Thursday 22 Sep, 2011

Preparing For Tour and Parents

Scott Hemker Meeting with students

As the departure date draws near, I’m so busy that all I’m thinking about is making sure I’ve taken care of every detail.  The harder I work, the more relaxed I feel because I’m confident I have things under control.  Students are coming to grips with the idea that after all the meetings, planning, and fundraising the whole experience is actually going to happen.  They are packing frantically and making ecstatic Facebook posts.  But what about the parents?  How do they feel?  They’ve spent a great deal of time and money to help provide this opportunity for their children and their role in this experience is starting to diminish.  With less responsibility and little to no control, it’s natural for parents to begin to have feelings of discomfort, anxiety, or concern.   As the group leader, there are several things I can do to reduce parents’ worries.

This entire process begins taking place months, if not years, in advance.  I make sure I’m organized.  I prepare diligently and make detailed agendas for parent meetings.   I understand the importance of making a good impression upon parents during these initial meetings.  By running a smooth, efficient meeting with clear information that thoroughly covers all aspects of trip, I know that I can begin to gain the confidence of the parents.

At the end of these meetings, I make myself available to the parents.  I answer any questions or concerns that they didn’t feel comfortable sharing publically.  I continue to make myself available to them by sharing my email address and phone number.  When they do contact me, I always respond in a timely manner.  I also make sure that I give them the information that they are looking for.  A good group leader must be a good communicator, and not just during the trip.

On the famous television show The A-Team, Hannibal Smith used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”   But let’s be honest.  Sometimes the plan doesn’t come together.  Unforeseen circumstances can cause the need to cancel or change a trip.  Unfortunately for me, this happened to our group in 2011.  In the months leading up to the trip, I kept monitoring various sites on the Internet, as well as the US Department of State Travel website, regarding the violence in Mexico.  I learned that a travel alert had been issued for Mexico and instead of waiting to see if it would expire before the trip, I quickly went a different direction.  It was important to put the safety of the students first.  I did not want to take a chance in losing student and parent confidence in me, the program, or the trip itself.

In the unfortunate event that this does happen to you, it is important to have a back-up plan, especially if this occurs at the last minute.  Is there another trip within the same country that would be a safe alternative?  Or does the situation require a quick change of gears and traveling to a different country all together?  In either situation, having explored alternative trips beforehand with an EF tour consultant helped me make a quick and confident change to plan B.  By doing my homework all along, being prepared with an alternative plan, and being able to execute the plan quickly and confidently prevented students from withdrawing from the trip.  It also resulted in parents having more confidence and less worries.

Costa Rica Waterfall

Costa Rican Waterfall

I’d also like to add that it was a great opportunity to teach students about how to handle adversity in stride and our trip to Costa Rica was a pleasant surprise and a huge success.

During my parent meeting a month before departure, I spend a great deal of time talking about safety.  We cover safety strategies such as staying in groups, increasing your personal space, being aware of surroundings, keeping the hotel room door shut at all times, and taking a hotel business card with you when leaving for the day, just to name a few.  I talk about the quadrilateral of responsibility in which the students, parents, chaperones, and the group leader all share a role in ensuring safety.  Students are responsible for following the rules and meeting my expectations.  They also must inform me of any potentially harmful situation that another student may put him or herself in.

Parents are responsible for talking to their children about making good choices and listening carefully to the directions from the people in charge.  They also are asked to assist their children in buying and packing clothing that is both appropriate and safe for our tour.  The chaperones are responsible for assisting me in monitoring surroundings for potential danger, keeping track of students, and observing student health.  Finally, I’m responsible for providing clear expectations, rules that ensure safety, and an environment of open communication.  Laying out this framework of safety before the trip goes a long way in reducing parent worries.

This last piece of advice is the one that was the hardest for me to learn.  When parents come to you with worries or concerns (and sometimes it’s the same parent with the same concerns over and over again), don’t take it personal and most certainly don’t get defensive.  I used to think that these concerns stemmed from a parent’s lack of trust or confidence in me.  However, I’ve learned that it’s usually more related to the difficulty parents have in watching their children grow up, become independent, and prepare to leave the house all while playing a gradually smaller role in their children’s decision making process. Getting defensive can only increase parents’ anxiety and worries and only makes the problem worse.

Let’s not forgot that parents are always going to worry about their children regardless of who is in charge.  As a group leader, it is crucial for me to do everything I can to ease anxiety, calm nerves, and suppress the worries of parents.   Experience has taught me that being prepared, doing my homework and having a back-up plan, communicating often and at a high level, stressing a solid safety plan, and handling parents’ worries with compassion and understanding is a great recipe for success.

Readers, what helps you prepare for meetings and tours?

Flickr photo via FirstBaptistNashville

(Editor’s note: Add Scott on Google+Scott Hemker’s posts appear once a month on Following the Equator. If you have a travel question for our expert group leader, or an idea for a blog post topic, you can  email Scott, and he will answer readers’ questions in future posts.)

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