Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Whenever you feel the deck is stacked against you, consider Esteban Torbar. He owns Grupo Maso, which comprises a travel agency, a hotel, a ticket consolidator business, a receptive tour operation and the nonprofit foundation Eposak.

In Venezuela.

During a pandemic.

Even a year before the virus struck, the political and economic crisis that has engulfed his country had had a crushing impact on his business. When I spoke to him in March 2019, his agency locations, which had once numbered 45, were down to six. His top line had fallen to just 10% of what it had been five years earlier.

But still he was an optimist, even sharing with his staff 25 reasons why things would be better than ever when the political and economic crisis passed.

The arrival of the pandemic, however, slowed even that trickle of business. And frequent blackouts, food shortages and extortion further reduced the already poor quality of life in the capital of Caracas. "It's 10 times worse than before," he told me last week. "Ugly as hell."

So he did what any sensible person in that situation would do: He organized a 42-hour virtual event over Zoom that simulated the emotion of travel.
In a matter of 15 days, he secured 40 speakers and 120 other participants for 14 hours of programming for three consecutive days.

Esteban Torbar
Esteban Torbar

Every 15 minutes, another riveting segment would begin: an orchestra played, some of its members part of the Venezuelan diaspora; a man gave a lesson in river surfing; a former prisoner described how jail changed his life; an extreme-sports cameraman described his work filming someone rappelling down the tallest waterfall in the world (Angel Falls, in Venezuela); a Venezuelan professor at MIT talked about a rapid Covid test she's developing; a Masai warrior joined from Kenya.

There was a talent show. Geography quizzes. TikTok challenges.

It closed with a session designed to instill pride in Torbar's compatriots, wherever in the world they might be.

And when it ended, Torbar had an epiphany. The emotions that he and, he believes, other viewers felt -- "huge emotions" -- replicated what he feels when he travels: "Inspired. Connected with people and connected with the world."

The three days of the event, like a trip abroad, took people away from the problems of their everyday lives. Although Venezuela was at the core of the journey, the program did not focus on the problems of the country but celebrated its beauty and the strengths of its people.

He realized the power of inner journeys, how one can look anew at the familiar. And he is now focused on creating a business that, through emotions, storytelling and remote learning, will help keep people inspired and connected.

He hasn't abandoned what's left of his travel businesses, but he's moving forward with a new business-to-business venture, informed by travel but not requiring travel.

"I want to make a big difference in the world," he said. "I'm interested in e-learning, but not webinars. What I realized is that emotion is an enabler for learning. Travel, entertainment and learning are at the core of our events."

Torbar's event also shined a light on Eposak, a foundation he started that helps three indigenous and coastal communities in underdeveloped regions of Venezuela protect their fragile ecosystem and cultures through tourism. No tourists are visiting now, but his new awareness of the potential for emotional, connective digital storytelling led him to install satellite antennas near one of the villages to enable its residents to sell their cultural experiences remotely. It's his goal to ultimately expand the program to 45 communities.

His new business has already produced four events in Spanish-speaking countries, and it's working on a pan-Latin America event for December. He credits his membership in the Young Presidents Organization, a network of successful CEOs around the world, with helping him launch his first event and supporting his new venture.

Torbar is an optimist, but he's also a realist. In the 19 months since I last wrote about his situation, he concluded that things were not going to turn around in Venezuela for a longer period of time than he had thought, and he has moved his family, for the time being, to Madrid. He will reevaluate the direction of his life once more, he said, in June.

But his bond to Venezuela remains strong. "Venezuela, because of its hardships, is the perfect place to find the most innovative people," he said. "It's a mess but also creates inspiring stories. People have to get around so many problems. We all have to embrace our inner journey and find meaning."

 * * *

Coincidentally, last week I spoke to another remarkable South American, Roque Sevilla, chairman of Metropolitan Touring, a receptive operator in Ecuador that also owns three hotels and recently bought a third ship for exploring the Galapagos.

Sevilla has led an impressive life. A successful businessman, a former board member of the World Wildlife Fund, a former mayor of Quito and a philanthropist, he, too, finds the challenges of Covid-19 a source for life-affirming initiatives and innovations.

Ecuador was hit hard by the pandemic and he started a fund, Por Todos ("For All"), that raised $11 million to fight the impact of the virus. Much of it was contributed by corporations, but such is his reputation that citizens who learned of it started a GoFundMe page where small contributions added up to $600,000. Por Todos has built 25 health centers, offered more than 250,000 PCR tests and provided PPE to hundreds of physicians and other essential workers.

"I knew nothing about these health issues" before Covid-19 came to Ecuador, he said. "It has been an incredible experience."

Roque Sevilla is chairman of Metropolitan Touring.
Roque Sevilla is chairman of Metropolitan Touring.

He is working with a taskforce that will help manage distribution of a vaccine when it's available. He's simultaneously developing a think tank to tackle environmental problems specific to Ecuador.

Although tourism is just a fraction of what it had been previously, Sevilla has retained all of his 850 tourism-related employees, though at a reduced salary. "Morally, it was something we had to do, but also, the quality of the people -- we had to stick with them, whatever the cost. We've opened two of the three hotels (Mashpi Lodge, in the Choco region, and Quito's Casa Gangotena, affiliated with Relais & Chateaux), and it is Ecuadorians who are coming." 

Ecuador is open to Americans, although not many have made it down there yet. However, a Metropolitan Touring ship, La Pinta, has been chartered by Americans for three itineraries in the Galapagos for November and December, and reservations for January "are almost normal," Sevilla said.

How is it that Ecuador has moved so quickly that it seems likely that tourism will resume as early as January and, Sevilla predicts, things will be "normal" by next summer, with reservations already "better than expected"?

The country, Sevilla said, takes the pandemic and preventative measures seriously. You must have a negative PCR test taken within 96 hours of arrival. If you are caught in public without a mask, the fine is $70, quite a substantial sum in a country as poor as Ecuador.

"Visitors must comply with our conditions, or they can't travel with us," he said. "We're very stringent. We inform them, so they know what is going to happen." 

But it's not an impediment, Sevilla says; in fact, it's the opposite. "Maximum of security is what we promote."

On La Pinta, passengers must wear masks outside their cabins, except when dining (or, off the ship, when snorkeling). "We haven't had one case of virus" onboard in the 10 weeks the ship has been sailing, he said.

Sevilla points out that, around the world, companies like his might have an advantage by appealing to older clientele. "We believe that clients 50 or older, especially 65 or older, will have preference in getting vaccines," he said. 

 * * *

Both Sevilla in Ecuador and Torbar in Venezuela entered the pandemic as wealthy men and had the resources to organize innovative responses to the challenges of Covid-19. But their creativity, optimism and generosity of spirit is available to us all, rich or poor. "Covid," Torbar said, "is a time for reinvention. It's a privilege to live through the biggest downturn and, eventually, be part of the greatest recovery."

CORRECTION: Metropolitan Touring recently bought a third ship for Galapagos cruising. An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect number.

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