DOMINATE POST-COVID PLANS
With uncertainty at borders, unknown vaccine timelines, and safety at the forefront, riders and operators look local(-ish)
Traveling cyclists have long understood the concept of social distancing on a visceral level, but even a lifetime of the most remote solo adventures couldn’t help in 2020’s new reality of lockdowns, closures, and global health crisis. It was a year for day rides from home to clear the mind and spreading maps across the kitchen table to plan for future epics. But cross a continent now? No thanks.
One result is that as the calendar flips to 2021, operators are looking at more tours close to clients’ homes, shorter itineraries, and a look to continued safety measures for small group travel.
At Adventure Cycling Association, a U.s.-based non-profit bicycle travel organization and tour operator, that slower return to longer-distance travel factored into the decision to launch new “Long Weekend Tours” for 2021, which are specifically designed to start closer to major metro areas with large populations.
“Options for shorter itineraries is something we know our members and customers want, so these have been in the works for a while, but COVID definitely accelerated the number and range of departures we have for 2021,” said Adventure Cycling Tours Director Mike Lessard of the nine departures scheduled for the upcoming season. “And positioning trips near bigger population centers makes it easier for people to join us within driving distance of their homes for one more layer of control over the whole experience.”
The closer-to-home bet is backed with data — a pair of reports commissioned by global tourism organizations point to big shifts in travel habits in the aftermath of the pandemic. The World Travel and Tourism Council found that “traveler preferences and behaviours have shifted toward the familiar, predictable, and trusted. Domestic vacations, extensive planning, and the outdoors will reign in the shortterm,” a sentiment echoed by the Adventure Travel Trade Association in a midsummer “Traveler Sentiment” snapshot.
“As of June/july 2020, 63 percent of U.S. adventure travelers were planning on traveling domestically on their next planned trip,” the organization reported. “The same travelers are seeking safe and relaxing destinations with nature, outdoor, and adventure activities. In fact, this survey found that 72 percent of adventure travelers are planning on doing nature and outdoor activities on their next trip, specifically hiking/trekking/walking, cycling, and camping.”
Even operators typically focused on the epic are turning an eye toward the more egalitarian. Canadian outfitter
TDA Global Cycling is sanguine about the unknowns of the coming year. To avoid the usual border crossings involved in the company’s crosscontinent (or continents) journeys, TDA marketing director Shanny Hill said they’re planning a number of threeto four-week single-country tours (including an ebike tour of the U.S.) based in the company’s home country of Canada, and new lightly supported bikepacking trips — food drops and resupplies, but no SAG wagon.
“We are fairly certain that travel restrictions will affect our 2021 operations to some degree, so we are planning based on that assumption,” Hill said. “We are remaining optimistic but realistic. We have learned again and again that expeditions never go exactly as planned and so you have to always remain flexible and nimble — ready to act and change things up to keep things moving forward. This now applies not only to running our tours, but the running of our company.”
Lukas Herbert runs tours from the Big Apple, the world’s COVID epicenter for weeks and a jurisdiction that demanded tighter controls than many.
“The first half of my season was canceled completely,” said Herbert, owner of Gotham Bicycle Tours. “But then something really wonderful started to happen — the lockdown measures imposed by our state started to pay off, and by July I was back in business.”
Still, some factors remain out of operators’ control. For Herbert, one of those is trains, whose service he relies on to close loops for clients riding from New York. But limited train service is a small price to pay for an environment that lets Gotham operate at all.
“I credit New York State’s very clear (or as clear as possible) information and outreach with respect to COVID with helping me get back up and running,” Herbert said. “We have tough rules here, but the rules have worked and they have allowed us to operate safely. And we also have a much clearer idea of how we can operate in 2021.”
For Manny Agulnik at OK Cycle Tours in Ontario, Canada, the challenge is global. With hundreds of partner companies around the planet, the potential number of unique restrictions, borders, and situations is practically
infinite. Of course, that reach also means options — Agulnik said OK’S 2021 tours exceed 500 options, and active outreach to new partners means there are new choices.
“We are hopeful that as they roll out the vaccines, client confidence will return to wanting to book and travel again,” he said. “It will take some time for clients to feel comfortable and for borders to reopen.”
That timeline sounds about right to Bruno Toutain. The CEO of French bicycle travel agency Cyclomundo is making accommodations for both the relatively concrete reopening of amenities as well as the decidedly less concrete return of traveler confidence.
“We do not expect all hotels and restaurants to reopen ‘as usual’ until April or May,” he said. “And until August/september, we believe that people will still be reluctant to fly.”
What else will riders be reluctant (or unable) to do? Well, as part of safety protocols enacted in 2020, one operator moved all[ital] meals outdoors.
“We held only 25 percent of our tour offerings [in 2020],” said Jackie Marchand, president of Womantours. “We had to revise some itineraries, as many hotel and restaurant establishments and planned activities were unavailable or closed. And we changed all of our meals to be eaten outside.”
Across the board — even with expectations of a vaccine at some point in the first half of the year — operators said that out of an abundance of caution and a priority on guest safety, many of the changes enacted in 2020 are likely to stick around.
“Safety has always played a key role in the way we run our tours, and the coronavirus has just added another layer,” Marchand said. “Even with vaccines, I expect masks, physical distancing, and heightened cleaning protocols to be with us into the future.”
With changing traveler habits layered atop the well-documented bike boom of 2020, the big question for suppliers, bike shops, and everyone in between is whether all these newly bought bikes get stashed in the back corner of the garage next to a Schwinn Varsity from the last boom. Or is this pandemic an awakening of religious proportions, converting a new generation of cyclists into lifelong riders with a penchant for adventure on two wheels?
The short answer: no one knows.
“The pandemic has definitely expanded the potential pool of people who might consider taking their first overseas bike tour,” said TDA’S Hill. “That is exciting, and so we will need to do a good job of finding these people and getting them prepared and excited for this type of adventure.”
What we know for sure is that, as of November 2020, the bike industry was shattering sales records and no one knows how much higher the bar might’ve gone had there been more inventory available. According to the latest stats from NPD Group, which tracks sales of sporting goods in the U.S., even bicycle trainers and rollers were up nearly 300 percent year over year. Gravel bikes and ebikes were showing gains between 150 and 200 percent increases in sales for 2020.
Have bikes, will travel? Hill thinks so.
“The pandemic was a wake-up call — you can’t put off big life events and goals. People are already signing up for the Silk Route or the South American Epic and other long-distance expeditions years in advance.”
Adventure Cycling’s Lessard agreed.
“We’re able to provide amazing experiences for bike travelers and we’re excited to tour again with the riders ready to get back out there. After a year we’d all like to put behind us, we’re ready to make some new memories.”