Planning overseas school expeditions and educational trips in a post-COVID world is far from simple. There, I’ve said it (as if you didn’t already know)!
As a specialist in school expeditions and educational tours, we are well used to managing complicated operational challenges and mitigating risk. It’s what we do - day in, day out.
When I tell people what I do for a living, some occasionally tell me that we’re ‘brave’ to take other people’s children to the other side of the world and get them climbing 6000m mountains and rafting raging rivers. I don’t see it as bravery; I see it as being methodical, structured and acutely focused on detail. Otherwise, I can't sleep at night. The safe running of school trips is about being 100% focused on details. I have to know that every ‘i’ has been dotted and every ‘t’ crossed. If you’ve been on one of our safety management INSET days, then it’s that old analogy of “Looking out for Lemons”. Not just four of them though – tour operating is more like looking for 400 lemons, thinking how each lemon relates to the others and then putting in place systems to mitigate the risk of them all cropping up.
Then a lemon called COVID came along and changed everything. The headline risk changed and was no longer just the physical risk to individuals from the virus, climbing mountains or rafting rivers, but more from the operational and financial risks to both our clients and ourselves.
The entire global travel industry has been shaken to its roots, and whilst some parts of the industry are beginning to bounce back, the educational travel sector will be one of the last to return.
Schools, understandably, need to feel confident in order to book their next overseas educational trip or school expedition. They need to be confident that students and their money will be safe; confident that their staff will be safe; confident that every eventuality has been thought of. Yet how can you feel confident booking a year or more down the line, when you don’t know what’s just around the corner?
Let’s face it, if we wait for everything to sort itself out, we could be waiting a LONG time. Therefore, over the past few months we have been quietly working away behind the scenes, completely revising our insurance provision, booking conditions and our school contract, in order to place less risk on schools and individuals.
I’m pleased to say there have been some recent positive developments outside of our control too:
- The Department of Education no longer advises against overseas school trips. It’s not the answer to all problems, but it is certainly a significant step in the right direction - an important piece in the jigsaw.
- Social bubbles within a school setting have been removed. This is another really important piece in the puzzle. Before, if one student booked on a school trip came down with covid, then the whole year group had to isolate. If this happened just prior to a trip’s departure, then no-one could travel. And there wasn’t, nor is there still, any insurance cover for COVID related group cancellations. Now, if one student tests positive, the rest of the group are still able to travel.
- Individual covid cancellation insurance is now available. This provides reassuring protection meaning individuals are covered for cancellation due to covid whilst, crucially, the rest of a group are still able to travel. We now include COVID cover as standard as part of our emergency and repatriation insurance.
- FCDO advice and Traffic Lights are finally simplifying. Last week came the welcome news of a simplification to the much maligned traffic light system. With just green and red lists, it’s certainly simpler to understand, but, much more important – for the traveller - is the aligning of the traffic light system with FDCO advice. Now, if a country goes from green to red, the FCDO also advice against travel. If you’ve booked your trip through a tour operator, they can no longer operate the trip for you and have to either agree to postpone or cancel with a refund. School trips to countries that are on the green list can be delivered by the operator. Crucially though, the school has the reassurance that if the traffic lights go red, then under the Package Travel Regulations (PTRs) the operator has to cancel and refund. Incidentally, the same goes for restrictive destination entry requirements – if a country introduces entry requirements that mean all travellers from the UK have to isolate on arrival, then the tour operator can no longer operate the trip as planned, resulting in a ‘significant change’ – and the need to agree alternatives or refund.
So where does the real financial risk lie when arranging school trips?
The changing nature of overseas quarantines, border closures and entry requirements has been, still is, and will be for a long time to come, a HUGE headache for tour operators like ourselves. But the Package Travel Regulations place virtually ALL the financial and operational risk on the tour operator, not the client. With the removal of the DfE advice against overseas school trips, and COVID insurance cover for individuals, the actual risk to individuals and schools is now very low indeed.
Of course, there are some very obscure ‘What if’ scenarios that could theoretically cause problems, but that’s always been the case, even before COVID.
Nothing is risk free.
It never has been and never will.
Which is why teaching our children about managing risk has never been more important.
So as my business partner, Chris, wrote recently, there’s never been a more important time to start planning an overseas school trip.
Or, to put it another way, it's the perfect time to make lemonade.