Outdoor guides and adventure travel companies are known to adapt to any situation. A thunderstorm sweeps through camp; a client rolls his ankle on a talus field; your co-guide suffers from altitude sickness at basecamp. Guides are no strangers to mitigating risk in the field, and this summer has been no different. But instead of tarps, splints, and first-aid kits, it’s face masks, disinfectant, and social distancing measures.
Spring and summer travel was down, but numbers are now rising
You’d have to have spent the last six months in the wilderness to think that the coronavirus hasn’t permanently changed the outdoor guiding industry. Throughout 2020, guiding companies took a hit as fewer people traveled outside state lines. According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s May Business Impact Survey, adventure travel bookings decreased as much as 86 percent from 2019.
The Wildland Trekking Company, a backpacking company based in Flagstaff, Arizona, reported that as of October 2020, revenue was down almost 50 percent. They furloughed their staff from mid-March through May. While no guides were laid off after the furlough, many found work in other industries because of low trip numbers.
But guiding companies have reason to be optimistic. Travel is resuming, according to some sources. Thirty-six percent of Americans left home in August (a slow yet significant climb from April’s 19 percent). Light shines at the end of the tunnel, however dimly it may appear right now.
How travel companies and guide services are adapting
As clients set new expectations, companies adapted or risked losing much-needed business. Fifty-seven percent of businesses aimed to diversify their product offerings for a long-term strategy, according to the ATTA. Companies expanded their local destinations or even created digital offerings. TravelStorysGPS published a set of audio tours so travelers can listen to city guides from their phone—no contact required.
In ATTA’s report, 82 percent of businesses reported lowering expenses, while 71 percent said they cut staff size or hours. Orion Expeditions, a Leavenworth-based rafting company, ran two rivers this summer, down from their normal six. Ethan Orlaska, a river guide, thinks they stayed open because they remained agile.
“Each week was kind of blind”, he said. “We constantly evolved the program as we saw small nuances.”
They cranked up their cleaning practices, altered their shuttling logistics, and ran one boat per household. At the end of the season, they had no guest complaints or associated COVID cases.
WTC implemented COVID-safe procedures immediately and resumed operations in June. Guides no longer shuttle guests to trailheads, and they follow rigid protocol for cleaning and rotating rental gear. Day-to-day operations look different in the office, too.
“We reduced our trip deposits to alleviate the stress of committing to travel with so much uncertainty surrounding it”, Scott Cundy, Wildland Trekking owner, said.
They also offered more private tours at discounted rates and reworked their cancellation policies to attract hesitant guests. (Important to note: The ATTA recommends companies offer travel vouchers instead of overly flexible cancellation plans.)
International guiding has presented a whole new set of challenges. Fourteen-day quarantine requirements limit the destinations in which international companies can operate. Cundy said this travel restriction would “negate any chance of operating" in countries where that law is in effect.
Marinel de Jesus, founder of Peak Explorations, also leads tours in foreign countries, such as Peru, Tanzania, and Mongolia. Each country responded to the pandemic differently, so she has been researching up-to-date protocol for each destination. Peak Explorations suspended operations through the rest of 2020 because of high risk—not just for clients but also for industry workers. But this abundance of time allowed de Jesus to focus on her company’s mission: to create an equitable and inclusive trekking industry. Although she canceled her guided trip in Mongolia in March, she turned the experience into a filmmaking opportunity.
New data offers reason to hope for a quick rebound
Adventure travel is a beacon of hope in the bleak travel sector. While the U.S. travel market is not expected to recover until 2023, adventure travel could resume at pre-pandemic levels as early as 2021. As clients seek outdoor excursions in small groups, guiding companies are well positioned to rebound once travel restrictions relax. Guiding businesses anticipate returning to 80 percent of 2019 staffing levels by 2021.
Travelers anticipate 2021 travel spending to be just 7 percent lower than that of 2019, according to ATTA. Skift’s Travel Forecast for 2021 shows U.S. domestic trips resuming at almost 90 percent of 2019 levels.
But clientele in 2021 might look slightly different. Seventy percent of U.S. travelers reported they will travel by car with a small group or family. International visitation to the U.S. is expected to reach only 60 percent of its 2019 level. Additionally, younger travelers will resume their activities quicker than older travelers, with 67 percent of adventure travelers from 25 to 35 reporting they will travel overnight before November 2020, compared to 49 percent aged 55 to 64.
Guiding companies see bookings improve and plan for the 2021 season
Wildland Trekking has seen last-minute bookings skyrocket because guests are planning their trips less than a month in advance. While this introduces uncertainties around staffing and budgets, Scott is thankful to see bookings increase after a slow spring and summer. They plan to resume international trips in 2021 based on local infection rates, rapid testing availability, and travel restrictions.
And while Orion ran smaller trips and reduced staff hours, they stayed afloat while retaining their entire staff. This summer’s adaptations taught them a lot about guiding during the pandemic, and guests relished the much-anticipated wilderness experience.
De Jesus sees the potential to transform international adventure travel. She believes this pandemic is an opportunity to discuss real issues that have impacted the guiding industry for decades, like paying attention to staff safety as much as client safety.
“The trails were never fully safe,” de Jesus said. "If we’re going to talk about keeping clients safe, we have to talk about keeping workers safe, too.”
That means equipping porters and staff with the proper tools they need to do their jobs without risk. Currently, many porters and guides must supply their own PPE, and social distancing is nearly impossible when staff tents are overcrowded to cut costs. Porters are rarely trained in first aid, many don’t have medical insurance, and they often lack access to needed gear like high-quality sleeping bags and rain coats.
The pandemic has brought hardship and uncertainty to the industry, no question. But there are ways, de Jesus and others argue, to take some advantage of a bad situation. With new standards in safety, there's a good chance the guiding community will become even more resilient—better equipped to deal with crisis in the months, years, and decades to come.