More people are going outside but staying closer to home than in previous years, according to regional guides and outfitters.
“It was kind of a crazy summer for us,” said Peter Grubb, the co-owner and founder of Coeur d’Alene-based ROW Adventures. “We went from having about eight weeks of nothing but canceling and moving people to a future trip and then when COVID-19 took a dip in early June our phones went crazy. And we ended up having a pretty busy July and August.”
Grubb laid off eight of his 16 full-time staff members at the end of March. As bookings rebounded later in the summer, he brought a few people back.
Other regional outfitters echoed Grubb and said that the changes wrought this summer, particularly people opting to stay closer to home, may become the new normal.
“Unfortunately, I turned people away,” said Dustin Aherin, the owner and operator of Idaho River Adventures, an outfitter on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Aherin, who is also the president of the Middle Fork Outfitters Association, said the association’s 27 members reported similar experiences. Although they all had a wave of cancellations as the pandemic swept the world, those spots were backfilled by a surge in interest later in the season.
Many of those clients, he said, had longer vacations planned abroad but opted instead to vacation closer to home.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more of that going forward,” Aherin said.
Already, Aherin said, his 2021 season on the Middle Fork is close to booked. He didn’t lay off or furlough any of his staff this season.
To maintain proper social distancing, Aherin and other Idaho outfitters left a few seats empty on each trip, masked up, and changed how food was served, among other things. He pointed out that being outside, on a river, is one of the safest scenarios. He also praised the federal payroll protection money which gave him a “great deal of flexibility in not having to squeeze every dime out of every seat I had.”
This relatively optimistic report is at odds with the most recent national travel industry data. According to Tourism Economics’ Oct. 29 report, travel spending was 44% below last year’s levels. The same report noted that while air travel remained well below last year’s level – 36% of it – car travel was relatively resilient at 87% of its 2019 level. All of which seems to line up with the anecdotal accounts from regional outfitters.
“I’m getting more interest from people calling me and saying we’d like to book the entire trip, all 20 seats,” Aherin said. “We have four families that we would like to be a travel pod next summer.”
Grubb and Aherin praised Idaho’s response, noting the state worked closely with outfitters and guides to develop protocols that were safe, yet still allowed them to work.
For companies that operate internationally, like ROW, travel restrictions shuttered most international business. Grubb said he’s following the airline industry’s example and focusing on booking trips in Baja, Mexico. Mexico, with similar COVID-19 case counts and no restrictions on entry, is looking like a good winter vacation spot for American travelers.
“I don’t have a crystal ball. All I try to do is watch people who are smarter than us and have more money at stake,” Grubb said. “So, I keep a keen eye on the airlines, and they’ve really retooled and they seem to be banking big on Mexico this winter.”
Those trips will be different than previous ones, Grubb said. Branded as Baja Bubble Journeys, the trips are geared toward small, family-sized groups. ROW guides will meet guests and take them on day trips. Travelers will stay at hotels and contact between groups will be minimal.
Other regional guiding and outfitting operators also had OK seasons.
Ron Sharp, the owner of Oakeysmokes Fishing Guide Service, guides on Priest Lake, Coeur d’Alene and Lake Pend Oreille. He described his season as “excellent” in an email.
Similarly, Kelty Godby, the founder of Inland Northwest Climbing Outfitters, said the closures of indoor climbing gyms at the beginning of the pandemic “drove more people outside” and to his business.
Still, with COVID-19 cases rising again the next year remains uncertain, although operators remain optimistic. Aherin said it was clear this summer that people needed to get outside with several guests crying in gratitude, happy to be outside and momentarily away from the ever-present stress of a global pandemic.
“It so reinforced the great need for wild places. The great need for wild rivers,” Aherin said. “And the great need for people like us.”
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