So here is my honest response to those of you who have kindly asked "How are you doing?", "Is the team at T&T OK?", "Are you able to run trips this winter?" Firstly, it means a lot to everyone here at Tracks and Trails that you care enough about the team to send messages of support.
We have always believed that our guests are part of our extended adventure travel family. With so many repeat bookings I meet up with the same people year after year and believe me right now I really am missing you all. Here is my take on working in the travel industry during a pandemic.
news from the wilderness
My introduction to the Covid-19 pandemic began while guiding a cross country ski group along the Peer Gynt trail in Norway in March this year. One of the joys of working in Norway is the feeling that it is 'another world' and a great escape from daily concerns.
However, while sitting down to moose burgers in a remote Norwegian cabin we were brought the news by the chef that there were Covid-19 cases in the neighbouring county and that we should be alert to the news. Wow! We were not expecting to be served that side-dish of unwelcome reality!
The following night while in the our next hotel we were aware of growing unease amongst other guests. People scurrying around loading up cars, and in particular the entire Canadian Ski Team collecting armfuls of flashy skis and chucking them in a large lorry. "Where are they going?" I asked. "Heading straight for Oslo airport. They need to fly before the airport closes on Monday." replied the hotel manager.
Well, that put a different perspective on things! In short we completed our ski trip, took the train to Oslo, and flew the next morning 48 hours before Norway closed its borders.
ONLY THE BEGINNING
If I thought leaving Norway was the end of it, I was in for a shock. Arriving home to France it was less than 24 hours before the first of the 'lockdowns' was announced. At that point I was mentally trying to get to grips with what was going on. Suddenly, I was without work. Suddenly, I was confined to my house. Suddenly, we had to cancel trips. Suddenly, we had to pull clients out of Finland before they closed the airports there. It was only the start of our whole new 'covid' world.
From a business perspective it was such an 'un-known' scenario. The modern travel industry had never before had a world wide pandemic to contend with. At Tracks and Trails we were trying to get to grips with exactly what it meant. Is this going to last a few months? If it is, then we had best cancel trips now.
No-one in the travel industry seemed very clear on exactly what should be, could be, done in terms of how to deal with current bookings, hotels that had already been paid etc. Are we entitled to keep any funds at all to cover the accommodation that has been paid for, all the many hours of admin work that has been done to set these trips up? What should we do about keeping our team on board? Can we reduce working hours?
It was especially painful to have to explain to Susie Burt, who was running our office, that we may not have any need for help in the immediate future as it was unlikely that any trips would be going ahead. Many of you will have corresponded or spoken to Susie over the last few years and her efficiency and immense organisational skills are missed.
Understandably, Susie didn't feel she could simply 'hang around' hoping that sometime in the future she would be required, and decided to take the opportunity to 'change direction' and look for a new line of work. We are sad that we didn't even get the chance to give her a proper 'send off' to show our appreciation as 'lockdown' rules applied.
THE STORY UNFOLDS
There followed a 'crash course' in the European Package Travel Regulations. Yes, we already conformed to the Regulations, but the unfolding pandemic highlighted how inadequate they were in terms of offering any protection for the travel industry. The consumer was protected at every turn, but those running businesses were left to fend for themselves as best they could.
It soon became clear, as ABTA and others considered the implications, that the Regulations were never created with a pandemic in mind. The Regulations were simply no longer fit for purpose.
Thereafter many hours were spent considering the implications of cancelled trips, contacting hotels, speaking to clients and generally getting to grips with what it all meant. The most profound impression was that no one knew from one day to the next what was going to happen next. Speaking to lawyers, insurers, and others who we thought might have some answers we were left with the impression that the only thing that was certain was that everything was uncertain!
ONE DAY AT A TIME
We soon became accustomed to dealing with new scenarios, and to hold on to our sanity we would laugh and say "Well, what is going to hit us today?" "Anyone, got a crystal ball we could borrow?". Laughing aside it's not been a whole load of giggles to be honest. Here at T&T we previously spent our days creating trips for our guests with attention to every detail. For us success is quantified by a trip completed to your satisfaction and smiling faces all round. Here we had a new world order where success meant dismantling all the arrangements step by painful step, while managing to recover costs where possible.
The positive take on this is that soon hotels, guides and various suppliers were all trying to support each other. Everyone trying to refund where they could with the view that we all take a 'hit', that we try and share the burden while protecting you the client. That projected a feeling of a 'team' doing what they could to deal with this. Official emails from suppliers would arrive and instead of getting straight down to whatever business was at hand the writer would enquire if we were ok, asking about how we were doing, were we coping?
I remember in particular talking to one lawyer who really summed up how I felt. She sounded worn out on the phone to the extent that I asked if she was alright. She replied "We are all fine, but the mental exhaustion of dealing with so many unknown scenarios is wearing thin." I think that really said it all. Each day we were faced with an unknown horizon, and we really had and still have no idea where the journey is leading us.
There are, however, positive situations that have come out of this. For the first time in a long time we have had time to streamline procedures, work on the website, write blogs, and really take time to talk to those who work with us. We have found the enthusiasm to keep going knowing that at some point travel will open up and our aim is to be ready for you. Yes, there are some days when quite frankly I do wonder where and when it will all end, but that's when I give myself a talking to, and remember that there are so many businesses around me that are really, really, struggling to survive.
More importantly there are colleagues and friends who are clearly finding the situation difficult at a personal level. They are worried about their financial situation and whether they can hang on long enough, and I try to put energy into saying the right words and offering what support I can. If we are healthy then really we have to be grateful, but it doesn't allay the night time worries about the future.
THE WAY AHEAD
So - I hear you say - what's the score, are things OK at T&T? Yes, thank you! I can reassure you that the team here are indeed doing fine. As a relatively small adventure travel business we have been able to adjust to a new norm in terms of staffing, and effort, and we will continue to put our combined energies into the business.
My business partner and co-owner of Tracks and Trails, Julia Tregaskis-Allen timed having a baby perfectly. What better way to spend the lockdown than focusing on a new life and having time to enjoy little Eve.
Julia's absence has, of course, been missed, but it has helped reduce staffing at a time that we needed to do so. She is, however, always at the end of the phone though now our business chats have a chortling baby in the background. Amusingly I now recognise the strident screams when Eve decides she needs her nappy changed and business needs to be put on hold for 5!
Stephanie Lightfoot who looks after our Finance and Marketing has supported and helped me deal with the day to day issues created by Covid-19 and I have really appreciated having someone to share the situation with. For T&T being 'small' has proved to be beautiful. Unlike, large companies with many office staff and expensive premises we have been able to hunker down and keep going.
The large freelance guide team with whom we work keep in touch regularly and we try and support each other by talking about the issues we are facing and how we think we might move forward. To be sure there is a very tough time ahead as we move towards winter.
Some large companies have already cancelled their entire winter holiday schedule, or certainly a huge percentage of trips. We are currently dealing with trips planned for winter on a monthly basis. We have cancelled trips in January as we cannot realistically see those happening, and we will soon look to the months ahead.
The excellent news is that trips in February have a lot of bookings, and some are fully booked. Clearly there is a desire to travel and to enjoy the outdoors. Our aim is to reduce the number of trip dates on offer, and focus on delivering the trips with bookings. Will your trip go ahead? The honest answer is we have no idea, BUT we will do our very best to keep you informed and if we can get you onto the snow this winter you can bet your last penny that we will do so.
I think we all know and have to accept that for some time to come travel has an associated risk, and the unexpected might happen at any time. But then, come on, you are all 'adventure' travellers, and what's life without the adventure of the unknown?
Be assured the Tracks and Trails team are here to stay! Thank you to you all for your continued support.