Guest Blog – Tour Operator Jared Broach- Nightly Spirits Tours shares his COVID experience, how he planned on reopening tours post COVID, and how the reality of reopening tours was very, very different.
A Little Background: We operate walking ghost tours, food tours, and pub crawls in more than a dozen cities around the country under the brand Nightly Spirits. We also operate Cable Car Wine Tours, which offers bus and limo wine tours in California.
COVID is Coming!: I am personally more of an optimist in life and in business, so going into the COVID situation at first there was a lot of denials. We have always been a really efficiently run business, mostly because I had to run it for 4 years without any staff and around my full-time job, so as we began to hear reports about COVID coming out of China and Europe, there wasn’t really any cost-cutting or planning on our part.
I figured that it wouldn’t be like China in the US and even if it hit here, we might drop 10% or 15%, not 100%. So, our preparation for COVID was that we hired our 3rd full-time manager at the beginning of March and we closed on a wine tour company that we had every ability to get out of the contract, but opted to close on them on March 13th. So, we enter the COVID world with a brand new leased space, buses, and more staff than ever! It was awesome….
We also saw the virtual tour stuff get going, but that kind of offering is not in our expertise and to be honest, I always operated by the notion don’t create something that you wouldn’t want to do yourself, and I personally would never take a virtual tour.Jared Broach – Tourpreneur at Nightly Spirits Tours
COVID Experience: At first we tried to sell gift cards with a little bit of success and at the very beginning had a brilliant idea of just selling our food tour boxes to go, but honestly it seemed like too much work and we scrapped the idea. Judging by a few operators, that may have been a mistake on our part, but now that things are opening I imagine demand is way down. We also saw the virtual tour stuff get going, but that kind of offering is not in our expertise and to be honest, I always operated by the notion don’t create something that you wouldn’t want to do yourself, and I personally would never take a virtual tour.
So, we ultimately decided that social media and blogging were what we would fill our time with and so far, we are really happy with that route. We gained a fair amount of exposure on social channels, we got a lot of new keywords ranking, and I had a lot of fun lighting drinks on fire for our haunted cocktail videos.
Our Expectations in a COVID Opening World: Reopening Tours Post COVID. We had a good feeling that when cities began to reopen, there would be some pent-up demand and we would likely be able to reopen quickly. It was this underlying feeling that drove us to carry the cost of our full staff during the entire shutdown and we kept close contact with our guides and offered some ways for them to earn money. We also knew that some of our cities would come online faster than other cities, which we assumed would be a huge benefit to how we operate early on in those late opening cities. So, we pretty much planned on the following key elements to be our re-opening guide.
1. Bookings would likely trickle in for the first few weeks after opening as people would be overly cautious.
2. Food Tours would not be able to re-open until restaurants were at 100% capacity.
3. The wine tours on buses would be a sanitization issue and we need to get ahead of it and make sure everyone knows we are sanitizing everything($1500 airline sanitization cold foggers are amazing by the way).
4. We need to provide our guides with gallons of sanitizer and thousands of masks.
5. We would get more phone calls than normal(Remember we try to operate as efficiently as possible, which is direct bookings online), so phone call questions are incredibly difficult for us to handle in large volumes.
6. Corporate large group tours would be dead.
It was almost immediately that we realized our planning was dead wrong for re-opening tours.Jared Broach, Tour Operator – Nightly Spirits Tours
The reality of reopening tours post COVID: We opened cities almost immediately if our business was in a phase of the city re-opening plan. This was driven by our mostly optimistic approach, our guides wanting to get out there, and customers wanting us to be open. It was almost immediately that we realized our planning was dead wrong for re-opening.
1. Bookings came in fast and heavy. Ticket sales quickly outpaced our availability, mostly due to us limiting group size to 10 people and because of this we need double the number of guides to run at normal capacity (which we didn’t have trained).
2. Food Tours likely could have re-opened in some places as not all cities put capacity constraints on the restaurants. However, we had no plans to re-open these, so we couldn’t get things together and have just opted to wait.
3. We have fielded probably 100-200 customer calls and emails about the wine tours over the last two weeks and a whopping 0 have asked about sanitization or even asked about if a mask is required. Really glad we didn’t buy that fogger system!
4. As most of you are aware getting these supplies takes an act of god. We luckily were able to get someone to make us 50 logo masks for the first group of guides coming back, but we are just now able to order sanitizer. We also found that almost everyone travelling right no has their own sanitizer and mask, so they didn’t care that we didn’t provide any to them.
5. Phone calls are now different than they were before and we had planned on a lot of calls about our COVID plans that never materialized. We opted to post a pop on our website about COVID group size, but we just left it at that issue and I think that actually led to a lot more calls because groups of 11 would call and ask us how they can go on a tour if the group size is 10.
6. We did nail that corporate groups would be dead, but this may be a short term thing as we have a lot of corporate bookings now for the fall.
As the World Turns: It seems that every day that goes by things get closer to normal and we are glad we didn’t spend quarantine on things that added no long-term value. It was really knowing that we had a sound business prior to COVID and I didn’t personally believe that our lives would be so altered, that our business would not be viable going forward(There were some dark moments of thought and sleepless nights, but hey you try watching the news all day every day).
It is the reason we still bought the wine tour company and made sure our staff stayed fully employed. What got me through and kept me positive was watching the Raiders and Rams stadium construction continue because I figured at the point the billionaires figured out there wouldn’t be social gatherings in the future, they would stop the multi-billion dollar stadium construction. They never stopped, so that helped me make long term decisions in a crazy world.
Final Thought: I always try to remember that this is my business and I operate it because I like what we do, otherwise I wouldn’t work 40 hours a week at my full-time job and then spend another 40 hours a week on operating a tour company.
So, while I am not advocating for making major business changes, getting new clean certifications, or staying closed until a COVID vaccine appears, it doesn’t mean you can’t do those things. I tell everyone that reached out to me directly, it is your business if you want to drop $1500 on sanitizers, masks, clean certification, or plastic bubbles for everyone then go ahead. You need to do what makes you feel most comfortable with operating your business.
I’m just here to tell you that early results are in and they aren’t much different than what we had going pre-COVID. If anyone wants to get in touch, feel free to reach me at [email protected] or if you want to make an impression, jump out of a closet on my next ghost hunt
We love sharing tour operator opinions and insights. Got something to say then please do get in touch, email me [email protected]
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