immersion, Moriarty was sending custom groups to South American destinations like Peru and Ecuador prior to the pandemic. In the last year, he has seen student groups thinking more conservatively as they resurrect their travel programs. “Groups are not yet going as far away as South America, but Costa Rica is emerging as a top destination,” he says.

Austin Prep students on a private group tour in Peru with Global Works.
Credit: Courtesy of Austin Preparatory School

Keeping students safe and healthy

“Whether pandemic-related or not, our travelers want to know that we are able to support them in real-time in the unlikely event that a challenge arises on tour,” Bickelman says. “For the most part, our customers are looking for information about testing, testing costs, and potential quarantine and isolation policies in the destinations where they are traveling.”

Tour operators and school trip leaders have protocols in place for all sorts of medical and emergency scenarios. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, guidance evolved about topics ranging from masking and distancing to testing and quarantine periods. Requirements were not always consistent and changed with little notice, leading to confusion and frustration. Policies and guidelines must be seen as living documents in order to respond to health concerns and growing knowledge. Setting expectations and transparency in communications will be important for teachers and tour operators to instill confidence and ultimately maximize safety for the students.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Credit: Jumpstreet Tours

Protecting financial investments

“Travel insurance, now more than ever, is an important part of the student travel experience,” Assante says. “It provides peace of mind and risk mitigation to customers, suppliers, and organizations across the travel and tourism sector.” Travel insurance is complex with many different products and exclusions, so it is important for travelers, teachers, and families to understand how their individual policy works.

“Insurance is at the top of the list when it comes to questions from families and schools,” Biron says. “Many schools are bolting an insurance product onto the tour pack- age from the get-go to provide all travelers with the same level of protection.”

Travel’s positive impact

The impact of international travel is clear. Travel has the capacity to transform students. They return with a mind shift that no textbook nor classroom can cultivate in quite the same way. Students develop a greater appreciation of cultures, including their own, as they consider new perspectives in new places. Immersive experiences on the road promote their willingness to learn, make connections, be curious, and explore. The precautions and preparations to navigate this next chapter in group travel will once again provide students with the opportunity to pursue their next adventure.

Article by Michael McLaughlin
Header image: Arch of Constantine, Rome, Italy; Credit: EF Educational Tours