by Lance Harvey

Creating Combination Contentment

The keys to successfully touring with other student groups

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One of the biggest social and cultural benefits students receive when traveling is the opportunity to meet other students from other backgrounds. In the group travel business, a full group is usually priced at 35 passengers, thus when a school has less than 35 registrants, it is given the option of combining with another school in order to maintain the group price.

Resentment or Contentment?

Combining with another school, teacher and students you are not familiar with obviously changes the group dynamic you bring with your group of students.  This dynamic has the potential to be real headache you did not anticipate, but it also has the potential to become a powerful cultural exchange for you and your students. In three decades I have witnessed both. The difference usually lies in the attitudes of the Tour Directors and the effort and anticipation they put forth before the tour to ensure a successful experience for everyone.

Frame it to your students as a positive

This should never be sold to the students in a negative light, but rather framed as a truly positive opportunity. First, every teacher and student needs to remember a couple of simple facts.

FACT: Every student, regardless of the size of the group, has sacrificed and paid a lot of money to be on this tour and deserves a great tour.

FACT: By combining, both groups are helping the other keep their price down and thus consideration needs to be given to both groups.  Thus there must be some give and take by both groups.

FACT: The smaller group, depending on how much smaller, may have to make a concession in the event a 50-50 compromise or split can’t be made or may not make sense.

FACT: The Tour Guide will still be in the best position to offer advice on the tour to ensure a good flow in light of unforeseen and constantly changing events (traffic, closures, emergencies, etc)

FACT: When groups combine, we ask that any appointments you obtain, you attempt to book for the full group (approx. 50). If you obtain a wreath laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery, we ask that all groups be given the opportunity to share the 4 slots since there will only be time for one ceremony.

Arrange a telephone meet & greet among the teachers

While the Tour Coordinator is working with both groups to work out a compromise plan that meets everyone’s goals, it is always a good idea for the teachers involved at both schools to communicate early and often. This call should of course be cordial and introductory and hopefully both teachers can review the itinerary and discuss any concerns prior to the tour.

This is also an opportunity to learn about the other students so you can convey that your students in advance. Students will want to know their ages, the gender ratio, ethnicity, the interests of the other students, etc. If the students are from unique backgrounds (such as a rural v. urban; south v. west coast, etc) this may be a really exciting possibility.

Arrange a gift exchange or some form of student introduction

Some groups have pre-arranged their students to have a small token gift exchange. Perhaps an exchange of pins from your state, pencils, a popular local food item.  The teachers should agree to the gifts with each other so that one group does not show up without a gift or one of lesser value and feels embarrassed. Additionally, with todays video technology, you may try and plan your final parent meeting on the same night and time and try and have a skype conference call. If not, perhaps send the other group a video greeting. I’ve even seen some groups plan a song or a special greeting chant to perform when the groups meet. All of these things can be incredible ice breakers for nervous students and really can get the trip off on a great note.

Mutually respect the role of the Guide

The tour guide definitely has a challenging role of not only conveying the information in an effective manner, but trying to keep multiple group leaders with different priorities happy as well. It is vital that once the tour begins, all of the group leaders are on the same page and understand what the guide is expecting to do. Your tour guide will be instructed to abide by the itinerary unless the group leaders unanimously agree or the guide must make a change based on safety factor.

 Group leaders should meet with Guide together

While it may not always be possible to meet your guide at the exact same time on arrival, it is important to avoid having conversations about the itinerary without all of the tour leaders being present. Thus, start the tour off on the first day as soon as possible with a joint meeting between the guide and all tour leaders.  If possible, ask your Tour Coordinator to arrange a joint phone call with the guide before arrival.

Please remember that no matter how meticulously planned an itinerary is, it is always a goal rather than a guarantee. The guide will likely make suggested changes based on unexpected events, site closings, traffic, weather or long lines. Obviously set appointment times also will create possible inconveniences to the group as those can not be changed. I always highly advise tour leaders to follow the guide’s advice as they work tours everyday and are in the best position to know the short cuts and time constraints.

Prepare your students to RESPECT first.

We will always attempt to pair groups close in age although this is not always possible. Please prepare your own group to be courteous, compromising and flexible. Combination groups should be seen as a positive cultural experience for your students to meet other students from different backgrounds and locations. Please remind them, however, to be respectful and not to engage in conversation that may make their fellow travelers uncomfortable.

Your guide is highly skilled at working with groups from different backgrounds and different interests and will do their best to stick to the itinerary while respecting the rights of every student to receive their money’s worth. The guides can not control all of the possible clashes in age or culture and for that reason every teacher truly needs to go the extra mile to ensure their own students are well-behaved and respectful of the other travelers at all times.

Establish a method to resolving conflicts between the groups

Despite the best preparation, conflicts among students and even tour leaders may still arise on the tour. The most common I hear are:

  • The other students are loud, misbehaved, cursing, etc

  • The other group is always late and we are missing tour time

  • The other group is changing the itinerary on us

  • The other teacher and I don’t get along.

Fortunately, these are usually the exception to the rule as most of our combination groups run flawlessly and return home with 20 new friends. Most of these problems could have also been averted altogether if the communication and expectations were laid out ahead of time and each tour leader made the effort to prepare their group for the combination.

Once the tour has begun, I highly suggest all tour leaders meet privately each night with our hotel representative (escort ) and if available, the guide to discuss the itinerary and any issues.  As long as all adults understand they are to voice their complaints and issues in private among the group leaders and the escort, the trip will likely run smoothly for all of the participants.

“Hakuna matada!” … “No worries, mon!”… “Don’t worry be happy!”

Whatever your favorite life mantra may be, remember the key to a successful, life-changing experience for your students is to lead with a positive and flexible attitude. The majority of conflicts that arise are usually not even noticed by the travelers unless one of the adults publicly complains. While you obviously want every student to experience every detail that your past students experienced, they are going to return home with their own memories and experiences and the only way they will be disappointed is if you, their leader, is disappointed.

Every trip is unique and every new experience is beneficial.  There is no question, the opportunity to travel with a group of students from a different community can be a benefit in itself.  I’ve always loved the expression “Your best lessons in life come from the journey, not the destination.”  Light the fire in your students, share with them this amazing opportunity to make new life-long friends and prepare to have the best week of your life!

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