FAIRFIELD – Nine Fairfield High School students were looking forward to touring Europe this summer performing band and choir concerts with the Iowa Ambassadors of Music.
However, in light of the global coronavirus pandemic, that trip has been canceled. It came as sad news to the local students and their parents. It also came with a steep financial cost. The company that runs the tour, Voyageurs International LTD, is keeping the $1,900 cancellation fee from each student who was signed up for the trip. And this doesn’t just affect Fairfield students or even just Iowa students. About 3,700 students in 13 states are being charged this cancellation fee. Lili Wells, the mother of one of the Fairfield students selected to go, Liam Wells, wants to do something about it.
Wells has started an online petition to ask Voyageurs International to refund the cancellation fee. She said it’s unbelievable that the company is keeping over $7 million in cancellation fees.
“The contract states that [Voyageurs International] would only cancel within 10 days prior to your tour scheduled travel dates,” Wells wrote on her online petition, which as of April 5 had received over 7,500 signatures. “This cancellation has come more than three months prior to the scheduled travel dates with no attempt to reschedule even being considered.”
Voyageurs International did not respond to a request for comment from The Union. However, the company’s contract with the students states that the company has the right to cancel a trip if the U.S. State Department restricts travel to Europe for any reason, and that the students would be refunded according to a cancellation schedule. For March 2020, that fee is $1,900.
Nevertheless, Wells said Voyageurs International’s refusal to refund a greater amount of money is not fair nor good business, given “The rest of the travel industry has made concessions as far as refunds considering the circumstances,” she said.
Wells and other parents have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and with attorneys general in both their home states and in Colorado, where the company is based.
The nine Fairfield High School students affected by the decision and their year in school are Liam Wells (11), Dylan Barras (12), Jakob Watson (11), Claire Epperson (11), Lauren Kraemer (11), Claire Pettit (11) Kevin Kretz (11), Sophia Fritz (10) and Emma Winkelman (10).
Smaller fee sought
Christine Neubauer, the mother of Dylan Barras, said most parents agree that the company is entitled to a cancellation fee, but they believe that number should be the $700 nonrefundable fee stipulated in the contract and not the $1,900 that they are now faced with.
The cost of the trip is not cheap. Each student has to pony up just over $6,300. That covers a few days of practicing at Grinnell College in Iowa before hopping on a plane and spending two weeks in Europe. Most of the students have been planning this trip for over a year, and have made painful sacrifices in order to go.
Barras got a job detasseling corn last summer to save money for the trip.
“It’s frustrating because he worked hard to earn that money, and now they’re taking it from him. He’s got nothing to show for it,” Neubauer said.
Liam Wells wanted to go on the Spanish class’s trip to Belize, but he couldn’t because it conflicted with the trip to Europe. Now he might not be able to go on either one.
Lauren Kraemer decided to get a job this spring working at Chickadees in Fairfield instead of playing on the tennis team. She wanted to be able to repay her parents for fronting the money for the trip, something that he older sister Madison went on two years ago.
“My sister talked highly of the trip, and I was really sad that it was canceled,” she said.
Claire Epperson said she and other members of Fairfield’s chapter of Future Business Leaders of America knew they wouldn’t be going to the FBLA national competition this summer because it conflicted with the music trip. Consequently, Epperson chose to do a pair of difficult tests for FBLA instead of projects, which she’s done better with in the past, but which she knew she couldn’t take to the national competition.
“We didn’t put as much effort into our FBLA projects because we knew we wouldn’t be able to go to nationals,” Epperson said.
Claire Pettit said she found herself in the same boat as Epperson.
“I wish I could have put more effort into my presentations for FBLA,” Pettit said. “And I hope we can get all the money back eventually.”
Future trips in question
The Iowa Ambassadors of Music trip to Europe happens every two years. Epperson said that her younger sister was hoping to go on the trip two years from now.
“Now we’re wondering if it’s worth being a part of,” Epperson said.
Epperson said the band and choir directors at FHS feel awful about the situation even though they were not responsible for canceling the trip or refusing to refund the money.
“[Band instructor Jim] Edgeton is questioning whether to even send students in the future,” Epperson said.
Neubauer said she feels guilty, too, because she was the one who encouraged her son to go on the trip because it was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” Neubauer has been talking to lawyers about the situation, and she hopes that enough public pressure can be put on Voyageurs International so that they’ll refund the money before legal action is taken.
The trip was supposed to last from June 29 through July 18 with the first three days at Grinnell College. The parents can happily report that the Iowa Ambassadors of Music has refunded all but $10 of the $365 cost per student in transporting them to the airport and back. Even before Voyageurs International officially canceled the trip on March 17, some of the students were contemplating withdrawing out of fear of the coronavirus.
“We were leaning toward canceling anyway,” Epperson said. “We’re not sure we could go to Italy, and it wouldn’t be the same experience anyway.”
The countries the tour planned to stop in included England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy and a visit to Leichtenstein.
Lili Wells said she hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic would have subsided by July, so she was not planning to cancel.
The Union asked the students if they would consider going two years from now. For the juniors, that would mean going after their freshman year of college.
“That might be a fun thing to do, but it wouldn’t be the same,” Epperson said.