Educational Travel Industry Insights From Tour Operators

October 21, 2020
Lucas Ennis
9 min read

Recently, WeTravel connected with several Tour Operators from the Educational Travel space.

In a roundtable discussion and episode of our LinkedIn series, we took the time to catch up and provide a platform where the tour operators could talk about what they have been doing over the last six months.

From the conversations, we have gathered some valuable educational travel industry insights to share with our audience.

Nobody has a perfect formula for navigating this crisis that we’re all going through right now, and Educational Group Travel has been one of the hardest hit segments.

As is the case in any crisis, sharing ideas can help to shape decisions that benefit you and those around you.

“Hope is what you have, strategy is what gets you there.” – Lucas, WeTravel

Featured Tour Operators and Speakers

A-Plus Tours – Mark Isenhour Co-Owner

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, A-Plus Tours offers day and overnight domestic student trips for educational and performance travel.

Ellison Travel and Tours – Marcie Outerbridge, VP.

Based in Canada, Ellison Travel and Tours is a full-service agency that offers domestic and international multi-day and day tours to students, customized groups, leisure, and business travel.

Prime Tours – Lisa Busch, Owner and CFO.

Based in Columbus, Ohio, Prime Tours is a group tour company that specializes in student groups, senior citizens tours, affinity groups, and celebrity group tours.

Sonshine Educational Tours – Karin Hoffman, VP.

Based in Coral Springs, Florida, Sonshine Tours offers custom-designed student, college, and specialty tours to destinations around the U.S.

Southwestern Travel Group – Terri Rickard, President.

Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Southwestern Travel Group is a full-service travel agency specializing in group travel, including student travel, corporate meetings and incentive travel, as well as leisure group experiences.

Crisis Management Playbook For Travel Companies

Educational Travel Industry Insights From Tour Operators

1. How have tour operators kept their teams and business going throughout this time?

Ellison Tours – Marcie

We have really tried to keep a consistent approach in our company through open communication, ensuring that managers are available, and by staying transparent.

Technology has also been our friend. Luckily, we had a lot of people working from home already, and so virtually overnight, we were able to go and work through the cloud and Microsoft teams.

“Technology helped us to keep the team together.”

As a company, we have had some brainstorming sessions to see how people think we can plan the move forward. It has helped to give everyone that voice and chance to mention their ideas.

The owners have also been bringing everyone together for monthly updates to say here’s how we’re proceeding as a team. This is so that no rumors are circulating and so that everyone has the same information, and it’s consistent.

Southwestern Travel Group – Terri

We’re meeting every day for a team huddle and use that time to focus on why we are here, why we are in business, and to focus on our mission, our vision, our values. Meeting together has really helped us to push forward.

We actually took it another step forward and created what we call the brave new world of travel. We were thinking, well, who else is going to be traveling? Where is the pent up demand?

Now we are building out new business models and plans for future growth. It’s put a lot of energy back into our business and what we’re doing.

We’re also using this time to recruit and look for people to bring into our team.

Remote Working During COVID

2. Tour operators on challenges that their companies have faced over the last six months and how they have handled it.

Sonshine Educational Tours – Karin

It was a shocking yet understandable time when all the trips were being canceled.

For us, all the money was out, and preparation was done as we were in the final stages of delivering trips for students.

We had to turn around on a dime, cancel, and go ahead with collecting all the money back from vendors to get back to the schools.

We also made it a priority to communicate with the schools and leadership to show them that we’re just as committed now to serving them as we always have been over the years.

Ellison Tours – Marcie

Everyone probably has a version of this – the demands for refunds were high despite, in our opinion, really clear terms and conditions.

While a lot of our travelers had insurance, there were also a lot who didn’t, especially those traveling domestically.

Then, of course, we got into chargebacks with credit card companies. It caused a lot of stress on us, our clients, the teams, and our suppliers.

Handling it was a fine balance with keeping our relationship strong between our suppliers, our clients, our staff. We had to try to keep our business intact and make sure that we’re here for the future.

We set up a claims team for people that had insurance. The team was to streamline and put in all the insurance claims, help to keep the process going, and to answer questions.

We also created email templates for our teams to use with their clients, and our owner drew up a memo to help support the staff when they were communicating about refund options.

A-Plus Tours – Mark

Depending on where you were, there was this level of uncertainty in terms of, is this a two-day thing, is it a week-long thing, is this a month-long thing, or a decade?

“Our biggest challenge has been uncertainty.”

As a company, we talked a lot about why we started this business, why we are in it. Really, it’s to eliminate stress for teachers.

Of course, they’re being inundated with stress from every walk of life right now, and the best thing we could do to eliminate stress is not to talk about travel but remind them that we’re here. Let them get things going, determine what’s happening in school, and when they’re ready to explore the world again, we’ll be here.

The other thing was this bought us some time to go back to our vendors and figure out how to utilize them more effectively. We knew that travel is going to have to look different in the eyes of school systems going forward, and change needs to happen.

Southwestern Travel Group – Terri

Cancellation has been a difficult process to walk through, especially as a new business. We started in 2016 and were looking forward to a great year this year, knowing that we’ve spent the last few years building up the trips we had been planning.

We had to go back to the vendors and understand their policies because they’re all different. One trip takes months to plan and has anywhere between 10 to 15 vendors involved.

We had to get the team around the table to look at each contract and work out how to get money back to our clients, but at the same time, figure out how we can plan for the future.

If this happens again, how do we protect ourselves, our clients, and our vendors while having a mutually beneficial agreement?

Prime Tours – Lisa

The biggest thing for us was tracking all the vendor refunds.

Like everybody else, we didn’t have a system set up for tracking refunds as we didn’t need to do that sort of thing.

So we had to set up systems and redundancy to make certain that we know where our money was still sitting. We had to come up with systems that our staff can understand and that we can follow so that we were all working together and accountable to those systems.

Challenges For Educational Tour Operators

3. Educational Tour Operator insights into what’s worked over the last 6 months.

Southwestern Travel Group – Terri

We’re making sure that we’re communicating with our clients and doing that with a positive message.

Also, we’re connecting with our vendors at a high level to understand how they are going to receive our travelers, as that’s really important.

It’s actually something that we’ve built a discussion table around with our vendors. We want to see in writing how they plan to ensure safety when they receive a group for us.

How are they going to make sure that it’s clean, that clients feel safe and confident being on that tour?

“We know that being prepared is truly the best way to reduce the risk and stress that our clients will have when traveling.”

Prime Tours – Lisa

One of the things we hadn’t had the opportunity to address yet was there was no social media for the company. That was one of the things that this time has allowed us to do was figure out how we start incorporating social media.

Sonshine Educational Tours – Karin

In this time, educators had to transition into another way of distance learning that no one was prepared for.

Sonshine Tours came up with a creative tool to help them. We produced virtual video/field trips in lesson format so that students could watch different points of interest instead of sitting for an hour on a single destination.

Talk about a learning curve, but the responses we continue to get is that educators are grateful for the experiences that are available.

What's Working In Educational Travel

4. What are some of the things that tour operators have decided to focus on in this time to prepare their business for the future?

A-Plus Tours – Mark

Once we had created the policies and procedures and figured out how we would analyze this in the future, we realized that it would be nice for people to know that this is how we’re going to handle things now.

So, one of the things we did was we went out and got the CSTO designation, a risk management process based certification issued by SYTA.

We felt like having that designation on the back end would enable us to go to our clients and say here are our processes by which we handle risk management.

Prime Tours – Lisa

We have one guide who leads haunted tours, and she had one going to Ireland this fall that we had to move to spring.

But, the most exciting thing was that she decided to go ahead and run a domestic tour in the spring. It’s one of her haunted tours, and we’re going down south. The tour sold out in 72 hours, with 35 guests!

“Selling out a tour right now was one of the most exciting days I have had since March.”

Educational Travel Industry Focus

5. Ideas or thoughts on what could be changed or done differently coming out of COVID.

Ellison Tours – Marcie

I would love to see a consistent system for naming covid in a region or a city or country so that you know you’re entering a space at this level and can adjust for tour planning or advise your clients.

Prime Tours – Lisa

A call for mutually beneficial agreements with vendors is a big thing. Generally, we’ve found that most of them are willing to work with us, and I would like to see more consistency on that across the board.

A-Plus Tours – Mark

The biggest change we need to see is making sure that we’re safer and more protected from a business standpoint.

Southwestern Travel Group – Terri

I think something we’re going to see is a greater appreciation for the travel professional/consultant.

I think that people who booked group travel or even leisure travel on their own during this time are looking back wishing they had someone to help them fight this fight with the vendors.

From the supplier side, I think we’re also going to see a greater appreciation of the travel consultant with them leaning in to rebuild those relationships.

Sonshine Educational Tours – Karin

I think that we’re going to be looking at the big picture from the beginning of the journey and all the way through, not just the final destination.

You see a group get on a charter bus, and they’re wowed just by being on the bus. That alone is a great experience that impacts them forever.

If the student is deprived of those experiences, they can’t capture future knowledge. The experiences enable them to have hooks to hold onto future knowledge. Careers can’t be if the person has never seen it.

“You can’t know what’s possible unless you’ve seen it.”

A student went to Kennedy Space Center on one of our trips and told her Dad afterward that she was going to be a rocket scientist. That girl is now a rocket scientist.

Travel Ignites Dreams

In Conclusion

Hopefully, the different perspectives and educational tour operator insights taken from these discussions can help in some areas of life, either personally or within your business.