Mountain Kingdoms weather the storm

As part of our Coronavirus coverage, we spoke to Steve Berry, managing director of Mountain Kingdoms, to hear how Wotton’s tour operators are bearing the brunt of the global pandemic. 

“When you look at everything else that we’ve faced over the years, it knocks all the other crises into a cocked hat,” said Berry during a call last Friday. “We’ve been going for 33 years now, and there’s been an extraordinary number of things that could have caused us great harm; the assassination of the royal family of Nepal, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the Rohingya movement in Burma, the Twin Towers, the two Gulf Wars, the Afghan War, the volcano in Iceland in 2010, Brexit… all of them have had major impacts on travel. We’ve also had several world recessions, particularly in 1990 and 2008, which had large effects on currencies and the abilities of people to travel. However, none of these have affected the whole world as such. There have been incidents which have affected one country we operated in, and then people would say, ‘Well okay, I’m not going to go to that country this year, I’ll go somewhere else.’ Because we’ve been spread around the globe the risk to us was mitigated, but this time the effects are being felt everywhere.”

As a result of worldwide clampdowns on travel and international movement due to restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, almost everything has been suspended. “It’s incredible,” said Berry, “We’ve had to cancel everything in March, April and May. We had some groups running in January and February but it really kicked off last month, as we know. We will probably have to cancel June and July, but we’re holding on to the hope that things will sort themselves out by the time we get into August, September and October.” Autumn is the busiest time of the year for Mountain Kingdoms; countries such as Nepal and Bhutan are the company’s biggest destinations for tours and holidays, and as a result the peak period for the company is after the monsoon season. “That’s our peak, post-monsoon in the Himalaya, so Nepal, Bhutan and India in parts of North-West India, that’s the time to go there. And in the winter it’s nice and cool in central Asia and the far east.”

Berry describes the whole period as being very difficult for the company. “We’ve had to make two  people redundant and we are about to furlough most of the staff but keep a few key workers going. We’ve had to refund everybody for all those trips that have been cancelled in the spring, and we’ve had to repatriate a few people whose holidays had to be curtailed.” 

When the gravity of the situation became apparent last month, Mountain Kingdoms organised a crisis meeting and agreed that the top priority was to get all of their customers abroad back home safely. “We devoted all our initial effort into contacting everyone out there – contacting the agents, contacting the hotels, dealing with the airlines and getting people home… that was step number one. Step number two was looking at everyone we had booked in for March, April and May, looking at all those groups and their dates and where they were, and then we had to contact everybody, literally, by phone. We felt that if we could speak to people personally we would be able to explain their options more easily.”

This sounds like a monumental effort; Berry agrees that it was massively stressful, but feels it was the right way to break the news to their customers and begin the process of repatriations. “It really is incredible how supportive most of our customers are during this difficult time – we’ve had lots of lovely emails and letters of support. It’s been really nice to receive them during this time. Our next course of action has been to offer people the option of transferring through to another trip this year or next year, or if preferred clients can transfer to another trip in the same country, or a different country at no transfer charge. That’s what we’ve been trying to do, persuading people to transfer off onto other trips.”

The process has been tough for tour operators as well as airlines. “It’s been exceedingly difficult, particularly for those trips which were close to departure. We’d paid for the tickets, hotels, and land arrangements and everything was in place. Some airlines have been extremely good, but some have taken a while before eventually announcing their refund policy. Some have behaved extremely honourably and understand that they have to be responsible for a flight if it cannot fly for whatever reason. But some won’t, they’ll give you a credit note against that passenger to try to force them to travel again later, but of course many people just want to get their money back.”

It’s not just the travel agencies and airlines who are suffering; those employed as guides and organisers in the destination countries who are reliant on tourism for their income will be some of the worst-hit by the travel ban. “Some of the Sherpas will go back to their families and help with the farming and all the rest of it, but for the office workers it’s a different matter. They’ll have to be really scraping by, and with no help from their governments.”

At the moment, Mountain Kingdoms are offering free transfers or full refunds to any customers if their trip is being cancelled. Berry said, “Some travel companies are saying to customers, ‘We can’t go ahead with your current trip, but instead we can issue you with a credit voucher that you can use at some point in the future’. This isn’t in line with the law as it stands at this time.” Berry went on to say, “My belief and our company philosophy is that if we behave honourably then people will recognise that and will come back to us, and I think that is hopefully what will happen.” 

As the call comes to a close, Berry ends by asserting that Mountain Kingdoms will still be here after Covid-19 runs its course. “We are a financially strong company; we’ve got good reserves to fall back on in times of great difficulty, and we will survive this. I just hope that when the winter is banished that people will think of us again, and that they will come and book with us. We’re still working on lots of new and exciting things, and we hope that we will send out some good warm friendly positive stuff through our social media in the next three to four months in the hope that people will travel again come the autumn.”