Country Walkers Resets for 2021
By Brian E. Clark
The year 2020 will soon be over. And for many, 2021 can’t get here fast enough. That’s been especially true for many adventure travel companies, especially those that offer trips abroad.
Jamen Yeaton-Masi, Vice President of Worldwide Travel & Operations for New England-based Country Walkers, said this year was one of “learnings” for her company, as well as highs and lows. I recently did a Q&A with her:
Q – How did the pandemic affect Country Walkers’ offerings?
A – The only tours we operated were in warm-weather destinations between January and early March. Like many travel companies, we have taken the past year to focus on how to set us up for success in 2021.
While we could have operated a few small trips here in the U.S., we made the decision to hold off offering tours since we could not guarantee the quality of the experience and the safety of our guests, guides, our partners and the local residents.
Q – What were some of the highs?
A – I would say that the dedication and passion of our guests, staff, and guides have kept me inspired. We are in constant contact with our guests and most of them have rebooked for 2021. They are excited to travel with us again as soon as possible.
Our staff have remained passionate about what they do and committed to creating amazing experiences (along with putting new safety measures in place). And, since many of our team members live abroad, they are able to keep us apprised of each regions’ situation and proactively work to plan for future operations.
Other bright spots included having the time to focus on new innovative projects and ideas. For example, our worldwide guides have been creating two-minute videos on their regions and culture along with assisting us in creating a first-ever Recipe Book of their favorite recipes (and the family and cultural stories that go along with them). The staff has been working hard on enhancing our safety procedures and conducting various trainings with our guides. They’ve also taken this time to embark on professional training courses and cross-training within the company.
Q – How long has Country Walkers been around and how would you describe the company?
A – For more than 40 years, Country Walkers has been providing active, experiential, and stunning travel experiences throughout the world. From its location in Williston, Vermont, the company’s unique adventures and insider access bring the beating heart of a destination to life with well-crafted itineraries for walking and hiking vacations.
A range of guided and self-guided options highlight local cuisine, authentic accommodations, and immersive cultural experiences. Country Walkers is recognized as a leading provider of active vacations worldwide, having garnered countless awards including National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Tours of a Lifetime,” AFAR’s “Traveler’s Choice” Awards, and Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best” Awards.
Q – Where would be some of the most popular spots to walk now in a normal year?
A – Normally this would be our peak season with guests traveling around the world in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, the UK, Croatia, Slovenia, along the Danube, and in multiple other European countries. Closer to home we would be hosting guests here in Vermont, in Maine, and in the Southwest, the Rockies, and the Northwest. Fall is a beautiful time to be walking! Not only is it a bit cooler but the colors are beautiful and the farm to table food and local wines are all fresh and delicious.
It is also a great time to be exploring Europe and our national parks when they’re slightly less crowded. We would also be gearing up for our warm weather tours in more exotic destinations such as New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and Vietnam – our guests love escaping the cold, dark days here in the U.S.
Q – Are people booking trips for 2021?
A – We are optimistic about a strong 2021 year and are off to a great start with bookings. Most of our guests who could not travel in 2020 have rebooked for 2021.
We have seen an especially strong increase in guests booking trips in the United States. In fact, we are adding dates to many of our most popular North America destinations. Guests are also booking our traditional popular tours in Europe but tending to book late summer and fall dates versus spring.
Q – What locations are they choosing?
A – North America is especially strong (Utah, Vermont, Maine, Montana, Washington, and Georgia). And, our traditional, most-popular tours in Europe (Italy, Croatia, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Iceland) remain incredibly strong. I have been surprised to see how many guests are also booked on our more exotic destinations such as Japan, New Zealand, Morocco, and our African Safaris. A few of them have suggested that African Safaris, deep in the bush and staying at small bush camps, could be the perfect escape from COVID.
Q – If you could go on a Country Walkers trip now, where would you go?
A – I am always excited and eager to travel anywhere. But if I had to pick one trip, I would likely select our new Torres del Paine and Patagonia tour in Chile/Argentina. To me, this isolated, spectacular part of the world is especially appealing right now. Not to mention a fantastic combination of amazing food and local wines.
Q – What kinds of things are you planning to keep guests safe?
A – We have always had a very strong focus on safety – it is paramount in our tour operations. Most importantly our groups are small (no more than 18 guests and averaging 12-14 per group), using local, expert guides who are trained in safety (with groups of 8 or more guests we always have 2 guides), and conducting significant safety checks on all hotels that we use.
We also work closely with local regions, parks, and cities to ensure that we are following the regulations and are aware of current conditions. And we have staff and guides around the world who can help keep a pulse on worldwide events. Due to COVID we have taken even further steps to ensure the safety of our guests, guides, staff, vendors, and the local residents. Additional training and procedures have been put in place. Until there is a vaccine we will limit the number of guests in our vehicles for transfers and will require the wearing of face coverings when necessary.
Q – Did you have contingencies for something like COVID?
A – While COVID was unprecedented in many ways, I (and our company) have certainly dealt with many natural and political challenges around the world that helped us react quickly to this situation. We are also fortunate in that we have a worldwide network of staff and local guides.
Q – What percentage of guides were you able to keep on?
A – We work with over 200 worldwide guides and I am pleased to say that all but two of them have expressed interest in working with us next year when we return to operations. Two guides have taken full-time jobs due to COVID. Many guides did have to find other part-time work but we’ve been able to keep some in the fold by offering ad hoc work on-going research, training, and projects.
Q – Will you be able to stay in business?
A – We will stay in business and are now fully immersed in planning for 2021.
Q – Do you think some adventure travel companies might not weather this storm?
A – While not all adventure companies will survive this difficult time, I am confident that adventure travel will bounce back. What better time to plan an adventure away from the crowds, with a small group of active travelers, that re-energizes your spirit and soul?
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.