Everything changes with COVID. In the biggest whack the world economy ever took, millions of businesses were knocked flat, with their revenues cut off cold, just hoping to hang on to survive the storm. So, it was good to speak to Jeff Roy, the executive vice president of Collette, the century old tour operator of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and hear him say, “It’s going really well. We’re happy with it.”
Some context here. Obviously, Collette, a major tour operator that takes thousands of people a year to seven continents, took a serious blow this year. There was no way it could continue its normal operations.
Like nearly all tour operators Collette had to curtail virtually all travel when COVID hit last March, just as the heavy summer travel season was emerging on the horizon. Even now there are few international doors open to American travelers.
So, Collette’s good news is in that context. Like everyone, the company has collided with the devastation of COVID. But it has managed to find a new way forward. And that is the perspective from which things are looking good to Jeff Roy. The company hit the bottom of the COVID crisis and is now on the way back up.
Now Collette has reinvented itself and its products, and is a purveyor of The Traveling Well Experience.
How bad was the blow? Plenty bad.
“We ended up refunding $115 million, and counting, cash back to customers for tours they booked but weren’t able to travel on,” said Roy.
Collette’s office had to spend its time unbooking tours that had been booked and set to go, and issuing refunds.
“We did a lot of work this year to build all the business that we were planning to operate,” said Roy. “And then you have to do double work, refunding much of it. So you’re kind of double working every reservation, moving people, rebooking them, a lot of back office challenges just dealing with the volume of it, certainly in the call center.”
Huddling and Strategizing
As with all tour operators, the bottom fell out almost entirely. As to cash flow, it was an immediate shutting off of the faucet – a hard thing for any business to survive.
But Collette, with a century of experience in the business, is built to withstand any kind of shock.
“It’s been a pillar of our philosophy,” said Roy. “We’ve always prioritized having sound financial management, keeping that rainy day fund alive. You never know. It’s the travel industry. Things do happen. We’re going to be here.”
While the call center and the back office struggled to handle the deluge of demands, the operations side of the business got an unwanted vacation.
But nothing stays the same. As doctors and researchers learned more about how COVID spreads, and devised ways to protect against it, Collette began to plot its return to operations, and to devise new practices for how to travel safely in the time of COVID.
When it became known that the biggest danger was people crowded together in enclosed spaces without masks, small group travel primarily in outdoor environments became feasible.
“We had a lot of customers who still wanted to travel this year,” said Roy. “So we put protocols in place and we ran those departures with between 15 and 20 people on average.”
Launching a Comeback
A return to operations meant encountering many previously unseen problems. But problem solving is the name of the game for a tour operator, so it wasn’t that big of a jump. The travel industry may not have invented Murphy’s Law, but it lives by it.
Collette examined its product line in context of the new safety requirements to figure out which tours could still be operated in 2020.
The most viable itineraries were the ones in which most of the activities took place in open-air environments, in such destinations as national parks and Mackinac Island in Michigan.
“But also, we were making sure that what we sold the customers, what was supposed to be included on the tour, could be delivered,” said Roy. “We weren’t running tours in destinations where we couldn’t deliver on expectations.”
The comeback tour was set for July 3, with “Return to the Badlands.” The photo that greeted visitors at the web page for the tour was an aerial view of a barren landscape, with not a soul in sight, perfect for social distancing.
“On July 3 we put our first departure out to South Dakota, and we’ve run about 40 departures since,” said Roy. “It’s been all domestic, American travelers. It’s gone incredibly well.”
It’s a big comedown for a company that normally runs several thousand departures a year. Counting the tours run before the shutdown in March, the company has still only run a few hundred tours this year. But things are now moving in the right direction.
“It’s a challenging environment to operate in, but there are a lot of parts of the country where you really could operate pretty easily because a lot of the tour experience is outdoors anyhow.”
Things went much better than anyone could have hoped for. Collette was running tours again. It figured out how to operate travel safely in an environment more dangerous than ever seen before.
Customers were happy. They appreciated the safety protocols, and no one complained or broke the rules.
“We’re pretty excited about that,” said Roy. “We obviously do post-travel customer surveys, and overall for everything that has operated we are getting a 92 percent ‘excellent’ rating. Three quarters of guests felt that the precautionary measures had no impact on their enjoyment of the tour, which we thought was incredible.”
With a steady flow of cable news coverage of people rebelling against having to wear masks, it was impossible to predict how successful the efforts to enforce safety precautions would be.
“Back in May when we really started planning to restart in the summer, we were worried about telling people that they were going to need to wear a mask on the coach,” said Roy. “Back then it was unforeseen how far we were going to get with this from a public health standpoint. But people have been very reasonable about it.”
To avoid problems on tour, Collette is up-front with customers about the protocols.
“We have a form,” said Roy. “We send it to them ahead of the departure. When they arrive on tour they have to fill it out. It’s dual purpose. It’s a health declaration. I ask them a series of questions to make sure they are feeling well before they get on the bus and start to go.
“It also requires them to sign-off in agreement that they will follow the protocols that we’ve laid out, including mask wearing and so forth.”
COVID has forced a reconfiguration of human spacing standards.
“We keep them spaced out on the coach,” said Roy. “We only fill the coach maximum half way. People have been able to go with 15-20 people using full-sized 55-seat coaches. People can really stretch out, and that was a good thing for them.”
Two thirds of the guests said they would rebook and travel in 2021 on a guided tour. Nine out of 10 said they would be willing to travel again under social distancing restrictions.
“To the extent that we can guarantee safety – nobody can do that. But we’ve done enough things to mitigate risk that we could provide a good experience for people.”
And importantly, the company has maintained a perfect record on COVID.
“We’ve not had any incidents of COVID since we restarted operations,” said Roy. “It’s gone incredibly smoothly. We’ve not had any reported cases after traveling, and our tour managers have been fine. It’s gone really well.
“We’re following advice of the public health experts. You distance. You wear masks when can’t distance. We haven’t had any issues with customers being compliant with that. They’ve done it.”
Someday, when restrictions can safely be relaxed, things can go back to something like what used to be seen as normal. But some of the innovations that came out of the crisis are here to stay. Some because they were good discoveries, and some because COVID is going to be around.
“Next year, vaccines are going to come online very soon here hopefully, and there’s going to be testing, and we’re expecting borders will open over time,” said Roy. “But we want to know how to operate the best way we can in this environment. They’re not expecting this virus to be eradicated, so we need to figure it out.
“And I think we have.”
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.