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Kent Taylor is a man who knows America’s national parks better than most. Asking him which one is his favorite, though, “is a little bit like asking which of my children I love the most.” (When pressed, he’ll tell you that it’s Zion National Park in Utah.)
As a tour director who runs a business called My Private Ranger, it is Taylor’s job to create an end-to-end travel experience for the small private tour groups he leads. That includes being on top of flights and the accommodations to the time of day the group sets out to see wildlife — which he advises needs to be very early, way before breakfast.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought an entirely new dimension to Taylor’s job — and a lot of new demand for small group tours. He’s almost entirely booked up for 2021, something that’s never happened this far in advance before.
Before his work as a professional guide, he worked for the National Park Service for decades, starting as a park ranger at Grand Teton National Park after graduating from Humboldt State University in 1978. In the ensuing years, he also worked for National Park Service as both a researcher and ranger in Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and Garden of the Gods. He also served with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
When he retired from the federal government, he decided to enroll at the International Guide Academy in Denver, Colorado. His background as a ranger made him a sought-after guide, and he said this second career, which he started in 2004, “has been just as good as my first.”
This summer, as he’s led trips in parks including Yellowstone and Grand Teton, he’s had to follow safety protocols including minimizing interaction with people outside the tour group, conducting health and temperature checks, ensuring his vendors follow CDC guidelines, and wearing masks when in close proximity (such as inside a vehicle) with his tour groups
“A lot of people are rethinking their vacation plans and bucket list and thinking, well maybe it’s time to see our country during this time period,” Taylor told Skift. “Let’s take advantage of what’s happening right now to see our own country.”
At the urging of President Trump, the U.S. national parks began a phased reopening — in a somewhat chaotic, case by case way — during the late spring and early summer. This caused some controversy for those who felt an influx of tourists would bring Covid cases to surrounding communities. Over the summer as the parks have been open, many services and areas have been closed, including lodging within many parks. Taylor reports that private vacation rentals have been a popular alternative for his guests.
This is related to what Taylor describes as one of the most challenging parts of his job: relationships with his vendors. After all, he’s not just a guide but a travel agent as well, and the experience he can provide to his groups is only as good as his vendors.
“Sometimes in these national parks you get a turnover of staff from week to week, shift to shift, year to year,” Taylor said. “It’s constantly rebuilding those relationships and having to depend on them to follow through. It’s constant follow up and constant confirmation of services so there’s no surprises.”
In addition to logistics man, another role Taylor has to play as part of his work is what he refers to as putting on his “psychologist hat.” After all, spending days at a time with a tightly-knit group of guests — often families or close groups of friends — means you get to know a lot about them.
“That helps me to understand my guests and to understand what their hot buttons are and to be able to empathize with their particular situation,” Kent said. “This all ties together to create a seamless life changing experience for my guest. After a while I really get a look at these people’s lives.”
As to what the coronavirus pandemic might mean for the long-term prospects of the national parks? Taylor said that the lack of motor coaches carrying large Chinese tour groups is certainly notable this summer. But the loss of that volume has perhaps made way for more American families who might’ve otherwise been heading to DisneyWorld or Europe to get to know their country a bit better.
“I think there will be a surge in interests in national parks [in the coming years],” Taylor said. “As long as those numbers can be managed by the Park Service so that everyone can continue to enjoy their service, I think that we’ll see continued interest. As people visit the parks, they come to love the parks. When someone loves something they want to protect it.”