My National Championship Travel Nightmare

Jun 6, 2023

By Dan Baker, Heart of America Productions.

It was my third year as the Director of Choirs at Northridge High School, and the plan was to finish our competition season with an out-of-state trip, the first in 25 years. Both my assistant director, Catherine, and I were so excited about the possibilities.

Then, it happened. We received an invitation to perform in Radio City Music Hall as part of a contest in New York City! The fees were affordable, and we’d get to see an actual Broadway show. The school board and community were behind us 100% of the way.

Our trip was only a month away when the warning signs started. The head of the competition stopped answering emails. With three weeks before the contest and almost $50,000 paid, we got the call that the venue was now a “great” theater in the heart of Times Square. Then, it was the week before the trip, and a host of changes started coming, daily.

Luckily, a friend in the student travel business came along. He asked me why I chose not to have a travel company help. I used stereotypical answers, “We just can’t afford a trip like that,” and, “I have to do all this anyway.”

We arrived at the Marriott Marquis Times Square hotel and were relieved to find other schools registered for the contest. After talking with some directors, I learned that some schools requested and were waiting for confirmation numbers or hotel reservations but were unsuccessful, and these schools never got their (paid-for) Broadway tickets.

I was one of the lucky ones, because I kept asking the contest assistant questions and persisted with getting confirmation numbers. The schools that were not fortunate enough to get rooms had to stay outside of the city, costing thousands of additional dollars.

Having not slept a wink in almost 48 hours, it was now the contest day! As we walked into the “great” venue, I was mortified. This national championship venue looked a couple of decades removed from functioning. They again reassured us everything would be fine and set up before the performance.

In a rush, we somehow managed to make it to the bare concrete performance stage. We were the first to perform, and audio techs laid cable and installed microphones DURING performance! Our well-rehearsed costume change went terribly wrong because their techs were in the way and watching the girls backstage as they changed.

Our mixed show choir performed later in the day, and the contest was running three hours behind. I would later hear stories about the judges being given no breaks or food. Also, our kids were super excited to be introduced by TV star Mario Lopez. Only some received this honor, as the contest ran so late he was only contractually obligated to announce two groups.

Around one in the morning, I sent my students back to the hotel. Awards finally occurred at three in the morning. We ended up fourth in the nation! I was too tired to care. I kept thinking of how thankful I was for the parent chaperones, additional staff, and friends who traveled to help us survive this journey. I finally slept.

What I learned from this was simple: Plan special occasions with the help of a travel company. I could have avoided many of these trials had I reached out and let them sort through them. I work with many travel operators to help with our groups and events. The experience has shaped me as a better educator and event director. Lessons learned!

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