Skift Take

Overseas students bring in the cash, but specialist agencies are still exposed as the pandemic starts to bite.

Educational travel has largely kept under the radar since the pandemic began, but  recently made the headlines after one of the largest specialist agencies in the U.S. filed for bankruptcy.

Lakeland Tours LLC, parent company of WorldStrides, filed a Chapter 11 petition last month. WorldStrides operates educational trips for 550,000 students annually, partnering with 7,000 schools and 800 universities around the world.

But with those institutions closed and the majority of field trips and other types of travel canceled, the company had to issue refunds. It has now agreed to a recapitalization plan with shareholders and lenders.

A spokesperson told Skift: “This recapitalization is a positive development for us overall as it helps to reduce our debt and provide significant new financing.”

What Exactly Is Educational Travel?

It’s a niche but multifaceted sector. Travel can take the form of exchanges, with pupils studying in another country, or field trips. There’s also academic travel, such as teachers attending conferences or professors carrying out research projects.

In WorldStrides’ case, it also offers language immersion, sports travel and career exploration, which are programs for high-achieving school students to get a taste of further education at a college campus.

Universities and colleges certainly haven’t been immune to the global restrictions — but they have been afforded some privileges.

Like international corporations shutting down business travel, so too did educational institutions go into lockdown. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the U.S., “all university-sponsored travel outside of Wisconsin or by air within the state remains cancelled until further notice”, according to its website.

The policy states that these restrictions are in place for all employees, students and registered student organizations. Some limited cases of travel by ground and air outside of Wisconsin, or by air within the state, may be approved by vice chancellors, academic deans and research center directors.

Many institutions will have cancelled their exchange programs this year. Picture: Mikael Kristenson, Unsplash

But depending on the country, some institutions are being granted more leniency. Australia, for example, enjoys the revenue overseas students bring in, and as far back as April declared it would keep its borders open for education travel, but shut out international tourists. International education is its fourth-largest foreign exchange earner, worth $26.14 billion a year.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the State Department announced in July that foreign students coming from Europe would be exempt from a travel ban.

In Hong Kong, Connexus Travel was experiencing a slowdown in business long before the pandemic started, CEO Gloria Slethaug told Skift, as bookings dropped following a series of anti-government protests. Those images of demonstrators in the airport, beamed on news channels across the world, didn’t help either.

But educational travel proved to be a lifeline, because Hong Kong subsidizes overseas travel for schools. These bookings haven’t stopped, and Slethaug even believes Connexus will grow its market share over the course of the year.

Testing Times

It’s against this backdrop that specialist travel agencies are being challenged.

“A lot of universities that have an international focus are still trying to bring students over, in a roundabout way,” said Christopher Hellawell, director of account management at Diversity Travel. “Obviously the capacity isn’t there to bring 400 students from China here to the UK, so they’ve been looking into charter aircraft to facilitate that.

“A couple of universities have done this, and we’re also talking to some of our clients. But there are complexities at both ends, around quarantines. And also chartering a plane and landing it in China poses its own challenges as well.”

Another specialist has reacted by postponing travel arrangements, and adjusting cancellation policies.

“Since the announcement of the March 11 travel restrictions, we have offered every customer the chance to move their tour to another date, thereby protecting every dollar of their investment,” international education company EF Education First said in a statement, in relation to its EF Educational Tours division. “At this time, the majority of our 2020 tour groups have opted to accept flexible travel vouchers, allowing them to rebook their educational tours at no penalty or added cost.”

And like most educational travel providers, EF Education First is also navigating the new world of hygiene protocols, and has set up “safety hubs” — teams located domestically and internationally that make recommendations about how various parts of its travel experiences will be adjusted in response to the pandemic. EF has also signed on to the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Safe Travels Protocols.

In the long term, the education travel sector will also be assessing the Zoom effect, and Hellawell noted many institutions quickly adapted to video conference-style teaching.

“The biggest piece for us is that a lot of bookings in the education sector are conference and events travel,” he added. “The pandemic’s impact could be large for us if it moves online, or takes a long time to get back. For some universities, academic travel makes up 40 percent of their travel spend.”

For now, the good news is that the fast-tracking of foreign student travel could kick-start a wider recovery — welcome green shoots of international recovery and potential valuable lessons for other agencies to learn from. At the same time, how students themselves respond will determine how quickly the industry bounces back.

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Tags: colleges, coronavirus, student travel, travel agents

Photo credit: Some countries are waiving travel restrictions for overseas students. StephanieHau / Unsplash

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