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All the way

US travel expert Brian Robinson illustrates the benefits of long-haul school trips through two North American case studies

Posted by Hannah Oakman | June 07, 2016 | International

In a shrinking world, pupil expectations of school trips are ever changing.  But the additional travel time and costs of long haul need to be justified through unique experiences which enhance personal development in terms of learning outcomes and more confident children.  Well planned USA trips can deliver huge benefits through the effervescence and enthusiasm of local people together with some iconic destinations and experiences. US expert Brian Robinson illustrates some of these issues through a school ski trip to Utah and a history, politics and economics trip to Washington and New York.

Iconic destinations offer more

Who could fail to be inspired by a trip which includes Capitol Hill, the US Senate, Supreme Court, National Mall and White House Visitor Centre in Washington plus Gettysburg, followed by Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, 9/11 Memorial, MOMA, Grand Central Station and the UN Building in New York? But Malvern St James Girls’ School included even more, such as a private meeting for ten girls studying politics with a Kentucky Congressman, and the economists taking a tour of New York’s Federal Reserve to understand its roles in monetary policy. Leaders Rachel Huntley and Zoe Hemphill eventually had to cap the size of their tour at 48 pupils, such was the enthusiasm for places.

Good snow is a vital part of any ski trip and was a primary consideration in Ian Davey’s choice of Canyons, Park City, Utah for Westbourne School’s older pupils. All of the resorts in North America with 2,000 acres or more of skiing are in the Rocky Mountains or Pacific West. At the time, Canyons had 4,000 acres, and has now amalgamated with Park City to create 7,300 acres. The resort averages 355 inches of snow annually, and is one of ten resorts close to Salt Lake City. Five of these resorts average over 500 inches annually. Utah’s slogan the “greatest snow on earth” is more than a marketing gimmick. Both Utah and Colorado enjoy snow with such low moisture content that it is difficult to make a snowball from fresh powder. This powder also packs down so much better on the pistes. Such abundant super light snow is only found more than 500 miles inland in the Rockies and is significantly different from that falling on European resorts and those in North America closer to the Pacific or Atlantic coasts.

Listening to a debate in the US Senate, and watching politicians, aides and lobbyists moving around Capitol Hill, pupils cannot fail to imbibe the frisson of power at work. Gettysburg means so much more after experiencing the boulder strewn woods of Little Round Top and later gazing across the open field of fire which destroyed Pickett’s Charge. It means little to a teenager to be told that the aspen tree is the world’s second largest living organism, until he or she is skiing between vast sunny-side stands of them and appreciates that the trunks are connected below ground. Or who can comprehend what Eddie the Eagle overcame, until they look from the top of a 120-metre ski jump and then walk the steep slope alongside the landing area. 

Top tips 

  • Party leaders from both schools emphasized the need for thorough research, planning and organisation well in advance. Research started considerably more than a year before. Westbourne’s ski trip was marketed in April, 11 months before departure and MSJ’s history, politics & economics trip in January for an October trip. 
  • Westbourne School has one or two years of European ski trips, alternating with a North American resort. Europe is targeted towards younger children and less advanced skiers. Ian Davey uses the buzz in school from the returning European ski trip to launch the American one.
  • MSJ leaders stressed the need for a team of staff with complementary skills who are able to build deeper relationships with those on the tour. Their staff team debriefed every evening and planned in detail any changes for the following day’s schedule. The thoroughness of their contingency planning became apparent when they described their protocols for taking 48 girls on the New York subway.
  • Staff encouraged pupils to feed in ideas of additional activities or places they would like to visit.  During the evening debrief, staff would consider how pupil requests could be accommodated during times which had been left free deliberately. They would then confirm how the group would split for varying activities the following day.
  • Westbourne School also incorporated flexibility in a more informal way, when they visited the Utah Olympic Park with its sliding centre, ski jumps and museum, and also when they learned of ‘The Turf’, a unique indoor baseball experience.
  • Developing age-appropriate independence is important. For example older MSJ girls were given time on Washington’s National Mall, with a suggestion that they might want to sample one or more of ten free-to-enter Smithsonian Museums.  
  • Include time for shopping. Westbourne School pupils visited Tanger Outlet Mall close to their accommodation in Park City and MSJ Girls experienced Fifth Avenue, New York.
  • For Washington and New York, be prepared to walk a lot.  It is much the best way to sense the vibrancy of both cities. It also develops streetwise awareness, helpful for pupils who may later travel solo on a gap year.
  • Young people need to learn to pace themselves. They may feel tired after skiing, but usually revive during the evening. Westbourne School had one evening at a brilliant indoor bowling centre close to their hotel and another in downtown Salt Lake City watching a major league basketball game, Utah Jazz.  
  • Ian Davey enjoyed working with smaller company Ski and Sport because they were so close to the School in Sheffield that he could pop-in to discuss details. Malvern St James Girls School found European Study Tours very good to work with. Most arrangements were left to the tour operator but the School used a few personal contacts to establish bespoke meetings.
  • Ian has found that having several parents on Westbourne ski trips generates a family atmosphere and also broadens the pool of parents who have a better understanding of how the school works.
  • For ski trips to Rocky Mountains in the USA, there are non-stop flights from London Heathrow to Denver with British Airways or from 2016-2017 with Delta to Salt Lake City.  
  • April is low season in most American ski resorts, but it is vital to go high, even in the Rocky Mountains, as larger resorts in Utah and Colorado are on a latitude similar to Naples, Italy.

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