Educational Travel’s Bad Trip

Tourists on camel safari, Sahara Desert, Merzouga, Morocco, North Africa, Africa
Educational travel has been going through a dry patch lately. Source: DPA.

Anyone looking to be cured of insatiable wanderlust should click through the travel warnings on the website of Munich-based travel agency Studiosus. “Tunisia: Knife attack against German tourists,” one headline reads. “Sri Lanka: Dramatic increase in dengue infections,” reads another.

It may seem counter-intuitive for a provider of educational tours to steer people clear of its destinations, but Studiosus has managed to retain patrons this way.

“Travel warnings strengthen customer loyalty,” said chief executive Guido Wiegand. “Seventy-five percent of our tour participants are repeat customers.”

That’s important, because Studiosus – along with every other educational tour provider in Germany – has seen its popularity fade in recent years. Germans, it seems, are less interested in spending their vacations learning about history and politics than they used to be.

Trips to places worth learning about tend to be more dangerous than destinations that are more vanilla.

But waning interest among potential tour participants is only part of the problem. Studiosus, a family-owned business that coordinates educational travel for 100,000 people a year, is also grappling with the worsening security situation in many popular destinations.

Bookings to Turkey, for instance, a country that has seen its diplomatic currency with Germany plummet in recent months, decreased by 97 percent in 2016. The same year, Studiosus also saw bookings to Morocco, Egypt and Oman fall by double-digit percentages. Trips to Tunisia, where Islamists shot beachgoers at a resort, disappeared completely from the company’s brochures.

It is an inconvenient truth in the educational travel industry that trips to places worth learning about tend to be more dangerous than more vanilla destinations. Political instability and a string of deadly terrorist attacks in popular Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ports of call have only underscored this fact.

But the stagnation in the segment has been on the cards for years. In 2015, as many of Studiosus’ rivals were lamenting a slowdown in orders, Studiosus was watching net profits hit new lows. The company’s profits had decreased to €4.9 million ($5.8 million), half of what they once had been.

Studiosus Travel 84869248
Have a rice trip. Source: Studiosus

The trend shows no sign of stopping. Last year, the number of people who booked trips with Studiosus decreased by 3 percent. The only thing that kept Studiosus’ sales stable were higher prices for tours to other places like Iceland or Scandinavia.

The company was founded in 1954 and by the 1980s, the destinations of choice for typical Studiosus travelers – curious and penniless students – were Italy and Greece, which made up the lion’s share of the company’s growth. Studiosus drew students thanks to campus booths offering a chance to learn and travel cheaply.

Studiosus’ business gained a second boost with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The company offered East Germans affordable package tours: for 399 deutsche marks, or $239, they could book a four-day bus tour to Bavaria. Seeing the Alps for the first time, many travelers burst into tears.

Prices have changed since then: an average Studiosus trip now costs €2,621, a sum that awakens expectations that are increasingly difficult to meet. The abolition of roaming fees in Europe is another challenge as smartphones provide an alternative to tour guides.

Studiosus and its rivals in the educational travel industry are battling these trends by relying on the likability of their employees. Once, to work for Studiosus, you had to be a specialist; geologists gave tours of Iceland, art historians showed people around Italy and sinologists guided folk through China. Now, that isn’t enough. “They have to be good entertainers too,” said Mr. Wiegand, Studiosus’ CEO. “Only someone who can explain how a collapsed column is relevant for life today is going to grab anyone’s attention.”


Christoph Schlautmann covers companies and markets for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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