Ask Us Anything with Terri Hamilton, Brigham Young University

Oct 13, 2022

What does study abroad look like post-COVID? Hear about some of the changes in this episode of Ask Us Anything by WYSE Travel Confederation.

In this conversation, you’ll hear Terri Hamilton of Brigham Young University in the United States discuss post-COVID study abroad programmes. Terri explains what she’ll be looking for at the World Youth and Student Travel Conference (WYSTC) this year and why it’s critical for educational travel and tourism suppliers to be there. You’ll also hear:

  • What’s in demand for faculty-led university study abroad programmes
  • How universities choose educational travel products and suppliers to work with
  • What’s changed about university study abroad since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Listen to the podcast and/or read the transcript of the conversation below.

Hi Terri, thanks for joining me to talk about youth travel ahead of the annual World Youth and Student Travel Conference. Welcome!
Hi Wendy, I’m glad to be here.

Good! So, you’re Manager of Travel and Student Services at Brigham Young University in the United States – specifically, that’s in Utah, right?
Yes, that’s correct.

Could you tell us a little bit about your job? What do you do as Manager of Travel and Student services there?
At BYU we really push study abroad programmes. Our students here I love to travel and I think part of that comes from this being a religious university. So, a lot of our students participate in missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so they’re used to being out, travelling the world. In fact, I was reading something the other day and close to 70% of the students that attend our university speak a second language. At least one second language so, I know it’s a big point in their life to be a part of the world, to see the world and participate in what’s going on in the world. COVID has slowed us down a little bit, but now we’re bigger and better than ever.

As part of my position here at BYU, I oversee the study abroad office. I oversee our student employees who help set up study abroad programmes. Our study abroad programmes are most often faculty-led programmes. We do have a few that are individual-led for students that want to do internships, but a majority of what I do is work with faculty-led programmes.

We have six three-quarter-time staff and we have about 10 student staff. Between all of us we put together the study abroad programmes – or actually the travel itineraries – for these study abroad programmes.

So, a faculty director may come to us and say…you know I’m doing this study abroad, I need you to help me put an itinerary together.

I wrote a couple of the ones down that we’re working on right now. One is biology of food in Italy and Greece. So we research, we talk to people, we create a list of vendors that we work with because we need everything – we need hotels, accommodations, we need coaches. We do lots of site visits on this particular programme. They’re going to want to take cooking classes and talk to people about the food industry in Italy and Greece.

So, that’s what I do in my position.

OK, and how long is a typical faculty-led trip?
In the fall or autumn and winter months, we typically run about three to four months for a study abroad programme. In spring and summer, they run anywhere from about six to eight to 10 weeks, so a little bit shorter in the spring and summer and a little bit longer in our autumn and winter programmes.

And what are the most popular destinations? And are those set? Or do they tend to shift? Is there anything that is emerging?
I would say the #1 popular destination is London. Everybody wants London. I do know why – I love London! I lived in London for four years, so I love that city. Then extending out, people love Paris, Amsterdam, Rome – the typical big cities across Europe. But a lot of our programmes get out of the big city and they go to the smaller villages and that is becoming a big deal. I think with our study abroad programmes, they don’t just want to see the big cities anymore. I think COVID has awoken an interest in all of us that we have to see the world before another pandemic hits. So, everybody wants to see everything and go everywhere.

Speaking of COVID, which is hard not to do, have student expectations changed since COVID about a study abroad experience? Or maybe the other part of that is, have parents’ expectations changed?
Yes and no. So, the expectation is they want to go and they want to go now. Now, the issue we’re running into is, we don’t have enough faculty to run enough programmes. We have more students than we do programmes, so I would say the expectation is they want more than what we can offer at this point – just because we don’t have the faculty that can leave campus and run these programmes.

And is there anything that’s not popular?
No! No there isn’t. Everything is popular right now!

So, you were describing this trip to Italy, which seems to have these culinary elements to it, and to me it sounds like you’re looking for the basic traditional travel elements, but a lot of other things outside of that, is that accurate? And I mean, is that something that’s changed over the last few years, where you’re looking for these less traditional travel products to put into a travel experience?
I think so. In the time that I’ve worked here at BYU, I’ve seen some changes the faculty are wanting students to have. So, this particular programme is a biology programme. It’s just not eating the food; it’s learning about the growth of the food, the soil that the food’s growing in.

But I bet it’s probably pretty nice to eat the food!
I’m sure it is! It’s funny, we’ve had several food programmes go out this year, which I thought was interesting. Another one we have eating and cooking and living in the Mediterranean, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I could do that one.” (laugh)

So, I think there’s more of a… how do I want to say this… wore of that educational element that’s being added to our study abroad programmes. It’s not just a trip, it’s not just, “let’s go travel and have fun and see the Mona Lisa or whatever.” It’s much more focused on education. The students are getting credit for going on these study abroad programmes.

Have your expectations from the partners you work with changed since COVID?
No, not really. The thing that I’m seeing right now, which has been a little bit rough with the partners I work with is there are staffing problems. There’s staffing problems everywhere. The partners that I have been working with for the last 15 years are fantastic, but they will come back to me and say, “Terri, I don’t have anybody to help you. We don’t have coaches available for that trip, or that programme.” As we grow, I am realising we definitely don’t have enough partners. We need to develop some relationships with and grow our base of partners that we work with.

So, it’s about really refreshing and expanding your network to draw on?
Yes and it’s, as I said earlier – there’s six three-quarter-time staff and I’m really pushing for each of them to develop their network. They can’t always depend on what I have to give them. They need to develop. We’re growing and moving that fast that they need to be able to reach out and start getting to know and develop these relationships.

What will you be looking for at WYSTC this year? There are plenty of partners to be had at WYSTC, but what’s on your mind before the event?
Meeting new partners, getting to know new people. In fact, I would say 90% of the partners that we work with now have come from WYSTC – from meeting people at the different events that I’ve attended. It has been so beneficial for me and for our office, for the people that we work with – to get to know them, to develop these relationships. So, I’m looking to expand our base. We really need to to add to the relationships we’ve already developed with various vendors and grow that.

I’m hearing from a lot of buyers that this is a critical year to re-engage with people face to face. Would you agree with that?
Absolutely. It’s so much easier to work with vendors when I know who I’m talking to when we’ve sat down and discussed my needs and what they have to offer. It makes all the difference in the world and to me it is critical. I want to know. I care about the students I work with and work for. I want them to have the best experience possible when they’re out going on these experiences. It’s so much easier for me to give them that experience if I get to know the vendor face to face.

Another thing that’s come up in my conversations with buyers lately – and anyone who’s dealing in youth tailored travel products – that trust and safety from young travellers but also their parents has really changed since the pandemic. It’s not really physical safety; it’s actually what I would call financial security. So, the question of ‘what will happen to my investment in educational travel if something like that pandemic or the things that we’ve seen happen in the pandemic interrupts it?’ Are you seeing this as well and is it any different than it was before COVID-19? Or are there some new elements you’re having to deal with?
New elements. We’ve learned a lot of things that we did not have in place before COVID-19. How do we get our students home? What systems do we have that are in place to get people back to their homes or to get them into places where they can recover if they’ve gotten COVID? We’ve really thought about and worked out some various plans that we’ve put into place with our different study abroad programmes. No longer do we send out a single faculty with a group. We send out two faculty. So, if it’s a moving programme, say you’re in Rome today and you’re flying to Amsterdam tomorrow, what if one of your students isn’t feeling well? What do you do? And we’ve found that we have had to get to know testing agencies around the world that we didn’t have to worry about before and then we really depend on our vendors when we (students that) have to isolate. Especially our accommodation providers. When we have to change plans and say, “I need to leave a student here with a faculty for five more days than what we were originally planning”. A lot more thought and a lot more planning is going into our programmes because we don’t know what to expect. I think we’re all in that same boat a little bit. We just don’t know what to expect. The industry is ready to run forward so we’re having to piece it together and figure it out as we go.

Yeah, I mean I’ve heard that just wanting to know what happens to your money is something and maybe that’s something a little bit different in a university setting, but it’s a concern of everyone are you hearing those concerns from students and parents?
A little bit. When COVID first hit we had a few programmes out that we had to bring home, so we just had the financial office help us figure out, okay, they’ve been out in the field for six weeks. This is approximately how much they spent and we were able to refund them anything that was upcoming. Also, I just have to give a kudos to all of our vendors. When COVID hit, we got refunds and credits from almost 100% of our suppliers, which was very amazing. It just was great that they were willing to do that. So, I know it’s a concern now for our students and their parents what will happen, but we’ve put safety nets into our planning, and we’ve added additional amounts as we’ve kind of set up our own little insurance fund here at the university. If something happens, we’ve built up a fund that we can take care of getting students home or if someone gets sick we can evacuate and get that person home and we have the financial means to do that.

And has that changed any requirements you have with partners?
Not necessarily. Like I said, our partners have been just fantastic. They’ve all been really good about cleanliness and what they provide. I’ve had students where I’ve had to house at a particular or two or three different accommodation providers that I work with and wow, they’ve bent over backwards, they would take breakfast in a box and leave it at the door for our students so the students could open their door and bring in a breakfast box. Or they would take a pizza in the evening so they would have a dinner. I just have been impressed that our providers would be willing to do that. They’ve gone out of their way to make sure that we are taken care of.

Good, well I hope some of them are WYSE members.

They are!

That’s good, the power of the association is always good to hear about.

Yes, that’s true.

So, what would you consider one of the most useful activities at WYSTC?
For me, I really love the meetings that we have; the 15-minute or 10-minute short meetings where we change. I really, really like that. That’s where I can introduce myself and the supplier can introduce themselves and their product and say what they can do to help me as I am working on study abroad programmes. To me that is one of the most useful things that I do at WYSTC; the face-to-face interaction. Let’s sit down. Let’s discuss it. What can you do for me? What can I do for you? How can we work together to make this work?

OK, and what would you tell someone who’s never been to WYSTC?
Just go. You will not regret it. I promise you won’t regret it. Just go.

I don’t particularly love going to big meetings, sometimes I felt like it’s easier just to figure it out on my own, and then I went and once I went, I realised this is a key element in my job and I could not do the job that I do for the university had I not started going to these conferences.

And you come to the STAY WYSE conference as well?
I do, yes, I do.

Anything else you’d like to tell folks who are planning to attend WYSTC this year?
Just come and enjoy it. Enjoy all the activities. I really liked the free time that we have to get together with one another and it’s really worth your time.

Well, thank you Terri. It’s been really nice to catch up with you and it will be even better to see you in person in Lisbon in September.

I’m really excited.

Thank you for talking to me today and I hope to share a custard tart with you in September!

Absolutely! The best place in the world to get those.

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