When Globus family of brands chief marketing officer Steve Born called from the Grand Canyon this month, the elation in his voice was clear.
"We're glad to be out in America!" Born said as he successfully wrapped up the company's first trip since March, a weeklong coach tour that carried 26 guests through the national parks in Utah and Arizona.
With the trip, which Born enthusiastically dubbed a "victory tour for travel," Globus joined a small group of tour operators who have successfully resumed guided travel. Collette and Abercrombie & Kent also returned to limited domestic operations during the summer.
Although many tour operators remain on pause through at least the end of the year, Collette, A&K and Globus say they have been encouraged by the response from guests who have been willing to venture back out despite the pandemic and health and safety protocols that include masks, social distancing, lots of extra cleaning and hand sanitizer and things like occasional temperature checks.
Jeff Roy, executive vice president of Collette, which has run about 40 departures for groups of 15 to 20 since July, said one of the biggest surprises about traveling during the pandemic was "how incredibly normalized all of the protocols have become."
"It is different, but people have adapted so quickly, and their desire to travel really hasn't wavered," he said. "We have been pleasantly surprised with the number of guests that are excited to travel and are yearning for more borders to open so that they can get back to doing what they love."
Likewise, Born said he was surprised by "the guests themselves and their spirit. It really felt like this trip for them was more than just a vacation, it was almost like a crusade."
Another surprise, Born said, was the spirit of camaraderie.
"It felt right away like they were committed to not only just traveling again and getting out there again, but doing it the right way," he said. "And they found it pretty easy to become comfortable, [and the protocols] didn't seem to compromise the idea that they were on vacation.
"There seemed to be a real common resolve and commitment from the group that they were going to be diligent about the protocols and keep everyone safe," Born added.
Roy said their post-tour surveys found that "the overwhelming majority of our guests felt that the precautionary measures had zero impact on their enjoyment of the tour," and nearly nine out of 10 said they would be willing to travel again under current conditions.
"We believe that speaks volumes about our ability to meet guest expectations and deliver an outstanding tour experience that balances flexibility and wellness in a complex travel environment," Roy said.
At A&K, vice president of product development Stefanie Schmudde said they have also received overall positive feedback from guests, many of whom relied on the company to develop private experiences.
"We had one large [25-plus] multi-generational family group that traveled to Jackson, Wyo., in July. We were able to convince a ranch to open solely for their use," she said. "Each household maintained social distance, wearing masks and traveling in separate vehicles, while their guide used a Whisper wireless mic so everyone could hear. The family raved about the activities offered for all ages, including horseback riding in the shadow of the Tetons and the incredible stargazing at night."
One of the biggest surprises about traveling this year during the pandemic, Schmudde said, has been the short lead time on new bookings.
"For U.S. bookings, we are used to guests booking six to 12 months in advance," she said. "However, the lead time during Covid shrunk to about two weeks in advance. This makes sense given the short window of opportunity for summer travel in the U.S., yet has been an interesting trend nonetheless.
"We're also seeing much shorter lead times for international destinations as more and more countries begin to open."
One of the biggest challenges, Roy said, was navigating the interstate border restrictions on tours that visited multiple states.
Asked if there was anything they did that they have since changed, Roy said, "We initially couldn't imagine that this pandemic would have such a long-lasting impact on business in 2020 and into 2021, which so deeply affected our travel advisors.
"We quickly realized that we needed to amend our commission payout plans to ensure travel advisors were receiving payment after deposit. They are the cornerstone of our industry's recovery."