Every year, eighth graders from around the country descend on Washington, trailing behind their teachers as they visit such landmarks as Arlington National Cemetery, the Holocaust Museum and the U.S. Capitol. Despite the regularity of these arrivals and the thousands of middle schoolers participating in the annual trips, the travel market they're a part of has lacked the hard data to quantify its trends and impact.

That changed earlier this year when the Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) released the results of its two-year-long study examining the student group-travel market, the first of its kind.

In the Hot Seat: Carylann Assante

The group's executive director discusses the impact of travel on students and how world events are affecting the market. Read More

"After 20 years of fielding questions and really growing as an industry, we knew that we needed to provide data about this particular market," said SYTA executive director Carylann Assante.

To do so, SYTA and its affiliated magazine, Teach & Travel, partnered with student and youth travel analysts StudentMarketing to conduct a survey that targeted U.S., Canadian and international tour operators, as well as teachers who travel with their classes and those who don't.

The results, drawn from 2,143 responses representing 1.2 million students, illustrate the strength, impact, preferences and challenges of an industry sector worth an estimated $5.6 billion.

"I think the most important finding is that overwhelmingly teachers, whether they plan travel or don't plan travel, believe that travel positively impacts students," Assante said. "Overwhelmingly, teachers believe the social impact [of travel] improves classroom participation, improves test scores, improves self-esteem, improves cultural awareness, improves awareness of others and really changes students' whole perspective."

Seventy-nine percent of teachers answered that they organize class travel in part to broaden students' horizons, while more than 50% reported that travel has a direct impact on understanding the curriculum and classroom performance.

"I think that was a really important message," Assante said. "We in the travel industry know how important and valuable travel is, but we've never actually had data that supports not that it's just a good time and they have a lot of fun, but that it actually helps improve their experience in the classroom."

Assante added that the U.S. is one of the only countries that does not build student travel into its academic calendar.

"In Germany, middle school and high school students have two weeks to travel with their class," Assante said. "Australian students have a month to travel. Our goal with these findings is to be able to potentially move the needle to incorporate the opportunity for more students to travel with their classes."

The SYTA research also examined the barriers to student travel. Among teachers who do not lead trips, 86% said financial resources were an obstacle, while 29% reported administrative rules as an issue. Other challenges included risk management, testing schedules, a lack of fundraising mechanisms and increased classroom time requirements due to test scores.

The research found that the primary source of funding for student travel is parents, who cover the cost of more than half of student trips. Fundraising pays for a quarter of student travel, while grants, school funds and children's own savings also contribute toward travel expenses.

When school groups do hit the road, 93% of the trips originate with a teacher or other educator who recognizes the value of student travel and its potential to enhance their curriculum.

Preferred subject areas for travel include music (72%), history (50%), arts and culture (44%), science (34%) and natural history (33%).

"Traditionally, you had history. Your eighth grade trip to Washington happened every year," Assante said. 

"More teachers are incorporating travel. The math, science and robotics industry, that's growing. Students who are studying math, science and technology are traveling to space camp, they're traveling to robotic conferences. Drama teachers are taking their students, journalism teachers. Teachers are looking at how they can incorporate a one-day field trip, a two-day trip so the class has this experience regardless of the subject matter."

Teachers often start working on group travel with considerable lead time, with bookings beginning an average of eight months out for international destinations and six months out for multiday domestic trips.

The farther the destination, the more likely teachers were to use a professional tour operator.

"We've always told teachers that they should travel with a professional," Assante said. "We know how to safely take 50 students around the world, but a teacher on their own may not be as prepared."

For destinations and institutions, the SYTA study also reveals opportunities to reach out to student travelers, both domestic and international.

The U.S. is currently the second most popular destination after the U.K. for international student groups, and New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco are the top five preferred U.S. cities.

Assante said inbound student travel is up, thanks in part to China, Brazil and India, which have begun to send more students to the U.S. in the last five years.

Meanwhile, domestic student group travel is growing 3% to 5% per year.

Assante sees opportunities for convention and visitors bureaus, museums and other attractions to reach out to teachers and students and incorporate educational travel into their marketing.

Up-and-coming domestic destinations include cities such as Denver, San Diego, Dallas and Nashville.

Assante also stresses the potential for travel sellers to build their business by working with school groups.

"It's a highly repetitive business," she said.

"Once you establish those relationships with the schools or the band directors or the coaches, they have a tendency to repeat those programs every year and work with a travel professional."

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