Robert Sharp was leading travellers through India when things “kind of exploded,” as he says.
It happened in March, this year, when the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the rapidly-spreading coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, marking the beginning of a long-drawn pause in tourism as we once knew it.
For Sharp, owner of Out Adventures, which specializes in small-group tours for LGBT travellers, this meant one thing: think fast.
As borders around the world began to abruptly close, the clock was ticking for Sharp to get his group out of India and back home, safely, to Canada.
Navigating a tour through India, on the heels of WHO’s announcement, wasn’t going smoothly either.
“People saw that we were Westerners. There was this association with Italy [an epicentre for COVID-19 infections at that time]. We weren’t allowed into places,” recalls Sharp. “It was very strange.”
Fortunately, the Travel Gods were on Robert Sharp’s side that month.
“We managed to get out of India two days before they cancelled all flights and closed the borders,” he says.
A “very conservative approach”
It’s the kind of happy ending that tour operators aim for when faced with any crisis in a destination.
But for Sharp, the harrowing experience set the stage for conducting business in a new world marred by travel restrictions, fluid air schedules and strict health and safety protocols.
Taking a “very conservative approach” to it all, as Sharp would say, Out Adventures was among the first LGBT tour operators to cancel tours for the year 2020.
The company, to date, hasn’t led a trip since March and has postponed all itineraries through to March 2021.
“I hope we can run trips in July, but I’m still cautious,” Sharp tells PAX in a recent Zoom call.
Cautious, in fact, is the word that best describes the company’s approach to weathering the COVID-19 storm.
While Sharp’s business, like many others, has taken a hit due to the pandemic, he’s in no rush to kickstart operations in today’s fragile climate.
“There’s a liability involved when you’re a small business,” he explains. “We couldn’t afford a lawsuit if somebody got sick [with COVID-19] and sued us for negligence, whereas big [companies] can pay it off.”
“We don’t have that luxury.”
Credibility is key
Sharp says Out Adventures will roll cancellations until he feels it’s safe enough to operate.
It’s a telling perspective that sheds light on the reality of being a small tour operator in the era of COVID-19.
The work that airlines and larger companies have done to get Canadians flying overseas again, in the face of a global health crisis, and as Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine order for returning travellers remains intact, is remarkable.
But it’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy that every travel business can embrace.
“Safety is the most important priority for us,” says Sharp. “We take LGBT people to countries that are traditionally unwelcoming [towards LGBT people], and for years, we have been telling people that it is safe to travel with us.”
Since 2009, Out Adventures has been guiding gay and lesbian travellers to far-flung places – countries on all seven continents – with tailor-made itineraries that not only explore local customs and attitudes towards LGBT culture, but also involve partners from around the world that truly welcome LGBT people.
Out Adventures is built on making LGBT travellers feel safe and secure.
“If we didn’t treat COVID with the upmost seriousness, we would lose credibility with our clientele,” says Sharp.
But let’s face it – many individuals, gay or straight, are pressing pause on travel until there’s one thing that they can safely rely on: a COVID-19 vaccine.
According to a recent study by Development Counsellors International (DCI), 65% of Canadians will not travel internationally until they can get vaccinated for the virus.
And contrary to what some may think, travellers want to get back to much-loved cities and countries, like Italy, says Sharp, “but not until it’s safe to do so.”
“75 per cent of people are ‘super interested’ in travelling, but are not making any decisions until there’s a vaccine confirmed in their arm,” says Sharp, whose LGBT clientele consist primarily of 35 to 60-year-olds.
Crazy for 2022
Regardless, Sharp and his team worked through the summer and, on Oct. 1, released itineraries for 2022 – the most advanced schedule Out Adventures has ever posted – unveiling some 50 future trips.
To say there was a pent-up demand would be an understatement.
“We saw a massive response,” says Sharp, noting how Out Adventures was the first LGBT tour operator to release a 2022 schedule. “In the first week of October, we had more sales than our best month ever in the company’s history.”
The company used its downtime to develop tours in destinations they previously didn’t offer, such as in Mongolia and New Zealand.
Mongolia, in particular, launched in August for September 2021 and sold out in two days, says Sharp.
“Which is crazy for us,” he says. “We have trips sell out in a month, but never in two days.”
Being transparent with clients
Pandemic-era protocols for future trips are certainly being considered (ie: ensuring there’s space in vehicles to accommodate social distancing), but Sharp is banking on a prediction that travel will, at least by 2022, be operating on “some form of normal.”
It’s for this reason that Out Adventures hasn’t lowered capacity for its 2022 tours.
Its group sizes were not big to begin with, mind you – land tours generally welcome 16 guests with its biggest cruise fitting 40 people.
If anything, it’s reflective of a commitment Out Adventures is making to stay true to its offer and prepare for life on the other side of the pandemic, even if it means waiting a little longer.
“I’m not interested in running a tour in today’s climate,” says Sharp. “It’s not a vacation when you have to check temperatures 9-10 times per day.”
“Communicating with clients and telling them, transparently, about what we’ve been doing has led to this massive influx in sales.”
It’s a strategy that others are noticing.
Out Adventures, recently, was nominated for three "#Experientialist Awards” by OutThere, an LGBT travel publication, with two of three categories relating to the company’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Sharp is aware, of course, that some tour operators are making it work by offering remote nature trips and solo experiences reflective of the times.
“But as a small business, we’re not interested,” he says. “That’s not the experience we’re selling. We sell camaraderie. We sell group experiences.”
Camaraderie is, after all, the heartbeat of LGBT tours, which give people a wonderful opportunity to connect with others that they can identify with and relate to, through travel.
“For people who do LGBT tours, it’s about having that level of comfort – being able to sit down at dinner and not have to explain your relationship or come out each time you meet someone new,” says Sharp. “That’s where camaraderie is built.”
“We travel to the same destinations as our non-LGBT counterparts, but it comes down to the conversations on the bus. The dinnertime chatting. The cocktail in the lounge. After dinner.”
“That’s what makes an LGBT tour,” he says. “It’s that sense of community that people enjoy.”
For more on Out Adventures, click here.
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