"The emotions are unlike anything I have ever experienced before," says Lisa Pagotto, the founder and director of adventure travel specialists Crooked Compass. "Watching what you have built effectively unbuild itself and operate in reverse It is incredibly challenging. There have been some dark days."
Pagotto is referring, of course, to 2020. The pandemic. The end of travel, at least as we knew it. The worst eight months that anyone in the travel and tourism industry has ever been through.
Australia's tourism industry has been battered – but the good news is that it isn't broken. From those ashes encouraging green shoots are visible, especially when travel-starved Victorians from our second most populous state are eventually able to go on holiday again.
The industry's leaders have adapted, they've innovated, they've survived and federal and state governments, recognising the enormous value of tourism to the beleaguered national economy, including the employment of hundreds of thousands of Australians, are doing their bit, too, with a mass injection of promotional dollars and generous grants support.
"With international borders closed, [Tourism Australia] is prioritising our recovery efforts towards industry support and stimulating domestic tourism," says Pip Harrison, managing director of Tourism Australia.
"Australians travelling domestically can deliver billions of much needed revenue to our industry's operators. Importantly, we haven't gone dark in international markets, and once international borders begin to re-open we will ramp these efforts up.
"For many tourism operators, domestic tourism is providing a lifeline, keeping their businesses afloat until international travellers return. With the resumption of international travel still some way off, holidaying at home has never been more important."
What follows are just a few of the inspiring stories, as told to Traveller, of travel industry operators who have confronted the worst crisis to hit the modern-day tourism industry.
THE SAFARI SPECIALIST
Classic Safari Company has turned its attention from Africa to Australia. Photo: Shane Strudwick
Safari experts who can't go on safari? Authorities on Africa who can't even leave their own state? It doesn't get much tougher.
"There were moments of disbelief and despair," admits Julie McIntosh, director of the Sydney-based Classic Safari Company. "Almost instantly, our world of tourism shut down. There were definitely moments where I felt anxious about our ability to survive."
The company is doing just that, however, by shifting its attention from Africa to Australia, creating an entirely new product. Australia is, after all, filled with so much of what makes a traditional safari memorable. The only difficulty here is accessing it.
"Prior to the pandemic we were refining our tailor-made Australian program, so that was instantly fast tracked," McIntosh laughs. "Off the back of our sponsorship of the Royal Flying Doctors Outback Air Race, and thanks to relationships I formed with some top-notch aviators, we have created our tailor-made Outback Air Safaris."
Those air safaris, conducted in private aircraft, take passengers to some of Outback Australia's finest country pubs, plus fly over its most impressive landscapes. It's the perfect way to keep things ticking over until Africa's call can be heeded.
"I am using Qantas's timeline of July 2021 [for the resumption of international travel]," McIntosh says. "We've set our financial forecasts around these parameters and we're now hoping they aren't completely hypothetical."
THE CRUISE OPERATOR
"We are daring to dream," says Jeff Gillies, the commercial director of Cairns-based expedition cruising company Coral Expeditions. "For decades, our brand has been built on attributes of quality, Australian-ness, local knowledge and expertise, and as being an unpretentious travel experience. So effectively we are remaining true to that."
In an industry that has been hit extremely hard by COVID-19, perhaps no sector has been struck more significantly than cruising. However, there's reason now for cautious optimism, with Coral Expeditions planning to relaunch its services later this month.
The company has pivoted from international journeys to focus on Australia-based itineraries, taking in the Great Barrier Reef, Tasmania, Cape York and the Kimberley, with more products in development.
"Coral Expeditions is distinctly different [to large-scale cruising]," Gillies says. "We carry guest counts of under 100 passengers. We visit remote, nature-based areas. We carry all-Australian crew and guests with the highest standards in global marine safety.
"This has been the largest shock ever experienced to travel," he continues, "and there will be a changed tourism landscape in the future. But tourism is one of the most resilient industry sectors, so we are confident of brighter days to come."
THE ADVENTURE TRAVEL COMPANY FOUNDER
Crooked Compass takes travellers to some of Australia's most remote locations. Photo: Luke Tscharke
Lisa Pagotto is an innovator. Six years ago, she started her own travel business, Crooked Compass, and has been building it up with a focus on unique and bold adventures. But this year could be her boldest adventure yet.
"For an incredibly organised person who plans for every possible situation in some of the world's most challenging countries, 2020 was untrodden territory," Pagotto admits. "Still, we had our first domestic tour live by April. In the two months following that, we rolled out eight domestic small-group tours within Australia and New Zealand. The tours started to sell brilliantly."
But then, enter Victoria's second wave. Or as Pagotto calls it, "heartbreak round two". "But this time," she says, "we had more of an understanding as to how this works."
The result is Adventure by Air, a new entity that provides curated journeys through Australia by private plane or helicopter, taking travellers to some of the country's most remote locations.
"We knew people wanted to travel domestically, and that they were seeking high-end luxury tours," Pagotto says. "I had also recently decided to start flying lessons to train to be a pilot, and since I had all this spare time with no travellers to look after, the idea of Adventure by Air was born."
THE TRAVEL AGENT
Jake Cassar founder of Agents of Influence.
Jake Cassar was all set to have his biggest year ever in 2020. After 15 years as a travel agent, he was eyeing 12 months full of commission-based income, sponsored travel, and playing host on an expedition to Greenland.
But then, the same thing that happened to every travel agent happened to Cassar. His entire career was pulled out from under him. And now he's fighting back.
A chance meeting in the US last year with content specialist Jeremy Drake has led to the founding of Agents of Influence, a network of travel agents who can apply their expertise to help tourism boards, hotels, tour companies and other travel entities market themselves during the pandemic.
"Jeremy and I talked about how agents were being given these incredible opportunities to travel," Cassar says. "But there was a gap in the way tourism brands or destinations were using the content and digital marketing skills of these agents.
"Agents know travel products better than anyone, and agents with a large social media presence, who can create beautiful photography or video, can be extremely valuable. We know because we go."
Of course, this journey hasn't been easy, and that doesn't look like changing. "I have hundreds of thoughts a day about what else I could be doing with my time," Cassar smiles. "But travel is ingrained in me and I'm not ready to grieve the loss of it just yet."
THE SMALL GROUP TOUR SUPREMO
Dennis Bunnik of Bunnik Tours.
Sometimes, the answer to a travel crisis isn't travel at all. It's to take your skills and apply them somewhere else.
"In April, our marketing team launched their services externally as Little Windmill Marketing," says Dennis Bunnik, the founder of Bunnik Tours. "Our team has developed some incredible skills in building the Bunnik Tours brand, and these skills are now available to other companies. We've approached this with an eye on protecting jobs but it has also allowed us to diversify."
Bunnik Tours still tours. Dennis himself has been leading small groups around South Australia, and the company is running trips to Tasmania. Beyond that, the approach is cautious.
"With the continued uncertainty around when borders will open, we have held off releasing any new international tour dates because we don't want to sell something we may not be able to deliver."
Bunnik says. "[Instead] we have regrouped and refocused on producing quality content across our email and social channels. We wanted to give our customers some inspiration that spoke to the shared experiences we love as travellers."
THE ACTIVE TRAVEL CHIEF
On the Larapinta Trail with World Expeditions. Photo: Cathy Finch
Survival doesn't always mean self-preservation. For the team at Sydney-based World Expeditions, it was important to look after their vast network of porters, guides, drivers and administration staff across the world, as well as take care of themselves.
"We feel most for our colleagues in developing nations, where there are literally no subsidies or support," says Sue Badyari, chief executive of World Expeditions. "We've been able to raise around $40,000 through the World Expeditions Foundation, which has been distributed as food packages to our staff in Nepal, Peru, Kenya, India and Tanzania."
Plenty of work has gone into keeping World Expeditions afloat, too. This is a company that specialises in active travel for an adventurous clientele, people who are now looking closer to home.
"We have been thrilled to operate 15 departures of our Larapinta treks in August and September," says Badyari. "We also have four domestic divisions now: Australian Walking Holidays, Tasmanian Expeditions, Blue Mountains Adventures, and recently we launched Australian Cycle Tours, which has a focus on self-guided cycle touring."
World Expeditions has also created "Great Walks of NZ", with adventure itineraries ready to go when the bubble arrives. "We think that will happen by early next year," Badyari says. See worldexpeditions.com
How do you take a hotel that prides itself on interaction with its guests, and apply that to the world of social distancing? That was the question the team at Ovolo Hotels has been asking over the last six months.
"We haven't made any major changes to our philosophies, but [the pandemic] got us thinking about how we could connect with our customers," says Girish Jhunjhnuwala, the founder of Ovolo Group. "How can we respect the restrictions and give our guests a human touch?"
The answer begins with the hotel's drinks trolley. What was once a social occasion – evening libations in the lobby with other guests – has been shifted in-room, in the form of a bartender who turns up at the door during social hour to offer drinks and snacks.
What was once a normal hotel restaurant has become "Restaurant in Room". And Ovolo even hosted the world's first COVID-safe music festival, "Remix Hotel", with live sets beamed into Ovolo The Valley in Brisbane from around the world.
"We are seeing such positive outcomes from our adaptations," says Jhunjhnuwala, "and we are seeing an even greater connection with our guests."
FIVE NEAR PERFECT OVERSEAS TRAVEL PIVOTS
HELSINKI'S SNIFFER DOGS
You're used to seeing sniffer dogs in airports, searching for illegal foodstuffs or drugs. In Helsinki, however, those dogs are now looking for COVID-19. The Finnish capital is trialling the use of dogs to sniff out the coronavirus, with a local university professor claiming they "come close to 100 per cent sensitivity". See finavia.fi
GENTING'S TAIWAN CRUISES
Life continues almost as normal for Taiwan, which has had incredible success in containing COVID-19 – so much so that Dream Cruises, operated by Genting, has launched "island hopping" cruise itineraries for Taiwanese residents around their local area. See dreamcruiseline.com
FIJI'S DIVE MASTERS
Fiji's Volivoli Beach Resort is a scuba-diving specialist that can no longer train a scuba-diving clientele. The answer? Go local. The resort has been running internships for locals from surrounding villages, taking them on a pathway to becoming dive masters, and training existing masters to become instructors. See volivoli.com
Live entertainment in the time of COVID-19 is a challenge, but the Bratislava Hotel in Kiev, Ukraine, has come up with a solution: vertical concerts. The hotel has hosted several of these events, which involves a band playing on a nearby rooftop while guests of the hotel watch on from private balconies. See bratislava.ua
When you run a trekking agency in northern Vietnam and the customers just vanish, there appears to be no hope, not for you or the 50 local, female staff you employ. So the Sapa Sisters launched a crowd-funding campaign to support their village and keep their business afloat. They aimed for US$US20,000. They've made $UD36,077. See sapasisters.com