How to start a travel agency during the COVID-19 pandemic

Launched in early summer 2020, Brad Ludden founded Stoke Broker, a travel agency offering adventure experiences, in uncertain times for the travel industry. Having to deal with the uncertainty of new business in a struggling industry amid the coronavirus pandemic, Ludden spoke to Travel Market Report about navigating the rough waters of COVID-19 by implementing new proposals for value built around fully customizable, safe and secure journeys.

Travel Market Report: What Was The Process Of Setting Up A Travel Agency Like During A Global Pandemic? How did you adapt to the current climate?
Brad Ludden: It sounds counterintuitive or ultimately bad timing, doesn’t it? Nonetheless, we felt strongly that creating a vehicle for creating adventure was important, especially in these extraordinary times. Even the process of planning your next adventure is more than just a distraction – it’s necessary and creates an outlet for stress and anxiety. As we all strive to live in the present moment, it is also helpful to use the future to uplift and comfort you during a difficult time, like this pandemic.

We knew there was a market for creating and designing adventures, where we could work with travelers to co-create life-defining experiences, even during a pandemic. In fact, in some ways people have more time to plan and are more motivated to think ahead. When travel is restricted, as it is, it makes you appreciate being able to get up and go. We want to give people an outlet for this future thinking and this travel design.

For us, adapting is staying true to our approach to meeting people where they are. With an emphasis on outdoor adventure in wild and remote locations, we design experiences with a natural degree of social distancing. Right now our clients are focused on road trips, backcountry activities, and mountain getaways.

TMR: What is happening to businesses right now? Are customers booking for this year or 2021? What seems to be the general feeling of customers?
BL: Many of the trips we booked in 2020 either moved to 2021 or completely redesigned. Our promise to customers is “peak adventure on your terms”, and we have been successful in creating safe and trusting experiences. We’ve seen international travel pivot to domestic backcountry activities, ranching experiences, and road trips. There is renewed enthusiasm in exploring our own backyards and it is beautiful to see. Hike or mountain bike on local public lands, road trip through national parks and state forests and wild and scenic floating rivers with your closest friends and family on a private trip.

With the pandemic, people are excited to control the experience with the expert leadership of our team. We give them the confidence to get out and go, but with all the proper and necessary protocols in place to travel during a pandemic.

TMR: What type of trips do you specialize in? How do you build your customer database with these types of travelers?
BL: We work with our clients to design personalized adventures that are authentic and that define life. The week-long family trip down a secluded Idaho river, the fully personalized heliskiing trip to Canada with your best friends, the multi-sport cross-country trip – whatever you want. We also work with companies to design adventure-based corporate retreats that ignite corporate culture and stimulate resilience, agility and connection.

As a subsidiary of First Descents, many of our donors, alumni and corporate partners have joined in this new endeavor. Some have called Stoke Broker the “Newman’s Own” or “Tom’s Shoes” of adventure travel. They are thrilled to support a model where their adventure activities support a charity they care about and have referred new clients our way. All in all, we are building a community that believes adventure is both transformational and deeply healing.

TMR: How do you think adventure travel will change in response to the coronavirus? What will be different (or stay the same) in the future?
BL: Travelers will continue to seek personalization and trust. Our friends at the Adventure Travel Trade Organization (ATTA) find the same thing. At a roundtable hosted by ATTA, 46% of travel experts agreed that the best way to limit the negative impact of COVID-19 would be to allow customers to defer their reservations to future dates. Additionally, 34% agreed that greater flexibility in cancellation policies would be beneficial in maintaining customer relationships.

We are seeing several key changes in the industry. First of all, people want more support to navigate the travel landscape safely and with confidence. Travelers are looking for more thoughtful assistance and personalization – not just a place on a tour. They want to know that they can do it safely, while still having an amazing experience that was worth the time and money.

We also anticipate a change in corporate pensions. With remote working here to stay, businesses must find effective ways to ignite corporate culture, foster connection, and create professional attributes like resilience and agility. They will also seek more constructive and meaningful use of their corporate retirement budgets. Adventure does it much better than golf or spending time in Vegas.

If there is a positive side to this crisis, it is that more people will explore true outdoor and hinterland activities compared to traditional tourist circuits. They will abandon the resort and golf course for the solitude and solitude of the outdoors, where everything is not perfectly presented. These imperfections are what will make every experience unique, memorable, and worth living. The growth that comes with an off-grid adventure experience is hard to fully describe, but our team has seen it time and time again – everyone on your team will be changed after a Stoke Broker adventure. And this change will spur innovation, creativity and integrity that will benefit not only the individual, but their business as well.

We can all lead more studied lives, and times of crisis offer meaningful opportunities for reflection. I think people are going to look for a deeper meaning in their travel activities – be it with family, friends, or business. They are likely to wonder how experiences add value and create impact. We designed Stoke Broker to do just that.

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