I‘m broaching a difficult subject today — How COVID-19 has affected the trekking industry.
I’m calling it “difficult” because the repercussions of COVID-19 have affected Indiahikes and many other organisations like us very badly. It’s rather hard to write about it objectively.
But being in the heart of the trekking industry, I thought it was important for us to make certain observations about how COVID-19 has affected us, how we’re sustaining ourselves, and what the future holds.
To begin with, as I write this (April 9th), the COVID-19 situation looks pretty grim in the country. There are over 5700 positive cases and around 166 deaths in India. While India has been successful in not letting any explosion of virus cases take place, it also means that we are looking towards a very long containment period. Lockdown or no lockdown, we are looking at a long period of restrictions.
My common sense tells me that the 21-day-long lockdown will extend, eating up into the first half of May. But more than the lockdown, travel restriction and fear around travel is going to stay for a very long time. Unfortunately for the trekking industry, this spells bad news.
│The biggest hit for the trekking industry is that this outbreak has wiped out the biggest trekking season.
March, April and May are the most popular trekking months in India. And almost all organizations have called off their treks in these months. At Indiahikes, we have not been running treks since mid-March, and we have called off treks till the end of May.
This has been extremely hard for us. From a pure business point of view, this is a complete write off of our busiest trekking season. Continuing ahead, we expect only marginal recovery after the shock of the crisis gets over. Travel is not going to be the first thing on people’s minds.
This graph is a good indicator of what to expect now and in the near future:
And this is likely the case for all trekking organisations, no matter how big or small they are. Summer is when the biggest treks are open, it’s when families and students head out to the mountains, it’s when trekking organisations have the most work. And given the COVID-19 situation, all the work has been wiped out.
│At Indiahikes, we’ve been struggling to cope with this loss. And there’s a slight misconception here that I’d like to clear out.
Because we operate on such a large scale, many people assume we’re running a cash-rich business. But that’s far from the truth.
In the trekking industry in India, most companies don’t get external funding. At Indiahikes, we have consciously strayed away from VC funding. This is because the trekking industry is not as scalable as VC’s usually want it to be. For them, it tends to be all about the numbers and expansion. And our country is not ready for such large scale trekking — the mountains are not ready for such an expansion (both ecologically and in terms of infrastructure).
So most organisations run on the money they earn by running treks. All of the income comes in advance, most of which we spend to set up the trek. After the trek is over, we settle the expenses, and the rest is what we use to run the organisation.
Our operating margins are designed to suit a continual running of treks through the year. For almost 6 years now, we have developed a model of permanent employment for our trek leaders and mountain staff. This greatly helps in stabilising trekking as a career. This helps us in getting the best trek leaders and mountain staff for the organisation.
This is also one of the reasons why we are able to put so much resources behind training of our team.
Now with all work suddenly stopped and no work in sight, sustaining this team and keeping the organization afloat has become our biggest worries.
With the treks being cancelled, and a lot of money already gone into the setup logistics for the summer, trekking organisations are not likely to be left with much in their coffers. To give you an idea, we had already invested heavily in new tents, sleeping bags (more than 1,000), safety kits, training programs, staff recruitment for the summer.
│Even the interest in the trekking industry has dropped to very low numbers.
I want to share some numbers with you here.
You’ll see a clear hit on the travel industry in this graph from this blog by Neil Patel.
And it has affected the trekking industry similarly.
Our website traffic dropped dramatically from mid-March onwards.
With our content team still working, we have sometimes been able to manage some peaks in traffic every now and then, by keeping trekkers engaged with our blogs.
But the reality is that there are no registrations. What used to be 100 registrations a day has dropped to 0-1 registrations. Basically nil.
This lack of income has created a severe liquidity crisis for us. We’ve had to break into our reserves to keep things going. But reserves can last only for a while.
If this is the case with the largest trekking organisation in India, it’s hard to imagine the plight of smaller organisations or independent operators.
The future, on the other hand, looks bleak. Leaves are likely to be cancelled for companies, once they get back to work. Similarly, schools and colleges will be in a hurry to cover the time lost in this COVID-19 crisis. Travel is not likely to be top priority for most people. So we don’t expect the trekking industry to bounce back to normal even after COVID-19 disappears, which anyway is looking like a 4-6 month affair.
│And yet, we have many lives to support — especially the lives of our mountain staff.
Our mountain staff members completely bank on this work for their livelihood. They have their families to support and they have no one else to turn to. We have over 45 such salaried mountain staff.
So even though there’s no work, we have been paying them a small amount every month to ensure they don’t feel the pinch of the situation. We are also in touch with them regularly, to keep them up to date about everything that’s happening.
We also feel worried about other stakeholders on the slopes, who have invested a lot of money in this industry — transport organisers, home-stay owners, small restaurant owners — they’ve been impacted even more.
Our Trek Leaders are now on leave without pay. Our back end office team is drawing just enough to cover house rent or buy groceries. But we don’t know for how long this might go on.
All of us are banking on just one ray of hope — that things return to normal in a few months. However, none of us knows how many months we are talking about. From our guess, it looks like 4-6 months to even come out of the COVID-19 crisis. And more for things to limp back to a new normal.
│What are we doing right now?
Well, at Indiahikes we’re taking this lockdown as an opportunity to work undisturbed.
Our content team is working extremely hard on adding more information to the Indiahikes website. We’re adding lots of new articles, and updates almost on a daily basis. We’re keeping trekkers in touch with the trekking world on our social media as well. On the other hand, we’re posting new videos and adding to our vast library of information.
Our training team is creating endless modules for our Trek Leaders and mountain staff. These modules focus on the minutest details, some we may not even have thought about! For example, here’s a small glimpse of the modules being made for an Assistant Trek Leader:
Our quality team is working on our backend processes to make them more efficient. These details are very important for a great trek experience. It’s what brings about the “Indiahikes difference” on treks, which trekkers love.
│Meanwhile, we are looking forward to a new normal in the trekking industry
We are already discussing the possibilities of working from home with a blend of working in the office. There seem to be exciting benefits in such a proposition. At home, we get to work uninterrupted, with our thoughts in place. At the office we get to meet, bond, and share thoughts.
On the other hand, on our treks, we could be looking at close-knit groups trekking together. We could be seeing more trekkers trekking on their own — even on Himalayan treks. We could be looking at a new form of trekking that could emerge out of this crisis. The possibilities are many.
It is still too early to talk about, but I’ll share them with you as and when our thoughts become clearer.
│In such trying times, I think Indiahikes is extremely lucky
We’re absolutely lucky that we have such wonderful trekkers who are supporting us through this, despite their treks being called off.
We are moved to tears almost everyday as we read such warm, caring messages from trekkers.
“Have started trekking with you guys since 2012, my first trek was with your organization and have always been a big fan of your organization. In these difficult times if you require any other services from my end kindly let me know.”
“We have always appreciated the hard work and effort of the India Hikes team and continue to do so. Please keep your spirits high and we pray for much strength and endurance to be bestowed on all of you. Looking forward to a trek soon!”
It is our trekkers that are helping us carry on as a living, breathing organisation.
And we’re humbled beyond measure. It’s not something we expected when we entered this crisis. And we’ve been able to stay afloat because of them.
At this moment, all we have is a thank you.
We hope the entire trekking industry can tide over this crisis and emerge stronger on the other side.
Until then, stay strong. Stay safe.