Reflecting after the 2014 SYTA Summit: Puerto Rico
by Ryan Sparzak
Now that the tan-lines (or for many of us, burn-lines) have faded, as well as some of the post-summer camp like fervor that adults often experience after an industry-related conference, I wanted to write a brief reflection about my trip to the SYTA 2014 Summit in Puerto Rico. Being a “rookie” in the business of student travel allows me a fresh perspective on what is an amazing profession full of passionate people. To summarize, student travel professionals know how to have “serious fun”.
I’m beginning to realize that behind the excitement is a commitment to the safety and security of other people’s children. As a teacher, a student test scores and their ability to socialize with peers kept me up at night. As a school leader, I spent many hours concerned about school culture and why there was an increase in negative behaviors like bullying or fighting.
I’ve learned that people in student and youth travel have similar fears and challenges. However, instead of bringing young people into a confined space such as a classroom or school, they are responsible for the safety of these same children with the same social challenges, in a completely unpredictable environment. Learning about government while standing on the U.S. Capitol front steps is different than in classroom desk rows. The same thing that makes travel what it is – the capriciousness and the unknowns – can lead to weeks of insomnia leading up to a trip or can lead to the demise of a company or group leader.
We’re thankful to SYTA and its growing list of affiliated companies for taking these risks very seriously. The first meeting at this summit was with Greg Takehara, from the Berkeley Group, who established a serious tone for it’s attendees and also provided assurance that we are not alone in our efforts to insure our companies and the precious cargo that is entrusted to us. The second session with Ed Belkin of Levick furthered the solemn tone with his talk on proper response in time of crisis. We learned that the worst response in crisis is no response at all. Let the public know that you care, are committed to solving the issue, and are taking action that matters most.
The first day sessions ended with a very thorough talk about conducting security surveys and risk analysis for student tours. After this one, I checked all of the neighborhood statistics surrounding each of our hotels, and even gave myself a personal background check. I passed! Youth safety must be taken seriously – no joke. Everything that we do will always start with safety. The best part for me is that these guys were fellow “yinzers”. When you hear someone from your native tongue talking hardball, you listen. These guys were like the Steel Curtain of student tours. Nothing gets passed them, even the dates on the fire extinguishers. Would I send my students with their groups? You bet I would.
Mixed into these discussions were presentations on some special things that are happening with SYTA. The SYTA Foundation and its board members showed up looking groovy in the oh-so-fancy, yet practical, collapsible sun glasses from the super fun SYTA sponsor Dave & Busters. We now know why they brought everyone shades; their presentation and accompanying video on a student group from Compton traveling to Yosemite National Park sent the room full of grown men and woman into tears. Those shades proved practical and hid the tears. Travel changes lives and seeing it happening on the big screen was very moving.
Hard to predict were the impromptu business meetings that would occur at a restaurant table, in the elevator, late night at the beach café, or out by the pool. Sure, people were taking in the scenery and sunshine, but they were also there to further their business and improve their bottom line. People in this industry always find a way to do that while still being cordial. I believe this is the case because many of us see this profession as a calling and not just a job. We do what we do to improve the world and enrich the lives of the students that visit our locations, use our services, hear us teach, and engage with us in a life-long relationship. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed.
That last thing I want to mention about my time at SYTA Puerto Rico was the fun. Fun is an essential part to any travel experience, especially when all of the planning, logistics, and security are taken care of. As soon as we arrived, the SYTA Wonder Team greeted us with a standing ovation and a gift bag. My 9 month-old son, who came along as a last minute addition, was handed a toy and smothered in love by their team. Throughout the weekend there were plenty of organized activities: salsa lessons, catamaran cruises, and amazing snorkeling were a few of them. Then, there were those spontaneous experiences that happen after the work is done. My favorite night was all about karaoke at a local hole-in-the-wall-get-lost-to-find-it-dive-bar-and-grill (singing Journey with a room full of educational travel professionals and local Puerto Ricans was totally once-in-a-lifetime). Another night, business partners, co-workers, and even competitors found themselves cheering each other on around a mechanical bull. Nothing like this unfamiliar territory to bring even the most staunch competitors together, right?
I’m already looking forward to next year and building upon the relationships that were formed while at SYTA Summit 2014.
*Global Travel Alliance would like to thank all the SYTA Summit Sponsors for going above and beyond to make the entire weekend a memorable and worthwhile experience: Aon Affinity/Berkely, Branson Lakes Area CVB, Broadway Inbound, Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises, Dave & Busters, Disney Theatrical, Disney Youth Programs, Destiny USA, Empire State Building Observatory, Givenik.com, Graceland Tours, Birmingham CVB, Groups Sales Box Office & Broadway.com, McRoberts Protective Agency Inc., Mears Transporation, Merlin Entertainment, New York Water Taxi/Circle Line Downtown, Newseum, Receptively Yours, Ripley’s Believe it or Not-Times Square, Serendipity Media LLC, Top of the Rock, Travel Advocates, Travel Insured, The Met Opera, Universal Orlando, University of San Diego