Travel workers have had a particularly difficult time during the coronavirus pandemic.
Almost overnight, their livelihoods shifted from a lucrative global industry to a entrenched industry. The travel industry has continued to have stops and starts as the waves of this pandemic have come and gone; the promise of vaccines and summer activities led to a moment of hope, but then came the surge of the delta variant.
Caught in the middle were the tour operators and guides. We spoke with three creative operators with ties to Seattle to find out how they’ve survived the past 18 months and how they envision their businesses – and their travels as a whole – going forward.
For Sarah Murdoch, the pandemic started with a hard blow. She had spent 20 years as a tour guide in Italy for Rick Steves Europe, which ended when the company cut hours and fired guides last summer.
Fortunately, Murdoch had started his own touring business six years earlier, Adventures with Sarah, focusing on destinations outside of Europe like Southeast Asia, Morocco and Egypt. After the layoffs, she devoted all of her energy to expanding her business. She sewn and sold many travel-themed masks and started cooking demos for her 50,000 Facebook followers in a series she called “Cucina Quarantena.” This led to a Patreon page, where dedicated fans could pay for additional content, like live walking tours across Italy. “It paid off my mortgage, actually,” she says. “My fans have really supported me.”
Still, she wanted to continue taking groups around the world. She thought about what kind of activities would work during a pandemic. No big museums, she realized, and no big crowds. Instead, “we are going to focus on the non-tourist aspects”. Last year, she planned tours for 2021, hoping the pandemic would allow travel by then.
So far, she has managed to make the tours go smoothly. She spoke to the Seattle Times of Italy, where she brought a group of 12 people. Rather than going through multiple countries in one trip, she and her tour group are in one hotel, one country, and branch out into activities from there.
But even that has challenges. “It’s a day-to-day thing, honestly,” she said. The rules around the pandemic are changing so quickly. What are the airport regulations? Are PCR tests necessary? What are the local requirements?
She has 12 tours planned from summer to fall. “I joke with people that I’m going to be holy at the end of the season if I can run all the tours we’ve got scheduled.”
Online content was also an important part of Regina Winkle-Bryan’s strategy. As founder and travel leader at Daring journey, she began live streaming tours from guides she had worked with overseas, such as an art historian who took viewers on a tour of Rome’s Jewish Quarter or an Italian chef offering cooking classes and organizing multi-day seminars on various travel topics.
But the actual visits were also crucial. His business was focused on international travel, but travel restrictions made him realize there were plenty of places to take people here in Washington. She began offering tours of Mount Rainier, Leavenworth, and a wine and waterfall tour along the Columbia River Gorge.
Local tours and online offerings were more successful than she expected. “There have been a lot of silver liners in this area, frankly,” she says.
Local tours had their challenges, however. Triple-digit temperatures this summer led to cancellations of her Leavenworth tours, and she had to increase the departure time by several hours for those still engaged. It was also unusually hot during one of his vineyard and waterfall tours. “It’s not just COVID. It’s also the climate, ”she said.
Nonetheless, she intends to return to constant international touring, with routes that allow both security and flexibility. At the end of last month, she was leading a small-group Camino de Santiago walk along the French route.
What type of person is traveling – let alone joining a tour group – at the moment? “He’s the most daring of the daring,” says Winkle-Bryan. Fully vaccinated people who have weighed their risks and are willing to travel anyway. And the passage of time has at least given people more tools, she says. “I think people are more used to having to face all the precautions we have to take these days and are ready to go and do something, even if they have to do it with a mask on.”
As daring as they are, recurring increases in cases have scared off some would-be travelers. “I wish we didn’t have these issues with the delta variant,” says Winkle-Bryan. “I know there is a great need for tourism. Italy and Spain depend on tourism, especially Americans.
Seattleite Rainer Metzger, tour operator at Guided by, says he knew he would have to start thinking differently about his business soon after he too was fired by Rick Steves Europe. “It was pretty clear to me from the start that traveling in the era of the pandemic would be very, very different,” he says. “I survived by taking the time to reformat my business into a post-pandemic touring product.”
Having a small, flexible and independent business made the changes easier to implement. Like Murdoch, his tours are smaller and slower. There is more exploration of the neighborhoods and more conversation with the locals, which has been a big change. Its groups often ask locals: What was it like living here during the pandemic?
“The bonds with people are stronger now than with paintings in a museum,” he says. And some cultural characteristics have been reinforced by the pandemic. “It was amazing to see a city like Rome, where eating out was already popular – they’ve doubled and now there are twice as many places outside with seating,” he says.
But he too was faced with changes due to variants, despite those silver linings. “I had a lot of postponements, and even cancellations, because of the delta. The past month has been a bit tough, ”he says.
He’s not trying to persuade anyone to behave differently. “Each traveler will have to decide for themselves when they will be comfortable traveling again,” he says. Except for one thing: “If you are not vaccinated, you should not travel abroad. He hopes people take it a step further by getting tested before and after travel as well, regardless of the country’s requirements.
For the most part, people nervous about Delta are putting off until next year. Metzger is hoping the pandemic will improve or the booster shots will increase confidence in travel. He intends to travel to both Italy and Morocco over the next few months, both to tour and to research futures.
No matter how long the outbreak lasts, Metzger expects many of the pandemic-related changes to travel to endure. “I think people will like to travel in small, familiar groups, people will spend more time outdoors, and I think people will make more last-minute choices,” he says.
Murdoch agrees. She even created a service where travelers don’t get their itinerary in advance called “Trust Me” to add an extra element of surprise and discovery to travel.
“If there’s one thing people took away from the pandemic, it’s that we were all going too fast,” she said. Even on unique trips, people would go, go, go. Now when people travel, a good tour operator should “help people savor their time,” she says, “rather than rushing to take a picture.”