Tour operators at the brink

Booking and canceling and rebooking travel during the pandemic was not for the faint of heart. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Oh, who am I kidding? It was the worst of times. If you worked in the travel industry over the last few years and are reading this, you’ve either been released from the looney bin or are allowed to have this magazine as one of your institutional privileges. Tour operators at the brink. The pandemic hit all of us hard, but it sent most travel-related workers over the edge.

If we’ve recovered at all in 2022, we remain shell-shocked. Our “long-COVID” is a special kind of PTSD that has us duck for cover at the words: rollover, rebooking, cancelation, vaccination, testing protocol. My hands still shake before I send a non-refundable deposit to hold six spots at a lodge or on a ferry or with an outfitter.

I wait to book flights, certain they will change in a way that collapses the entire itinerary I carefully crafted the year prior. Like most vendors, I hide this domino effect from clients. Behind the scenes, we reschedule, rebook, beg, plead, promise our first-born, and repeat multiple times before admitting defeat. Which isn’t to say that travel planners and tour operators aren’t scrappy problem solvers. It’s just that our well-thought-out and thoroughly tested plans A, B, and C were previously reserved for things like weather delays, in-the-field dietary restrictions or injuries, or items guests might have forgotten to pack, like bug nets, extra memory cards, or Dramamine.

During the pandemic, our skill set broadened. We learned how to process a claim with a regional airline declaring bankruptcy. Together we stocked up on N95 masks and hand sanitizers and reviewed the legalities and responsibilities of having a sick guest on a tour. Then we got a crash course in accrual accounting with pre-paid revenue and expenses hitting the books (or not) over a three-year period of uncertainty. And, as the pandemic eased and the world started opening up, we ate money and absorbed losses, rather than passing on new higher rates to loyal clients. Playing the long game, if you could afford it. But thatmeant keeping relationships with customers who would keep you in business after this whole mess was over.

Still, despite our best efforts, staffing shortages this year effected clients’ trips. Most of us in this business are Type A planners, and our lack-of-control over restaurant service, hotel-room cleanliness, or a guest’s last-minute rerouting to an airport in Lubbock, Texas, resulted in an anxious group of travel professionals ordering enough Xanax to bump pharmaceutical stocks. We wanted you to have a good time, even if it killed us.

Inside the Madness tour operators at the brink
Exhausted in a good way! Happy to be back at it after all the pandemic setbacks.

Okay, perhaps it wasn’t that dramatic, but I doff my wide-brimmed, sun-shielding hat to those tour operators who stayed in business, and I mourn the loss of the cafes, hotels, sight-seeing buses, and commercial boat drivers who didn’t make it. Smaller places with limited cash flow got hit the worst. The only hotel in a borough with no out-of-town visitors for several seasons. The mom-and-pop bistro that couldn’t serve diners indoors, the whale-watching captain forced ashore with no boat permits being issued. For those who weathered the storm and returned to jobs and businesses with increased demands, no pay raises, and lots of complaints and frustrated patrons, I salute you. Heroes one and all.

For those of you who tipped your server extra, ignored the broken in-room coffee maker, and held back a primal scream when your tour got re-booked to the same dates as your nephew’s bar mitzvah, you are
rock stars.

And so, as the world embarks on a normal that keeps shifting, we’ll get back out on the road, even if the pavement remains uneven and has a few new potholes. While we don’t know what the future holds, we do know this: Much like our clients, the idea of missing out—of having our wings clipped—is a kind of death without dying. And call me crazy, but I want to see the world—because for me, that’s the only way to truly live.   

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