The students in the North Marion High School band had spent months holding doughnut sales, car washes and an auction in their rural northern Florida community to help raise $21,000 to come to Washington's Cherry Blossom parade this Saturday.
Then their plans hit a snag. Because of a little-known parade requirement that has begun to stir controversy across the United States, the band found out that it had to arrange its trip through Thrifty Tours Inc., a Washington travel agency that has been granted exclusive rights to all travel business for the parade. The cost of the trip, the band soon learned, would rise to almost $25,000 - about $4,000 more than it has raised.
"It's very difficult," said Irene Jones, president of the North Marion Band Boosters. "We're going to have to go into debt."
The Band Boosters, a school parents' group, has applied for a $4,000 bank loan to help pay the additional cost of the trip, Jones said. Eventually the band will have to hold more money-raising doughnut sales and car washes to pay off the loan - "which does make it kind of a hardship," Jones said.
The controversial travel franchise was awarded to Thrifty Tours by Robert Michalski, a former president of the Downtown Chapter of the District of Columbia Jaycees who now heads a small private firm called American Public Events Inc. Michalski, who previously worked for the Washington Area Convention and Visitors Association, first granted the franchise to Thrifty Tours for the 1978 Cherry Blossom parade. The arrangement was renewed for this year's parade although this is the last year in which the special arrangement applies. Michalski's firm has been hired to run the parade by the Downtown Jaycees, the parade's sponsor.
Thrifty Tours has acknowledged in a federal court suit that it did more than $400,000 worth of business by making travel arrangements for bands for last year's parade and that it anticipates a similar amount of parade trvel business this year. Neither Michalski's firm nor Thrifty Tours has divulged its profits from the parade.
Thrity Tours' exclusive hold on travel arrangements has spurred complaints from high school bands in various parts of the nation for two reasons. Some band leaders, including those at North Marion High, say they could have saved money by arranging the trip themselves. And some express resentment at being forced to employ a Washington firm - a requirement they view as infringing on their freedom to make financial decisions.
"There was no choice involved. That was the thing that bothered our Band Boosters Club," said Tom Posey, director of the Greenwood (S.C.) High School band, an award winner in the 1978 Cherry Blossom parade.
"We were locked in," said Bob Harder, director of the South High School band in Salina, Kan., another 1978 awarded winner. He estimated his band would have saved $3,000 to $4,000 by making its own travel plans.
Thrifty Tours' franchise has also prompted objections from other travel firms, including another Washington based company that has sued that organizers of the Cherry Blossom parade in U.S. District Court here, accusing them of having illegally "monopolized" the travel business. Washington Group Tours Inc. contends in its suit that it has been denied an opportunity to provide "a cheaper price or better services" to some parade participants because of Thrifty Tours' exclusive franchise.
In the court suit, Washington Group Tours alleged that American Public Events had a "financial interest" in requiring bands taking part in the parade to make their travel arrangements through Thrifty Tours.
Michalski and Thrifty Tours president Barbara Womack said in interviews, however, that their only financial relationship was the imposition of special fees for participating in the parade and other events. They said that Thrifty Tours collects the fees and passes them on to Michalski's firm, which uses the money to pay for renting concert halls, hiring judges for band competitions and other expenses. They declined to disclose the amount of the fees, saying that a court order precluded them from making these public.
The Downtown Jaycees recently reached a settlement with Washington Group Tours that will apparently prohibit any similar exclusive franchises for travel firms in future years. The settlement will not, however, affect travel requirements for this year's parade and band competitions, in which nearly 70 bands and drill teams are expected to participate.
The Jaycees said in the court settlement that because of their existing contract with Michalski's firm, the Jaycees "are not in a position" to alter the travel requirements for the parade.
Both Thrifty Tours, a long-established travel firm located at 733 15th St. NW, and American Public Events, whose office is at 1511 K St. NW, are contesting the court suit. Both companies dispute the complaints expressed by high school band leaders. They say Thrifty Tours' prices are fair.
According to festival organizers, Thrifty Tours' exclusive franchise applies only to the parade and band award competitions. The National Conference of State Societies, a collection of social clubs that organizes the Cherry Blossom princesses' ball and other parts of the festival, has never had such an arrangement officials say, and no travel franchise was awarded for the parade unitl American Public Events granted one to Thrifty Tours last year.
The 130-member North Marion High School band learned of Thrifty Tours' exclusive franchise only after it had already obtained a $21,000 estimate for its planned trip to Washington from a travel firm in nearby Ocala, Fla. Band director Barden Cuddington said in an interview that Thrifty Tours initially quoted a $29,000 price for the trip but eventually reduced it to about $25,000 after extensive negotiations.
"We decided we'd to along with what they're doing now and make the best of it," Cuddington said recently. "We're excited about going."
In an interview Michalski said he offered Thrifty Tours the exclusive franchise because he was seeking to expand the parade and band competitions. He said he wanted a single firm to coordinate all scheduling and travel arrangements and believed this plan would result in "economies of scale." His own firm, which was set up in 1977 to manage the 1978 parade, is too small to handle the job itself, Michalski said.
Thrifty Tours president Womack said in an interview that she had not sought the exclusive franchise for parade business and would not object to losing it. "It doesn't make any difference to me," he said. "The requirement that all bands use me was certainly not my requirement." She said, nonetheless, that losing the franchise would cost her some parade business.
Asked about complaints by band leaders that they could save money by making their own travel arrangements, Womack said that lower prices may be available but she said that such cost reductions could only be obtained by bands that settled for less service or less desirable accommodations than she normally tries to arrange.
"I did not say that [other travel agencies] could not be offering them a lower price, but if I know what was in the [other travel agency's proposed] tour, I could offer them as low or lower," she said.
Several band leaders have said, however, that they never checked whether a local travel firm might offer them a reduced price because they were told by Michalski that they had to make arrangements through Thrifty Tours.
"I didn't see any point in trying," said Claude Cooper, director of the James F. Byrnes High School band in Duncan, S.C. "We took the price that [Thrifty Tours] offered. I don't know that there was any way to negotiate it down."