Youth Movement: The SYTA Conference

TAW reports from the Student & Youth Travel Association’s recent conference

By: Carley D. Thornell

There may not have been candles, but there was plenty of partying when the brainchild of seven student travel specialists marked its 10th birthday at Boston’s Marriot Copley Place.

The Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) set out to “Celebrate a Revolutionary Decade” Sept. 8-12 in the city that was the birthplace of the American Revolution. It was a truly patriotic weekend, with organizers and attendees remembering the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, but there was more red and white than blues in the attitudes of those in attendance.

SYTA members who include tour operators and hotel representatives, restaurants, theaters and attractions have plenty to be happy about, said Michael Palmer, SYTA executive director.

“Ours was the only segment in travel that did not experience negative growth in 2001 and 2002,” he said.

As for today, Mitch Sussman, chair of the SYTA Research Committee, said, “Our market is considered the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry, averaging more than 20 percent growth per year.”

Those numbers were reflected in conference attendance.

“We’ve been growing in double-digit leaps every year,” Palmer said. “We’ve had a 20 to 25 percent growth per conference. We expected 825 to 850 people in Boston.”

The final tally, however, was 943, compared to last year’s 752.

It’s a far cry from where SYTA started in 1997, when Palmer and six student and youth travel colleagues networked to found the nonprofit with a total of 25 charter members. With 600 member organizations today, annually serving 2.2 million students and earning 1.5 billion, SYTA is the biggest association of its kind.

Palmer only projects growth, namely in international travel (currently about 95 percent of SYTA travel is domestic and Canadian-based); and especially in the hot fields of sports, dance and performance-group trips.

The marketing strategy is three-fold: “The teacher can offer them an incentive, like a trip. By hiring a SYTA member instead of organizing it themselves, they have an inside scoop. They can possibly get a discount on their show tickets or go backstage for a clinic with a professional. And then there’s the competition aspect.”

There was also some competition at the conference, all in good fun of course, with a take on Hollywood Squares SYTA-wood Squares tested attendees on trivia, such as what the top markets for student and youth travel are. (Answer: for music trips, New York, Orlando, California; for educational trips, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Ottawa; for sports, Orlando; and for international, Italy, France and Austria.)

Circle got the Square in networking roundtables, which were organized by genre. “Associate” SYTA members, representatives of restaurants/hotels/CVBs, etc., were stationary, while “active” members (tour operators) assumed the role of speed-daters. Each table had 12 minutes to chat before the active members do-si-doed to the next table.

Enjoying the socialization opportunities at their second Annual SYTA Conference were Shannon Hahn, tourism sales manager for the Denver CVB, and Heather Ryan, Tour Colorado manager. They said the most important information they picked up was at the roundtables, where other tour operators and CVBs told them that short trips are in, in terms of duration of the trip and distance from origin.

“Hotel costs have gone up in major destinations, so a lot of schools are doing shorter trips that may be closer to home,” Ryan said. “That’s a big deal for a second-tier market like us, where we really have to work hard to market ourselves.”

Michael Palmer agreed and cited a recent University of Michigan study that found 60 to 70 percent of student and youth travel is focused on the short trip. He believed this was attributed to post-9/11 sentiment. SYTA’s 2006 Active Member Survey found that for U.S. and Canadian tours, 34 percent were one to three days, 45 percent averaged four days and just 21 percent were five days or more.

Focusing on much more than numbers and statistics, however, conference attendees lived up to the message they’re trying to promote that there’s also lots of learning to be had outside the classroom. SYTA conference-goers had their fun in the playground of Boston, visiting such landmarks as the Freedom Trail, the New England Aquarium, Faneuil Hall and Fenway Park, going on a Boston Harbor Spirit cruise and by experiencing a Duck Tour, a narrated city adventure aboard an amphibious World War II landing vehicle. Cindy Brown of Boston Duck Tours was the chair of this year’s host committee and is a former SYTA Youth Foundation (SYF) trustee.

SYF netted $120,000 through several conference fundraisers, including a live sports memorabilia auction and the destination silent auction that offered group packages and trips for two to destinations, such as Toronto, Kissimmee, Niagara Falls and New York. New this year was a “Chinese” auction, in which $10 tickets were put into a take-out box near several prizes and were drawn out as in a raffle.

And for some food for thought, those at Monday’s rise-and-shine breakfast were treated to a reading by winning essayist Daniel Ross of Newburg, Ore., who was awarded the Ripley Hunter “World is a Classroom” Travel Scholarship. It is given annually to secondary school students writing about what they gained from a travel experience.

Other SYF scholarship programs include the “Road” scholarship for students who are unable to afford their group’s educational or performance trip. Introduced this year was the Silver Lining program for high school students who demonstrated leadership in times of crisis (like Hurricane Katrina).

In August these students were treated to a free week in Chicago featuring curriculum components, team-building exercises and some fun all of which SYTA members found for themselves this month in Boston.