Outfitter Operations Update: August 2020

In June, we spoke to outfitter members to understand how our industry was coping with a tough spring, and an emerging summer season.  As the season wraps up, we are sharing a second snapshot.  In short, it has been a tough year, but the majority of our membership continues to operate, with modified and constrained operations.

From bus cleaning and mask requirements, to capacity and operating limitations, outfitters have adopted a variety of approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic.  In many cases operators have gone above and beyond federal, state, and local guidance to keep their staff and guests safe while continuing to keep their businesses in operation.

Read on to understand how outfitters have adapted and how their team is coping with a difficult busy season.

Outfitter Updates:

Ocoee_Inn

Ocoee Inn (On behalf of Ocoee Outfitters), Polk County, TN

How have you altered your operation during COVID-19?

Ocoee Outfitters disinfect buses first thing in the morning before customers arrive, then again after taking customers to the put-in, before picking customers up at the take-out, and again after dropping customers off back at our outposts. Then we start all over again. We also disinfect our bathrooms in the morning, between each group while they are rafting, and then again at the end of the day. We social distance on our buses between groups, 2 rows of seats between groups. If we have a group of 54 then we put them all on 1 bus, but it gets hard when we have groups of 2’s and 4’s. Our capacity on the buses are cut in half when we have small group numbers. Operating capacity changes day by day and trip by trip based on all the different group sizes. We are not seeing very many groups of 54!  Ocoee Outfitters have all pledged to follow the TN Pledge for retail operations.

Most customers who are choosing to come raft are very happy we are open. We experienced some people early on coming to see what our operations look like and to potentially challenge them. We explained to them that we have worked with TN State Parks, TVA, and Forest Service to develop our operating plan to open, and they can CHOOSE to raft or not. Once people realize we are trying our best to make this possible most stay to raft.

Have you encountered anyone being ill on your trip or in your staff? And how did you deal with it?

One Ocoee outfitter had a guide who tested positive for COVID-19 in June. He chose to call the guide’s guests for the previous 3 days of trips and everyone who was on the bus rides with this guide. The guests were happy to be notified, but his other guides were worried about working.

How is your team coping?

I think all this is very hard on our team. The unknown is hard enough, then we add in the extra procedures. Most have a positive attitude with all that is going on.

 

Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, harpers ferry, WV

How have you altered your operation during COVID-19?

It’s been a challenge. Virginia and Maryland were both very conservative in opening. We didn’t really ramp up until the second week in June instead of Memorial Day. First, we started with a couple key employees. Then, in June the floodgates opened. We had to scale back our trip number allowances. Normally we allow walk-ins, but this year is reservation only. For the group tours, we can’t combine parties, so if we have a group of two, they can only do the tubing. With rafting or zipline, the groups have to be 4 or more. Everyone has to wear a mask on the buses, which we run at almost full capacity, with sanitation between each run. Saturdays and Sundays are extremely busy with Sunday being busier than in years past.

For guided tours, we do forehead scanner to get temperatures and we have a greeter who goes through a questionnaire about exposure and symptoms. We require masks during check-in, on the buses, anytime customers are within 6 feet of others, and any time they are inside. We try to limit their time inside as much as possible. We have had some resistance to the mask rule, but we stick to the policy and offer them the opportunity to return next year if they won’t comply. If anyone is nervous on the phone, we try to encourage them to come on a slow day or wait until next year.

We have taken a huge hit on the rafting end this year, but tubing numbers have been great. Lodging and camping are fully booked. Zipline adventures are also low as we can’t do more than a group of 10.

Have you encountered anyone being ill on your trip or in your staff? And how did you deal with it?

We have had customers call to cancel because of exposure. We typically do not offer refunds, but we offer a year to reschedule with flexibility. This year we are doing the same. We have made a few exceptions for COVID specific circumstances.

How is your team coping?

We are like a family here. We make sure that everyone is safe. We check in with one another- taking temperatures, wearing masks, having hand sanitizer stationed everywhere. Because we are exposed to a lot of people, we just keep to our group, typically even outside of work.

 

Sierra South Mountain Sports, Kernville, CA

Sierra_South_Operations

How have you altered your operation during COVID-19?

We did not have certainty this year that we were going to operate. And when the CA state order on June 5 came out, opening up many outdoor activities in a limited capacity, they didn’t say anything specific about whitewater rafting. They did say things about cleaning kayaks and pfds, but nothing specific about rafting. We felt we could adhere to the guidelines, and worked with our county health department, local govt officials, and the local USFS. It was a grey area. Since we had not been told we could not operate, we decided to move forward (with notification to the USFS). Early in the morning on the day that we opened, we got an official okay from the county health department.

In the weeks beforehand, we decided to prepare to open. The PPP and EIDL helped us a lot and helped us get through the hard times. We were able to use those funds to hire close to full staff to prepare, but we had to accomplish in three weeks what would normally take two or three months. 

The Upper Kern had a short spring season. By June 12th, the runoff was over. We lost that entire season.  All our use has been on the Lower Kern. Add to the existing challenges a 35% snowpack and the low-water that accompanies that. 

We will be under 50% for the year, but not too far off of that. We are surprisingly profitable per-trip because we canceled so many ancillary services. We aren’t spending money on lunches, and are doing way more half-day trips, as opposed to 1-day and 2-day. Our guide-to-guest ratio was higher, but not too much higher. We limited groups to four people per boat. Guests were required to pay for 4 spots. We had good acceptance of that with groups of 3 willing to pay for 4. Three of the four outfitters on the Kern, who chose to operate, were following the same protocols. 

We’ve been adhering to masks, with social distancing, among staff. We decided to err on the side of safety and caution. Guides are required to wear masks while boating. They wear masks they can pull down around their necks.

Have you encountered anyone being ill on your trip or in your staff? And how did you deal with it?

No. We had low exposure with staff a couple of times. We took them off the schedule until we felt good with bringing them back. It was always 2nd or 3rd degree from a Covid positive.

We haven’t had a single guide get sick, nor have we learned of any guests becoming sick after a trip.

How is your team coping?

The attitudes of people who were working were good. They seemed happier compared to folks who stayed on unemployment and opted to not come back. Everyone is full-season tired now after only 2.5 months. We call it Covid-tired.  And it has been higher anxiety, especially with people coming up from L.A. We are actually looking forward to the off-season after Labor Day.

Getting to know your local government representatives is crucial to our business. The field reps for these elected officials want to help.  They always like our industry. Being polite, offering solutions, thanking them, and being persistent are key.

 

FAR FLUNG OUTDOOR CENTER, BIG BEND, TX

How have you altered your operation during COVID-19?

When the state of Texas began to see a spike in coronavirus cases in late June and early July, the governor implemented a set of guidelines to contain the exposure. Among those was a cessation of rafting and tubing operations across the state. We were able to successfully advocate for an exception, to run kayaks through Big Bend State Park, which has considerably less pressure from the public than other river destinations, namely the Guadalupe.           

We now require masks of staff and guests (until they are on the river), with limited capacity on shuttles, to maintain social distancing. There have been no positive cases in the region to date.

Demand has been very strong, both for lodging and for river experiences. Summer, which is typically the slow season, has seen consistent high demand. 

How is your team coping?

Staff are tired, but they have done a good job of adhering to the protocols that were set.

 

PACUARE OUTDOOR CENTER, COSTA RICA 

How have you altered your operation during COVID-19?

Because we deal with clients that travel to Costa Rica mostly from the US our operations are closed now. They re-opened the borders in Costa Rica, but the US is one of the countries that is excluded. 

We have our protocols from the ministry of health here in Costa Rica and are getting set up for the opening of visitors, but we have decided to wait until US citizens are allowed to start operations again.

How is your team coping?

Our team is coping by doing a lot of mountain biking. Getting to the river is of higher operational cost so we don't go too often, but biking from our office around the mountains is the expense of a few calories, which never hurts. Our office staff is on 50% time and our guide staff 25%. With the biking we have explored areas that were not on our radar before for operating tours. While you assume you know everything about an area there is always something new. So, I guess you could say our team got the explorer bug.

 

WILDERNESS VOYAGEURS, OHIOPYLE, PA

How have you altered your operation during COVID-19?

The primary offerings are bike tours, rafting trips, and guided fly fishing; the operation has been notably impacted. Everything is down, though bike tours and fly-fishing offerings are down more than rafting.  It seems the bike tour world is mimicking the airline industry, coming back, but operating at 30%. Fly fishing trips are following in a similar arc. For both programming areas, the clients tend to be more mature, and are therefore more likely to have complications from the disease. The unwillingness of clients to fly to their destinations seems to be driving some of the reduced demand. Rafting is different – overwhelmed with demand, but still operating at 60% due to staffing and shuttle capacities. In the end, daily operations are exceeding what our expectations were for the summer.

We’ve been enforcing masks in our buildings from day 1, with pre-orders. And we adhere to a number of other protocols we established.

Have you encountered anyone being ill on your trip or in your staff? 

We have not.

How is your team coping?

Staff are frazzled, super busy, phones are ringing off the hook. Normally a call is 20 people, or 100, and now its 2-4 people total. This year we are adding 2-4 people at a time, many of which are families or are traveling in units.

In addition, to accommodate the demand and existing protocols, staff are feeling stretched. But they are getting it done.

 

Alaska Wildland Adventures

How Have You Altered Your Operation during Covid-19?

At Alaska Wildland Adventures, we own and operate three wilderness lodges and run several small group, multi-day lodge to lodge adventure travel trips. Our operating season is a mere 100 days due to our brief and intense summer tourist season. We rely on our revenue generated in the summer to carry the year-round expenses that keep the business running.

When the pandemic hit, we were forced to cancel our entire 2020 operating season and we are now focusing on covering the financial losses and finding the funding to get us to our next operating season in 2021. Here are the reasons we ultimately decided to cancel our entire season:

Fear of Travel, Travel Restrictions and Testing Challenges

Most of our clientele are from the Lower 48 and fear of flying prompted a cascade of cancellations. Even though we had some guests still willing to travel, the travel restrictions, testing requirements and quarantine periods made travel to Alaska cumbersome and expensive.

Social Distancing and Reduced Capacity

Social distancing is difficult in vans, boats and at remote lodges. Two of our lodges are only accessible by boat. We looked at reducing capacity to maintain social distance and we would need to reduce our group size so low, revenue under our current pricing model wouldn’t even cover expenses. It was a financial losing proposition.

Managing Through the Crisis

We have found some ways to generate revenue over the summer. For example we rented out our B&B rooms to a construction crew while they work on a nearby roadway project.  We’ve also been offering “contactless” vacation rentals marketed via VRBO. But we are only generating less than 5% of our normal revenue through these offerings.

We’ve applied for and have been awarded funds from Payroll Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and an AK Cares grant provided by our local Borough. These relief programs have allowed us to keep our year-round personnel on staff and provide some part time work to our seasonal managers. Many of our staff had nowhere to go when the pandemic hit, so despite not operating, we provided “safe harbor” to 25 of our seasonal staffers, providing them housing and a simple meal plan for the duration of the summer while they rode out the pandemic.

The question is 2021, what will it look like? We have a lot of physical assets, lodges across the landscape, and are entirely dependent on that narrow season. We were able to roll over about 20% of our guests to 2021. And we have a lot of uncertainty as we look forward. We hope more grants and funding like the PPP will continue to be available to help us make it to 2021.

How is your team coping?

One of the biggest drivers was staffing, both the challenges of housing staff in a remote setting and keeping them safe. Due to social distancing, we determined we could only safely house 30-40% of our normal staff.  We also conducted an in-depth COVID-19 Sentiment Survey among our employees, revealing that there were tremendous concerns and anxieties surrounding keeping guests healthy and preventing an outbreak. We did not want to put our staff in harm's way or put them in the position of having to “police” guests wearing masks and social distancing.

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Bob Ferguson
Columbia, CA
8/24/2020 12:56 PM
 

  Very informative article. As a California rafting outfitter that did not open this season, I appreciate the comments and insight of those that did. We're looking forward to opening up next season.