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Customized Student Tour Agent Gears Up For Post-Pandemic Travel Demand

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Kate Coffey Of EDU Trips Predicts A True Resurgence For 2022

By Tina Traster

The events of Sept 11th and the 2008 deep economic recession tested Kate Coffey’s mettle, which is saying something because her unstoppable efforts over two decades to build EDU Trips based in  Tappan have been indomitable.

But the coronavirus pandemic, which brought worldwide travel to a standstill over the past year, has delivered her to the brink. Coffey spent most of 2020 navigating furloughs and refunds for a year’s worth of planned specialty student tours.

The next six to 12 months will reveal whether pent-up desire for travel will right the ship. Coffey is not sure high schools and colleges – the heart of her clientele – will feel confident about planning travel yet. She’s projecting a resurgence for 2022 and beyond but for now it’s a day-to-day challenge to run her business.

“I’d love to close the door, get a job and not worry,” said Coffey. “But I can’t do that. I love to plan travel. This is what I do. This is what I want to continue to do.”

In March, American Express released a report showing people not only want to travel again but are hard at work planning dream post-pandemic getaways, according to the new American Express Travel: Global Travel Trends Report. People miss traveling so much that 76 percent of respondents surveyed are creating their destinations’ wish list for future travel even though they might not be able to travel yet. Some 63 percent surveyed are saving credit card points so they can go on a vacation once they feel comfortable traveling, and 56 percent said that they miss traveling so much they are willing to book a trip now even if they might have to cancel it in the future.

Much will depend on the pace of the vaccination rollout and whether new surges of the virus or its variants constrain travel but airports have seen record number of travelers for spring break.

Coffey, a single mother raising four teens, developed wanderlust in her late teens when she left the tiny farm in Dublin, Ireland where she was raised and traveled to the United States for the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament.

“Travel has shaped my whole life,” said Coffey, who worked for airlines and did tour planning for travel companies until she and a partner founded Vagabond Tours NY Inc., in 1998 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The retail shop catered mostly to selling plane and Eurorail tickets to the student market.

“September 11th killed us,” said Coffey. “It had a horrendous effect on travel. It killed student, corporate, and leisure travel. Following Sept. 11th, insurance companies clamped down on Spring Break travel. Rather than perish, Coffey pivoted with an emphasis on customized educational tours and rebranded as EDU Trips, which organizes tours for learning programs, senior trips, competitive team tours, or educational experiences. The company has built a strong niche in taking MBA students on factory tours in Asia.

“It took three years for us to bounce back,” she said.

In September 2019, EDU Trips was on track to have a banner year – its best year ever.

“We were set to do $3.5 million this year,” said Coffey. “We had a staff of seven people. We had 50 trips booked, either paid for or with significant deposits down.”

On Jan. 15th, Coffey caught a news item about a shutdown in Wuhan. At the time, most of her 2020 tours were slated for Europe and South Africa but she had an intuitive feeling that a SARs-like outbreak would badly impact travel.

The cancellations started 10 days later, and they just kept coming.

Coffey furloughed her staff – they were not set up to work remotely. She scored PPP money, and eventually brought them back. The phones were ringing off the hooks – clients wanted refunds. Some airlines, hotels, bus companies, event venues, tour guides cooperated – some didn’t. Ultimately Coffey recovered roughly 70 percent of her clients’ money.

“I came to the office every day,” she said. “It’s as much work to have a business with no sales as it is to have one that is doing business.”

Coffey said she has a handful of tours booked for 2021. She remains optimistic despite recent lockdowns in Paris and Europe. 2021 might be another year of limping toward the finish line but adds, “This is our last shot to see if we can get business on the books for 2022.”

Resurrection may take some rethinking – just as it did in the aftermath of 9/11. While student tours could take a year or so to revive, Coffey is thinking about World War II Memorial Tours – which would attract a sector of the population that is mostly likely to be vaccinated.

Coffey feels as though she’s been through a war this year, challenged to make hard decisions and find wherewithal from a deep well. Growing up on a farm prepared her well.

“What I learned as a little girl was that some years the weather was good and the crops complied, and other years it didn’t rain and we’d live off credit,” she said. “I learned that nothing is fixed in stone. There are many external things you can control. But I’ve also seen how the human spirit bounces back.”