The Coronavirus Economy: What social distancing means for a bike and walking tour business

March 26, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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Just over two decades ago, David Mebane founded Fat Tire Tours in Paris. The goal was to share with tourists the city he’d adopted as his own by way of two wheels, pedaling around the Eiffel Tower, along the Seine, and out to Versailles for picnics in the château gardens. Today, Fat Tire operates globally in 12 cities around the world, from London to Berlin to Barcelona in Europe to Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans in the U.S.

The 44-year-old CEO has since based his company’s headquarters in Austin, where he lives with his wife and two kids. But Mebane travels the world regularly to maintain his role as the self-proclaimed “Chief Encouragement Officer.”

Fortune spoke with Mebane for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected his employment status and his plans for the future, and to get a sense of how he has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

David Mebane founded Fat Tire Tours in Paris, to share with tourists the city he’d adopted as his own by way of two wheels.
Courtesy of David Mebane

Fortune: What’s a typical day like for you?

Mebane: That’s a great question. I am involved somewhat in the operations, but only at a very high level. Several years ago, I put an executive team in place. I hold the CEO title, but the president handles the operations. We have a senior management team and so forth. I am much more of a 30,000-feet operator. I look at weekly metrics, forward bookings, ratings from our customers—things like that. I don’t get involved in the day to day. It’s much more strategic.

But culture is very important to me, and we have a very special secret sauce at Fat Tire, a very familial atmosphere. So maintaining that is valuable. I had a heart attack in Paris, actually, at 39. As you can imagine, when that happens—especially at such a young age with two kids—your concept and value of time changes. We all know that time is our most precious commodity, but few of us—and I’m raising my hand here, too—act on it unless we’re forced to. So I spend a lot of time with the family. Fortunately, work does not have to be a priority. Today, however, it is.

When did you realize things were taking a turn?

It was gradual, but I don’t think I took real notice until the northern part of Italy was affected, probably about a month ago. I started talking to our Italian manager on a daily basis. I’d call him in the morning, my time, to hear what the word on the street was. Then I started to notice a trend in our bookings. Future bookings were starting to drop for April and May, and cancellations were coming in for March. And what we were seeing, up until last week, maybe, was a “wait and see” approach for existing bookings in April, May, even June and July.

What’s it normally like this time of year?

We work in a cyclical business cycle. Summer is high, winter is low. I would say almost every tourism company operates at a bit of a loss in late December through January and into February. Spring break is when we flip and start to make money. That’s been the same way for 21 years.

And now?

We’re at our lowest point of cash reserves. So right when we really need and would expect revenue to start coming in there are no customers to be found anywhere on the planet! Since the entire world has shut town, San Francisco is giving no help to Berlin or vice versa. We don’t have anywhere to buoy. There is no rising tide to raise all boats. In fact, all boats are sinking. It’s a really precarious situation. Cash is king, and when you don’t have any or any expectation to get any, you have a real problem on your hands.

Fat Tire Tours operates globally in 12 cities around the world, from London, Berlin, and Barcelona to Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
Courtesy of David Mebane

On March 13, you decided to shut down global operations for a month. What precipitated that decision?

The decision was made for us in a way. When the travel ban went into effect, I thought, “Well, if the airlines don’t fly, we don’t have any customers.” I think of it as hibernation. We’re the bear, and we have to dig in our cave and go to sleep. They do so to conserve energy. We’re trying to conserve money.

Externally, what measures are you taking to be able to reopen?

We’re asking people who booked and want a refund to consider 150% value instead. For example, if you booked $100 worth of tours, instead of refunding you the $100 we’ll give you an IOU for $150 to use in the future. Remarkably, a very high percentage of customers have gone with that option. It shows they have confidence in us, the future, and in travel. We’re hitting social media to encourage people to buy gift certificates that won’t have an expiration date.

What are you doing internally?

We have gone into triage mode, looking into every single expense. We’re asking landlords for free rent. We’ve cut every employee we can—not because it makes me happy, but because I can’t pay them. Our go-forward plan is to be as lean as possible. Since no one knows anything about duration or government assistance, we are cutting in as deep as we can.

Staff-wise, what are you working with?

The vast majority are our tour guides who are independent contractors. That’s about 90% of our staff [without work]. In eight of our 12 cities, we slimmed down to our general managers. The other four, including Paris, have additional people on contract since they’re part of larger operations. But everyone is working from home now.


That’s the question. Can I pay the remaining salaried employees? Every Monday we have a strategic meeting. Our goal is to keep every one of these operations and to keep every one of our salaried employees. The realistic chance of that happening is not good. Some of the operations that closed last Friday will not open. Some people who are employed today will not be Friday of this week. It’s not because I don’t love them, because I do. I just don’t have any money to pay them. I’m feeding the company personally right now. It’s not technically my responsibility, but I feel an obligation to do so. 

As a business owner, how are you feeling, in general?

It stinks—and it stinks bad. People are going to lose their jobs if they haven’t already. They’re going to have trouble buying a metro ticket or groceries at Monoprix. The glass of wine you had yesterday is prohibitively more expensive today. Even if every nation quarantines, and we’re able to stop the spread—and I think that’s unrealistic—people aren’t going to rush to Europe the next day. It’s not like there’s a kink in the hose and you let out the kink and the water flies out the other end.

What would need to happen in order for you to bounce back?

From a tourism standpoint, it would be wonderful if we can have the second half of the summer, like July and August. If we don’t, we fall into that low season cycle again. Then you’re already at a loss on a good year; this year would be even worse. I’m trying to plan for lack of success for a year from right now, and hope that spring break 2021 will be an opportunity to go back to work like we want to.

That being said, there will be massive attrition in the tourism industry. If there are 100 suppliers in Paris tourism today, there will be 50 or even 20 later. There will be less, but there will be opportunity for surviving companies to grow their market share and to potentially be more successful than they were before this happened. I would like to be one of those surviving companies.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

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—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating the coronavirus
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—Amazon tells employees to work from home if they can. Warehouse workers can’t
—Why Dollar General thinks the coronavirus can help business
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