This year, we were due to take away around 700 passengers. We have managed just 55, all of whom departed in February half term. New enquiries are down 95% and this will affect our passenger numbers into 2022 and probably beyond. We’ve had no new bookings since March.
Before Covid hit, forward bookings for next summer (2021) were already significantly up on previous years and we were looking forward to our busiest ever year. Now, all but one of our groups for 2021 have cancelled, leaving a grand total of just 29 passengers hoping to travel in 2021.
I started this company from my back-bedroom way back in 2006. I can honestly say, March and April felt like my world and everything I’d worked for over the past 14 years, was unravelling at breakneck speed.
For myself, my business partner Chris and all the STC team, ‘a stressful time’ doesn’t quite do it justice. We tried to do the right thing by our clients - offering options and solutions to reduce risk and gain some degree of certainty. We tried to be as human as possible. If you haven’t already, please read our blog on how we tried to manage the time between March and the summer. I don’t profess to say we got everything right, but we tried our best.
Travel in a Covid World
Some may be surprised to read that all but one of our groups for next year have already cancelled. The truth is, neither we as a tour operator, nor our clients wanted the stress and worry of waiting to see whether next summer’s expeditions could run. Yes, they are still six months away, but if I have learnt anything over the past few months it is that no one can predict the new reality of travel corridors, quarantine, postcode lottery lockdowns, year group bubble isolations and so on.
Individuals, airlines, tour operators and schools are all at the merciless whim of a coin flip and there are significant sums of money at stake. Therefore, in September, we offered all of our groups booked for summer 2021 the option to cancel and receive all of their money back apart from 50% of their deposit. This amounted to individuals potentially losing either £150 or £200 per person, depending on whether they’d booked an educational trip or an expedition. 15 out of 16 schools took up the offer. The 16th group reduced in size by around 50%. It seems peace of mind has a price.
The promise of a vaccine
With the potential for a vaccine now firmly on the horizon, do I feel we did the right thing in offering an early ‘out’ to our clients?
Even with a vaccine, the prospects of international travel to far flung places next year is hugely uncertain. We anticipate both airlines and destinations will begin to introduce a requirement for travellers to prove covid-vaccinations before allowing people on board an aircraft or through an international border. Quite when that will come in as a requirement is uncertain, but I think we all need to expect it sooner or later. For school groups, that could be a problem as young people will be at the back of the vaccination queue. Even with the NHS rolling out vaccinations as fast as possible, mass vaccination beyond the already announced ‘50 – 85 age groups and those identified as high-risk’ will take many, many months - probably well beyond next summer.
Travel in summer 2021 will, we believe, still be at the mercy of all the same issues such as quarantine, lock-downs, being ‘pinged’ by test and trace, FCO advising against travel, DfE advising against overseas trips and the risk of year group bubble isolations. The only ‘safe’ way to travel will be if you wait until the last minute to book, which for obvious reasons doesn’t work for school groups.
So, when it comes to international travel in July and August, where the hammer falls and who is left losing money is hugely uncertain. Of course, some may disagree with this opinion and in many ways I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but from our perspective, we are just pleased not to have the stress and worry of whether our business will survive to see next autumn. Having now de-risked our business, we are certain it will. Such is the nature of this pandemic that trying to take dozens of school groups overseas in the next 6 – 8 months is literally playing the lottery.
So where does that leave us?
Whilst we have managed to negotiate our way through the covid minefield up to this point, brighter days are still a long way off. It is, therefore, with huge sadness that we have had to say goodbye to our fantastic and loyal team – a team that worked their socks off in March and April to do the right thing by the company and our clients. We kept all of them on 80% furlough all the way through to November before having to make their roles redundant. To find out a few weeks later that the furlough scheme would be extended was a bitter pill, but it is a relief that all have found other jobs or are busy putting long held dreams into reality. I know I speak for Chris and myself when I say thank you to them all. We were a great team and I look back proudly on what we achieved in the last years.
So, having started 2020 with a team of nine and introducing a four-day working week, STC Expeditions is now back to just me and Chris. What a year! I’ll be honest, there have been multiple times this year when I have wanted to just walk out of the office, close the door and not return. But we must look to the future.
Looking to the future
The driving force of STC Expeditions has always been the unwavering belief that young people need to learn about the world around them. With climate change and increasing levels of polarisation around the world, I believe it is more important than ever that the next generation understand our planet and different cultures, and we have to educate them to travel sustainably and ethically.
We don’t pretend that building the business back again it is going to be an easy task, and it is certainly not going to be quick, but I’m sure overseas school expeditions and educational adventures will return. Quite when, I do not know, but we will be ready whenever that is.
In the meantime, as Churchill once said...
“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
To make the educational benefits of adventure more accessible and to reduce our carbon emissions, we have had a long held desire to recreate our overseas expeditions here in the UK. So, since the summer, we have been busy scheming.
And now, we are hugely excited to be able to launch an innovative new product into the school trips market.
Based in the UK, our new programme is adventurous, educational, low carbon, sustainable and designed to inspire the next generation to build a better relationship with our planet…
Welcome to the future of school trips. In the year 2074 to be precise: www.thebioasis.com