The angling travel industry is facing unprecedented challenges from the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. It has, quite simply, brought the lodge, guiding, and outfitter business, and the agency businesses that assist them, to a near standstill at this writing. Understandably, many of you are concerned and worried about your booked trips and what will happen to them if the current paralysis continues. Some of you are worried about the survival of the global sportfishing infrastructure that has provided so many of us so much pleasure over the years. Will it survive this current crisis?
Here at The Angling Report, we do not pretend to have all of the answers to your questions, but we have just reached out to a number of movers and shakers in the sportfishing travel business in an effort to shed some light on where we stand. In sum, we are humbled at the challenges this community faces but confident it will make it through this tough period provided we all have patience, understanding, and compassion for the other guy. Those qualities are needed because our community is made up of small companies for the most part that operate on slim margins. No government agency is going to bail any of us out or come to the rescue of those of us who feel wronged or angry. We are going to have to work this problem out among ourselves.
The nub of the problem is, many currently booked trips are not going to be taken. Right now, many simply can’t be taken. Others won’t be taken for a variety of reasons. And that means a lot of money is going to be either lost, partially lost, or utilized at some future date. Note there is no mention in that list of possibilities of money being refunded because that does not seem to be in the cards except for some of us who had the foresight to buy the right kind of travel insurance. I’ll have more to say about travel insurance in a moment.
The thing we all have to realize is the number of trips about to be lost is way outside the norm. So much money is involved there is no way most guides, lodges, and outfitters can begin to send anyone any money. An effort to collect all the money owed clients would bankrupt most of the angling travel businesses. This stark reality has not stopped many of you from reaching out to your agents or directly to lodges and outfitters asking to be made whole on your investments. Long-established booking agents such as The Fly Shop and Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures tells us they are receiving scores of calls from concerned clients, many of whom don’t realize agents don’t control the cancellation policies of the lodges and outfits they book. Even if they did control those policies, given the size of the problem, there is no way any booking agency (or outfit for that matter) could “go the extra mile” to make things right. As is true of the small business world generally, there is no cash on the fishing table.
Jim Klug of Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures had this to say about the calls he is receiving: “We are trying our best to deal with an overwhelming number of calls. It’s definitely been an interesting mix. A lot of people are being very understanding about things, because they get it. None of us expected something like this to happen, and there is no one who can be blamed. Sadly, some anglers are coming in very hot anyway, demanding things they’re just not going to get. That’s not because we and other booking agents or the lodges themselves aren’t willing to help, but it’s due to the way the reservation system works. When you book trip dates in advance – be it with an agent or directly with a lodge – you pay a deposit, or the entire trip cost in some cases, in order to secure the best weeks, the best guides, the best spots, the best tides, etc. In the case of booking with an agent, ALL of that deposit money goes directly and immediately to the lodge. An agent’s commission always comes off the back end when final payment is made. That means that a client’s money is passed through to the lodge six months, 12 months, even18 months in advance. The lodge has the money. And, ultimately, it is the lodge that dictates the cancellation and rebooking policies.”
Klug went on to note that very few lodges are offering actual refunds, as trying to return funds at this time would very likely put them out of business. What some lodges are offering is the chance for anglers to roll reservations over to 2021 or to dates later in 2020. Others, however, are sticking to their stated cancellation policies and not releasing any funds at all or even offering rollover dates. Some are offering rollover dates but with a twist. Klug writes: “Some are saying, ‘Sure, no problem. We’ll roll the entre reservation over to a new date. We got you covered.’ Others, though, are saying, ‘Look. We can’t do that or it will financially ruin us. What we can do is roll over a partial credit to be used sometime in the next year.’ Some lodges are offering a 50 percent credit. Others are offering as much as 75 percent. They’re saying, ‘Look, that’s pretty generous. We’re taking a massive hit on this, but we need to take at least 25 percent just to pay our staff and keep the lights on. Without that, we can’t survive.”
Another agent we spoke with, Pat Pendergast at the Fly Shop, echoed much of what Klug had to say about the options lodges are offering. He says The Fly Shop has long-time relationships with most off its clients, and they tend to be understanding of the overall situation. “They know what is happening out there to small businesses of all sorts,” Pendergast said. “They know everyone is going to have to share the pain if we are going to get through this unprecedented situation. We are treating everyone with respect and compassion here at The Fly Shop, and that includes our long-time outfitters and lodge owners as well as our clients.”
So, how does this situation look from the lodge/outfitter point of view? It was hard to reach anyone as this was written, but we were able to connect finally with Rodrigo Salles of Untamed Angling, the Argentinean company that has opened unique and breathtaking new fishing spots in Bolivia and Brazil among other places. Salles was cautious at first, afraid to suggest there might be a need to roll over fishing dates or take other steps to handle the current crisis. He says Untamed Angling is in the fortunate position as this is written of not having to cancel or roll over anyone. Their first fishing dates, he says, are in June. He was hopeful that the coronavirus crisis would be over by then. If not, he and CEO Marcelo Perez would be reaching out to booked clients with as generous a rollover policy as the company could afford. “We have friends in the fishing and shooting business in Argentina who are the midst of their seasons right now,” he said. “Sadly, some of those friends have already folded their business. They are bankrupt.”
He went on to stress that would not happen to Untamed Angling. “We are on a solid footing and we are going to weather this storm. We hope the many clients who have fished with us will understand that outright refunds are just not possible, but rollovers, if necessary, will be available. The important thing we hope they realize is this: For most of them, a single specific fishing trip is at issue. For us, a life’s work and hundreds of jobs may be at issue. It hurts to think of the problems that could befall all of our employees if we were forced out of business, especially our Indigenous guides in Brazil and Bolivia who would be hard pressed to understand the forces at work in world largely new to them.”
There are however silver linings beginning to show through the dark times ahead. “For people that aren’t booking right now, it’s a mistake. Most people can see that this situation will pass. Maybe it’s a few weeks, or a few months into the summer, no one knows right now. What we DO know is that eventually this will pass, and people will travel and fish again. The reality, however, it that we’re already looking at a 2021 that is almost booked up or that is going to book up very quickly for many destinations. We’re trying to balance the sensitivity of telling people to book your trip during a crazy time in our world with the reality that space is going to be limited moving forward as so many reservations and trips are rolled forward! What’s more is that there is zero cash flow right now, and it is decimating lodges, outfitters and guides. We need the same kind of economic stimulus that other industries are talking about, and unlike the airline industry or the cruise ship industry, the government is not going to step in to save destination angling. The truth is that if anglers want their favorite lodges and guides to survive, it starts with booking trips for the future: sooner rather than later.” says Klug. “Here is what we at Yellow Dog are doing to ramp up future booking and travel. We have told many of our international lodges that starting now, final payments that we receive for the next 60 days will be held until the day of departure. So that if people who want to go, but simply can’t because of the developing situation, we now control the funds and can return them where possible. We’re doing what we can.”
All of that leaves the thorny issue of travel insurance. Word we have is there is a great deal of dissatisfaction out there on the part of clients who bought travel insurance only to discover that some policies contain exclusions related to pandemics. What’s actually at issue here is the kind of travel insurance clients have been buying. To be covered in the current situation, a client would have to be filing a claim for reasons that are specifically covered in his policy, or he would have to have bought a premium-priced “Cancel For Any Reason” policy. For instance, Global Rescue members who upgraded to the Signature Plus program would be in position to recover 75 percent of their travel costs while those who bought a basic Signature Plan would be entitled to little to no compensation for a pandemic-related cancellation. That said, if an angler had to cancel his trip for reasons other than the pandemic (work-related reasons, medical reasons, etc. that are covered) then reimbursement can still occur. Clearly, in situations like the current one, the importance of trip insurance is greater than usual. The buyer of a policy just has to be sure to buy the right product.
In closing, it’s understandable to us at The Angling Report that clients want to go on their booked trips or get their money back. Most of us at this point feel the same way about our investments in the stock market where we have watched 30 percent or more of our hard-earned money melt away. S… happens, however. Right? We are all going to get up, dust ourselves off and go forward. Stocks are on sale. It’s going to be time to act soon on our financial futures. The same is true of our fishing travel futures. Think about it – with so many trips being rolled over, desirable openings are going to be hard to find later this year or even next year. Also, with cash so hard to come by, holding back on future bookings may be helping push your favorite operator under water. It’s counter intuitive, we know, but our advice to ardent anglers is BOOK NOW. Just do it. It’s the right way to behave given the many pleasures we have all received over the years from the angling travel community. – Seth Fields, Editor, with additional reporting by Editor Emeritus Don Causey.
Postscript: Agree or disagree, if you have comments on our report or want to share a booking or cancellation story with us, please email Seth Fields at email@example.com; or file a report at: anglingreport.com. You can also reach out to Editor Emeritus Don Causey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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