It has been a rocky spring and early summer for America Outdoors’ outfitters and liveries. Most have been able to find some relief through the federal programs providing additional funds and grants to small businesses, which has been helpful. At the same time, they have been navigating access closures, evolving state guidance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and new protocols established by their permit-issuing agency. The times have been challenging, and outdoor recreation providers have been resilient through it all.
Most outfitters and liveries are bringing their operations back on-line in some capacity. Based on preliminary and partial results from the most recent survey, AO can roughly estimate that over 80 percent of outfitters and liveries are operating, almost all in a partial or abbreviated capacity. Most of these operators are expecting a have a significantly smaller year, but they are hopeful. Guest interest is reviving and reservations are on the rise.
The ability for operators to run trips vary, and is dependent upon state and local guidelines, their abilities to meet new regulatory requirements, and a fair amount of advocacy on their own parts to agency representatives and to the current and anticipated phases that states are going through.
What follows are some anecdotal stories from some of our members, on how the decisions and adjustments they have made meet new expectations.
WESTERN RIVER EXPEDITIONS
"Like everyone, we've been rolling with the punches that have been thrown at us by the pandemic. It's amazing how busy our administrative team has been even though we've been shut down. The guests who are coming now are very happy to be here and are much less concerned about the virus than we are. One of the key lessons learned is the same one we've learned over and over again. Frequent, clear, open and honest communication with employees and with guests is critical." -Brian Merrill, Western River Expeditions.
Western River Expeditions has been running day trips out of their Moab, UT base for the past few weeks, and the demand is definitely there. Like other Grand Canyon operators, they were awaiting the June 14 deadline, this past Monday, to begin running trips through that iconic canyon. Grand Canyon National Park is directing commercial operators to run at 50% capacity and the Grand Canyon community has beefed up their ability to respond privately to evacuation needs should a coronavirus case occur on one of their trips, reducing the concern about stressed search and rescue operations within the park. On the last weekend in May, Western Rivers launched their first multi-day trip down Cataract Canyon, marking a major milestone in returning to a more normal season.
Front Royal Outdoors
“Demand for outdoor recreation services remains high, if not higher than normal. As a result we have been working twice as hard for half the income but the benefit of it is that we are giving paddlers a social distancing outdoor venue that brings joy and relaxation. Our direction here is clean, clean, clean and be as gracious and friendly as possible. Best of luck to all outfitters and stay safe!” –Don Roberts
Front Royal Outdoors has opened up their operations and have been running for a few weeks. They have limited their trip options to make shuttling more manageable. They have moved their registration desk outdoors. They require staff and guests wear face coverings when on the premises and in shuttle vehicles. Shuttle vehicles are cleaned after each trip to the river, and additional staff have been hired to continually clean around the property and ensure that cleaning is visible to guests. The proprietor, Don Roberts, says they are more than fully staffed to serve a quarter to a third of their normal guest load, but it is very much worth it to provide these opportunities to the community.
“This year, we have had to be extremely flexible with what we were planning. It was a great lesson in not getting locked into having to do exactly what we did in the past. Without departing from our mission, we knew we had to be as creative as possible with how we were going to get through 2020.” – Dave “DMac” McGlashan
Adventure Treks, which provides extended outdoor experiences to teens across the country, has curtailed most of their operation and is instead providing trips out of North Carolina and running their summer camp there. With dispersed programming and countless hoops to jump through in order to operate on their permits, the logistics were ultimately insurmountable. Adventure Treks shaved off 75% to 80% of their operation, but they are confident they will be able to weather the pandemic.
In Colorado, Mad Adventures, is running trips as of June 1st, though they are limited to no more than 10 people per raft consisting of no more than 2 reservation groups per raft. So, group size is paramount to capacity and efficiency this summer. Losing the spring break season was particularly tough for this four-season operation, but they are seeing encouraging local demand and remain hopeful about this summer.
"NOLS, like many entities, has been hit incredibly hard by the covid-19 pandemic; however, we are proud to carry forward the NOLS mission where folks of diverse backgrounds and experiences can enjoy the outdoors while gaining skills in leadership, outdoor living, wilderness medicine, risk management, and so forth. Covid-19 presents a unique challenge, but we are confident that with care and attention to detail for what reopening looks like, that risk can be successfully mitigated. Further, as we take concrete steps towards restarting operations, NOLS will look both inward and outward for ways to commit to anti-racism work, so that the outdoors and our communities can be places where all persons can show up as their authentic and best selves." –Jonathan Williams, NOLS Public Policy Manager
Normally providing summer experiences from their bases in Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Alaska, the Southwest, the Northeast, and numerous international locations, NOLS has shut down all their operating areas except for their Wyoming headquarters for summer 2020. They plan to begin operating in early July, using techniques recently piloted in the field by a seasoned team of instructors. They will run fewer than 40 courses to serve fewer than 900 students. Looking towards fall, waitlists are long for the Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician training, and semester/gap-year type courses; however, these present unique challenges to be overcome by the outdoor leadership school. Nevertheless, they are very pleased to be operating and providing backcountry experiences to a clientele that is hungry to recreate outside.
NANTAHALA OUTDOOR CENTER
Nantahala Outdoor Center is up and running, but only in the past few weeks have then been able to return to many of their business operations. They are running trips on the Ocoee and Pigeon Rivers in Tennessee, on the French Broad and Nantahala Rivers in North Carolina, and on the Chattooga River in South Carolina and Georgia. Their operations in Atlanta, GA, which are regulated by the NPS, have been on hold and were just given approval to open this weekend. The delay in that decision was most likely due to a transition in leadership in local management. Fortunately, retail sales have been brisk and reservations are increasing daily.
In late May, Outward Bound made the hard decision to suspend the majority of their summer programming through August. A limited number of in-person custom programs may run, including community-based, in-tact groups and Outward Bound Professional programs. Any summer programming will be case-by-case and need to meet OBUSA requirements and guidelines and comply with local, state and federal rules and regulations. This was a hard decision to make, but in the end, they felt it was the most responsible approach.
Northwest Rafting Company
Northwest Rafting Company will be operating on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and Rogue River this summer and expects to run about 60% of normal. They have been conservative with management of their PPP funds by employing guides on side projects during the intended 8-week period that ends June 15th. Their international trips in the fall are uncertain and 50/50 at best. For this company, running 50% of a normal season will be considered a successful year.
Adventures on the Gorge
Outfitters on West Virginia rivers were able to resume trips just before Memorial Weekend. Rafting numbers were initially limited to six per boat, 18 guests per bus and no mixing of groups. They have had to modify their operations significantly. At Adventures on the Gorge, many other services have resumed, including aerial adventures, lodging and food service, including their restaurant. They have been able to open back up to some larger events, and are now able to host weddings once again. Reservations have come back, with daily bookings on par with this time last year. They expect to have revenues return to 60% of the year prior, but given the circumstances view this as a very positive outcome.
Based out of Dubois, Wyoming, the Absaroka Ranch made the hard choice in early May to cancel the summer season, running horsepacking trips into the mountains southeast of Yellowstone National Park. They are still planning to have a fall season and guide hunts beginning August 30. Half of their summer clientele canceled in the month of April. This, coupled with numerous guidance requirements that would be tough to meet, led them to the tough decision that felt right for their operation. Above all else, they did not feel they could deliver the world-class experience that their guests have come to expect with the new requirements.
Northeast Whitewater has been navigating the restrictions in Maine, which continue to be strict relative to many other states. in the last week Maine has relaxed their 14-day out-of-state quarantine rule, allowing visitors from New Hampshire and Vermont, and allowing visitors from other states if they have taken a Covid-19 test and are negative. They began offering modified guest services on June 1, to household-specific trips, providing moose safaris, private hikes and private waterfall tours. They hope to begin offering rafting and on-water trips by July 1, but it is dependent on the Maine Department of Economic Community Development. They are ready to go, having modified trip vehicles, implementing social distancing requirements meeting all other state guidelines.
The photos in this article were provided by Western River Expeditions, MAD Adventures, and Nantahala Outdoor Center.