By Larry Liner
I had to chuckle over the disastrous travel experiences David Hanson related in the January issue of The Instrumentalist, and I am glad he can chuckle about these mishaps. Any performance or competition is stressful for directors, even without the complexities of transporting hordes of students and equipment to another city. The night before departing on such an enterprise, most directors have flashes of doubt and probably wonder how they got into this.
In 37 years of organizing group trips I have seen or heard just about every sort of snafu there is, from sick students and unexpected expenses to stolen deposit money. I’ve known directors to show up at Walt Disney World to buy tickets for 200 expectant students only to discover that the park wouldn’t take their check. One director thought he got a great deal on a trip because he was able to cut out bus transfers from the hotel to the theme park by using the hotel’s free shuttle. On arriving there the director wished he had spent the extra two dollars when it turned out that the hotel had only two shuttle vans that ran every 30 minutes and carried only eight passengers. His band ran a little late for their performance that day.
Although school buses are not the most reliable way to travel, sometimes a group can’t afford another choice for a trip. However, I have heard stories about travel disasters that were easily avoidable regardless of the budget.
Just as a student can learn to play the piano without a teacher, the reality is that he will probably learn more with guidance from an experienced professional. The same is true with travel. The time spent competing and traveling will be more rewarding with expert help.
Before planning a trip, think through each aspect. It is difficult for a director to be a travel planner as well as an educator, mentor, coach, and cheerleader. Few directors would attempt to perform brain surgery on themselves, but many of them feel an inner sense of confidence at the prospect of planning a trip for 70 active students.
If this is the year for a band or orchestra to travel and students want to participate in Disney Magic Music Days, it may seem that fundraising is the only big hurdle. A director might conclude that planning a trip to Orlando can’t be that hard because he has been to Orlando before. Reserve the buses, buy all the tickets for the attractions, and lead the students to victory in the competition. If these thoughts cross your mind my advice is take a deep breath, smack yourself across the face, and try to snap out of it. It is possible for a director to travel with a group of students without a hitch and emerge victorious at a competition, but the odds are against it.
My advice is to contact several travel companies that are experienced in moving groups of student musicians. These companies have the best transportation value and know what hidden charges might pop up. Some bands have been denied air transportation at the last minute because they could not pay unexpected fuel surcharges or transport bulky instruments.
I believe directors should pick only licensed, bonded, and insured companies to contract for transportation and hotel rooms. This also reduces a director’s liability if something goes wrong. Find out how much insurance a company carries before making a commitment, but understand that insurance will not cover the risk of a travel company going out of business before the trip takes place. I suggest reducing this risk by dealing only with companies certified by the American Society of Travel Agents or the National Tour Association, which insure travel deposits up to $100,000 at no extra charge.
It is a fact of life that accidents happen, students get sick, and luggage gets lost. Such unplanned occurrences are less likely if an experienced travel company arranges the trip. These companies have been through the same problems many times and have learned how best to avoid or solve them. Take a little of the pressure off yourself and go with a pro.
Larry Liner is the owner of American Tours & Travel, Inc. and has been in the group travel business for over 40 years. He started the All American Music Festival for student musicians in 1985 and hosts thousands of students in Orlando each year. Liner is a strong supporter of the VH1 Save The Music Foundation and has donated thousands of dollars to the cause.