Student travel, from a teacher's perspective

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In 1964, Joe DiFranco was a young schoolteacher in Michigan shopping for a vacation. He visited a travel agency, reeled off a list of preferences for a Bahamas trip and got the quote: $680. The price was out of his league, and the agent was a little upset when DiFranco told her that he couldn't afford it.

Whether seriously or not, she advised him to charter a plane, which is exactly what he did -- with a courage that astonishes DiFranco even today.

DiFranco hooked up with Saturn Airways, emptied his savings account to hold a plane, blocked 50 rooms at the Nassau Beach Hotel, then priced the package by dividing the total cost by 99 so he could travel free. He realized he had to sell every seat or make up the difference.

The vacation price for charter participants was half the travel agent's $680 quote. This was in the days of affinity charters, and his affinity group was the Parent Teacher Association.

DiFranco had a couple of scares though. As he drove to the Detroit airport, he realized that he didn't know whom to call if there were no plane. The jet was there, but upon arrival at the Nassau hotel, DiFranco was advised that while the rooms had been paid for, the 15% gratuities were missing.

"I was sweating bullets," he said.

DiFranco met with the general manager, but when the GM realized the hotel had not paid 10% commission to an agency, he called the deal even.

DiFranco initially viewed the Bahamas charter as a one-time thing, but his fellow travelers did not. So he launched a small, at-home, after-hours charter business that became a full-fledged travel agency, Corporate Travel Service in Dearborn, Mich. Despite the name, the agency is a largely leisure-oriented business that handles a lot of group travel.

All about the kids

Over the years, the group business has targeted younger and younger clients. Nowadays, the bulk of clients are kids, from fourth-graders to high school students. 

DiFranco incorporated in 1969 after waking up one morning in a panic thinking about all the personal risk he had been taking. He rented an office the same year and left teaching in 1970.

He expanded by soliciting other affinity groups for charters.

"I had the reputation for the cleanest charters out of the Detroit area," DiFranco said. He added that if his charter business was better than those of competitors, it was just because "I was scared."

He named the agency Corporate Travel Service to distance it from affinity charters, which had a bad image.

School trips were a natural for a former teacher, so the agency in 1971 began selling high school senior trips to Spain. To get the student business going, DiFranco recalled that he visited many schools and was "thrown out of more than I can remember."

Today, most business comes via word of mouth. Most student clients are in Michigan, but the state's poor economy has forced DiFranco "to branch out."

When he started doing class trips, DiFranco required that each student provide a refundable check to cover a one-way ticket home in case he or she had to be sent home for disciplinary reasons. DiFranco said no student was shipped home, but that "we came close."

The worst episode, which occurred on the last day of a 1975 Spain trip, ended DiFranco's involvement with class trips. He tried to quiet down noisy students at a hotel, but the larger teens put him in a rolling linen basket and ran up and down the halls with him in the basket.

The agency then turned to younger kids and added motorcoaches to the mix. When the trips involve teens these days, DiFranco said, it is only with bands and choirs.

In 1976, DiFranco hatched a plan for one-day charters to Washington, priced at $76. The agency filled four or five planes that spring.

School boards loved the short trips because kids were out of school only one day, and for an educational experience at that. Also, there was no luggage, and teachers did not have to do nightly bed checks.

Meeting challenges

DiFranco said the price was low because he was using planes that would otherwise have sat in Detroit for light maintenance between weekend Vegas charters, so he did not pay for ferry legs. He transported 2,000 to 3,000 kids a year on these charters through 2004, by which time there were no planes available for charter.

He still offers the one-day trips on scheduled air, at close to $300, and offers other D.C. school trips of up to three nights, sometimes by motorcoach, sometimes by air. He said the agency "moved into the coach end heavily" four or five years ago. More than 10,000 students in the fourth through ninth grades participated in last spring's various D.C. trips.

Not surprisingly, the 9/11 attacks shot the bottom out of projected air trips to Washington for the spring of 2002. Most schools in Michigan said their kids were not only not flying, they were not leaving the state, DiFranco recalled.

So he hatched a new idea: spring coach trips to the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island, just ahead of the hotel's regular season.

The agency arranges for an educational element for the Mackinac Island trips. The first trip featured three of Michigan's supreme court justices as "teachers." Currently, his two guest educators are a meteorologist/environmentalist and a former chief of the Detroit Police Department, who is now a motivational speaker.

He expects to send 1,000 students to Mackinac this year at around $160 to $180 a head for two days and one night.

Young students are a large part of DiFranco's business, but the agency has other niches: bands and choirs for older students, adult choirs and pilgrimages.

When bands or choirs travel, performance is part of the deal, and their events have to be in a venue where there will be an audience, DiFranco said. The agency helps organize the performance events.

For example, it lined up additional acts to appear with client choir groups that performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. DiFranco has Nashville in his sights for possible venues.

In 2006 and 2007, the agency organized Australia trips for student and adult choirs. For 2008, it will operate an Aussie sojourn for an orchestra. All singers and musicians perform at the Sydney Opera House.

Think you're a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Nadine Godwin, Agent Life editor, at [email protected], and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put "Agent Life" in the subject line.

Perfect Itinerary

A concert trip to Sydney

The following itinerary, called "Voices in the House," was created by Corporate Travel Service in Dearborn, Mich., for a group of singers and traveling companions who made this trip to Australia last summer.

Day 1: Depart for Australia.

Day 2: Enjoy a few movies and a nap as you cross the International Date Line.

Day 3: Arrive in Sydney. From the airport, depart for a half-day sightseeing tour of Sydney. The first stop is picturesque Watson's Bay, located at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, where you will have breathtaking views of the harbor and the South Pacific. Proceed to Mrs. Macquarie's Chair for spectacular views of the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Transfer to your hotel for check-in.

Day 4: Rehearsal in the morning. After lunch on your own, transfer to the jetty for a Sydney Harbour Cruise. Absorb the magnificent sights, including again its iconic bridge and opera house. Dine that evening at the revolving Sydney Tower Restaurant, which is nearly 1,000 feet above the city.

Day 5: Rehearsal in the morning. Then visit Australia's Opal Discovery Center. You will be greeted by a member of the Costello family, which has been mining, cutting and setting opals for three generations. Learn how opals are mined, cut and polished to reveal the brilliant color within. Enjoy lunch on your own and free time to shop or sightsee. Dinner is on your own. 

Day 6: After breakfast, head west toward the Blue Mountains. Stop en route at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, where you'll see native animals, including kangaroos and koalas. The afternoon includes sightseeing outside the city at the Tobruk Sheep Farm or in the Blue Mountains of Australia.

Day 7: After breakfast, depart the hotel for the Sydney Opera House. Move to the Concert Hall for set up and dress rehearsal. Lunch will be in the opera house's Green Room before preparing for the performance in Concert Hall. Following the performance, go to the Little Snail Restaurant, one of Australia's friendliest places to sample Australian and French cuisine, for a celebration dinner.

Day 8: Breakfast and then rehearsal time or free time. Lunch is on your own, followed by an afternoon or evening concert at Town Hall. Enjoy dinner on your own.

Day 9: Entire day free to enjoy Sydney, followed by a farewell dinner.

Day 10: Board your return flight home, or head for another Australian city for an extension tour.

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