Laura French interviews Joe Ponte, managing director, Explore.
Q. You’ve just set off on Explore’s first post-lockdown trip, a walking tour of the Dolomites. What was the joining process like?
A. On arrival, the only difference was that we each had to have a temperature check and wear a mask – in Italy, masks are mandatory in all indoor areas and on all public transport. On the coach, customers got their standard trip briefing along with an additional Covid briefing that explains the local regulations and encourages everyone to sanitise, wear a mask (including on the coach) and keep their distance.
“This trip uses public transport to get up to the mountains and you now have to book a seat in advance so the numbers on each bus can be managed.”
Q. How do the tours differ in the ‘new normal’?
A. We have made some subtle changes. For example, breakfast is usually a buffet, but now you go up and staff serve you. In terms of distancing, it’s generally similar to what we’re all already doing in the UK. I’m on a walking trip in the Dolomites, so when you’re out walking it’s pretty easy to keep your distance anyway. We’ve also made some changes to transport, such as using bigger coaches. This trip uses public transport to get up to the mountains and you now have to book a seat in advance so the numbers on each bus can be managed. But this is all arranged by the trip leader, so things run smoothly and customers don’t notice the organisation happening in the background.
Q. What kind of customers have you got on the tour?
A. It’s a real mix. I imagined they’d all have booked their trip before the coronavirus outbreak, but out of 11 in the group, five have booked since April, and four are new to Explore. Another four have done more than 20 trips with us! These customers know that if we’re going to run a trip, we are going to make it as safe as possible.
Q. What’s it like in Italy now?
A. Because Italy suffered so much earlier than the UK, it feels like they’ve had more time for these adjustments to become second nature. It’s a bit stricter, but everyone seems happy to comply. There is sanitiser everywhere, and if you go inside anywhere without a mask, someone will politely ask you to put one on. I had 24 hours in Venice before joining the group and everyone kept their distance. It was incredible to see the city with maybe 20% of the usual visitor numbers and it seemed that most of the tourists were Italian. It felt really special being there.
“While we can’t be certain of what the situation will be in a month’s time, we have an expert team working on this and our itineraries are under regular review.”
Q. What other tours has Explore restarted?
A. Right now, we have 43 departures due to go in September, which is a fraction of what we normally run. They’re limited to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Poland and our new UK trips. In terms of trends, we’re noticing a mix of relatively last-minute bookings for autumn 2020, and forward bookings for mid-2021. The trips we run in the UK winter are long‑haul – Latin America, Asia, India and southern Africa – and these are understandably going to take longer to come back, so I anticipate we’ll run just a handful of these over the coming period.
Q. How do you go about planning trips when the Foreign Office advice changes so often?
A. While we can’t be certain of what the situation will be in a month’s time, we have an expert team working on this and our itineraries are under regular review. If the Foreign Office advises against travel to a destination, we won’t go there. This might mean cancelling a trip, or it might mean changing an itinerary. We have a dedicated team liaising directly with our trade partners on bookings that may be affected, to keep them informed of trip changes and provide options. We are confident that, where we are able to run our trips, they are compliant with the latest local Covid advice and are as safe as they can be.
Joe’s top tip
Watch videos from Joe’s trip and get the latest updates about the restart of touring by following the Association of Touring & Adventure Suppliers (Atas) Facebook page at facebook.com/ATAStravel