We toured a group to the East Coast in 2021 and here’s how it went…
My 2021 Group Tour Experience
by Melissa Clifton
Is touring possible?
When my coworkers asked if I would be comfortable touring with a school group in April 2021, my immense desire to travel forced an immediate “YES!” out of my mouth before I could weigh the pros and cons. Only a couple days after my enthusiastic agreement, doubts crept in: “Will we be able to offer a safe way to travel?” “Will the groups have a good time regardless of restrictions or site closures?”
I pushed the doubts aside, realizing that I have full trust in my coworkers. After my 10+ years in the educational travel industry, with School Tours of America, I’m still one of the newbies! If anyone could figure out a safe way to tour, for a group who truly wanted to travel, it would be this team of experts, whom each have multiple decades of experience navigating a variety of obstacles.
Our entire team began to watch travel preparation webinars and news stories with renewed enthusiasm. New sites were opening daily, millions of people were being vaccinated, restrictions were lifting, and our staff attended an airport tour that proved that flying was cleaner than ever before. The possibility of spring tours was slowly becoming a reality. But how could we ensure that safety would always come first while traveling? Enter the Tour POD System!
How can we safely travel with a group?
Our team at School Tours of America applied the “bubble” or “POD” approach, commonly utilized within schools and sporting events, to educational travel planning. If each school group could tour within smaller friend groups or “PODS,” we could ensure that entrance restrictions could be met at venues, social distancing would be possible (even on the tour bus), and should the need for quarantine arise, the smaller traveling PODS could mitigate the need for the entire group to quarantine if only one traveler had a COVID-like symptom during the tour. Each traveler willingly signed a Tour POD waiver to ensure that safe touring practices were understood.
Now to tackle the issue of closures. How could the group safely tour Washington, DC when most of the normal venues were closed or not allowing tour groups? This is where the immense value in having a professional tour planner lies! The School Tours of America team of experts was behind the scenes, monitoring exactly what was open and under what circumstances. A flexible itinerary included many impactful outdoor sites like the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Vernon and Arlington National Cemetery, as well as open museums and additional days touring Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello in Charlottesville to round out the perfect itinerary.
A new experience.
After a year of quarantine, the parents on tour told me this tour was “highly recommended” and “exactly what these kids needed.” One student I interviewed noted that she was so happy to hang out with friends and fellow classmates again that she found “three new great friends” in her Tour POD-mates.
How the tour looked
Some things looked a little different than previous tours I have attended, but all the essential elements of an immersive tour experience remained. “Full American breakfasts” were cooked hot and to-order in the hotels each morning, but were served in to-go containers for sanitary and distancing purposes. Our group enjoyed amazing meals in private rooms at restaurants like Buca de Beppo and Outback Steakhouse, and enjoyed the convenience of plastic gloves and extra protection at the famous Michie Tavern buffet.
Our partner hotels, airports, and tour buses each had their own procedures in place for the safety of our group as well as their own staff. Instructions were provided for leaving empty seats and wearing masks, among other safety precautions that were easy to incorporate into our interactions. I never felt uncomfortable while traveling, as the level of cleanliness and sanitization was noticeable at every stop. The parents I interviewed also remarked that they felt well taken care of and safe throughout their trip.
Helpful guides point the way at Monticello.
Some safety procedures, such as masks, did not bother the group as much as I expected. Since the students did not want masks in every photo, they developed their own system in which the Group Leader would say “1-2-3-MASKS DOWN!”, click the photo, and then go back to masks. I believe most people are so used to masks after an entire year of wear, that it did not pose a problem.
Differences at the sites
Each site had specific procedures, but touring in PODs allowed the group to easily manage the “group travel” aspect that could have otherwise made it difficult. Certain aspects of some sites were closed, but it seemed that everywhere we went, our STA tour planner and/or the staff on site made up for closures in special ways!
For example, the SPY Museum allowed for a totally new interactive experience by handing out personal styluses for use with refreshed exhibits.
The Kennedy Center was closed for performances, so instead, our tour planner had arranged for tickets of a theater-in-the-round performance of Shrek at Toby’s Dinner Theatre that ended up being amongst the travelers’ favorite highlights.
At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s mansion was open for self-guided tours only (rather than the regular guided tours), but we were treated to a soliloquy and FAQ-session with a famous historical actor, well known for his portrayal of Jefferson, which was so good you could have sworn Jefferson himself had reincarnated and come to speak to the group personally.
The White House grounds were closed, but the group was able to get a great group photo in front of it while learning all about the history of the building from our own expert guide.
There is light on the horizon if you are considering travel at this time. With more and more sites opening each week— many with revamped or improved accommodations— I can attest first-hand that a great tour experience is possible! My 2021 group tour experience, planned by travel experts at School Tours of America, was not only safe and rewarding, but a welcome adventure when I needed it most. Check out the video to view the tour for yourself, and feel free to reach out with any questions about your student’s tour! LET’S GO!!