Travel workers have had a particularly rough go of things during the coronavirus pandemic.
Practically overnight, their livelihoods went from being rooted in a lucrative, global industry to a grounded one. The travel industry has continued to have stops and starts as waves of this pandemic have come and gone; the promise of vaccines and summer activities led to a hopeful moment, but then came the surge of the delta variant.
Caught in the middle were tour operators and guides. We spoke with three creative operators with Seattle ties to find out how they survived the last 18 months, and how they’re thinking of their businesses — and travel as a whole — going forward.
For Sarah Murdoch, the pandemic started with a blow. She’d spent 20 years as an Italy tour guide for Rick Steves Europe, which came to an end when the company reduced employee hours and laid off guides last summer.
Luckily, Murdoch had started her own touring business on the side six years before, Adventures with Sarah, focusing on destinations outside of Europe like Southeast Asia, Morocco and Egypt. After the layoffs, she threw her energy into expanding her business. She sewed and sold a lot of travel-themed masks, and started cooking demonstrations for her 50,000 Facebook followers in a series she called “Cucina Quarantena.” That led to a Patreon page, where devoted fans could pay for additional content, like live walking tours around Italy. “That’s been paying my mortgage, actually,” she says. “My fans really backed me up.”
Still, she wanted to keep taking groups around the world. She considered what kind of activities would work during a pandemic. No big museums, she realized, and no large crowds. Instead, “we’re going to be focused on the nontouristy aspects.” Last year, she put tours on the books for 2021, hoping the pandemic would allow for travel by then.
So far, she’s been able to make the tours happen. She spoke with The Seattle Times from Italy, where she’d brought a group of 12 people. Rather than hopping across several countries in a single trip, she and her tour group are in one hotel, one country, and branching out on activities from there.
But even that has challenges. “This is a day-by-day thing, honestly,” she says. Rules around the pandemic change so quickly. What are airport regulations? Are PCR tests required? What are the local requirements?
She has 12 tours planned from summer into fall. “I’ve been joking with people that I’m going to get a sainthood at the end of the season if I’m able to run all tours we have scheduled.”
Online content was a huge part of Regina Winkle-Bryan’s strategy, too. As the founder and trip facilitator at Bold Spirit Travel, she began livestreaming tours from guides she’d worked with abroad, like an art historian who gave viewers a tour around the Jewish Quarter in Rome or an Italian chef offering cooking classes, and hosting multiday seminars on various travel subjects.
But real-life tours were crucial, too. Her business had been focused on international travel, but travel restrictions made her 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.
Both the local tours and the online offerings have been more successful than she expected. “There have been a lot of silver linings in this, frankly,” she says.
Local tours had their challenges, though. Triple-digit temperatures this summer led to cancellations on her Leavenworth tours, and she had to bump the starting time up by several hours for those who were still committed. It was also unseasonably hot during one of her wine and waterfall tours. “It hasn’t just been COVID. It’s also been climate,” she says.
Still, she intends to get back to consistently touring internationally, with itineraries that allow for both safety and flexibility. Late last month she was guiding a small group walk of the Camino de Santiago along the French route.
What type of person is traveling — let alone joining a tour group — right now? “It’s the boldest of the bold,” Winkle-Bryan says. Fully vaccinated folks who have weighed their risks and are eager 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 deal with all of the precautions that we need to take these days and are ready to go and do something, even if they have to do it with a mask on.”
However bold they may be, recurring upticks in cases have scared some would-be travelers away. “I wish we weren’t having these issues with the delta variant,” Winkle-Bryan says. “I know that 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’d have to start thinking about his business differently soon after he, too, was let go by Rick Steves Europe. “It was pretty clear to me early on that pandemic-era travel would be very, very different,” he says. “I survived by taking the time to reformat my business into a post-pandemic tour product.”
Having a small, flexible, independent company has made changes easier to enact. Like Murdoch, his tours are smaller and slower. There’s more exploring neighborhoods and talking to locals, which has been a significant change. His groups often ask locals: What was it like to live here during the pandemic?
“The connections with people now are stronger than with paintings in a museum,” he says. And some cultural features have been enhanced by the pandemic. “It was amazing to see a city like Rome, where dining outside was already popular — they doubled down and now there’s twice as many places outside with seats,” he says.
But he, too, has been facing changes due to variants, despite these silver linings. “I’ve had a lot of postponements, and cancellations even, because of delta. The last month has been kind of a tough month,” he says.
He’s not trying to persuade anybody to behave differently. “Each traveler is going to have to decide for themselves when they are comfortable traveling again,” he says. Except for one thing: “If you’re not vaccinated, you should not travel internationally.” He hopes people will go further than that by getting tested before and after travel, too, regardless of country requirements.
For the most part, people nervous about delta are postponing until next year. Metzger hopes the pandemic will improve, or booster shots will increase confidence in travel. He intends to travel around both Italy and Morocco over the next several months, both operating tours and researching future ones.
However long the surge lasts, Metzger expects many of the pandemic’s changes to travel will remain. “I think people will enjoy traveling 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’s even created a service where travelers don’t get their itinerary ahead of time, called “Trust Me,” to add an extra element of surprise and discovery to the trips.
“If there’s one thing people have taken away from the pandemic, it’s that we were all going too fast,” she says. Even on once-in-a-lifetime trips, people were go, go, go. Now, when people travel, a good tour operator should be “helping people savor their time,” she says, “rather than be in a hurry to take a picture.”