In June 2022, one of my school choirs led a service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Having used travel agents for years, I couldn’t find a company who were interested in this one (due to the small size of the group), so the change created a natural opportunity to begin new partnerships with related organisations.
It was very straightfoward. Essentially, we needed a coach, a few hotel rooms, table booked for dinner and some concert tickets. It is different to booking a weekend away for yourself, as you have to plan additional flexibility and think more deeply about the ‘student experience’. You’re aiming for the very best opportunity for each inidividual that enhances their learning and experience to the max.
Always the first consideration is safety. Everyone must be safe and with minimised risk from start to finish. Contingencies must be in place for every eventuality from changing weather to student or staff illness. The age and additional educational/medical/dietary needs of the students are also important considerations. In addition, getting the timings in the itinerary the best they can be (not ever needing to rush, but feeling that the adventure never stops), and creating as higher leader to student ratio as possible, creates an extra sense of luxury for each participant.
The question of ratios is worth extra thought. Ultimately the overall cost of the trip, isn’t the cost per student. It is the cost for the overall trip to run safely and with everything the students need. A travel industry standard is 1 ‘free’ staff place for every 10 students, which is in line with the local authority requirements for supervision. However, until you’ve visited a destination with a school group, you won’t know how that feels. Even when using travel companies, I’ve asked for ratios of 1:8 for London tours with 13-14 year olds. The moment that needs the greatest thought is the walk to the theatre on the Saturday evening, in the dark, through the tens of thousands of Londoners and tourists that create that unmatched buzz of a night out in the capital (without losing anybody!)
Having had the positive self-booking experience in the summer, I did the same for a fantastic tour for 38 year 9s last weekend. The students absolutely loved it.
I had led similar 2-night London theatre trips with travel companies before and I’m very familar with London, usually visiting 4 or 5 times a year. The cost of these, pre-pandemic trips were £280-£350 per student with a 1:10 ratio and made slightly more expensive with the 1:8 ratios.
For this latest tour, the total cost was £256 per student with a 1:6 ratio and included more than we’ve ever done before. The relationships I began to build in June made this possible. Planning the tour was really interesting and having the option to call/email real people we collaborated with was a great privilege. The tour we built together was an amazing opportunity. It included:
- Return coach travel from the school to the hotel with Acklams Coaches
- 2-nights stay at Premier Inn Elstree with unlimited cooked and continental breakfast on 2 mornings
- A 90-minute dance workshop provided by West End Workshops tailored to our wide ranging needs and abilities, giving students the experience of learning and rehearsing choregraphy from the Nutcracker
- A walking tour of Buckingham Palace, Westminster, Big Ben, Whitehall, Downing Street and Trafalgar Square
- Table for 44 at Pizza Express London Victoria Street, giving students the choice of the full menu (rather than just a school groups menu) The food was ready 2 minutes after we arrived and the service was exceptional. We used a shared google doc so students could pre-order their choices
- Times to shop on Oxford Street and in Covent Garden
- Comfortable seats at the Royal Opera House, with a clear view of the orchestra pit and the stage to watch The Nutcracker performed at the very highest level
- Point-to-point coach pick-ups and drop-offs for 2 days to reduce un-necessary walking or waiting time. (again with Acklams Coaches)
- Self-guided 2-hour coach tour of most of London with a music and arts focus (starting at Abbey Road Studios and ending at the Barcbican Centre). Including a treasure hunt challenge to collect photos of 50 famous sights of London.
- Picnic lunch from Marks and Spencers – Fresh sandwiches, wraps, pasta, cakes, fruit juices and Percy Pigs.
- The best seats in the house at the The Barbican Centre to watch a very special concert. In the first half Anna Fedorova played Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In the 2nd half, an incredible performance of Boris Lyatoshinsky’s Symphony No. 3.
- Concert programme and Barbican pencil
The only difficulty to overcome was how to pay for the hotel without needing to use my own payment facilities. The best solution in the end was for my trust to organise a Caxton Business card pre-loaded with the amount required. This worked beautifully! We also used the card to pay for the meals.
Other than the great collaboration, booking directly made arrangements cheaper and gave us more flexibility. The weather forecast was for heavy rain on the Saturday afternoon, but the amazing Stavros at Pizza Express Victoria found a way to move our ‘table for 44’ forward an hour to avoid the weather. The Acklams drivers added an extra transfer to make that fit. We used the ‘Find My’ app on the iPhone to keep in touch with the coach drivers so any ‘walks to find the coach’ were kept to an absolute minimum – this made the students feel like VIP celebrities! The choice of Pizza restaurant was good for a Saturday, being out of the busier areas, but still within easy walking distance from Covent Garden. At no point did we feel pressured by time. Having direct contact with the Premier Inn made it possible to discuss arrangements to make things run smoothly for both our tour and their operations. All rooms could be on the same floor, with staff leader rooms nearby and all room keys were ready for us on arrival. The reservations for the 18 rooms and breakfasts were held on a single credit card and simply booked on the Premier Inn website. They were booked on the ‘flexible’ rate to allow for any changes until the day of arrival.
Keeping in touch with parents during a trip is important and we use twitter to give instant updates, like this one.
Would I use an agent again? Yes, absolutely. Having had this experience, a travel company would need to support my expectations in wanting the detail and flexibility to create the ‘ultimate adventure’ without adding a cost. Travel is one of my passions so I enjoy this type of challenge, but often my workload as a teacher and faculty leader doesn’t allow the time to do this more often. I would expect to pay a fee for the service of getting everything booked and paid for, but I also think there’s a gap in the market there for somebody to offer such a service.