I’m grateful for the eight tours I’ve led with Encore Tours, dating back to 2004, and for the many successful planning strategies I’ve gleaned in collaboration with my Encore team. Planning an international performance tour can feel overwhelming, but Encore Tours’ Program Consultants have always been immensely helpful with the process. Here are a few thoughts on the process of planning an international performance tour.
Allow Time to Plan Your Tour
A two-year planning period is ideal for me, which allows me to ask my Program Consultant lots of questions; Encore Tours is WONDERFUL at tailoring tours to your preference. In addition to the resources on the Encore website, you might consider:
- Browse the many sample itineraries on the Encore website. There are many fantastic trips to get you started.
- Check out popular activities in any given city and ask if they might be good to include as group activities. Encore will let you know what’s practical.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions about a proposed itinerary. If you’re unsure about an activity, or if something doesn’t sound exciting to you, don’t hesitate to ask about other options.
- Program enough free time in your itinerary, as the tendency is to maximize each day’s itinerary, but that can be tiring. Your Program Consultant is a great resource for creating a full yet balanced itinerary.
Other Planning-phase Aspects to Consider
Location, location, location! I’ve led tours throughout much of Europe, and my most well-attended tours have always been the typically popular destinations (e.g. Rome, London, Paris). On the other hand, my smallest tour (just 23 participants) was to Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and The Czech Republic. Our tour to Eastern Europe was an absolutely phenomenal tour (probably one of my personal favorites), but I’ve learned that most prospective participants are more interested in seeing the more popular cities, particularly if this is their first time abroad. Consider choosing “big ticket” destinations for your first tour to encourage a healthy group size.
I try to spend more time in fewer places, which usually translates to fewer hotels. If this is your first trip, you may be tempted to visit many different cities, but having to change hotels every other night can be exhausting. Consider spending 2-3 nights in any given city, when practical.
Call me old-fashioned, but I always prefer doing business face-to-face as opposed to email or over the phone.
Instead of sending out an email to all interested parties, host an informational meeting, complete with a PowerPoint presentation (with lots of pictures). Students, and particularly their parents, will want to see you can plan a successful performance tour before they trust you to execute it abroad.
A Few Tips
When you and your Program Consultant have worked out most of the major details of your itinerary (it doesn’t need to be final), host an informational meeting. Spread the word through your students, as well as any other communication methods you may have with parents (social media, email, school communication platforms). I typically hold my first informational meeting about 18 months before a given tour.
Consider hosting this informational meeting immediately after a concert/performance. The students and parents are already there (at your school or performance venue), so it doesn’t require another weeknight commitment.
While I encourage both students and parents to attend, my recruiting meetings are mostly for the parents. Of course, the students will want to participate (and their excitement is essential), but most will need the financial support of their families. Tailor your presentation to address their parents’ concerns; I would argue there are two primary concerns:
- Safety - parents will want to see that you’ve considered how to keep their children safe, and that you’ve given thought about problems that may arise on tour (e.g. pickpockets, lost passports, inclement weather impacting planned activities)
- Value - parents will want to see their money is being well-spent and well-invested. Focus on the quality of Encore Tours (no nickel-and-diming, no hidden charges, and the quality of Tour Managers – more on this in the FAQ section).
Provide handouts of your PowerPoint slides (color if possible), provide pens/pencils for note-taking, and overwhelm your students (and their parents) with your preparedness and excitement for the tour. You can earn the trust of parents by giving a highly organized and polished presentation.
Share the tour cost at the very end of your presentation. Wow them with all the inclusions and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities before you give them the bottom line. Let them see the value and get excited about the inclusions before they see the sticker price.
More on Value
Encore Tours has access to some of the most musically spectacular venues in the world. The natural reverb of some halls exceeds six seconds! Most of my students would never (and likely will never) have the opportunity to perform in these world-class venues outside of an Encore performance tour, and the performances are always a main highlight of the trip.
International tours are unique in their ability to immerse students in a foreign culture. Students can use foreign languages they’ve studied in school, and they can explore life as a student in a foreign country. We’ve done performance exchanges with local high schools, which my students always love, as it shows them how different yet ultimately similar people are across the globe.
There is something wonderful about being able to connect young people’s studies and the visceral experience of physically being in the very places they’re studied about in school. Studying World War II and the Holocaust is one thing, but standing on the hallowed ground at Auschwitz or Dachau is a profoundly sobering experience. Performing Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus in the Salzburg Cathedral, a mere 400 meters from the house he was born in, truly connects you with history. Some of the most significant art in the world is housed in European museums, and to be able to enrich students with those experiences is priceless.
Getting People Registered
You will likely have a lot of interest, excitement, and people saying they want to go or will go, but it’s another thing to get them to put down a deposit and actually register. Here are a few things I do to move registration towards my goal of a full coach bus (50+ participants).
- I usually make my first registration deadline in March of the year prior to travel (15 months out). I’ll make announcements in class to the students leading up to the deadline and send emails to parents. You will need a deadline, even if arbitrary, as your students (and probably parents) tend to take more action when there is a tangible deadline.
- I make a second deadline in the fall of the year prior to travel (6-9 months out). This catches any incoming freshman that are interested, as well as those that were undecided at the first deadline. I also announce that registration will close after that deadline and go to a waitlist.
- I restrict initial registrations to members of my choral department and their immediate families (siblings, parents, grandparents). If there is space available after that, I allow my students and their families to invite friends and/or extended families.
- If you expect it may be difficult to get your desired registration numbers, allow your students to invite their friends and extended families without this restriction.
- I’ll informally follow up with everyone who attended the informational meeting, as well as any other students that have expressed interest. The deadlines help push students toward registration, but so do personal follow ups.
Frequently Asked Questions
During the planning and recruitment process, there will inevitably be questions from your students/musicians and their parents. Here are some of the questions I am asked most frequently as well as my responses.
Q: “The price seems a little high...”
A: Some parents may be well-traveled and familiar with the average summertime price of a round trip flight, hotels, and meals abroad. What they often overlook is the inclusion of three essential perks:
- Private Coach Bus – Encore Tours feature use of a private coach bus for the duration of a tour. This means not needing public transportation to get your group around, and the coach bus also functions as a place for secure storage of personal belonging between activities.
- 24/7 services of a top-quality Tour Manager, who serves as guide, translator, teacher, entertainer, problem solver, and an indispensable aid to you as Group Leader.
- Performance preparation and planning - it all adds up: performance venue rental fees, promotional advertising to secure healthy audience sizes, keyboard rentals, and all the other required logistics.
Q: “Is it safe to travel overseas?”
A: Threats occur here at home in the States, too. The fact is we live in a volatile world, perhaps more so than ever before, but at least for me, that won’t force me to stay in my home for the rest of my life. That said, I require all my participants to carry emergency cards I make for each trip, which include phone numbers and addresses of all our hotels, 911-equivalents in Europe, and our emergency plan if something catastrophic should happen while we are not together as a group.
You can help calm safety worries by sharing the Encore Tours Safety & Security Handbook with students and parents.
Q: “The drinking age in most of Europe is 18 (or less). What’s your policy with alcohol?”
A: This one is entirely up to each director, but I have a strict rule of no-alcohol for all my students, even just-graduated seniors. 19 and older is my policy.
Q: “What’s the worst thing that happened to you on tour?”
A: It’s almost always something to do with pickpocketing, which is 99% avoidable. I share my strategies for keeping valuables safe. Pickpockets have plenty of targets, so I try my best to appear not worth the effort so they simply move on to someone else.
Q: “What happens if my child needs medical attention while abroad?”
A: In most EU countries, medical care is generally easier to obtain than here in the States. On the few occasions I’ve needed to accompany someone to a hospital, service is always quick and affordable. On a tour to France, a student needed a couple stitches, and the bill was 51.41€ (about $60). Not to mention, all Encore Tours passengers are automatically covered with a Basic Protection Insurance Plan, with the ability to upgrade to a more comprehensive plan.
Q: “What is your chaperone policy?”
A: I ask a few adults on the trip to help with chaperone duties, which amounts to helping count kids every time we meet up. I handle any discipline issues myself. During free time, students are required to be in groups of four or more, the concept being if something happens to someone, one student can stay with the student that needs help, and two can seek help.
Q: “Can I change my return flight so I can stay in Europe longer?”
A: Yes. Encore Tours allows for Alternate Returns (fees and restrictions apply), and this is a valuable selling point to families that would like to travel together but not necessarily join for the performance tour itself. Many families like the idea of sending their student on the performance tour, then meeting up with them after the conclusion of the tour to do their own independent travel.
Brian Dokko is the Director of Choral Activities at Long Beach Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California, and is the Director of the '49er Choir at CSULB. He holds a B.A. in Music from UCLA and an M.M. degree in Choral Conducting from the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at California State University, Long Beach.
Many thanks to Director and veteran Encore Tours Group Leader Brian Dokko for this wonderful blog! Have questions that weren’t answered in the article? Ask us in the comments below.
Ready to start planning your next performance tour? Contact us to get a quote today!