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Multi-day tour operators were, like just about all other segments of the travel industry, battered by the pandemic as they largely had to cancel trips they scheduled for the latter half of 2020.
But as destinations have reopened for tourism, many tour operators have been able to resume tours this year as they’ve meticulously prepared for the moment they could take travelers overseas. However, as Covid variants are still spreading throughout the world, executives at tour operators still need to take many steps to prevent customers from coming home with an unwanted souvenir.
Many tour operators — such as Abercrombie & Kent — have used the hiatus to prepare new offerings. The luxury tour operator announced on Thursday a parternship with private aviation firm Wheels Up to offer members of the latter company numerous travel opportunities, such as a 12-day trip to East Africa next January as well as customized tours of U.S. national parks.
Meanwhile, executives at several tour operators have seen enormous demand for their first post-pandemic trips. CIE Tours CEO Elizabeth Crabill is one of them.
“Once Iceland opened to vaccinated Americans, demand shot up, and the first departure was completely sold out,” she said about her company’s first tour in more than 15 months. “We even had to add extra inventory for the next few months to accommodate the spike in demand.”
Despite the early success some tour operators have enjoyed in luring guests back to their trips, the journey to relaunching them has often been far from glamorous. “It has been a slow return,” said Melissa DaSilva, the U.S. President of Trafalgar Tours, a company unable to conduct excursions for a full twelve months.
“It has been an ongoing project really for almost the entirety of the pandemic to make sure that when we did get back on the road, we could do it safely,” she said.
Keeping guests safe
So what steps is her company taking to keep guests safe, especially as many are concerned about Covid variants? “One of the main things that we did is we implemented a new position on our trip, which is a wellbeing director,” DaSilva said.
“Their role is primarily to ensure that all of our suppliers — the restaurants, the hotels, any attractions or venues that we go to — are all adhering to whatever the local protocols are,” she said. “They are ensuring that our guests can get any questions answered that come up during their travels.”
Before those travels happen, companies have to establish criteria for resuming trips. Sam Bruce, the co-founder and chief marketing officer of U.K.-based tour operator Much Better Adventures, has laid out two guidelines for his company to decide whether or not to restart tours.
“Trips will only get the green light to go ahead if the minimum group size, typically four to six passengers, has been met,” he said. “And if there are no quarantine restrictions upon arrival in the destination. We confirm if trips can go ahead or not 35 days before a departure, at the very latest.”
While it may basically take a month to confirm whether or not a tour can proceed, it has taken much, much longer for tour operators to prepare for the resumption of trips. “We actually began as early as last April and May with establishing our own health and safety protocols,” said Steve Born, chief marketing officer at the Globus family of brands, which includes tour operator Cosmos.
“But no one knew at that time how long the pandemic was gonna be and how long we were gonna have to have an operational hiatus,” he said. “We needed to be prepared with our criteria and our own measures of what we needed to do for our operations — both touring and river cruising — to ensure that we’re sending guests to a healthy place.”
Regarding his company’s protocols, Born said they could test them out on North American tours.
“We were able to apply the health and safety measures right away here to make sure when we rolled out internationally that we felt confident and safe and that the guests had the right experiences.”
The issue of vaccinations
Regarding health and safety measures, the most important question tour operators face is whether to require guests to be vaccinated. For one company, that depends on where their guests are traveling.
“We require our guests to either be vaccinated or have a negative test with 72 hours of travel,” Trafalgar Tours’ DaSilva said about customers on U.S. trips, excluding Hawaii. “However, we are requiring guests, and this is really just as of [July 20], who are traveling to Europe between now and the end of September to be vaccinated.”
So why the sudden change? “What led to that decision was the fact that several countries in the last week indicated that even though you can enter the country with a negative PCR test, you either have to show vaccination proof and/or a negative test within the last 72 hours in order to enter a restaurant, museum or other attractions,” she said.
DaSilva believes that requiring vaccinations for trips to Europe is an enormous matter of convenience for her clients.
“If someone is traveling through Europe for 14 days, and they want to go to dinner at night, they have to have had a test in the last 72 hours, which means guests would have to test every other day,” she said. “That’s a huge financial burden for the guests to take multiple PCR tests every other day. But they would also be having to take valuable time out of their itinerary to go get the test.”
Finally, what tips have tour operators learned over the hiatus to ensure smooth travels for their clients? Globus’s Born states something that could apply in virtually all walks of life: being proactive. As well as giving clients tools to be prepared for up to the minute changes.
“The more proactive we can be in anticipating scenarios, even pre-tip or on trip, then it is the easier it is for us to be effectively reactive,” he said. “Like so many things in life, if you can be effective and diligent up front in anticipating what possible scenarios could be and be prepared for those scenarios, then you’re much more confident and able to operate more smoothly without any interruption if you need to be reactive.”
As for providing clients with crucial pre-tip information, Born credits a partnership with Sherpa, an online resource that lists entry restrictions and requirements to enter countries all around the world.
“So through Sherpa, while in the U.S., they can select their destination and it gives them a full listing of any requirements needed that are particular to that destination;” he said. “And so we provide that up front to all of our guests in pre-trip communications to help feel prepared, to have everything ready, to have peace of mind. I think that’s an example of being proactive up front so everyone can be at more peace of mind.”