Running the river under COVID protocols … what’s changed?
Western River Expeditions (https://www.westernriver.com/) is far enough into our 2020 river rafting season to make some observations about how our guests experience being in the canyons and running the rapids in the time of the pandemic.
After each trip, we have a detailed debriefing with our guides who report that the protocols we have in place are very well received. More than ever people are vocally grateful that they’re able to be out on the river, that we’re operating and that they’re getting some relief from the stresses of what life is like back home. There’s something about just being outside and forgetting about the world for a while that is healing.
Social distancing is easily achieved during most stages of an outdoor adventure. Guests notice very little difference between the way we normally operate and what we are doing now. For the staff, it has been a good exercise to scrutinize how we do things and come up with improvements. The result is an overall improvement to our product.
Before beginning operations, every aspect of the operation was reviewed and a comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation plan was created. Copies of the plan were proactively sent to the government agencies that regulate our tours including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and local health department. It was also shared with industry trade associations. The plan was well-received and, as the highest form of compliment, was used as a template or simply copied by many of these organizations.
Western’s management team spent a great deal of time researching and collaborating with many in the outdoor industry. Trent Keller, Vice President of Grand Canyon operations, states that “the goal is to help guests enjoy a trip with few barriers and the ability to live in the moment and enjoy the experience.”
Trent attributes our successful outcome to good research, common sense and a genuine concern for the safety of guests and staff. Following data sources and trend lines as well as getting up to speed on best steps and precautions were paramount. This meant outreach to transportation partners such as the aircraft and buses used to transport guests to and from the river. The foremost questions were: how to effectively sanitize surfaces and how to minimize airborne transmission, primarily during the transportation segments of these trips.
Fortunately, Mother Nature does her part. Outdoors is the best place to be right now. Wind and heat do an amazing job of dispersing and killing the virus. Because trips also involve being inside vehicles and airplanes, surfaces are sanitized between uses, people are spaced out and everybody wears masks. A few weeks before arrival, guests receive a letter reminding them of the social responsibility that comes with communal group activities and asking that they review and then adhere to a check list designed to protect the common good throughout a shared experience.
The nature of outdoor adventures is that participants have a similar mindset. It is to share an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. Trent reminds me that “all of our repeat guests come with a high level of trust in our company.” Now our goal is to earn the trust of those who are new to us.
This leads to conversations about risk assumption, which is inherent in everything we do. Yes, some clients are rescheduling for next year. In fact, we have a large waiting list already for 2022. But the terms and conditions of traveling with us now are being overwhelmingly accepted. People appear to be comfortable taking on this heightened new awareness.
When we get down on the river and into the canyons, we find that people are comforted by this chance to return to their roots, to each other, and to relationships with those with whom they’ve chosen to travel. People find what they seek. They are more open to each other. Those inclined to deeper philosophical connections discover these connections are more available than before.
The challenges of this pandemic are having an interesting effect on us as an organization. Even though we’ve been working from home, frequent online meetings and going through this common experience together have made us better as an organization and more appreciative of each other.
This appreciation also applies to our guests. We’re more conscientious as to guest needs and more grateful than ever for our guests. Gratitude goes both ways. The majority of our guests are happy and kind. We’re all thinking, “OK, we’re going to get through this together.” As challenging as it is, it’s really been quite wonderful.
CEO of Western River Expeditions and the Moab Adventure Center.
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