Student travel to D.C. continues to lag

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WASHINGTON -- Every year, for the past 15 years, it was practically a guaranteed sale. The same local high school would go to Post Haste Travel in Hollywood, Fla., and book 200 or so of its students on a spring break tour of Washington.

However, this year was the exception.

The high school "said no to Washington," said Joyce Klein, senior consultant for Post Haste, who usually made the booking.

Klein said the students wanted to visit Washington, but their parents and the school decided against it.

"I ended up sending 50 of them to the Grand Canyon," Klein said, and the rest stayed home.

Multiply the Hollywood high school by hundreds more and the situation facing Washington's travel promoters becomes clear: Although most of the tourism industry here has recovered from the effects of Sept. 11, the student travel market continues to lag.

The Washington D.C. Convention and Visitors Corp. does not have firm student travel figures, but tourism officials as well as Mayor Anthony Williams have commented at press events that student tours -- which along with family travel accounts for 50% of Washington's spring and summer visitor market -- are down.

The American Bus Association estimates there are about 75 fewer motorcoaches touring Washington daily.

ABA data show the average coach trip, lasting 1.3 days, represents $9,990 in revenue for the city.

Using that calculation as a benchmark, the ABA said, Washington lost about $11 million during its popular, two-week Cherry Blossom Festival in April.

"Right now, I can identify a half-dozen companies that have gone out of business, some of them small and some of them large," ABA president Peter Pantuso said. "They just couldn't hold on. They just couldn't make it. We are at a point where companies are just holding on. [Owners] are putting up more of their own personal money to keep the business going."

Washington's woes stem from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which took place at just the time when most schools typically would book their spring and summer jaunts, according to operators specializing in the market.

"After Sept. 11, many, many school boards put a prohibition on travel," explained Ed Dresel, president of Southington, Conn.-based Destinations Unlimited, a specialist in school group travel.

So far, he has sent only one group of 120 students to Washington this spring. He normally would send 2,000 students.

"The Northeast and any company dependent on travel to the Northeast, whether it is New York, Washington or Boston, are, by far, having the most difficult time," said Kathy LeTarte, chairman of the National Tour Association.

LeTarte also is owner and president of Jackson, Mich.-based New Horizons Tour and Travel, which packages tours for student groups.

LeTarte said student travel is a significant market for tour operators.

More than 50% of NTA members sell customized tours to the student travel market. Some tours sell for as low as $60, others for as high as $3,000 per person, depending on destination and duration.

New Horizons "would normally be doing about 40 or 45 groups [to Washington]," LeTarte said. Only 14 traveled this spring.

Similarly, Judd Gerber, vice president of Gerber Tours, a 30-year-old Westbury, N.Y.-based operator that specializes in student tour packages, said his school group business is off by 40%.

"Our two biggest destinations are Washington and New York. New York is not as bad off," partly because, ironically, the remains of the World Trade Center have become an attraction, Gerber said.

"But Washington is perceived to be a target," Gerber said. "There [still] seems to be a perceived threat."

That perception, Gerber said, was further underscored by the anthrax scare that affected the nation's capital last fall.

Meanwhile, tighter security at government buildings and attractions has become the norm in Washington.

"They have implemented so many ticketing restrictions and policies to everything from the Capitol to the White House to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to the Washington Monument, that it is making things very difficult for tour operators that run trips to D.C.," Gerber said. "It is really difficult."

The restrictions notwithstanding, LeTarte said the soft student tour market is mirroring the overall travel market.

"People in general have concerns [about travel], and they are exemplified in a lot of different ways," LeTarte said. "So when we talk about student travel, the response has been as wide and varied as the general public's."

But there are signs that the student market will rebound eventually, Dresel said.

"Fall 2002 compared with fall 2001, when absolutely nothing went, looks like it will be up to our normal numbers," said Dresel. "So, that's great. [The students] are coming back."

But Post Haste's Klein has doubts about the fall and next spring. "I really don't know what the situation is going to be," she said.

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