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Puzzle pieces

Piecing travel together

To resume tours, NTA professionals lean on science, resilience … and each other
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posted May 19, 2020
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With the COVID-19 pandemic and the suspension of travel came a clamor of questions: when and how, exactly, can trips come back? Although uncertainty remains, travel professionals are working together to find—and share—solutions.

An NTA survey of tour operators in mid-May showed that 60% of them don’t expect travel to rebound in substantial numbers until 2021. Yet they foresee parts of the package—restaurants, retail, short motorcoach trips, and hotel stays—resuming between August and November.

NTA members are already working on how they can safely host guests again.

Phil Sheldon, president of Utah-based HE Travel, put together a comprehensive outline for deciding when to conduct tours to a destination. His considerations include government restrictions and the availability and safety of transportation, lodging, meals, and attractions—plus the things his company must do to prepare clients for travel and keep them safe once the tour begins.

“This started when a client asked how we were deciding whether to offer certain tours, and I developed a list of criteria with input from staff, tour directors, and clients,” Sheldon says. “I view it as a work in progress to be continually updated.”

Sheldon shared the outline with fellow operators and posted a summary of it in a blog on his company’s website.

Laurie Lincoln, CTP, also consulted with clients. The president of Main Street Tours in Lakewood, California, Lincoln surveyed a cross section of her SoCal customers under stay-at-home orders. Consistent with the NTA survey, most of Lincoln’s customers are comfortable with traveling again in the coming months—first by driving their own cars to meet at a venue and later, traveling by motorcoach, especially with all passengers wearing face coverings and with half the seats empty. Her customers also prefer limiting the number of hotels during a multi-day tour.

“We asked if our travelers would feel safer not changing hotels night after night and instead, hubbing and spoking from one destination,” Lincoln says. “Nearly all prefer to stay at one hotel the entire tour.”


Ready for recovery

With their customers continually monitoring the risks and rewards of post-COVID travel, tour operators are counting on their DMO and supplier partners—hotels, restaurants, attractions, etc.—to create safe environments. And even before most restrictions are lifted, destinations and suppliers are spelling out how they’ll prepare for guests.

Renee Eichelberger, CTP, of Explore St. Louis says her DMO is working with local partners to be ready for the recovery.

“Five task force groups were formed to develop operating protocols for the different tourism sectors: hotels, restaurants, attractions and venues, retail, and transportation,” she says. “Each group developed protocols in conjunction with public health and government officials, and they laid out operating procedures that include health screenings, sanitization, and cleaning mandates to keep employees and customers safe.”

Another NTA member moving forward with safety protocols is Maverick Helicopters, which runs sightseeing tours of Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and the Hawaiian Islands. In an article on NTAcourier.com, the company’s Dan Flores shares both a flyer and a video that detail Maverick’s procedures: temperature checks, minimized contact points, and thorough and frequent sanitization of flight terminals, helicopters, and equipment.

In the wake of the pandemic, tour operators are asking destinations and suppliers a big question: Who’s open? Sheldon’s rule of thumb is that if 20% of a program’s tour components need to be changed—due to closure or an inability to safely handle groups—he’ll need to explain those changes to his clients.

To address that same question, Eichelberger and her Explore St. Louis colleagues will place updated information on their website and social media platforms, and she advises operators to confirm with suppliers directly. NTA, too, is maintaining a spreadsheet of its member suppliers’ reopening dates and operating hours as well as the steps they are taking to safeguard their guests.


Guiding tours

The trick for NTA members is to continue to provide top-level service and memorable experiences while operating within government guidelines and their own organization’s protocols. And members can help each other.

Whisper, an NTA associate member, provides radio systems that allow tour guides to communicate with group members while everyone is practicing social distancing, says Annette Morejon, president, whether they’re distancing within the group or staying apart from other travelers.

“The guide can keep everyone engaged and connected and still allow participants to spread out and take pictures,” she says. “And if the group is in an area that becomes crowded with other visitors, the guide can quickly instruct group members to move to a more open space.”

The systems can be purchased or rented by attractions and operators, and the equipment can be sterilized so that travelers feel safe in using it.

Tour directors, too, are keeping abreast of changes in the industry, says Ted Bravos, CEO and founder of the International Tour Management Institute, which trains and certifies tour directors and guides that work with many NTA members.

“ITMI is preparing for post-COVID tour operations,” Bravos says. “With our partner NTA, we are collaborating with travel associations to create an online training program, and the ITMI certification will include CDC guidelines and recommendations.”

Bravos says after ITMI directors and guides lost their entire spring tour schedule, they stayed connected and informed by taking online courses and storytelling classes, joining webinars and study halls, and even learning new languages.

“The initial shock has subsided, giving way to an eagerness to get back on the road,” he says.

While operators are assembling the pieces of travel packages while staying abreast of each destination’s regulations—and health experts’ best practices—they can take some solace from attorney Jeff Ment, an NTA Corporate Partner who specializes in travel-related issues.

“While some changes are likely to occur in the future, I do not think that we have to reinvent the tour operator model. Operators have always made the safety of guests a priority,” Ment says. “But they do not have any greater knowledge about COVID than the general public does. Operators should work closely with suppliers and should, as a new standard, require guests to complete a pre-trip health questionnaire. This will create peace of mind for the travelers and protect the operator from liability.”

Every member of the travel community seeks safety and security—for the health of their customers and staff, for tourism jobs, and for peace of mind. The hard part is figuring it all out.

“How we execute travel has changed forever,” Eichelberger says. “But the reasons we travel and the benefits have not. It’s just going to take all of us … working together … to adapt to the new way.”

 

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The formula for infection

A big piece of the protection puzzle is understanding how people get infected by a coronavirus. Erin S. Bromage, Ph.D., a comparative immunologist and biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, believes he can explain the risk of viral infection with an understandable formula:
Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time

In this blog, Dr. Bromage writes that in order to get infected, you need to get exposed to an infectious dose of the virus, which he estimates to be 1,000 viral particles. With regular breathing, an infected person might put 20 viral particles per minute into the air, and if you were close enough to breathe in every one, you would accumulate the 1,000 particles needed for infection in about 50 minutes.

Speaking, though, increases the release of respiratory droplets about tenfold, to 200 virus particles per minute. Again assuming every virus is inhaled, it would take only five minutes of speaking face-to-face with an infected person to receive the required dose.

And for the really bad news: Respiratory droplets in a single cough or sneeze by an infected person can contain as many as 200 million virus particles, which would all be dispersed into the air around them.

It’s enough to make you want to put on a mask.

Top photo by Depositphotos