The Coronavirus Economy: What it’s like to run a seasonal tourism business during a pandemic

April 23, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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When you run a seasonal tourism business, there’s no making up the revenue later.

Colleen Stephens, president of Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises in Valdez, Alaska, grew up with that knowledge. Her parents, Stan and Mary Helen, founded the company in 1971. By 1978, Stephens and her two sisters were all working alongside their parents, introducing travelers to the wildlife and glaciers of Prince William Sound.

As the coronavirus epidemic started to spread this past winter, Stephens watched carefully to see how it might end up impacting Alaska’s short tourism season. The company—which has three other full-time employees and a team of seasonal employees, all from the town of Valdez (population 4,000)—usually sends day cruises out between mid-May and mid-September. That’s just four months to take in a year’s worth of revenue with the company’s two 149-passenger vessels. Approximately 75% of the day-cruise passengers come from outside Alaska.

Fortune spoke with Stephens for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to find out how she’s navigating the pandemic for her business and crew. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Colleen Stephens runs a cruise company in Valdez, Alaska, that was founded by her parents in 1971.
Alan Steed

Fortune: Before you’d ever heard of COVID-19, what was your job and a typical day like for you at this time of year?

Stephens: We do lots of work and preparation pre- and post-season. What we’re constantly working on operationally is vessel maintenance and vessel repairs as well as getting the boats ready for the season. It’s kind of a yearlong program. 

The other thing we do is recruit employees and make sure we’re properly staffed. We have about 30 local people from Valdez who come on during the summer. 

We’re also actively recruiting customers. We’re taking reservations, we’re putting marketing pieces out there to travel trade as well as direct to customers. This is usually a very good booking season. People have made the decision to come to Alaska, and now they’re putting the parts and pieces of their trips together. From January onward, we see a big spike in independent booking as well as booking partner reservations.

What has this year been like?

In mid-February, we were still trending ahead of last year. People still had that confidence to travel. Things were also looking very good with contract work. Because the Alaska Marine Highway [the state’s ferry system] isn’t running in Prince William Sound [because of the state’s financial issues and needed repairs on the aging fleet], we had some charter work. We had a five-day charter where we were taking 200 kids and all their band equipment to Cordova. We needed to get the necessary crew to do that trip.

Because of all of that, we were looking at sending boats out a month ahead of where we normally would have been. Needless to say that didn’t happen.

When did you see things really start to change for your business and Alaska’s summer tourism season?

With just how dynamic this world has been [during the coronavirus pandemic], around the second week of February, we had cruise ships add Alaska for departures and ports of call.

All of a sudden, we were going to start operating tours May 4 because people were pulling vessels out of some locations and moving them and adding departures. So not only were normal bookings tracking nicely, but we had all this other stuff. Nobody is going to argue with extra bookings when you have a short season.

When did things change?

That next Monday. It was literally over the weekend we stopped seeing things come in on the booking site and started seeing everything roll in on the cancellation side.

We saw companies that were starting to reposition cruise ships to places that may not have had infection at that moment in time all of a sudden looking at all of the world to be a place they needed to consider.

Alaska is very dependent on our cruise companies and cruise partners. As they started to modify things for cruise and land, that starts to effect folks even if you don’t have a port of call. Those [travelers] are still moving through our state. You could track the trend of cancellations as far as what country was having spikes. 

The other thing we saw a few weeks into it was all of our tour operator partners came to us to look for assistance. They were trying to get people instead of canceling to rebook. We were asked to shorten cancellation periods and just be adaptive to what their needs were. We decided that if they were going to ask for it, we were going to give it to them. 

View this post on Instagram

Yesterday I started my pre-summit adventure before the Adventure Travel World Summit starts. The first stop on my trip was the port city of Valdez. Valdez is the terminal point of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline which starts on the shore of the Arctic Ocean in Prudhoe Bay. This is where oil tankers take the oil, and it was the location of the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. We went out with Stan Stephens Cruises for a tour of Prince William Sound and to view the Columbia Glacier. I saw two things yesterday that I had never seen before: 1. I saw killer whales, aka orcas, in the wild. Despite being in areas that had them, I had never actually seen them before. We saw an entire pod of them on the way to the glacier. 2. I saw large pieces of ice calving off the Columbia glacier and falling into the sea. I’ve been around several glaciers before, but I had never witnessed it first hand. When ice breaks off of a glacier to create an iceberg, it is a very noisy and violent event. It sounds like an explosion and it creates a mini tsunami in the area which can cause other small icebergs to break up. I managed to capture this image during one of the calving events. It is difficult to photograph because it happens quickly, and you are far enough away that there is a delay between when you hear the collapse and when you see it. If you wait to hear it, it is mostly over already. I had my camera up near my face in a ready position for about 30 minutes hoping to capture at least some of the resulting splash. I wound up getting this image after a big chunk of ice hit the water.

A post shared by Gary Arndt (@everythingeverywhere) on

So, now, is the season canceled? Or is there business for the latter part of the summer?

It’s ever-changing. There is nothing concrete yet, which I think is the challenge for any seasonal operator in Alaska or anywhere. 

I don’t think anyone wants to start moving people until it’s safe for the communities and it’s safe for the guests. Nobody really wants to push it. Lots of people are hoping for whatever they can and are adapting as we see change in our country and across the world. 

I was on a teleconference with other tourism people, and some were like, “Well, when is this going to stop?” We’re all planners, and the part that sucks about all this is you just can’t plan. Or you have to plan three wild guesses of when we might be able to operate, what our volume might be if we operate, or a scenario of not running at all this year. 

Even if we start operating June 15, who is to say what our bookings will be? And if we’re still in a social distancing place, we can’t even take our capacity. We don’t know.

How are you handling all of this as a business owner and a community member? And as somebody who employs so many people within the town?

I am super privileged in multiple ways. One is I serve on state and national boards that are trade associations. Being that involved does occupy a ton of your time. I literally live with earphones in on teleconferences three to four hours a day. It lets me know we aren’t alone in Alaska. This is happening across the country and in some places way faster, and across the world. It allows us to tell stories to one another of what we’re doing and how we’re learning, and how another business is adapting. And it gives you some of the first knowledge of relief packages that are out there. If I didn’t have that connection or wasn’t one that didn’t go out and find that connection, I don’t believe I would be as sane as I am.

The associations’ webinars are open to everyone, not just their partners. For businesses, look to your trades. Look to those people who are supporting you. If they’re not, look to your neighbor or a business like you. We all need to survive together.

If there are no boats this summer, you’ve all been through tough stuff—Exxon Valdez, 9/11, the recession. How long can your company survive?

One thing that’s unique and that we’re having to plan for that’s different than all those other things is that, in those situations, people were still moving, just at a reduced rate. You knew you were operating for the summer. 

The planning and the calculation are uniquely different. It’s not just reduced revenue, it’s the possibly of no revenue.

I think we are pretty darn resilient. We have an amazing team. We will survive. 

We’re not making any promises to anyone, but our goal is to keep our seasonal staff as intact as it can be. We’re looking at this community to try and support them. 

How old are your seasonal employees?

Sixteen to 30.

How much interaction do you have with them through all of this?

My theory as this all started to unravel was the more communication the better, with the employees, our tour partners, the bank. What we started doing is, every Friday, dropping our employees an email. Because of their ages I have to text them all and tell them that an email is coming.

Two of us that are full-time gave everyone our personal phone numbers, and we’ve had close to 50% of the staff contact us to look for guidance and resources.

We also ask them for information, so as we look at different relief packages, we know what they need.

A lot of the Friday emails start with, “We know nothing new, but here’s some other information we want to share.” We send them information from the CDC or the community or other government agencies, reminding them to protect themselves so we can be healthy and out on the sound at some time. 

Anything else you want to mention?

The other piece that this has brought forward to everyone is our interconnectivity. I’ll use a tourism example. We need Seattle to be healthy to get our guests to Alaska. We need Canada to be healthy to get our guests to Alaska. We need ourselves healthy. As each of those things started to roll and you could see a deterioration and high infection rate, we’re completely tied together. 

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