People Before Profits

Travel Companies Responding to COVID Show Their True Colors

ETrip Africa’s Kilimanjaro mountain crew. Credit: Aurelie Sivadier

When five of the six travelers who were signed up to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in January backed out a month prior citing COVID-19 concerns, most travel companies would have cancelled the departure. But eTrip Africa took a different approach. Its founder, Ben Jennings, was adamant that the trip run — with just one client and at the price originally quoted when it was a larger group. Yes, the company would lose money, but nine mountain crew in Tanzania who would otherwise not have had income that week would have work.

Since COVID-19 struck and tourism came to a grinding standstill, travel companies around the world have had to grapple with a slew of tough decisions. Things like: How to handle so many simultaneous refund requests? How long is it feasible to operate without sales? Should staff be retained? At what point does it make sense to run trips again?

Ben Jennings (top right) and eTrip trekkers on Mount Kilimanjaro. Credit: Ryan Harris, RH Photography

For Jennings, one thing was clear: his business choices would be based on ethics, not finances. Knowing that Tanzania has no safety net for laid-off workers (like unemployment assistance in the United States), he could not make any of his 12 salaried employees go without their jobs. Over the past year, he has used eTrip’s reserves to continue paying them in full each month. And as soon as safety protocols were in place, he’s been doing everything he can to bring in business. This helps everyone, from contract porters to local hotels and the government. Tanzania’s economy relies heavily on tourism. “If you have clients who want to come and who agree to follow the safety rules, and if we’ve done what we can to make it safe, then the right thing to do is let them come. When you’re an ethical company, you need to focus on ensuring that your team is getting work.”

Of course, not every company is in a position to operate at a loss for any length of time, even if its leadership believes it’s the right thing to do. Jennings is grateful that his practice of setting aside funds each year in case of emergency has allowed him to help. It has been disheartening for him and many others in the industry to watch businesses with deep pockets pause operations, require clients to postpone trips until group size meets a minimum, send out pink slips, and sit on the sidelines until the crisis passes.

“When you’re an ethical company, you need to focus on ensuring that your team is getting work.” — Ben Jennings

Whatever the circumstances and reasoning, most did make cuts. One online survey of travel companies worldwide conducted in February 2021 found that 83% reported staff reductions or layoffs, 74% reported furloughed employees, and 73% reported pay cuts for employees.

Raluca Spiac (left) with the tower of the fortified church of Cincsor, Romania. Credit: Beyond Dracula

Like Jennings, Raluca Spiac, owner of Beyond Dracula, bucked this trend. “We believe that the company gains from the work of its employees,” she says, “and it should help in hard times when it has the resources.” With no travelers or sales in 2020 and none so far in 2021, those resources have been limited for this travel agency that customizes experiences in Romania for international travelers. They refunded the clients who wished to cancel their trips rather than postpone, and they hope that those people will book with them again when the time is right. Her staff did receive some assistance from the government in the form of maternity leave: two of the team had babies during the pandemic, and the state paid a small portion of their salaries for two or three months. The rest fell on the company. All four employees have received their regular income since the beginning.

Mona Kapoor, CEO of Indian Vistas, also couldn’t imagine losing any of her team. Her company helps visitors from abroad discover this sensationally diverse and colorful land, which boasts 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But with the country locked down since last year, she hasn’t had any clients to serve. She closed their office on March 19, 2020, yet never considered layoffs. “Our team has helped grow the business over the years,” she explains, “and in these tough times, when it is impossible for them to find other jobs, our conscience does not allow us to let anyone go — until we absolutely cannot manage.”

Mona and Sanjay Kapoor with the Indian Vistas team at a celebration lunch in 2019. Credit: Indian Vistas

There is no government assistance available in India to help individuals or businesses like hers through challenging periods, which puts additional pressure on responsible leaders. Kapoor notes that three of her eight-person team have small children, one has kids in college, and all have responsibilities. It hasn’t been easy: in order continue paying the staff enough to live on, she has had to reduce salaries, once in May 2020 and again in April 2021. Kapoor and her husband, Sanjay, who run Indian Vistas together, have not taken a salary since March 2020 to keep the company afloat.

Good Staff Is Hard to Find

The decision to keep paying employees in times like this isn’t just about ethics; there is business sense behind it. Once travel resumes — and it will: tourism has a track record of bouncing back after crises — companies in hospitality will need experienced staff trained and ready. At this point, with vaccines being distributed and restrictions in some countries loosening, travel companies are already seeing increased interest with inquiries and advance bookings. Kapoor expects there will be a huge pent-up demand, and she “needs her excellent team on board” to handle it.

Rebeca Yañez, owner and CEO of Dopamina Travel in Mexico, echoes this sentiment. She’s kept her five full-time and three part-time workers on the payroll without a change in rate, knowing that it would be difficult to get them back once things improve or to find people of the same caliber, professionalism, skills, and loyalty. “Most of the team has been with me and my husband, Antonio, through thick and thin over the years, and we understand each other perfectly. Our unique work dynamic is efficient and friendly and would be very hard to replace.”

The resilient “luchadores” (or fighters) of Dopamina Travel. Credit: Dopamina Travel

Mexico has no national aid program for laid-off workers, but the fact that it didn’t fully close the country or implement quarantines allowed some travel to continue. “This has helped tourism,” Yañez explains, whose company is both an inbound and outbound tour operator focused on adventure and experiential travel. “It was really only domestic travelers who ventured around Mexico,” she notes. Most wanted long-term stays at beach destinations like Cancun, Riviera Maya, and Los Cabos. Although Dopamina was able to run a small number of trips, Yañez and her husband had to take action to boost resources. They sold a car and a rental property (an investment for their kids) and took out a second mortgage on their home to finance business operations.

Croatia was partially open in 2020, but very few international travelers felt comfortable making the journey. Still, the adventure tour operator AndAdventure Croatia kept its employees on the payroll. Owner Veselka Huljić confides, “Many in the business advised me against keeping my staff, but I see them as my friends and extended family and hope we will manage to come out of this together.” Her team of five (three in the office and two full-time guides) has been collaborating for almost a decade. Huljić is grateful for the government assistance of 500 euro per month per employee, but she still has had to cut pay 20–25 percent. Since March 2020, she is financing the business from past earnings. She has also invested her personal savings into the company and taken out additional loans. “It will be a long road to full financial recovery, but I believe it is worth it,” she says.

The AndAdventure Croatia team on a recent day trip to Krka National Park, the first time they’d met in person in over a year. Credit: AndAdventure Croatia

AndAdventure implemented safety protocols as soon as there was clear guidance and constantly adjusts to reduce everyone’s COVID risk. The small number of trips it ran — with clients largely based from charter sailboats or yachts and focused on outdoor activities — meant that Huljić could give some business to the small family-owned enterprises — like taverns, transfer companies, and boat owners — whose people and services she values tremendously. Of course, losses outweighed profits. In terms of income, her business is down 95 percent.

Jennings can relate. Looking back at 2020, eTrip was relatively busy compared to other Kilimanjaro operators. In July and August, eTrip clients accounted for about 20 percent of the mountain’s visitors. The fact that he split the losses with the travel agents who booked clients with eTrip helped bring them clients, along with his willingness to run trips with low numbers. Jennings still is nowhere near breaking even. He calculates that had eTrip simply stopped operating like so many other travel companies, it would have lost 83 percent less money. “I’ve been dreaming of buying a house someday, and now that dream is out of reach,” Jennings says. “But it’s worth it to help. Hopefully, other companies will see the value in holding profits for at least a year in case something like this happens again.”

A Responsibility to Support Local Communities

The importance of tourism to local workers and economies has not been lost on the travel companies that did have to cut staff. There are many encouraging cases of operators running trips far below their normal minimums in terms of guest counts to bring business into local communities.

Inés Orihuela of Peru-based Delfin Amazon Cruises explains that with more than 220 employees, it wasn’t feasible to keep all crew members, but the company has been working hard to operate, even at very low occupancy. “We sailed in January with only two guests,” she says, “and they LOVED having such a personalized experience on board the Delfin I.” While she is pleased that clients who travel now are having especially memorable adventures, she hopes travel will pick up soon so they can better support their team and economy.

In Zimbabwe, Imvelo Safari Lodges wanted so much to give their team work that they persisted through regularly shifting COVID regulations, unpredictable flight schedules, and last-minute changes in guest numbers to bring in international travelers from Italy, Spain, the US, the UK, Germany, and Norway. The guests reported that the bumpy road to get there was well worth it, especially with the extra individual attention they received with so few other travelers around.

Imvelo and its dedicated staff — many of whom chose to make great efforts and sacrifices to stay in the field — also did everything they could to support their laid-off colleagues, providing food aid and converting jobs. Full-time guides were trained to work with the anti-poaching teams and lodge employees become part of the conservation caretaking teams.

The team at Ultimate Safaris, which “feels like a family.” Credit: Ultimate Safaris

This kind of innovative thinking by caring travel companies showed up in myriad ways. AndAdventure Croatia, for example, amped up its charity efforts to support a children’s home in Split that was at risk without tourism dollars. In addition to running trips with as few as one or two international travelers, Ultimate Safaris Namibia launched a program with special rates for locals, encouraging Namibians to get to know their own country and giving them the opportunity to stay in comfy lodges at an affordable price. Ultimate also got their guides work by creating the Young Defenders Program, which took city kids on conservation-focused adventures and introduced them to rhinos and anti-poaching efforts.

Around Kilimanjaro, Jennings and fellow Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) members collaborated like never before to implement strategies that would support the unemployed mountain crew and their families. Initiatives ranged from producing and delivering masks to starting farms to grow and sell food. The hope is that in the long term, the skills learned during this time will make the population less dependent on tourism.

Kilimanjaro porters with no work due to COVID-19 refocus their energy on a farming project started by Local Moshi Adventure, a KPAP member company in Tanzania.

A Time to Step Back & Reprioritize

The forced downtime gave travel companies the chance to reevaluate business priorities, develop new offerings, improve processes for clients and partners, study ways to be more sustainable, and embrace projects put on the back burner. Yañez and her team are especially proud to have rescued a family-owned financial entity and reshaped it into The Outdoors Financial, the first financial institution in Mexico and Latin America specialized in granting loans to adventure and nature tourism companies. Up until now, few banks or lenders would extend credit to a small- or medium-size business in tourism, and the ones that did would charge exorbitant rates. Yañez is pleased to have filled this void, noting that The Outdoors Financial has already provided loans to a number of Mexican adventure travel companies, giving them a pandemic lifeline.

Bolivia Milenaria, which provides eco-conscious adventures in a country known for its spectacular, high-altitude salt flats, not only managed to keep all of its 16 employees on staff, but recently signed a letter of intent to roll out new products and boost existing offerings that work with indigenous communities. CEO Janette Simbron explains, “We believe that as tourism grows, it should generate opportunities and bring income into the regions, especially those where there is poverty.”

These kinds of forward-looking actions and initiatives give hope that some good will come out of the pandemic. They highlight the fact that, when done with care and respect, tourism is a force for good in the world. And they showcase the travel leaders who have proven with their response to COVID-19 that they value people over profits. It has been an incredibly trying time for everyone in the tourism business, and this makes the companies that have stood up for their beliefs in the face of great financial loss all the more impressive and inspiring.

There is optimism that travelers will emerge from COVID more conscious of their environmental and social impact, and that they will demand more ethical and sustainable travel choices. One of the most critical decisions that a traveler makes is deciding which travel company to book with. It’s the travel company, after all, that decides which hotels, restaurants, trekking outfitters, and other providers will care for their clients. Any responsible traveler will want to vet their travel company to be sure it really does makes ethical choices. Looking back at how the company responded to COVID and how it used time and resources over this past year will provide a key data point.

Writer and content specialist. Adventure traveler and former guide who has summited Kilimanjaro, explored Lima’s food scene, and communed with monks in Bhutan.