When COVID-19 came down hard and fast in March, it looked like it could be the end for tour operators. Few could look confidently at being able to survive a year or more out of business while the world waited for the development of a vaccine – that may or may not ever happen.
But, gradually, the leading operators are learning how to adapt and move forward in a world where the Coronavirus is likely to be with us for a long time.
One of them is Alexander + Roberts. The Keene, NH-based tour operator is a survivor. With its history dating back to 1947, when it was founded in New York City as General Tours, it has endured countless disasters and problems that crippled the travel industry.
The company’s president, Robert Drumm, is taking steps to assure that COVID-19 will be no exception. The company has built enough financial security into its foundation to be able to withstand a long period without operating.
But now A+R is seeing a brightening of the light at the end of the tunnel. The company is getting a good response to a recently-rolled-out series of tours for 2021-23 called Journeys Without A Crowd, designed for safe traveling during the time of COVID.
“The idea of traveling without a large group or on a private basis or a custom tailor-made basis has a lot of appeal these days, as everybody works through the world as it is going to be for a bit,” said Drumm. “The world is going to adapt to some of these changes, and they will themselves dissipate over time.”
The company recently published a catalog of 105 tours, each one of which can be taken as a Small Group Journey or in a Privately Guided version.
With the new series, Alexander + Roberts has modified its programs to incorporate the necessary precautions for moving through the world in the presence of the Coronavirus.
A Tradition of Small Groups
For decades, A+R’s Small Group Journeys have carried a maximum of 16 passengers, and they usually operate with fewer. The Privately Guided tours can be operated with as few as one guest.
In the age of COVID, small group or private tours are well suited to the needs of the time. With some creative re-engineering, they were made safe for the COVID environment. A+R characterizes the modifications as ‘More Personal Space and Extra Care.’
According to a company statement, “A+R has elevated its already stringent on-tour protocols to follow the guidelines of the leading global health authorities and tourism organizations, including the CDC, WHO and USTOA”
The new tours incorporate what has been learned so far by epidemiologists and doctors about how to prevent transmission of the virus.
“We wanted to find a way to make the product style, the delivery style, relevant to the issues of the moment,” said Drumm. “That’s how we came up with idea of Journeys Without a Crowd.”
Journeys Without a Crowd became the sub-brand for the modified travel style that incorporates all the necessary precautions of the Age of COVID into the operation of the programs.
“That’s the umbrella we are using in our positioning, in our emails and marketing, as we work our way through this morass,” said Drumm.
The reworking of the operations of each tour was no simple task. “It didn’t come easily,” said Drumm. “We’ve been working on it quite a long time.”
Each tour had to be reconceived with the newly added precautions incorporated step-by-step throughout each itinerary.
Finding the Right Balance
In addition to the work of re-creating every tour within the new set of limitations, there was the problem of marketing travel to a public that is afraid of travel… and may look with suspicion or resentment upon anyone who sells or markets travel.
“We were reluctant to actually start marketing travel again,” said Drumm. “We were concerned about hitting the right tone.”
To take the pulse of the market, Drumm did a little informal market research, speaking personally with a sampling of people on a mailing list.
“I asked the question specifically,” he said. “Do you think it’s tone deaf for where we are as a country? Or do you think it’s inspirational?”
Fortunately for Drumm, the responses came down overwhelmingly on the side of “inspirational.”
A Surge in Private Tours
Because of new security requirements regarding COVID, A+R is seeing “an enormous increase in demand for Privately Guided programs,” said Drumm.
“We’ve been doing this for decades,” he said. “It’s not a new development. But we wanted to make it responsive to the times we are in. Crowd control is now a key part of managing our passage through this mess.”
For A+R, the COVID “pause” became an opportunity to go through all its protocols and adapt them to the new safety requirements.
The modifications in A+R’s programs for travel during the age of COVID, include the following:
- A+R staff will wear masks and maintain proper social distancing at all times.
- All high-touch surfaces will be sterilized regularly and frequently.
- Complimentary face masks and hand sanitizers will be constantly available on coaches.
- Larger coaches are being used and each passenger will be given two seats while on board.
- Restaurants are selected to avoid crowds, with spacious table settings and widely spaced tables.
- Hotels will be regularly monitored to be sure they are maintaining the safety standards of the World Health Organization.
- Sightseeing will be pre-arranged to avoid crowds.
A+R picked out 10 of its programs to showcase as its Journeys Without Crowds series. They were chosen on the basis of their previous popularity, or their special relevance to the time.
Figuring heavily into the selection process was the fact that the interest in the natural world has spiked, largely because outdoor environments are safer from COVID than enclosed spaces.
The 10 featured tours are:
- Alaska Wild + Wonderful
- Adventures Across Iceland
- Costa Rica Mountains to Sea
- On Safari Kenya + Tanzania
- Egypt by Small Ship
- Israel Expertly Guided
- Finland’s Lapland
- Morocco Sea to Sahara
- Japan Fully Guided
- Machu Picchu + Galapagos
So far, the response to the new programs has been better than could have been expected.
“We don’t expect big numbers, as it was in 2019 or early 2020,” said Drumm. “It’s a way to let them know we’re here, a way to raise the flag and let people know there are alternative ways to travel.”
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.