A message from Shannon Stowell, CEO, ATTA
I’ve heard a lot of friends and colleagues exclaiming in astonishment lately the shock of realization that we just passed a full year into the pandemic. With this, everyone is discussing the resulting waves of economic destruction, loss on every level, and mental health crises.
I too look back at May of 2020 and remember debating whether our in-person conference in September of 2020 might still be possible to happen. Ha. Wow were we wrong and unable to see the length and strength of the crisis.
In this article I will discuss why I believe this crisis hits especially hard, outline what I expect to come next (including a lot of good!), and offer some suggestions for emerging stronger than ever.
The COVID-19 Struggle
Like most of your journeys, our own at the ATTA of tragedy to despair to grief to determination has been difficult. Tragedy struck when our beloved team member Aliaa Abaza succumbed to COVID-19 on March 28, 2020. Despair set in at seeing everything we’d built for 16 years start to crumble and disintegrate. Our team shared your grief while hearing stories of your years of passion and hard work being ruined by something totally out of our control. And finally determination set in—determination to find a new path, innovate, get wickedly lean, and fight for our organization and community.
I’m betting many of you reading this had a very similar path to ours. While we know of many businesses that have had to give up or at least hibernate for a while, we also know how hard many of you are fighting to keep your snorkel tip above water.
It is commonly said that the typical stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. If you’re an adult, you’ve dealt with this likely multiple times in your life as things are thrown at you. Death, divorce, failure, loss … we are all familiar with it.
However, this situation is different, in my opinion, because all of it has sat on top of a murky platform of a state of limbo. Processing each stage of grief has been disorienting, confusing, and sometimes hand-wringing because the reality is that still, one year in, we cannot understand how to replace all the pieces of this dog-chewed, fuel-soaked, lit-on-fire, thrown-off-a-balcony puzzle.
In my own experience, limbo is the worst. It’s worse than bad news in some ways because bad news generally can be absorbed, faced, and dealt with, at least eventually. Limbo is insidious. It never lets you sleep well, wake well, or navigate well. Limbo seems to be the psychological state of flying blind. Or maybe even better described as flying through rapid successions of clear and foggy air. You never know what’s next, but it probably isn’t good.
I don’t need to recount the destruction of the travel industry here. Plenty of articles painstakingly tell us about that. So let’s talk about what’s next and the GOOD that is coming for the adventure travel space.
What is Coming Next?
All the signs are there for recovery. Traveler sentiment is improving, pent-up demand signs are everywhere. All your friends who don’t work in travel assure you they can’t wait to get back on a plane. Euromonitor and ATTA found that adventure travel is likely to recover 3 to 4 years earlier than mass travel. Tourism ministers over the world have been quoted as saying that they will focus on ecotourism, adventure tourism, nature tourism, etc. It’s obvious that adventure travel has an unfair (and excellent) advantage for the future based on small groups, more remote places, healthy living, and its myriad other benefits.
In some destinations, domestic tourism roared back to life and will likely continue to do the same in 2021. All those who were denied flights to Brazil, Japan, Chile, and the rest of the world are driving around their own countries, discovering how awesome a road trip can be. 10 million new anglers bought fishing licenses in 2020 in the US. Bikes became as endangered a species as toilet paper once was. Campgrounds were full in the U.S. (Side note—I know not every destination had this domestic revival due to many different factors, based on our conversations with members from all around the world.)
Here is one of my main concerns right now. I feel a potentially dangerous thinking creeping into the minds of our travel industry community. We’ve battled it ourselves so I’m very familiar with it. It goes something like this: “If we can just get to the other side of this, travel will roar back and we’ll be fine!” I’ve caught myself thinking the same thing. It’s like the plane has hit maximum speed, you can hear the bolts rattling and you think that once you get past that dangerous moment, all will fall back in place.
If your only goal is to survive to the other side you will likely be in trouble. Because everything is going to be affected and different. If you rely on buyers to sell your travel experiences to customers, you’re at risk. If you believe that customers will travel and spend the same way, you’re at risk. This crisis will have near-permanent fallout effects. The problem is, we don’t even know what many of those effects are yet.
These are just some of the factors of which I’m aware:
- Economists PRE-PANDEMIC were predicting a dire economic bottoming-out in 2030 in the U.S., with worldwide aftershocks. A combination of government debt, health care costs, entitlements, inflation, shifting demographics, and consumer behaviors will drive it. ITR Economics described it as a coming “Life-altering shift in wealth and poverty.”
- Last week I attended a “Future of Travel” online event moderated by the Economist. One of the sages in the room reminded everyone on the panel that business travel has subsidized leisure travel for a long time. That the front of the plane seats purchased by these travelers has paid for the ability of the back of the plane to get from point A to B. And that business travel is going to be incredibly slow to come back as the (now seemingly frivolous) flights for a meeting or two in another city are likely to be extinguished. We’ve all learned how to work virtually now for business meetings and have been forced to become comfortable enough with it.
- Climate change will change the tourism game. The potential of biodiversity collapses looms.
- Economically weak communities that served the tourism supply chain may have been forced back to extractive activities to put food on the table.
- Although no one really knows the number, I’ve heard from experts that between 50% and 70% of travel agencies will go under. How many are hibernating? No one knows! What’s the effect of that?
- Damaged incomes will prevent some travelers from fulfilling their pent-up demand dreams.
- Governments will open and close borders like blinking Christmas lights with wildly varying rules and regulations around vaccinations, tests, and quarantines, rendering sanity for the travel planner impossible, especially for a multi-destination trip.
- Mass media, now apparently fully addicted to tell only titillating and terrifying stories, will scare travelers off the planes, trains, and automobiles. Nutty media sources will feed more conspiracies and create more fear and xenophobia.
- Airlift is the circulation system of international travel. IATA is predicting that levels won’t recover to 2019 levels until 2023/2024.
Does anyone really think there are no more nasty surprises in this journey!? Hahaha—grab your drink and let’s imagine all the other calamities awaiting us as travel industry professionals.
BUT, and I mean BUT! I do still believe that travel will come back with a vengeance and specialty verticals like Adventure, Religious, Food, Fitness, will be at the front of it. Why? Lots of reasons but the people who travel for adventure, for example, DEFINE themselves by it. Climbers, cyclists, paddlers, birders, hikers, foodies, culturists must get back out there because it’s who they ARE.
So the point I want to make here is that yes, you must ‘hang on til the other side’ and do whatever it legally, ethically, and morally takes to get there. But if you are not innovating, digitizing, learning how your finances REALLY worked, taking into account a wildly different future, being nimble to change plans at a moment’s notice, your survival to that other side might just end in a whimper.
Brazilians have a saying that basically says “They died on the beach.” Meaning, this person swam all the way across the ocean, braving wind, waves, wildlife, exhaustion, and terror just to slowly crawl up on the beach and then die—very anticlimactic. Reaching the supposed finish line which turned out to be more like a false summit.
My Recommendations? Well…
Don’t try to save what you’ve built—accept that what we all had is lost and gone. Then take a fresh look at what you DO have and rebuild a NEW business around that. This is what we’ve done at the ATTA. Acknowledge, mourn, rebuild.
Stop worrying about competition. Get closer than ever to your colleagues, even if you used to think they were your competitors.
Don’t consume too much information—it is confusing, depressing, and frankly often misleading. Personally I’ve almost completely stopped paying attention to most news media outlets. I focus only on those now where I feel there is real insight and cutting-edge revelations that matter to the adventure industry. Pay attention to what matters to your day-to-day operations.
Get closer than ever to your customers and even more importantly, your team.
Understand the part of your business or organization that scares you most. I’m hearing lots of stories that indicate financial management is a very weak point in the adventure travel industry. Which is understandable—few of us engaged in the business of adventure to look at spreadsheets and sit in a cubicle. So, hire for that skill set if you can’t or won’t understand it.
As every mountain bike professional knows, target fixation means to look not at the obstacle, or you’ll hit it. Look beyond the obstacle so you hit the part of the trail you WANT to hit.
The ATTA remains here as a resource to everyone we can potentially serve as we all navigate not just to the other side, but to a future that will be radically different from the last century of travel from which we’ve built our current knowledge and skillsets.
There IS hope. Vaccinations, dropping infection rates in many countries and people’s deeply internal fire for travel is warming the pent-up demand engine. There’s even good news. Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, saw that counterintuitively, people and companies redoubled their efforts to fight climate change DURING the pandemic. Think about this—the CEO of the world’s largest asset manager said: “I believe the pandemic has presented such an existential crisis—such a stark reminder of our fragility—that it has driven us to confront the global threat of climate change more forcefully and to consider how, like the pandemic, it will alter our lives.”
Yes, the year has been an existential crisis. Yes, there is grim news still rolling in. But I think the passion and the power of responsible travel will help raise this battered form back to its feet, we will rise, rebuild, repower, and hopefully set the tourism industry on a course that can, through near-total reconstruction, actually be a force for good in the world.