By Patricia Guth
Traveling with a non-auditioned and (often) mostly older choir is far different than taking your professional, high school, or college ensemble on tour. If you read the first two installations of this blog, you’ll recall that I talked a lot about the importance of choosing the right tour company and destination, the pacing of the trip, concert venues and audiences, and balancing sightseeing and singing with free time. In this portion of the blog, we’ll chat a little about providing your singers with a truly immersive experience.
Choosing the right hotels
You might think where you sleep each night has nothing to do with allowing your ensemble to embed itself in the culture of the nation to which they are traveling. But it actually has a lot to do with it!
There are two ways to look at hotel options. The first consideration deals with price. If you are traveling with high schoolers or young adults and endeavoring to keep prices down, you’ll likely choose a 3-star hotel on the outskirts of wherever it is you’re visiting. For many ensembles, that’s the way to go. It’s almost always less expensive and will certainly be suitable as, in most cases, your singers won’t be going off on their own. That means proximity to attractions won’t matter a lot.
However, for my non-auditioned choir, which includes many women who are well traveled, we’ve discovered that there’s much more to choosing a hotel than just finding affordable lodging. For this type of adult ensemble, having a few extra comforts is important. A lovely on-site restaurant and bar, or a pool and spa, for example, are perks that add a bit more to the hotel experience. And, of course, rooms with working air-conditioners seem to be paramount for American travelers, whenever possible.
But what we found to be most important is finding a good hotel in the city center or in a location close to public transportation where a jaunt into the city is simple. When we were in Budapest and Helsinki, for example, we stayed at hotels that were literally steps from museums, shopping, and other amenities. In Salzburg, we couldn’t stay in the center of the town but the bus station was right behind our chosen hotel and many of our singers took advantage of the city’s easy-to-navigate transportation during our free night there.
So, before you agree to lodgings, take some time to research the hotels you’re offered to be sure they fit the needs of your group. Not what you want? Ask your tour company rep what you can get for a slightly higher price and trim your costs elsewhere, if necessary.
What about meals?
Finding food that makes everyone happy can be tricky. We all have different eating habits. Some eat little. Others will think they haven’t gotten their money’s worth. You’ll likely also have vegetarians and vegans on your trip as well as those with medically necessary dietary restrictions. As such, no group meal will please all.
It’s hard to work around this but we’ve found that if your tour company selects a meal and restaurant that reflects the local palette, you’ll at least be allowing your choir members the opportunity to get a taste of the flavors of your destination, even if they’re not nuts about them. (Just make sure dessert is phenomenal and everyone will walk away happy!)
While most tour companies will see that breakfast is included daily and will likely schedule a few group dinners during your travels, it’s often a wise idea to include opportunities for your travelers to go off on their own and find something to eat that truly floats their boat. For some, it might be the local pizza parlor. For others, it may be way more exotic!
Unscheduled lunches followed by free time are ideal for exploring local restaurants. I fondly recall happening upon a great outdoor cafe in the central square in Tallinn, Estonia, and enjoying what was probably one of the greatest meals of my life…and it was all by chance.
So, that said, don’t feel the need to plan every meal. Leave some food experiences to chance and your singers will no doubt experience some extraordinary culinary highs.
Scheduling cultural activities for your ensemble
When I was the conductor of a youth choir that traveled domestically, we made it a habit to schedule bowling and laser tag during every tour. It was something to which we all looked forward and we joked that it was the only time I could “shoot” the kids.
With my women’s chorus, we have chosen cooking as our must-do activity on each journey. During every tour, we participate in a cooking class at a local restaurant or cooking school, where we learn to make delicious local cuisine. Thanks to our tour organizers at KI Concerts, we’ve worked together to craft full meals in Carignano (Tuscany), Vienna, and Tallinn thus far, and then together enjoyed the fruits of our labor around a table filled with smiles. Our cooking school in Vienna even presented us with aprons embroidered with our first names and chef hats we could wear while cooking, as well as diplomas at the end of the class. It was magical and joyous and we sang as we cooked!
Of course, if cooking doesn’t appeal to your group, there are many other options. You might consider folk dance lessons, for example, or anything that speaks of the area you’re visiting and allows the ensemble to work together towards producing an end result, be it a meal or something else. We chose cooking because everyone can do it (including the men!), it’s ideal for large groups, and it’s fun (especially with a little extra wine on hand!). Nonetheless, if that doesn’t appeal to you, ask your tour company for other ideas.
Go for it!
There’s so much to consider when planning a tour and just thinking about it can be intimidating. If you’ve contemplated touring with your non-auditioned choir and aren’t sure whether it’s something you want to tackle, know that every tour we’ve done has represented one of the highest points in my choir’s history. With the right tour company, a well-thought out itinerary, great singing venues, and an adventurous group of singers, your experiences and those of your ensemble members will be unforgettable and pretty darn near picture-perfect.
We’ll be heading to Ireland in 2022 for our 10th anniversary and already have dozens who’ve indicated interest in the tour! It’s not too early to plan something to which your choir can look forward after a vaccine is available. Here’s to happy, COVID-free days when we can sing and travel together again!