While just about all sectors of the travel industry have suffered since the outset of Covid-19, multi-day tour operators have especially been hit hard as virtually all of them have had to scrap planned excursions.
Many companies that wanted to resume trips relatively quickly were upended by one obstacle or another. “Every passing week would result in some new or updated public health measure, which would send us back to the drawing board to rejig our plans,” said John Gunter, the CEO of Canadian-based tour operator Frontiers North Adventures.
However, there are tour companies for whom 2020 hasn’t been all doom-and-gloom. Some have resumed trips in recent months while several more plan to do the same by New Year’s Day.
“Since the 15th of August, we’ve run about 40 different trips for about 500 passengers” Exodus Travels’ London-based president Sam Seward said recently. “And we’ve had about 450 self-guided travelers.”
While the fewer than 1,000 guests that Exodus Travels has welcomed is obviously substantially less than its 7,000 from mid-August to mid-October of 2019, that they and others haven’t totally shut down is a testament to the tenacity of tour operators.
So what steps have those tour companies taken to resume trips or put themselves in a position to do so?
The first step is to find a place where “you can actually go there and don’t need to quarantine,” said Chad Smith, the senior vice president of Calgary-based tour operator Free & Easy Traveler. His company’s plan to organize a New Year’s trip to Costa Rica has been greatly aided by two developments: the Canadian government taking steps to shorten the 14-day quarantine period for travelers entering the country and the Costa Rican government recently announcing that starting from October 26 there would no longer be any testing requirements to enter the country.
Seward can attest to how needing to quarantine can complicate matters for tour companies. Exodus Travels had been able to conduct 30 tours for British travelers to Italy, in part, because Italy was on the U.K. travel corridor “safe” list—meaning travelers didn’t have to quarantine for 14 days upon returning.
“Since [October 18], all passengers returning from Italy have to undergo a 14-day quarantine,” Seward said. “And passengers coming to Italy internationally have to present a clean PCR test less than 72 hours old. Having said that, a lot of the bigger airports are actually producing one-hour Covid testing for passengers coming into Italy.”
“We’re still able to [conduct tours to Italy],” Seward added. “We have to give customers the flexibility to cancel. Either rebook or have a refund if they’re not in a position to quarantine. A lot of our customers work from home, and if they can get the PCR test in time, they can go to Italy.”
Once on tour, how are travelers kept safe and healthy? One example of a tour company with a detailed strategy to protect its guests is Intrepid Travel, which resumed trips with an August excursion of Syros, Greece (in addition to a tour of Australia the following month). According to the company’s chief customer officer, Leigh Barnes, Intrepid Travel has developed Safe Travels health protocols in tandem with the WTTC. All guests complete a health screening at the beginning of their trips while being accompanied by a local leader who has received Covid-19 training covering hygiene, sanitation and PPE.
Companies that have already resumed tours have had to be proactive in reassuring customers.
Frontier North’s Gunter credits being upfront with guests about public health measures as a key reason his company was able to conduct beluga whale tours this summer. “With every public health measure change, our guests have reached out to confirm the details of their trip with us,” Gunter noted. “Any dialogue or interaction with our guests as it relates to public health has been meaningful. Our team has not reported a single negative interaction or outcome with our guests throughout this whole process.” He added that upon arrival “guests know what they’ve gotten themselves into.”
One question guests might have upon going on a tour is how can social distancing be maintained. Free & Easy’s Smith has already outlined steps his company is taking to maintain sufficient social distancing: keeping groups outside, avoiding big cities as much as possible and offering private room upgrades.
As for Exodus Travels, “We’re having to run smaller groups than normal,” Seward said. “We’re averaging ten passengers in a group—roughly six or seven passengers less than normal per group. [It’s] easier for social distancing.” Seward added that his company’s tours have been using larger vehicles in an attempt to create greater social distancing.
Luxury adventure travel company Abercrombie & Kent has also enacted similar measures to ensure social distancing. In a press release the company sent out to announce the restart of its small journeys, which commenced with a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in October, guests will travel in vehicles never more than half full while group sizes will average fourteen patrons. Furthermore, each of the company’s tours will be led by a resident tour director, who helps maintain social distancing.
In short, tour companies have devoted a lot of effort into keeping their guests safe. But have travelers expressed any concerns? Seward doesn’t think so. “They really haven’t had any reservations about traveling,” he said as the company had a huge number of late bookings for its Italy tours. “People were desperate to get away,” he asserted. While he believes the two big hurdles for customer confidence are having to quarantine and travel by plane, Seward believes, “If customers are happy to quarantine for a destination and if they’re happy to get on a plane, there is no concern about getting sick.”
With the assumption—according to Seward—that a vaccine for Covid-19 will be available by May or June of next year, many tour companies are preparing for a 2021 that in all likelihood, won’t be a full recovery year. So how can they plan trips in a world not yet free from the virus? Well, a lot of procedures that have been put in place won’t disappear. “Even after Covid-19 goes away,” said Frontier North’s Gunter. “I am certain that heightened public health measures in travel and tourism will remain in place. To that end, we are investing now in documenting heightened public health measures, procedures, and processes that we will be relying on them going forward. As well, we are investing in documenting our heightened public measures in pictures and videos that we are certain we will be relying on to book future business.”
So the hard work will continue for quite awhile.