Prevent a Blizzard of Worries: Have a Travel Planner

As I write this, Winter Storm Jonas is bearing down on the east coast, bringing with it advisories ranging anywhere from "blowing and drifting" to "repent your sins." And as I sit here and contemplate, two things consistently go through my mind:

  • We're really naming these after boy bands now?
  • Thank goodness this isn't tour season.

Even though I don't plan group travel anymore, I have a lot of longtime friends and colleagues who do...and I feel their pain. When the weather wreaks havoc like it is this weekend, it can be an extremely stressful time for even the most seasoned travel experts. I remember many times in December or March or April, being glued to The Weather Channel, watching radar reports and looking at my list of what groups were where and when. It didn't even have to be bad where they were going, or where they were leaving. A shut down of a major hub like Denver or Chicago-O'Hare could put a full stop to plans simply by the ripple effect it creates.

Travel planning is not for the faint of heart.

I was extremely fortunate...meaning, I was extremely lucky. I only had a handful of groups that were adversely affected by travel weather conditions over a twelve year period. One of those was a group that couldn't return to Colorado because of a blizzard there, and were forced to spend another day at their destination.

Yeah, probably shouldn't include them on the "adversely affected" list.

I was also fortunate in that, even though I was the travel planner, I had a support team of people in my organization who were true experts when it came to working with the airlines and navigating the waters when weather created challenges. It is not a job that I would have wanted to take on.

Unfortunately, in a lot of ways dealing with weather situations while traveling has become even more difficult in recent years.

  • Global warming arguments aside, weather events appear to be more extreme and at stranger times of the year.
  • The trend I have seen with airlines is that they are downsizing more aircraft, which means fewer seats. For large groups this means you are on more flights, creating more exposure to delay potentials due to weather.
  • The other trend I have seen is a tendency for airlines to preemptively cancel flights before weather sets in. This happened today with at least one airline cancelling most of their flights in the northeast.

Consider those last two points in particular. You have lots of cancelled flights, with far fewer available seats. And everybody wants them. While the circumstances may not change--your group is going to be stuck on the C Concourse for awhile--you have to ask yourself this question:

"Do I want to be the one trying to fix this?"

There are many groups that for varied reasons will make their own travel arrangements. They want full control of the plans, they're familiar with the destination, or--most likely based on what I've seen--they want to save cost by doing the work in house. And that might seem OK when things are going great.

Here's the thing: if you're in line at the ticket counter and Jim Cantore and the Weather Channel crew are walking past with microphones and cameras...things are not going great.

A travel professional working on your behalf is vital in conditions like this.

  • Because their relationship with the airlines involves not just your group, but spans multiple groups over several years of experience, they know how to best advocate for you. They can help you make the best of a bad situation.
  • Once you have the flight crisis solved, what's next? Do you need hotel rooms for an additional night? Do you need a bus to get there? Something to do the next day with a hundred bored teenagers who just wanted to go home? Or worse--thought they would be spending the day at Disney World and instead are devising ways to turn the baggage carousel into a thrill ride? They can solve multiple concerns for you.
  • Perhaps most important, and often overlooked. With them focusing on the travel issues, you can focus on the kids and make sure they're in good shape--keeping morale up against the disappointment of delay. They need reassurance from you that work is being done to get their adventure back on track as soon as possible. 

If you already work with a trusted travel planner, you know that these are the moments where they truly shine and their value is pure gold. If you don't--you have to ask yourself if whatever you saved was worth it at a time like this.

My advice? These people are professionals. Don't try this at home.

Backstage at the Big Parade

The question is always the same: "Did Santa's pants fall off?"

It's our Thanksgiving tradition here. First thing in the morning, I prep my apple sausage stuffing and get it into the crockpot for a long, slow cook. (It starts with two sticks of butter and kind of goes downhill from there....) I grab my second or third cup of coffee and, as I have for as long as I can remember, sit down to watch the NBC broadcast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. As the years pass the list of guest celebrities gets less and less familiar; I'm currently at "The Cast of Sesame Street" when recognition finally dawns on me. But one thing over the years has never changed.

I'm here for the bands.

But back to Santa. My wife Jen swears that sometime in the early 1980's, at the end of the parade when he arrived at 34th Street and Herald Square, Santa stood to wave to the cheering crowds--and due to either a faulty buckle or mischievous elf he lost his pants. She distinctly remembers her and her Grandma Edna looking at each other with the expression of "did that just happen?" I've never seen video evidence of long-lost footage on YouTube, nothing of the sort. She has found other people with the same memory, but no proof. Just like Area 51, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Cubs winning the World Series.....I want to believe.

We have lots of great memories of this holiday classic, mostly viewed through increasingly larger TV screens. One of our favorites was watching at home as our alma mater, Illinois State University's "Big Red Marching Machine" brought in the jolly man himself:

But for me, nothing tops where I was one year ago--when I actually got to BE there for the first time.

It was one of the last tours I organized, for a school and a director who had become dear friends over many tour experiences together. The American Fork High School Band from Utah was making a return trip to the parade, and I decided this time around I wanted to be there with the group to finally experience the Macy's Parade first hand.

During the planning process of something like this, and then actually being there, you learn a lot that generally you would never know sitting in front of the television in your slippers with a hot cup of coffee. It greatly increases your appreciation for the hard work that goes into a performance at this event, and how this gives hundreds of band students a glimpse into the world of professional entertainment.

First, the area where the bands perform for the cameras on 34th Street in front of Macy's is much smaller in person:

No, those aren't jazz hands.

It feels smaller still on parade day when they bring in the lights, cameras, bleachers for special guests and the broadcast booth. Not to mention the massive broadcast team that runs the show. You would look at this and wonder how the large bands can maneuver as they do in that tight space. Apparently, the camera not only adds ten pounds, but about 30 feet as well.

It's also a very precisely timed event. Just off camera there is a red starting line on the street, and each group has precisely 75 seconds once they begin crossing that line to do their entire camera performance. That includes getting everyone into the staging area. If you've watched and it looks like the bands--especially the large ones with 200+ members--are practically running into their spots, it's because they are running in step to their spots.

Bands film their routines in advance to send to the Macy's Parade creative team for approval of length as well as critique and suggestions. The Macy's creative team is there to help these groups look and sound their best during this "once in a lifetime" moment, and this collaboration works to create a performance that has a professional polish and appeal for the millions in the TV audience.

But the truly amazing part of this is what leads up to this moment. The part behind the curtain that goes unseen on parade day.

The day usually starts for some of these bands around 1:00 AM. And it's earlier if the band is staying outside of the city and needs to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel. We stayed in midtown which allowed us to sleep in to the lazy hour of 1:30 AM. They get into full uniform, load themselves and their instruments (and nothing else) onto their buses and make their way to Herald Square for camera rehearsal.

The camera rehearsal serves two purposes. It gives the camera team their opportunity to finalize what you the viewer will see by deciding points of interest in the performance, setting proper camera angles and getting the timing "just right". It also gives the group their only "run through" of that routine they've been perfecting for months on the actual stage. Often this will be the first time they will have had the opportunity to review the routine as a full group since leaving home days before.

This will also be their only practice with the creative team who will give them their visual "GO" cue for that critical 75 seconds to start. Visual because of the factor that is still not in place and won't be until their actual performance moment--the overwhelming sound of cheering crowds echoing off of the canyon of buildings on 34th Street, making it virtually impossible to hear an audio cue. At most groups will get to run this twice...and that's usually only if the camera crew feels they need another look. This gives a completely new definition to being "on" in a rehearsal, and the focus demanded of a group is tremendous.

So now it's about 4:30 AM, you're in midtown with very little to do until parade line up around 9:00 AM. What to do before traveling 50 blocks uptown to the step off point? Shawarma take-out for 300?

Many groups will do a combination of the following, in no particular order:

  • Find a quiet street, park the buses, and get some sleep. In full uniform. With your instrument on your lap.
  • Get breakfast.
  • Repeat the sleep plan.

We had set up a buffet breakfast for the band at Planet Hollywood, and they and locations like Hard Rock Café tend to be some of the "go-to" places for the Macy's bands. They are incredibly efficient at serving multiple bands of hundreds of students and chaperones in these early hours of the day. It is likely one of their biggest days of the year--and the day hasn't even started at that point.

I can also tell you this: one of the most surreal things you can ever experience is Times Square at 5:00 AM on a holiday.

I half expected to see Charlton Heston running down the street yelling something about soylent green.

Finally the groups arrive near the American Museum of Natural History, and to say the atmosphere is festive is an understatement. Bands and parade units lining up, floats being boarded, the iconic balloons being inflated....and everyone in a jovial mood and happy to be there, despite the likelihood of complete lack of sleep. It is a truly unique and wonderful experience that, in a city with a reputation for brusqueness, exudes the warmth and generosity of the holiday.

Here's the truly amazing part to think about. When you see those bands from the warmth and comfort of your living room, you're seeing about 200 teenagers who have been up since 1:00 AM, have had a rehearsal at about 3:30 AM, have slept sporadically on a bus, have just marched almost 3 miles in who knows what kind of weather....and are giving the performance of a lifetime at the end of the parade.

And they're nailing it.

Tomorrow I'll watch the parade, as I always have, but with a new set of eyes and a bigger sense of awe and appreciation that comes from the perspective of having been there. And I'll be thinking about the incredible memories of that experience, grateful for having had the opportunity to peer briefly behind the curtain of magic of this holiday tradition.

And of course, watching Santa closely. Because you never know. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Part 4: It's Not Where....It's WHY. Performance Tour Philosophy.

In this final part of this series, we'll discuss ways to keep the non-musical parts of your experience authentic and truly memorable for your musicians.

Keep It Real

Full disclosurethis one is a personal pet peeve. Its also part of our human nature and our own comfort zones, because we are creatures of habit who like to know what to expect.

Youre in a major cityperhaps New York or Chicago, maybe even somewhere like Dallas or New Orleans. A place with a culture, history, and ethnic mix all its own. Why on earth would you want to experience a chain restaurant or attraction that has no innate connection to your location? Or worse, that can be found close to home? (I cringe when I see touring students walk into the golden arches in Time Square.)


A perfect example: I once saw an itinerary for a group traveling to Hawaii that included an Aloha Italian Dinner the first night, pizza and hula lessons another night, and a meal at a chain Italian restaurant on a third night. With the incredible cultural mix that makes up HawaiiPolynesian, Japanese, etc.this was a missed opportunity that could have been avoided by creative guidance on the part of the travel planner.


In their defense: sometimes these types of places are the only ones capable of handling large numbers of people, particularly for mealsand they do an outstanding job of it at a very reasonable cost. And sometimes there are no other options logisticallyI have found myself in the same predicament during my travel planning days. But whenever possible, consider ways for your students to get a more authentic experience of that city.


Get creative. Ask your travel planner to identify the more unique restaurants and sites, music related or not. Sometimes this means taking the approach of splitting into smaller groups with chaperones and really learning to explore (which would be a necessity if in a foreign country). Thanks to my in-laws, Im a huge fan of travel expert Rick Steves and his Europe Through The Back Door philosophy of travel. Many of those basic concepts could be applied stateside, and you may even find that the out of the way places and activities have less cost (and more authenticity). Yes it has its challenges, and yes it means more research and logistical pre-planning.but the benefits can be truly unique and memorable.

A wise friend had a saying that is one of my favorites: There is no growth in a comfort zone, and no comfort in a growth zone. Get uncomfortable and grow!

In Conclusion

It is my hope that these ideas are helpful and thought-provoking as you map out your philosophy of performance touring. They are certainly not meant to ruffle feathers but instead to challenge us all to take a deeper look at the opportunities we provide our musicians as they venture out on performance tours. Our students, and our field of music education, certainly deserves no less than the best that we can provide them!

Part 3: It's Not Where....It's WHY. Performance Tour Philosophy.

In the first two installments, we've discussed setting the tone of your performance tour philosophy, as well as keeping the experience meaningful and well-paced for your ensemble. In this section, we'll address expectations as related to the performance experience itself.

Performance Prep

This isnt about musical preparation. This is about having a clear vision of the type of performance experiences you want for your musicians. There are three primary facets to this:


Setting. Consider the venue and how your group will sound and be able to present themselves. You and your musicians work hard to hone your craft and create beautiful performances with artistic merit. Dont sell yourselves short! For exampledoes having your string orchestra, wind ensemble or madrigal choir perform in a public space for whomever happens to walk by present you in your best light? Will ambient noise or weather conditions detract from the quality of your work? Does it make the kind of statement you desire to make about the importance of your programand music education in general?

Cost. This is the difficult reality, and it is a huge challenge in the performance travel industry. Most public performance venues--parks, plazas, or locations associated with an attraction--are free or inexpensive, and usually outdoors. They are also few and far between, and have the added challenge of on-site equipment needs. Concert venues of high quality are usually a higher cost. The adage you get what you pay for is more true here than in any other aspect of the performance tour experience.the possible exception being sharing an exchange concert or similar with a local ensemble who has access to a remarkable location. An awareness of this will help you prioritize this facet in your overall plan.

Artistic Merit. Is this a performance event designed and executed by musicians with musical integrity at the heart of the event, or created by an organization to generate travel revenue? Is this a selective special invitation performance opportunity? Do your homework. What is the nature and selectivity of the event? (Speaking for myself as an examplefor every ensemble I would contact to invite for Carnegie Hall performances, there were many, many more that I did not.) Im not saying one is necessarily better or worse than anotherthey are just different and your fit all depends on what is important to the growth and image of your program.

In speaking with travel planners at recent conferences, these items present some of the biggest challenges to meaningful performance touring right now. I anticipate that a solution to this will need to be achieved via a collaborative creative effort involving ensemble conductors, travel planners, festival organizers, tourism bureaus and arts organizations with access to quality concert venues.

In the final installment of this series, we'll discuss ways to keep the experience authentic for your musicians.

Part 2: It's Not's WHY. Performance Tour Philosophy.

In the previous post, we discussed two critical points related to performance tour philosophy--developing your overall goals and determining the scope of your experience. In this post, we'll address how depth of experience is more important than quantity.


Make It Meaningful


So often I see groups doing the same things in any given city, almost to the point of predictability. And while every city certainly has their must see much of the itinerary content I see are attraction experiences that are no different than what a tourist walking up to the admission window will receive. (Much of this, sadly, has been driven by the bid process trend of school districtswhere multiple travel planners have to design a tour to the common denominator, and the low bid wins. A topic for another time.)


This could take many formsit might be a hands-on workshop at a museum, an extended behind the scenes clinic experience with a performance organization or show, a multi-day collaboration with a leading conductor, a walking tour that incorporates the history of the area, or even something as simple as having the budget to see both a Broadway show and a symphony concert (rather than only choosing one). The possibilities are as endless as your creativity and asking the question, what if?


For example: a good friend in the Los Angeles group travel industry has an incredible program where groups have a private screening of a movie in a historic theater, followed by a Q & A with a star from the film. Twice I've had groups who met an Oscar-winning actor from a legendary film (who brought his statue to show the students!). Yes, these experiences are often higher costbut they are also tremendously higher value, because they are not experiences they can have on a family vacation.


This ties into the redefinition of the "big" tour concept that was discussed in the first part of this series. Less resources towards distance traveled gives you more to work with once you're at the location.


The side bonus to this: content of this type will likely be easier to justify to administration and school boards, especially in this day and age of ever-increasing scrutiny of time away from school (and ever-prevalent testing). This type of experience places less emphasis on sightseeing and more on educational and musical value.which might help them see beyond the price tag.


Pack Light


This is not a reference to a suitcase, but rather to schedule.


As directors of music ensembles (and I was guilty of the same), we have a tendency of thought that reads fill every minute of the touridle time only means teens getting into trouble. The other reasoning is the concept of getting our moneys worth, meaning that weve come all this distance so we need to see and do as much as humanly possible from breakfast to bedtime.


Unfortunately, what we see so many times as a result of this are students too exhausted to appreciate where they are and what they are experiencing. Its a shame to see kids falling asleep in the middle of a Broadway show or a philharmonic concert.not only a waste of an expensive ticket, but more painfully a lost cultural opportunity. Even worse is seeing them sluggish during a clinic or rehearsal with a great conductor/educator, or during their performancetimes when we all want them at their very best. Pacing is everything.


Quite simply, its the old concept of quality vs. quantity. Do you look at the experience as a one-shot opportunity, or a way to whet the appetite of your musicians for future experiences?


This comes back to my own personal experience in high school band and that trip to Washington, D.C. We saw a lot.but didnt see everything. What it did though was open the eyes of a kid from rural Iowa to a much bigger world, and motivated him to strive in life to achieve success and be able to experience things like this time and time again. (And when he was finally conducting a band of his own, guess where he took them on his first tour?)


In the next installment, we'll discuss having the vision of the performance experience you desire for your ensemble.




It's Not Where....It's WHY. Performance Tour Philosophy.

I was 16 years old, it was my first year as drum major, and this high school band trip to Washington, D.C. was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.

Little did I realize at the time how this was the first step in a journey that has taken me thousands of miles to see amazing locations, introduced me to countless incredible people (including my wife), and given me the opportunity to experience once in a lifetime events.sometimes even more than once!

This initial spark led to ten years as a high school band director and a masters degree in conducting. Upon leaving the podium, I spent another decade as a tour consultant for one of the most successful and well-respected organizations in the performance travel field. That led to a role as a concert developer for an organization that produces and promotes collaborative concerts in some of the most famous concert venues in the U.S.among them Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Orchestra Hall in Chicago. And now finally here to Festivals of Music, creating a series of educational adjudicated festivals across the county.

It is through that lens of experience that I offer these thoughts. Within all these roles in my life, the constant has been the sameto provide musicians the kinds of life-altering opportunities that I had the good fortune to enjoy. Because I understand first-hand where that can lead. And as music educators, it is an enormous responsibility that demands thoughtful consideration of the why to include a performance tour as part of your program.

Begin With The End In Mind

With full credit to Steven Covey and his Seven Habits, this is perhaps the most important (and effective) thought that needs to be addressed when you begin the planning process. How do you ultimately want this to impact your musicians and your program?

This will be different for every program, and you as the director have the opportunity and responsibility to set that course. Speaking for myself as a music educator, I would want my student musicians to have a performance opportunity that is high quality and meaningful, a chance to improve their musicianship by working with a skilled conductor/educator, and the ability to hear a remarkable professional level performance.all while having a fun and memorable experience.

Fun, incidentally, doesnt necessarily mean time on a roller coaster. Ive seen adult and student musicians having the time of their lives in rehearsals and clinics, experiencing those "bonding" moments with an outstanding teacher. You can clearly see that on their faces! The Boy Scouts have a mantra of fun with a purpose; that line of thinking applies here.


I would even take this a step further, beyond a single tour experience, and think in terms of a multi-year plan. This is especially true if the group has no established history of performance travel. Since I used to live in Colorado, here's the metaphor I use: each hike should have a "mountaintop" moment....but you don't have to climb a Fourteener every time out!


Often times Ive advised groups to start small to test the watersfind out how well the students travel, what the financial thresholds are and how to reach them, and give yourself the opportunity to set the tone for your goals. Biting off more than you can chew, simply to generate a lot of excitement or interest and get lots of students involved, will often lead to disaster. Which leads to my next point.


Big Does Not Equal Distance


This is a concept in need of redefinition. So often we hear groups say that this is a big trip year.meaning a destination like New York, Orlando, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Europe, etc. as opposed to something more regionally based. Usually this is a connotation attached to the amount of distance that it takes to get there, and consequently the time and financial resources to make that happen. 


Over the years Ive seen groups put in enormous resources just to get to the destination, and then be limited to their time at the location or ability to experience the location in depth. I once saw a group drive over 20 hours to New York City, spend one night with two partial days in the city and drive back home..all for the sake of being able to say they visited New York City. While certainly there can be merit to wanting to expose students to a place they might not otherwise experience, wouldnt it be more rewarding to stay closer to home but give them something with depth and meaning that could be a truly life changing experience?


What if a big trip was instead defined as a big experience”….something out of the ordinary that could be a game changer for both your program and your musicians? Perhaps youre only traveling 4-8 hours down the road from home, but instead of the cost for a bus or plane to take you farther you use that budget to participate in an experience that is remarkable and more in-depth. Something with qualities that they will remember and make a true difference in their lives and in your program.


This relates to my next point, "Make It Meaningful," which we'll begin with in the next post.