Backroads is the world’s largest active travel company, taking thousands of adventurous guests biking, hiking, kayaking and walking all over the world every year. This year, of course, is very different. The company has had to make adjustments to their itineraries, their travel style and raise the levels of health and safety. The good news is that their trips will resume next week. I caught up with their founder and president, Tom Hale, to ask him about adventure travel in the wake of Covid-19.
Everett Potter: Tom, you’re resuming Backroads trips this month. Which trips have you chosen to restart first?
Tom Hale: We’re very excited to get back out on the road next week. Our first departures are to destinations in the national parks – Wyoming’s Yellowstone & Tetons Multi-Adventure, Utah’s Bryce & Zion Biking, Utah & Arizona’s National Parks Family Multi-Adventure Tour and North Carolina’s Blue Ridge & Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains Walking & Hiking Trip.
EP: Have you reduced your group size for summer 2020?
TH: Backroads trips have always been small, ensuring our guests have plenty of space to stretch out while also having opportunities to socialize. This year we’re reducing our already small group sizes further. We expect the average trip size to be about 10 people, with a maximum of 20 in most cases.
EP: How about the cost? Will the prices remain the same?
TH: The Backroads community is strong, with 75% of our guests either repeat or referral customers. Our 2020 prices are staying the same, and we’re looking into ways to add value for our guests in this new travel environment. That said, we’re offering some incentives for travelers in the near future, like on our Private Trips, where guests can now get our lowest price with a group of just six. We’re also offering some incentives for solo travelers, and a $200 credit for anyone who books a 2021 trip before July 1.
EP: How are you reaching out to travelers before each trip to ensure that they’re healthy?
TH: Because things are changing so quickly, we’ve been reaching out to each group via email six to eight weeks before their departure. In those messages, we’re communicating our new safety protocols both for trip start and throughout the week. We will require a temperature screening for guests prior to the start of the trip as condition of participation and recommend face coverings. On the first day of the trip, Backroads Trip Leaders will check everyone’s temperatures and any guest with a temperature above 100.4F will be required to self-isolate and will not be able to join the trip. We are also suggesting that our guests have a Covid19 test within 72 hours of their trip start.
Our sales and guest focus teams have been in regular phone and email contact with guests and we will continue to stay in close communication with guests booked on all upcoming Backroads trips.
EP: What can travelers expect in terms of Covid-19 precautions on Backroads trips this summer?
TH: Over the past couple of months, we’ve been hard at work to assess our trips and ensure that we can run trips responsibly, with enhanced measures for our guests. New practices that we are incorporating include even more flexibility for guests on the road and trail, more room in our vans to space out, and dispersed dining options. Our Trip Leaders are trained in food handling safety and in addition to wearing gloves, this year they’ll also be wearing face coverings during all food prep. We’re also working with our hotels and other vendors regarding state and federal protocols.
While the world has been transformed, we can confidently say that the magic of a Backroads trip will remain unchanged. We’ve spent the past 40+ years crafting our own style of active travel that is now more resonant than ever. The sense of journey on our trips means spending time on quiet back roads, ancient footpaths and stunning solitary landscapes—no packed buses or crowded resorts. Our guests travel with Backroads because they know they’ll have the flexibility to move at their own pace, to adventure with the group, where social distancing comes naturally, or to break off and be as independent as they want. There’s more information on how we will be traveling this summer is posted on our website.
EP: How about hotels? What measures are you taking to ensure safety?
TH: We’ve been working with many of our hotel vendors for years, in some cases decades. We’re communicating with them regarding local, CDC and WHO safety protocols and they’re doing everything possible to help us travel responsibly. Our Trip Leaders will work closely with the hotel staff during the trip regarding baggage handling and other high-touch tasks making sure they are done wearing gloves and face coverings when appropriate, while also following physical distancing and cleanliness guidelines. We’ll have guests avoid the in-person check-in process whenever possible, and we’re requesting that guest rooms be deep cleaned/disinfected prior to check-in and once daily cleaned per normal unless guests prefer to not have their room attended to. We’ve requested hotels provide hand sanitizer in public spaces wherever available and to increase their daily cleaning of all public surface areas.
EP: Dining has traditionally been a group event on a Backroads trip. Will it be different this summer?
TH: Food has always played an important part on Backroads trips, and it will continue to do so. We’re working closely with our restaurant vendors regarding their safety protocols and factoring in CDC and WHO guidelines. We’re making changes to our dining options when it makes sense. We’ll opt for alfresco dining when we can and allow for more space whenever we dine indoors with individual and smaller tables at dinner (instead of big group tables). We’ll offer more grab-n-go style meals, have more gourmet picnics, and offer to-go meals and room service options where available.
EP: Further into the summer, are you planning to add more domestic trips?
Yes, as more regions and hotels begin to open up, we will expand our trip offerings. In July and August, we plan to start running domestic trips in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, and will run numerous departures in the US national parks.
EP: When do you anticipate that international trips might resume?
TH: International travel right now is still a guessing game. Europe recently announced that it will open borders to countries outside the EU starting in July. And some countries, like Iceland, have already put in place additional measures like testing upon arrival that allow visitors to bypass a 2-week quarantine. So, we’re actively exploring resuming Iceland trips as early as July. What still remains to be seen, though, is when EU countries will allow Americans to enter, and whether members of the EU generally stick together or we start seeing different rules in different European countries. Our Regional Managers are on the ground and in close contact with our hotel partners and are monitoring the CDC and WHO recommendations. We have thousands of guests still booked on European trips hoping to travel with us this summer and fall.