Adventure Tour Operators (ATOs) and the Covid-19 Pandemic – Survival Reboot

Adventure Tour Operators (ATOs) and the Covid-19 Pandemic – Survival Reboot

One of the first things to go with the Covid-19 lockdown was the freedom of movement. Not just within your city or state of country, but within your immediate community. The lockdown announcements were followed by sounds of travel plans shattering right at the beginning of the traditional Indian travel season. Summers in India are synonymous with not just mangoes, languorous slow days but most importantly, vacations!

Within increased mobility of Indians, we see many more folks take to the skies or the roads for small trips, family visits, and relaxed vacations. An interesting trend of active vacations or adventure activity-based tours has been on the rise in the last decade or so. Today most, if not all, adventure activities have a noticeable presence in India. From extreme sports like base jumping to simpler activities like weekend treks – these cater to a rising appetite among people for being close to nature, experiencing thrills and of course, scoring bragging rights for social media. And the audience is not just the young and upcoming, but the middle aged and beyond who are still fitter than their forefathers, and have dispensable income.

It is not surprising to see that numerous businesses have been built specifically to service the adventure tours sector. They are called Adventure Tour Operators (ATOs). These are typically activity and destination-based businesses who cater to customers directly as well as through travel platforms like Viator, Thrillophillia or as suppliers to other service providers. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all these operators across the chain as much as it has affected the big names in the travel industry.

Let us look at the different players in typically adventure tour operation to understand how the pandemic has affected each one of them.

Local ATO – At the adventure activity destination, there is typically a local operator who has a core team of about 3-5 locals. This includes the owner, his or her immediate family to manage the office and a couple of people more to lead different activities. A bulk of their staff is contractual since the activities are seasonal. This outfit depends heavily on internet platforms and larger companies to drive business their way. They lack the skill or and the resources to increase their reach on the internet. What they lack there, they make up with expertise in the activities the offer – be it skiing, cycling, expeditions, wildlife explorations or mountaineering. Slight exceptions to this are operators located in very popular destinations like Goa, Leh, or Manali which are known adventure activity centres and have enough publicity on social media. However, the dependency on platforms and bigger companies continues.

Next in line are the regional ATOs who specialize in working in a state or a region defined by its geographical features more than its borders. These ATO specialize in a range of activities and are a slightly larger operation. Besides promoting activities like multi day treks, camping experiences, caving or rafting, they also design travel products which include adventure activities, cultural experiences and some amount of leisure that attracts well-heeled customers. They depend to some extent on some local ATOs who have local reach and expertise but they have in house leads who manage the experience for each tour. The North East is a good example of regional. ATOs who have tours throughout that region touching on a range of activities unique to that part of the country. These ATOs have a great presence on the internet and are good at marketing their products. Their dependency on platforms to fetch customers is minimal but they have a huge stake in what is being said about them on social media.

The largest ATOs are the ones that operate nationally or even internationally, a good example being Intrepid Travel. They are to adventure travel what athleisure is to clothing. They also heavily hire local companies for ground work while they themselves managing the experience very minutely. They have a huge presence on social media, have built up the brand over the years and enjoy a solid reputation for
the experiences they offer.

Finally, there is one category of business, typically a single person operation, who comes with niche skills that cater to the discerning adventurer. A good example would be Naturalists who accompany trekkers, showing them the hidden wonders of the area or photographers who exclusively capture their customers in action as they raft or ski. All these operators, large or small, need transport, food and lodging for which they
depend on the local hospitality and transport businesses. Also, very few ATOs have their own buses, or hotels. Be it specialty requests like wine tasting experiences or having a rustic local meal made specially for you or stays at glamping locations – the ATOs look to these allied businesses to fulfill their needs.

What challenges are the ATOs looking at right now?

Forced Change
Never before has the ATO business had to face so much forced change. Changes due to government mandates in the form of restriction of movement and of services. Destinations wanting to control the spread of the pandemic and not willing to let anyone in or out. Change from customers themselves who are content to sit in their homes and if and when the travel, will choose virus free destinations. And finally, by ATOs who have chosen to suspend operations and cancel or defer trips. It is unprecedented in scale, raining down all at once on ATOs of all sizes, having caught a lot of them unawares.

In hindsight a lot of the operators, save the really big ones will have realized that their business is not as resilient to disruption as they imagined. It took a just a fortnight of lockdown for a lot of the smaller once to fold up and look for other ways to make money. Even without the burden of staff to pay, the local ATOs are looking at a season without work and no hope of anything falling in place soon. It is not that there haven’t been any disruptions in the past. The earthquake in Nepal a few years ago, saw the season crumble away with it. Incessant rains in the Northeast cut off all Seven sisters from mainland India, leading to cancellations of not just adventure activities but travel in general to that region. The difference this
time, and a it is big difference, is that there is hopelessness about the future. Not one person has an idea of what the new post Covid-19 travel will be like. There has been a lot of speculation, sure, and that is the best the ATOs can work with. So, it is natural that there is cautious optimism.

Seasonality and Distribution of Activities
Almost all adventure activities are dependent on the right season for launch. Ice craft activities cannot happen unless it starts snowing in earnest, and it must rain for rivers to fill and rafts to be floated. Anything that affects the launch, affects the business. But this time, ATOs are helplessly watching a perfectly good season just go away and no one can turn the clock back. For ATOs with their several fingers in the pie, the distribution of activities by type and location worked in the past. If one destination went down for some reason, resources could be diverted elsewhere and activities scaled up. They could still be above water, and support their suppliers for a time. With all activities across the world grinding to a total halt, it has in fact caused damaged to ATOs with assets spread around adding to the cost.

Customer Segments
Increasingly, ATO products are designed to appeal not only to a certain economic class but also to age driven segments. If their products are centred around any one of the segments, upwards or downwards, they must face the prospect of prolonged lack of business. With loss of jobs and the economic uncertainty people will not prioritize adrenaline rush over other things. Also, the fit but older adventurer enthusiasts might not find it attractive enough to venture out just yet, due to the risks. Those ATOs with activities appealing to diverse segments and at different locations might have an advantage.

Collapse of Allied Services
It’s a chicken and egg situation for ATOs in relation to the allied service suppliers. Transporters making money from regular tourists have gone bust, same as hotels that have turned belly up due to lack of bookings. So have the restaurants. If and when the ATOs do restart their activities, will these suppliers be around to provide the much necessary services? And if the ATOs do not start anytime soon, the suppliers also lose bulk of their business that is usually guaranteed in season. Lots of questions, but are there no answers?

What can ATOs do today that will help them tomorrow

The Core Drivers – Health and Economy
ATOs need to recognize foremost that Health and the Economy are the core drivers for their business. Uncertainty about everything looms large, no one will risk life or spend money to seek thrills, much less leave their homes. ATOs need to design their pitch and their products around this reality. Let us examine we can do this.

Understand the Direction of Recovery
Recovery for this sector, whenever it has to happen will flow from local to regional, then to national and lastly international. Looking to drum up business nearer to your destination will bring much more benefits that looking outside or away. One company specializing in water sports has started wooing locals to sign up for their newly launched smaller duration activities and involved the children. They capitalized on the fact that lockdown was eased locally, and bored families with children were
desperate for somewhere to go. They got a picnic and happy kids in the bargain all without breaking any lockdown rules. Of course, the participant numbers had to be low, and sanitation precautions had to be taken, but this was a far better outcome than a total shut down. What tweaks can you make in your activities to follow this direction?

Review Sources of Business
For a lot of the small operators, who comprise the majority of businesses in this sector, a lot of clientele comes from platforms that sell their service over the internet and social media for a cut. With these platforms going down, the ATOs are left under prepared to reach their target audience.
While it still makes sense to have presence there, it would be ideal for ATOs to use this time to boost their own online capabilities and outreach. It might not mean that you need to invest heavily in technology, but looking at how much you commission you have paid out in the last year alone should put things in perspective. Start small. I will argue strongly to keep commission local, between local businesses. How fast can you establish some basic presence on social media will determine how long you last in the game.
You customers are your biggest supporters as well as detractors. Get them to influence their networks for a job well done and listen to their feedback. Use social media, it’s cheap and it’s everywhere.

Think like your Customer
One key aspect of keeping your customer beyond the first contact point is how they the entire journey panning out till the post experience phase. If you have visualized this journey yourself beforehand, customer acquisition should not be hard. ATO Heads and teams should use this time to tweak and refine the entire process so that old customers come back and new ones are attracted. And you will know what to tweak and refine if you have been listening to customers all this time. Learn to ask questions. Are they only coming to you for that one activity or are they looking for more? Are they looking to celebrate a special occasion, where you can help? Do they have any disability that you can help address and yet let them enjoy the activity? It might mean extra business, not to mention added opportunity for achieving customer delight.

Are you built for resilience?
ATO Heads, gather your team – review your distribution strategy, your customer segments. You have time, lots of it. As mentioned earlier in this article, come up with strategies that lessen your risks. If your team agrees that you should exit an activity or a destination, then do that. Fast. It’ll be far easier to cut your losses now and resurrect it later. Also, look at reducing product complexity. If there are too many variables on offer, too many moving parts to a product, it faces almost certain extinction in the post Covid-19 world. Chip away at it, deliver focused, shorter but superior experiences. While they do that, ATO Heads can weave in a process to keep their customers engaged from the booking phase up to their post experience phase. Not only will your team be in control of the complete cycle, but that’ll ensure the customer will not hesitate to recommend your company to their friends. It can be double edged sword, but if the control is in your hands, so is the experience. Be the face of your company, be the person who is a call away or train whatever staff you have to be that. Having one real person to speak with can replace disputes with dialogue.

Two key things to consider:
• Seek out small, locally owned and operated suppliers that maximise economic impact on the local community.
• Evaluate the sustainability of activities in both in popular and unknown

Develop New Products
Virtual tours are all the rage today. People are choosing to enjoy destinations from the safety of their homes. And while adventure activities have not yet gone virtual, giving detailed “activity tours” to potential customers can help sell the location, or dispel any discomfort around tougher sports and assure customers that they can be done by anyone with some practice. You should take this opportunity to talk about your safety standards, sanitation practices, demonstrate your rescue procedures,
showcase the work of your guides, leads or porters who are often the unsung members of any adventure activity. Dig the archives for good photos, media that you can put together. Fancy videos? Not required. Honest narrative? Most definitely.

Taking off from the example about water sports with kids, it is also that time to think new products. What is it in your area that is undersold? Can you think of arranging cycle rides to an agro tourism destination nearby? Can glamping be combined with a star gazing activity? Can you give the adrenaline junkies their fill by organizing a tough trek followed by a cookout? Those with facilities of their own have a big edge over other ATOs. They can contain the activity within their facility, keep groups isolated and ensure maximum safety under current conditions. Consider merging or joining hands with such ATOs for mutual benefit.

Think Short Term, Lock in Long Term.
ATOs should not be disheartened by the fact that customers are not looking at long duration travel at this point. They want minimum exposure to infection and are not looking to be away from home long. No matter, if your typical activities are 10 days or more, now is the time to focus on resizing activities for smaller duration and smaller batch size. If you are efficient and demonstrate care for your customer’s wellbeing, be sure that they are going to come back to you once the longer trips open up. And they will be with you for every activity they want to, do as long as you offer it. Once you catch them, keeping them with you should be your utmost priority.

Uberization Of Adventure Tours is here to stay
The sooner we accept this truth the better. ATOs will be under tremendous cost pressure in the coming days and yet we will have to live with cancellations, deferrals and refunds. Giving the customer the maximum amount of flexibility throughout the engagement will be the way to go. Make it as easy as possible for the customer to book their next tour with you. Relax usual rules and conditions to book a trip, postpone it, cancel it or get a full refund.

One of the bigger ATOs in India has introduced dynamic pricing for all their treks. They say that their algorithm incentivizes bookings made on less sought-after days, dates and trails by offering a greater quantum of discounts. The idea is to not only incentivise bookings made for treks starting on weekdays but also to encourage early booking.

Another way would be to introduce pay-as-you-go add ons to tours to keep the base activity cost low. A lot of travel operators use this trick in good measures when marketing various attractions in travel destinations. Customers pay only for those attractions that they want to visit. Even in this booking model, never compromise on safety and sanitation. Add ons can be anything from additional time on the skis, one more round of river crossing, or an overnight stay at the destination after a day trip. Get creative.

Consider Merging with other ATOs
In a dire situation, join hands to emerge stronger collectively. Come together to offer variety, tie up locally to create new products and even consider merging businesses to arrest costs. Take the help of your local or regional trade body to initiate a discussion on merging. Helping sinking ships in the time of this storm, is both a good idea as well as a security for the future.

Why are ATOs still the fortunate ones?
As ATOs, we are in the business of planning and executing amazing experiences. As people get locked down in apartments, they have little or no access to open skies, a cool breeze, lush greenery, the expanse of seas, views of snow-peaked mountains and just being in the wild outdoors. Everyone is dreaming of a jail break to return to nature in its most pristine forms. They definitely want to avoid crowded attraction, museums, and palaces. That means everyone is looking at secluded places of natural beauty, hoping to do activities which make them feel alive. They will want someone with them every step of the way when they plan their time outdoors in a long while. Who do you think is the first person they will call?

Take time to Reflect
As an outdoors person, I’ve been in the mountains and in deserts for a large part of my life. And now as an individual involved with a Not for Profit company delivering adventure experiences to persons with disability, I have spent the major part of the last few weeks trying to find an answer to questions at the top of everyone’s mind. Some of us have seen closures, some of our business are in temporary suspension but we have been taught to cope with the worst by our field of work – the great outdoors. Let us draw from those lessons we learnt and our own experiences. What are our plan As and plan Bs? What is our emergency evacuation plan? Our rescue plan? When do we turn back? All of us will have to restart life after this pandemic and the optimists that we are, we have should look ahead.

The outdoors aren’t going anywhere, neither should we.

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