With students back in the classroom, youth trips are on the horizon

Michael McLaughlin at Hobbiton Movie Set, Matamata, New Zealand
Photo: Michael McLaughlin

During the holiday season of 2019 stretching into 2020, Michael McLaughlin was in Rome on a once-in-lifetime trip with his students. He watched in awe as his school’s choral ensemble sang a Christmas hymn for Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square. He enthusiastically snapped photos as the Pope shook his beaming students’ hands. Student travel couldn’t get much better than this, he thought. 

Little did he know that in three short months, the COVID-19 pandemic would bring the world to a halt. McLaughlin, head of middle school at Austin Preparatory School in Reading, Massachusetts, oversees the school’s travel programs. That trip to Rome was the last and only trip his students took in 2020. The school’s usually busy travel schedule was also put on pause for the 2020–21 school year. 

“Prior to COVID, we’d have just over a half-dozen trips each year, and all of those trips would really align with different values that our school embodies in our mission statement,” McLaughlin said. 

Austin Prep’s travel catalogue usually includes capstone trips to Washington, D.C., New York City and Orlando, in addition to international trips for world languages classes, with destinations like Paris and Greece, and service trips to Central and South America. The school also participates in a study abroad program in the United Kingdom. 

Austin Prep was not alone in its decision to cancel or postpone its student trips. According to the Student & Youth Travel Association’s (SYTA) Student Travel Business Barometer Annual Report, only 6% of students traveled as planned in 2020; 13 percent postponed until 2021 and another 13% postponed until 2022, while two-thirds of students cancelled their trips altogether. The year 2020 was projected to be a banner year for the youth travel market, but instead saw a 90% decline. 

With many schools back in session and in person across the country for the 2021–22 school year, the need and desire to bring back student travel is palpable. 

“As we emerge from the pandemic, we’ve now been engaged in conversations with our various tour providers who we worked with in the past to begin to re-initiate and re-ignite the travel program,” McLaughlin said. “We’re being very deliberate in taking these steps because travel is so important and people are clamoring for it — kids and faculty and families alike, they know the value of these experiences. 

“For this school year, we’re starting small,” McLaughlin added. “We’re looking to bring back those capstone trips, and the trips that were put on pause due to the pandemic. And really looking at the 2022–23 school year to re-ignite things as they were.”   

What does a return to student travel look like? 

Carylann Assante, executive director at SYTA and SYTA Youth Foundation, said SYTA members are reporting strong recovery for 2022 but they do expect to see changes in youth travel patterns. She said tour operator members do have students traveling this fall, but in smaller groups, maybe with one or two buses where there used to be two to four. Itineraries have also been adjusted to include fewer hotels with the hub-and-spoke model, as well as a reduction in stops. 

Austin Prep students at Hobbiton Movie Set, Matamata, New Zealand
Photo: Austin Prep

Other itinerary adjustments include more outdoor activities, outdoor dining and a more regional proximity to the school’s home base. 

“My belief is that our members anticipate seeing smaller group sizes moving forward,” Assante said.  “There are so many factors to consider, like how many kids are in-person learning at school, how many are participating in certain activities, if the parents have been able to raise the funds necessary to take the trip, in addition to the availability at the destinations. There are challenges from a supplier side with workers at hotels and restaurants and attractions. As suppliers come back to their full capacities, they’ll be able to take more occupancy and larger groups, too.

“By 2023, student group travel should really be back 100% strong,” she added. “That’s what our data is showing.” 

Another key component of student travel is safety, which is even more top-of-mind during the pandemic. 

“Everyone is still operating with a handbook in safety — it’s important to remember that SYTA tour operators have always had crisis plans,” Assante said. “Our members have added a set of COVID-19 safety measures to their existing crisis plans. Student tour operators are accustomed to having plans, should something happen. 

“It’s more important now than ever for the schools and parents to understand what we are doing to minimize the impact and how we will handle situations on the road.” 

McLaughlin said he has been asking his tour operators and travel providers a lot of questions about their safety protocols and the safety measures in place at different sites and attractions. Choosing to travel by bus or motorcoach is one way to have more control over who is interacting with his students.

“We’re looking at private group travel with just our school,” McLaughlin said. “There’s certainly a premium for that, but it wasn’t an unreasonable jump, and it came with that ROI to have the flexibility and peace of mind.”

From on-screen to in-person

Throughout the course of the pandemic, many aspects of daily life went virtual, with education and travel experiences among them. As in-person travel returns, some might wonder if virtual travel will remain a popular option. 

“I think virtual experiences are a great way to orient students to a site and give them that pre-information,” McLaughlin said. “Certainly, there is a magic when you walk into a museum or attraction for the first time, but I think there can be a balance if virtual content is used before or after a trip. The context you can provide students ahead of time can deepen their appreciation when they are actually at the site, and it can give them some critical questions to explore as they are navigating a museum or speaking with docents at a historical site.” 

Assante also sees virtual travel as a way to enhance in-person experiences. 

“It’ll really help maximize the value of what they see in person,” she said.  “A lot of that learning can take place in the classroom beforehand and allow students to do more experiential elements at the destination. Destinations have done a wonderful job in offering virtual content throughout this whole experience.” 

One such destination is Washington, D.C., one of the most popular student travel destinations. March typically kicks off the busy Washington, D.C., student tour season and given the timing of the pandemic, many schools, educators and tour operators have missed out on two full seasons of exploring the nation’s capital. 

“Destination DC, like many other destination marketing organizations, had to get creative quickly when travel was paused,” said Elliott L. Ferguson II, CEO and president of Destination DC. “From hosting virtual FAMs with operators to pulling together virtual multi-day itineraries for students and teachers, to leaning more on editorial opportunities and building out our website (washington.org), to even creating and launching a quarterly animated video series aimed at students called Learning on Location, we made sure to continually stay in touch with all of our stakeholders.” 

 With its virtual experiences, Destination DC found that it could show off parts of the city that usually get missed on first-time visits, like the District’s neighborhoods, greenspaces and other hidden gems. Ferguson hopes the virtual offerings can be utilized by schools and students throughout the year as precursors to in-person visits or to give more accessibility to Washington, D.C., for students who can’t be there in person. 

“We continue to value the student and youth travel market and look at this time period as an opportunity to reach more students and share different aspects of the city,” Ferguson said. “There’s no substitute for travel and visiting in person, however utilizing virtual itineraries and showcasing more of the city is a positive. It’s also a similar story when groups are coming back to the city in person. Given certain safeguards in place, we’re seeing groups get creative and explore new parts of the city and attractions that are otherwise not on their radar.” 

In addition to all the virtual options, Ferguson wants educators to know that Washington, D.C., is open for business and welcoming students back. 

“We are excited to share DC with visitors and students again and there have been some great additions to the city in the past few months from new attractions to new hotels to creative ways to take in classic favorites,” Ferguson said. “Travel opens the door to new experiences and for students in formative years, travel is incredibly important. I’m proud to say that student groups have countless options when it comes to informative and educational tours in Washington, D.C.”

Travel’s positive impact

Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola
Photo: Peter’s Way Tours

Even though it may take some time for the student travel market to return to the way it was pre-pandemic, the fact remains that student travel offers life-changing experiences for students. Any progress toward a return to “normal” is positive. 

For McLaughlin, just seeing his students again in the real world instead of through a computer screen was humbling. 

“When we brought everybody back in person, it was a huge celebration,” he said. “It has been really gratifying to see them put the devices down at lunch and break time and really engage and interact with each other. It’s clear that these students are ready to make some memories together and go on adventures together, and I think there’s nothing like a student trip, whether it’s with your whole class or with students who are studying the same discipline as you or kids who also have that mindset of wanting to be in service to others, to really fasten the bonds of friendship. I think everyone is ready for the adventures that await them in the years to come!”  

Given the anecdotes, surveys and other data points that are being monitored, Assante said she and the SYTA membership are hopeful for the re-emergence of student travel. 

“SYTA has always supported the premise that travel absolutely changes kids’ lives and that when kids travel, they are much more open to the world around them,” she said. “It breaks down barriers and gives them an appreciation for other people and other cultures. And in an environment and a climate in which we’ve been living the last two years, it’s an incredible opportunity for students to lead the way in building relationships again and fostering community and understanding. When we get students back traveling again and when they are in new environments, they’ll be able to shape their perspectives and the perspectives of those around them in a real positive way. That’s what parents are missing right now for their kids.”


Mark your calendars: The 2022 SYTA Annual Conference will take place Aug. 26–30, 2022, in Washington, D.C. 

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Courtney Birchmeier oversees the editorial department at Group Tour Media. With half a decade under her belt in the group travel industry, she's eager to connect tour operators and group leaders with new destinations. It's a great day at the office if her dog, a chow/lab mix named "Kiwi," is in tow. In her free time, she enjoys reading (for fun, with no red pen in hand), sampling craft beer (New Holland Brewing's "Dragon's Milk," anyone?) and adding new destinations to her travel bucket list (like Salzburg, Austria).