The last time we spoke to Nomad Tours, the travel company hosting tours around South and East Africa, the first hints of COVID were starting to impact the tourist industry. Now, on the other side of a surreal 18 months or so for the world over, we caught up with CEO and company founder Alex Rutherford to hear how lockdowns, restrictions and a complete halt of holidayers affected the long-standing tours company, how they survived, and what they’re planning to do now that the world is opening back up.
“It came on very fast. We went from business as normal to grinding to a halt in a matter of weeks.” If you’ve followed Endeavour for a while, you’ll have followed Nomads Tours’ evolution via our many chats with Alex. He has always managed to find the balance between an adventurous spirit and a grounded business sense – a brilliant combination that equips someone to venture out and found a pan-African camping tour company in the first place, spurred on by his own passion for the trails and great African outdoors, and yet also allows them to build it reliably from the ground up and make a product that works. We’re used to hearing Alex describe a journey from strength to strength, but nothing in the past year and a half has been what we’re used to, and the impacts of COVID have been felt by everyone.
“We went fully 18 months without a single trip. To give you an idea, we went from running around 100 clients across 30-40 tours a month, to zero. It was devastating.”
Nomad Tours began as a company that offered tours for small groups, combining bus and jeep travel with good old-fashioned camping under the stars. Exploring the landscape, learning the history, meeting the locals, becoming close neighbours to passing lions – this was all a part of the dream that Alex and his team turned into a reality. And for the founder in particular, two elements always seemed to stand out as a passion –the bonding and energy of a group trip, and taking good care of his staff and guides. During the world’s various lockdowns, group trips, or trips of any kind, were off the table. But he still had his staff.
“We were one of the few companies that hung on with the staff as long as we did. A lot of the companies, within a month or two, had laid off everybody and shut down completely. We held on for six months. We also did a crowd funder campaign to raise funds for our guides. I said that any donations, I would match from the company’s side: we raised quite a sum, something like half a million. That allowed us to give the guides an allowance for quite a few months. Towards the end of the year, though, the writing was on the wall that this thing wasn’t just going to blow over, so unfortunately, we’ve had to cut back massively. We’re down to about 12 office staff from about 60 or 70: I’ve kept all my departmental heads, but it’s come at a huge cost.”
This cost came in many forms, not least having to say goodbye to staff who had become like family. It also took other forms, including, heartbreakingly, the company’s new hotel.
Although Nomad Tours’ trips started out from the concept of camping, the company also works with many resorts and other accommodation throughout South and East Africa. Along the road, this expanded into the company also owning hotels of its own, the most recently acquired of which was a property in Cape Town. We wrote about this project in a recent Nomad interview; city-central, this hotel was planned to be decorated top to tail in a beautiful art deco style. It was a huge undertaking, but one with a fantastic vision for its completion – however, the pandemic sadly had other ideas.
“We had to sell it. We’d finished everything – it was beautiful. It was an absolute gem, and we were just starting to break even. It’s a sore point, but it was the successful completion of a project, and I’m happy with that. We’d done the renovation, we’d gotten it running, we had bookings, we brought in additional business. So, it can be done. We got past the teething pains of all the rules and the regulations, so if we did it again, it would be much easier that time.”
Although this hotel is gone, Nomad Tours still owns its other property. The company also sold many of its truck fleet, but has retained the trucks’ bodies (the element that the company has had custom-made to facilitate their guests’ needs in terms of personal USB ports, on-board water dispensers and the like). This means that when it comes time to re-expand, Nomad will only need to source new chassis etc., but the custom elements have been retained.
This sort of future-proofing has been in all of Nomad’s choices. It’s not an easy call for a business owner – where does one downsize and sell off assets, and where does one continue to spend to maintain what one has? Every day the company stayed intact as a company, it cost Nomad. Throwing in the towel would be a decision that Alex couldn’t easily take back, but at the same time, staying the course with an unknown timeframe ahead of them wasn’t a choice to make lightly. “I made a call in November about what was possible,” Alex explained to us; “Jow long it would be possible to keep going if nothing happened, which it didn’t. I did the numbers and I said ‘Either we’re going through this thing or we’ve got to stop now.’ I made the decision, ‘I’m going all in and I’m coming out the other side.’”
“18 months with no revenue is quite terrifying. I was quite lucky that last year, about 20 of my trucks ended their payments. So, that took huge pressure off me – if I hadn’t had that, I don’t know where I’d be now.”
“But! We survived, and are up and running again. It looks like the gamble paid off.”
At the start of September, Nomad sent out its first tour since COVID closed its doors. This wasn’t just a shot in the dark made as soon as it could be; this was a carefully timed and well-chosen venture, the fruits of the natural returning interest combined with Nomad’s careful monitoring of and responding to this reawakening market.
“We monitor our inquiries, web traffic etc. very closely. Month by month, looking at the booking inquiries against the normal patterns that happen every year, if you remove those cycles, it was an absolutely flat line. Then in August we noticed a shift, and once that change was noticed, then we started to up the ante.” In the meantime, Nomad’s stripped down and streamlined line had continued to keep in contact with its agents and posting regularly on social media – it maintained its presence – but it paused its usually substantial online marketing and withheld from having any physical brochures printed up. Once these signs up life seemed to return to the market, the company began to get active again, choosing some tours to pour its physical efforts into and slowly ramping its marketing back up.
“We’re being very specific in targeting countries that are responding, and also destinations that are easier. At the moment Namibia is very popular. Namibia and Botswana have a low population density; you’re not going to be in cities and around people in busy markets. I think travelers are a little wary of that. So, we’re playing to our strengths on a destination level and on a source market level.”
“We’ve identified the tours that we want to push and run for the rest of this year, we’ve cancelled all the rest, so we’ve got a reasonable spread in terms of variety and availability for the rest of the year. It’s about 25 tours, but it’s something. It’s a beginning.”
Nomad is in a strong position for moving forwards. Whilst it was forced to reduce the size of its team and assets in order to get through the desert, it did what it could to look after its people, keep in touch with its contacts and maintain its professional name. For example, the company is completely debt-free. Throughout the continent, Alex told us, some tour companies have left their suppliers high and dry – with tourism vanishing almost over-night, some found themselves unable to pay and responded by either leaving debts unpaid, going under or even packing up and vanishing overnight. Nomad made sure to find a way to pay its suppliers, meaning those professional relationships are still intact and in place ready for new tours.
As for life back at work, like for many of us, it looks different to how it used to. The slimmed-down office team works majoritively from home, coming into the office once a week to touch base, but otherwise doing everything remotely. Lockdown showed the world just how much is possible via video call, and whilst it might not always be the same as face-to-face, the cut down on travel time and emissions is a revolutionary.
One change that Alex is lamenting is the potential loss or reductio of the mixed group trip. Holidayers who didn’t know each other used to come together in medium-sized groups on these tours, and the friendships that sprung up across nations were one of Alex’s favourite parts of the tour experience to facilitate. There was already an increasing lean towards private tours – those for couples or a small group that arrived together – but Alex predicts that this trend will only increase post-COVID.
However, the key thing for Alex and the rest of Nomad is that they’re up and running again. “We haven’t set targets to get back to 2019 – I don’t know if we ever will. But like I said, we’ve become a lot more streamlined and we’ve done a lot of things to lower overheads, so we don’t actually need to go back to 2019 numbers. I’m quite lucky in that I don’t really have an ego issue: if we’re a smaller company but we’re more efficient, I’ll be just as happy.”
Whilst the company hasn’t set targets to get back to where it was, it does know where it needs to be in the short-term in order to come through the other side of this world crisis. “We will be fine until June next year. Past June, we will be in trouble, but that season – the July, August, September season – is usually our peak season, and we usually get our bookings for that between October and February. So, the next three months are really critical.”
“Watching that tour head out at the start of September was fantastic. At one stage, things seemed bleak; this is my life’s work, and I was in a very good position in 2019. Twelve months later, I was staring at the end of the runway and going, “Wow, this whole thing might just not make it.”
“It’s a huge relief now. Inquiries are picking up for the next year, and it can only get better as the vaccination roll out goes up and restrictions drop. We’re feeling positive. Things are still a long way from good, but there are signs of life.” Signs of life that, thanks to carefully planning and choices throughout the past 18 months, Nomad is in the right position to embrace and run with. In some ways, it might feel a little like starting back at the beginning, but this time, Nomad has years of experience, strong relationships and an established reputation to its name.
As the world returns to a new kind of normal, we’re confident that Nomad will be rising with it – and with the same integrity, energy and sense of humour as ever. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Alex laughed, “and this time it’s not a train.”