Student travel conference proceeds amid Katrina concerns

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CLARKSTON, Mich. -- As the Student and Youth Travel Association (SYTA) heads into its Ninth Annual SYTA Conference at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis Sept. 16 to 20, the student travel industry is reeling from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, which is a favorite destination for student travel groups.

Conference attendance is up 15% over that of 2004, with 750 registrants from the associations membership of tour operators, destination marketing organizations, hotels and attractions. But the issues raised by the New Orleans disaster loom over the SYTA conference with particular immediacy because of the proximity of the host city to the site of Katrinas destruction.

All the hotels in Memphis are sold out as people have moved in from New Orleans, said Michael Palmer, SYTAs executive director. Were going to dedicate a good portion of our fundraising activities to contribute to relief efforts on the Gulf Coast.

SYTA plans to lend some support from its charitable arm, the SYTA Youth Foundation, which will organize activities such as a golf outing and a Run, Walk, Slumber fundraiser at the conference.

According to Palmer, the disaster in New Orleans also has intensified the security concerns that are among the major issues of student travel associations and the suppliers who serve them.

Safety and security are always the number one issue relating to student travel, even before 9/11 and its even more the case today, said Palmer. There is concern from school boards over liability issues. Were seeing more restrictions on travel. Some school boards are saying they will allow only domestic travel, some only within the state, some only during non-school hours.

Whether the changes will amount to a net loss to the industry remains to be seen, Palmer said. Were still seeing increases from our member companies, said Palmer. While the industry is not seeing the 20% growth rates of our heyday in the 1990s, its still seeing healthy growth. We had a 13.7% median increase in revenue in 2004 over 2003. Thats three to four times the Travel Industry Association average for all travel.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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