Seattle tour operators that have survived COVID-19 tell how they made it — and what they make of travel’s future


Travel workers had a particularly difficult time during the coronavirus pandemic.

Practically overnight, their livelihoods became more grounded from a lucrative global industry. The travel industry has continued to make stops and starts as waves of this pandemic have come and gone. The promise of vaccines and summer activities led to a moment of hope, but then came the surge of the Delta variant.

Trapped in the middle were tour operators and guides. We spoke to three creative operators with connections to Seattle to find out how they have survived the past 18 months and how they view their business – and travel in general – going forward.

For Sarah Murdoch, the pandemic started in one fell swoop. She had worked as a tour guide in Italy for Rick Steves Europe for 20 years, which came to an end when the company cut hours and laid off guides last summer.

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Fortunately, Murdoch had started her own travel company six years earlier, Adventures with Sarah, which focused on destinations outside of Europe such as Southeast Asia, Morocco and Egypt. After the layoffs, she invested her energy in expanding her business. She sewed and sold many travel-themed masks and started cooking demonstrations for her 50,000 Facebook followers in a series she called “Cucina Quarantena”. That led to a Patreon page where loyal fans could pay for additional content like live tours of Italy. “That actually paid for my mortgage,” she says. “My fans really supported me.”

Even so, she still wanted to take groups around the world with her. She pondered what activities would work during a pandemic. No big museums, she realized, and no big crowds. Instead, “we will concentrate on the non-touristic aspects”. Last year she added tours to the books for 2021 in hopes the pandemic would make travel possible by then.

So far she has been able to carry out the tours. She spoke to the Seattle Times from Italy, where she brought a group of 12 people with her. Instead of hopping through several countries on a single trip, you and your tour group are in a hotel, country, and go on activities from there.

But that also brings challenges. “It’s an everyday thing to be honest,” she says. The rules surrounding the pandemic are changing so quickly. What are airport regulations? Are PCR Tests Necessary? What are the local requirements?

She has planned 12 tours from summer to autumn. “I joked with people that at the end of the season, if I can do all of the tours that we have planned, I will become holy.”

Online content was also a big part of Regina Winkle-Bryan’s strategy. As the founder and travel agent of Bold Spirit Travel, she began broadcasting livestream tours from guides she had worked with abroad, such as an art historian giving viewers a tour of Rome’s Jewish Quarter or an Italian chef who Offered cooking courses and multi-day seminars on various travel topics.

But real tours were also decisive. Her business had focused on international travel, but travel restrictions made her realize that there were plenty of places to take people here in Washington. She began offering tours to Mount Rainier, Leavenworth, and a wine and waterfall tour along the Columbia River Gorge.

Both the on-site tours and the online offers were more successful than she had expected. “To be honest, there have been a lot of silver linings here,” she says.

Local tours, however, had their challenges. Triple-digit temperatures this summer led to the cancellation of her Leavenworth tours, and she had to extend the start time by several hours for those who were still involved. It was also unusually hot on one of their wine and waterfall tours. “It wasn’t just COVID. It was also the climate, ”she says.

Nevertheless, she intends to tour consistently internationally again, with routes that allow both security and flexibility. At the end of last month she led a small group hike on the Camino de Santiago along the French route.

What kind of person is traveling – let alone joining a tour group – right now? “It’s the bravest of the bold,” says Winkle-Bryan. Fully vaccinated people who have weighed their risks and still want to travel. And over time, people have at least given more tools to hand, she says. “I think people are more used to taking all the precautions we have to take these days and are willing to do something, even if they have to do it with a mask.”

As brave as they may be, recurring climbs in cases have put some would-be travelers off. “I wish we didn’t have these problems with the Delta variant,” says Winkle-Bryan. “I know that there is a great need for tourism. Italy and Spain are dependent on tourism, especially the Americans. “

Seattleit Rainer Metzger, tour operator at Guided By, says he knew he would have to think differently about his business soon after he was fired from Rick Steves Europe. “It was clear to me early on that traveling in the pandemic era would be very, very different,” he says. “I survived by taking the time to convert my business into a post-pandemic tour product.”

Seattle tour operators that have survived COVID-19 tell how they made it — and what they make of travel’s future

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A small, flexible, independent company made it easier to implement change. Like Murdoch, his tours are smaller and slower. There are more neighborhoods to explore and speak to locals, which was a significant change. His groups often ask locals: What was it like living here during the pandemic?

“The connections to people are stronger now than with paintings in a museum,” he says. And some cultural traits have been enhanced by the pandemic. “It was amazing to see a city like Rome that was already popular for eating outside – it has doubled and now there are twice as many outside spaces with seating,” he says.

But despite these silver linings, he too is confronted with changes due to variants. “I’ve had a lot of postponements and even cancellations because of Delta. The last month has been a tough month, ”he says.

He’s not trying to persuade anyone to behave differently. “Every traveler has to decide for himself when he can travel comfortably again,” he says. Except for one thing: “If you haven’t been vaccinated, you shouldn’t travel abroad.” He hopes that people will go beyond that by getting tested before and after the trip, regardless of country requirements.

Most people who are nervous about Delta move on to the next year. Metzger hopes that the pandemic will improve or that booster vaccinations will increase confidence in travel. He intends to travel both Italy and Morocco in the next few months to do tours and research future ones.

No matter how long the surge continues, Metzger anticipates many of the travel changes caused by the pandemic will persist. “I think people will enjoy traveling in small, intimate groups, people will spend more time outdoors, and I think people will make more last-minute decisions,” he says.

Murdoch agrees. She even developed a service called “Trust Me” where travelers are not given their itinerary in advance to add an extra element of surprise and discovery to the trips.

“If there’s one thing that people took away from the pandemic, it was that we were all traveling too fast,” she says. Even on one-off trips, people were on the move, going, going. Now, when people travel, a good tour operator should “help people enjoy their time,” she says, “instead of being in a rush to snap a picture.”

Colleen Stinchcombe:; Colleen Stinchcombe is a Seattle-based freelance writer.