As governments around the globe impose lockdowns and people self-isolate, coronavirus (COVID-19) has hit the travel industry hard. The World Nomads Travel Podcast has suspended its regular destination episodes and, in their place, offering a round-up of the major coronavirus-related travel headlines, including the future of travel.
01:09 Just how many people are in lockdown?
02:23 Managing restrictions
03:44 Big plans for 2020
07:03 New ways of engaging travelers
11:40 Tao Tao rescues Kim
13:40 How we will view air travel
“We had started really small and we were scaling quickly. So, it was tough to have this happen in the year that we were really kicking it up to a much bigger notch and then to have to scale back so quickly.” – Tao Tao
“I think that people really are going to want to travel with companies that they trust, that they know will communicate with transparency and with clarity.” - Tina
Tao Tao Holmes works in operations at Atlas Obscura while Tina Williams takes care of guest experiences.
“Atlas Obscura is the definitive guide to the world’s hidden wonders. Founded in 2009 by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras, Atlas Obscura has a mission to inspire wonder and curiosity about the world. Atlas Obscura chronicles hidden places, incredible histories, scientific marvels, and gastronomical wonders. We create hundreds of unique global trips and local experiences every year, bringing our community with us to visit the world’s most unusual places and try the world’s most extraordinary foods.”
Check out Atlas Obscura’s upcoming on-line experiences.
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Tina: It's been a roller coaster. I think operating trips, this started to affect us really back in January because we had trips that were running to Vietnam at that time and we even at that time had a China trip scheduled for March. So it's something that really started affecting us in January. And then in March, really just kind of came to a head with really just suspending trips and canceling trips across the board because of all the restrictions that really started to come down really heavily. And then when those restrictions came down... I mean, March 13th was a day where we had guests in destination, we had guests in Tunisia, and the day before we had guests that were just about to return home from Galicia in Spain.
So it was pretty much a mad dash, all hands on deck, to make sure that we could communicate with our guests and work to try to get them connected to the proper channels for rebookings so that they could get home safely, and just to really keep them informed as best we could as the information was changing minute by minute. At least on my side as the guest experience manager, that's been our main push and goal, is to really try to keep in front of them the information as best we can and keep our travelers informed as these updates start to develop.
Kim: You look after guest experience, Tao Tao, your operations. So how did it affect you?
Tao Tao: I think one thing to keep in mind is that Atlas Obscura's trips program is quite new. It's pretty young. In 2016, we had three departures, in 2017, we had 12, and we had over 120 scheduled for 2020. So this was our big year. We had started really small and we were scaling quickly. So it was tough to have this happen in the year that we were really kicking it up to a much bigger notch and then to have to scale back so quickly. So I feel like that was an overarching feeling, looking at this, is we went big so quickly and then we had to really retract. I think operationally that affects our relationships with the people we partner with on trips.
Our trips are run on such an individual basis, often with one or two people in that destination. It's rarely with a DMC. And so we're really relying on those relationships, and we had really leaned on those people and built those relationships from one trip a year to eight or 10. And so figuring out how to manage it responsibly and take that into consideration and just be mindful of how we're all working through this together, it really came down to being just really thinking about how to approach those relationships, both for how the rest of this year unfolds and also how we approach next year.
Phil: Yeah. Because that's the thing, everybody... As travelers, we're thinking about how all of this has affected us, the traveler, but when you're in a business like this, you've got all of these other people who are relying on you. You've got to consider them as well.
Tao Tao: Especially for these people who... so many of our trip leaders weren't in tourism, they aren't in tourism. And so to go from just a couple of trips to a lot of the people I work with now running so many, they've made a shift. And so this, of course, affects that shift, and so they need to figure out how to shift back or whatever it might be.
Phil: What do you think guests are going to be looking for from tour providers and companies like yours?
Tina: Sure. I mean, I think that that is the million-dollar question that everybody...
Tao Tao: The billion-dollar question.
Tina: ... the billion-dollar question. There are so many conversations going on in the industry around that. I do think that there is going to be somewhat of a surge in particular markets, and I think that there's going to be a retraction in others. I think that the main thing is that... and what we've been trying to do at Atlas Obscura in this time is maintaining the trust of our guests. I think that people really are going to want to travel with companies that they trust, that they know will communicate with transparency and with clarity. That's something that we've been working really hard to do because I think across the board, that is going to be important, especially when you're in a situation where, as I said before, nobody really knows exactly what's going to happen. But if you're with a company that you feel confident will be able to provide the correct information and get you in and out of whatever situation maybe, that's going to be a priority for people when they're choosing a company.
Kim: Tao Tao, you are also creating new ways of engaging travelers. Can you expand on that?
Tao Tao: Yeah, absolutely. Like so many brands out there, we're trying to figure out new ways to stay in touch with our audience. We are really trying to, again, take our trip leaders, take our partners, and showcase them and their skillsets and their expertise, and also just their enthusiasm for leading trips and the places that they're so dedicated to. So one recent effort is doing a video series, highlighting some of those trip leaders and their kind of love letters to the places that they live and they lead trips. That might be Naples or Beijing or New York City. So, ways of both celebrating the people you are traveling with when you do take our trip and the places that they're going to show you. So, trying to bring those places to live in different ways.
That's one example. We have our trips blog, which is fairly new, and really trying to be creative in things we do there. Our trip leader in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for example, he has written books and is really well-versed in Masonic architecture, all kinds of symbolic mysteries. It's more complicated than I can understand, but he came up with some riddles, some really neat riddles based on locations in the Atlas Obscura database, one of which is included in the Winnipeg trip for the audience, and those were put on our Instagram. Those are just two examples of finding new and creative ways to engage with these places from afar.
Phil: The type of trips that you're running as well, it's not mainstream mass tourism. I hold a view that people will be wanting to avoid crowds, so we might actually manage to cure over-tourism throughout of this crisis, and what that means for people who travel. I think they're going to be looking for more responsible and sustainable ways of traveling, but I might be a complete fool, so I'm wondering what you think about that.
Tao Tao: I would agree, and I feel like that's a trend that's been gathering steam, and this is just going to catalyze it and really throw it into the next gear as people are thinking more about the environment, about their own health, about community health. So I think we are anticipating or seeing indications that people are looking to spend time in wider, open places, both because there are fewer people, but also because for the folks who are in cities right now, they're just eager for different scenery. So I would agree with that, but I'm curious about what Tina might think.
Tina: I agree wholeheartedly because I also think that part of what's going to feel this surge is that people really want to connect with other places and other people, even within social distancing. People are craving an experience that is outside of the four walls and the screens that we've been looking at. And so I think it will be really important that there are options for the smaller group, intimate immersions in a culture, in a community or around certain traditions. And that's something that Tao Tao and the managers focus on when creating and programming our trips.
Kim: From the interviews that we've been doing, there's a suggestion that there will be a huge shift towards nature and health and wellbeing as part of a trip or an adventure. Would you agree with that?
Tao Tao: I could not agree more. I'm currently in rural Massachusetts, and I think that combining that last question with this one, there are wide-open spaces, but I think there's an eagerness for knowledge and understanding. I think where I'm feeling that most is in the natural world and in nature. I know that indigenous chefs have found a renewed interest from younger cooks in how to use nature, and I think that's just one example of many. So I think that will be a big area, and it's not one where we have a lot, so it's one we're starting to look at much more in terms of nature, outdoor, wildlife. I have been looking at ways to forage almost every day, so I would jump at any sort of experience that taught me those skills, from a personal standpoint.
Kim: We spoke with Will Hatton, The Broke Backpacker, and I just loved this one single piece of advice that he gave to content creators, is to get on Google Trends and see what people want. Phil laughs at this, because I think he gets Martha Stewart vibes, but he's suggesting that home and garden is an area where content creators could be thriving at the moment.
Phil: Home travel, do you think, or where are you getting there, Kim?
Kim: Yeah, from home and garden, but... Yeah, where am I going?
Phil: No, I suppose foraging fits into that, doesn't it?
Kim: That's where it came from. Yes. Foraging, yes.
Tao Tao: It makes sense. It's kind of traveling around your own yard, right? Your garden turns into your national park, your local park equivalent. So just trying to understand every inch of that as much as possible feels like one way to focus that desire to explore and desire to just understand new things in a condensed place.
Phil: Thank you. You made me sound... What Tao Tao said.
Kim: Yeah, what Tao Tao said.
Tina: I think a little bit along the same lines, too, is the idea that people will start to do tourism, but within a smaller radius. So instead of taking a long trip internationally or something that's really way outside of your radius, that even something that's a five-hour drive from you now becomes your tourism destination.
Phil: There's a thought. Do you think the gloss has come off international tourism, overseas travel?
Tina: Not necessarily. I just think it's more about shifting the lens on the fact that travel does not only mean that you're taking a 10-hour plane ride, but that travel also means that you can be taking a 10-hour car ride. And I think that that has been a little bit like that hasn't been as romantic as maybe the longer international trips have been in recent years, and maybe that will make a comeback. I don't think it's going to take the gloss off of international travel. I don't think anything will ever do that.
Tao Tao: I think it will add a certain gloss, maybe a different type of gloss, where it feels more special. I was reading Catherine Hamm, LA travel editor's newsletter today and she was talking about how air travel has gone from feeling like a right to feeling like a privilege, and I feel the same with international travel. Because it's become so accessible, both price-wise and time-wise, it started to feel like a right, like everyone can take a trip to Europe. And now it will go back to feeling more like a privilege, not necessarily because of the price and time, but just because of the mentality, perhaps.
Kim: Well, you guys have done a great job of managing the pandemic, and also some great ideas for moving forward. I don't know about you, Phil, but I've been jotting a few down.
Phil: Yeah, good.
Kim: So thanks for chatting with us.
Tao Tao: Thanks for having us.
Tina: Thanks for having us, yes.