INTERVIEW WITH Zephyr United
Entrepreneur Allan Wright has two distinct businesses—a conference company that produces five events for the food, wine and beer industries and an adventure travel business that now consists of three brands.
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Three of Zephyr’s conferences focus on bloggers and social media influencers while two are business conferences. “We were lucky enough to run two of those conferences in 2020 before the pandemic,” Wright said.
Zephyr tried to relaunch one event over the summer. “We went so far as to find an outdoor venue for one of our conferences. We were ready to run that, have everyone in masks, social distancing. It would have been as safe as anything, and yet when we eventually said ‘this conference is a go,’ the people that told us previously they would be willing to come elected not to do so. And you can totally understand why they were nervous about getting there, their own finances, whatever risks they perceived.”
Looking forward to this year, Wright predicts it will be a slow return to the conference business. “In 2021, until we have this pandemic under control, I can’t see that many indoor conferences will happen. But then we can talk about are we going back to normal or are we going back to a new normal.”
Wright comments that even as conferences are safe from a public health standpoint, he questions whether businesses will be ready to spend money on conferences and trade shows. “It’s not inexpensive to send one person to a conference that might be half-way across the country – hotel, flights, meals and the conference. We’re also getting used to not going into an office. We’re getting used to Zoom calls and virtual education. That to me is going to be the biggest factor to see what happens in terms of business travel and conferences.” Zephyr has set hard dates for their conferences starting in August or later in 2021.
The other side of Wright’s business is adventure travel. Zephyr Vacations runs active tours around the world, and Taste Vacations runs food, wine and beer tours around the world. “We ran one tour prior to the pandemic,” said Wright, citing that winter is their slow season.
After the pandemic hit, Zephyr was able to run two outdoor tours in the U.S. and was able to do so safely. “I’m not going to run a tour if I don’t think I can keep people safe and people are not going to travel if they don’t think they can get there safely either.” A big part of Zephyr’s challenge is that they had a high percentage of international tours.
One of the big pivots Zephyr did was create a new Montana tour outfit called Travel Montana. “We had always been running tours in Montana. It’s our home state and is one of the best states for that type of travel in the whole world,” states Wright. “It has the two hugely popular national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone. Yellowstone is probably the best national park in the world thanks in part to its geothermal features, and Glacier is one of the best hiking parks. In addition, Montana is perfect as we come out of this pandemic because it has wide open spaces.”
Wright’s team had talked about doing this for a long time and the pandemic moved those plans forward. “We’re offering small and private group tours offering outdoor activities in the state. We know the national parks pretty well, but we also have a hiking tour in the Beartooth Mountains. That’s a rugged, not-very-visited mountain range. It’s a great opportunity to go and visit the great outdoors with the help of our professional guides.”
“We will also do a bicycle tour in the Flathead Valley near Glacier National Park. Montana is not that easy for bicycling because you have to go so far from one place to another, so that area is great for a bicycle tour,” said Wright. Travel Montana will offer three routes every day—20, 40 and 50-60 miles. “The idea whenever you run these bicycle tours is that you always have people of different abilities often within the same family. You have to be able to accommodate everybody. That’s the beauty of a guided, supported bike tour,” said Wright.
Public and private tours are available. Public tours have an average group size of 12-14 people. Wright emphasizes that group sizes are important. “You don’t want a group size too small when you’re joining a group that you don’t know. You want to make sure others have a similar athletic interest as you. We like groups that are in the 12-16 range.”
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Wright has some optimism for the future.. “The good news for the travel industry is that a lot of people didn’t cancel outright, they just rebooked and that’s really good news. As for when international travel will return, Wright said, “What we’ve been telling people is that you don’t know when you can travel to Italy yet, but it’s probably not going to be in June. Because even if you get a vaccine here in April, it’s not clear that Italy is going to be ready to open their borders to people.”
Still, the firm has optimism for a scomeback. “We have a lot of people booked on foreign tours, and most of those are booked in August or later,” said Wright. “In fact we’ve just added four new tours abroad for October and November. That’s when we feel people will be feeling safe to go and that’s when countries will be letting us in.”