Covid-19 took a bite from the fortunes of many outdoor industry stakeholders, but its teeth bore painfully deep into the business of mountain guides, whose reliance on large groups and international travelers for their livelihood spelled disaster in 2020.
According to a survey released this month by the guide-booking platform 57Hours, 56 percent of independent mountain guides said they lost more than 50 percent of their income in the past year, with 62 percent of future trips cancelled outright with no plans to reschedule.
“The results demonstrate that guides are still suffering financially from trip cancellations due to Covid,” the survey authors concluded.
57Hours is a platform that connects adventurers with trained and certified outdoor adventure professionals across the globe. This survey, which explored the lasting effects of Covid-19 on the outdoor guiding industry, included 93 respondents who are part of 57Hours’ international network of independent mountain guides.
While almost all respondents—97 percent—said they have been taking precautionary Covid safety measures with their clients, including driving separately to trailheads, reducing the number of participants on trips, and wearing masks, most feel that their efforts won’t be enough to restore normalcy to the industry until next year, even with a vaccine rollout underway.
In fact, 50 percent of respondents said their upcoming 2021 bookings are still down compared to a normal year. And about 75 percent anticipate that the guiding industry and corresponding salaries will not return to normal until 2022. Of that total, 43 percent expect normalcy to return next summer, with 32 percent anticipating a return by the winter of 2022.
Only a very small number of respondents, 14 percent, said they expect business to pick up again this summer, with just 11 percent anticipating a pickup by this winter.
A long, difficult year for mountain guides
In another survey conducted by the company last summer, a few months after the pandemic began wreaking havoc on the industry, guides said they were struggling with most aspects of planning and hosting adventure trips. They reported having to limit trip sizes to operate safely amid social distancing requirements, with clients unwilling to pay increased fees to make up for the lost revenue that comes with guiding smaller groups.
Raising prices was a bridge too far for consumers, according to Tom Wolfe, the owner and head guide at Sawback Alpine Adventures, an Alberta-based mountain- and ski-guiding service.
“The problem is, people don’t want to pay higher prices—they absolutely will not budge,” Wolfe told Outside Business Journal last summer. “In the last few weeks, I called some of my more well-to-do clients, doctors and lawyers, people with the spare change to pay more. I asked what they would do if I increased the price from, say, $2,900 to $3,900 for an outing. They told me to forget it. They said, ‘We’ll cancel before we pay that.’ It just rubs people the wrong way.”
The result was thinner margins on top of already reduced trip bookings.
A bright side for the industry
All is not doom and gloom, however. One bright spot that emerged from this latest 57Hours survey was an indication that local trips are on the rise as people look for adventures closer to home—a trend that’s occurring across the outdoor industry.
The biggest shift that guides saw during the past year of Covid, compared with pre-pandemic years, was the average breakdown of international versus local clients booking trips. The percentages nearly flip-flopped. In pre-Covid times, only 27 percent of guides’ clients were local. During 2020, that total rose to 83 percent.
“In the trips that are booked, there has been an interesting shift in people seeking out local adventures,” the survey authors wrote. “With travel restrictions in place and people staying closer to home, guides noticed a trend towards people booking activities in the immediate vicinity of where they live or within driving distance—indicating a new desire to explore and adventure in their own backyards.”
Greg Hill, a 57Hours guide, echoed that sentiment, adding that many would-be travelers are wise to seek adventures close to their homes. That may be the only opportunity that some have to explore until the pandemic is truly over.
“It is so easy to glorify far-away travels and, pre-pandemic, it was relatively easy to plan and execute them,” Hill said. “We often ignore the adventures close at hand because it may not seem as romantic as traveling across the world to an exotic location. In truth, our backyards are just as worthy of our attention.”