Here at EF Go Ahead Tours, we’ve always believed in the power of group travel. We’re a family-run company, after all, and we’ve leaned on our community for over 55 years. Never was this more true than a year ago, when the unfolding coronavirus put the world’s journeys on hold, and our experts needed to work quickly to bring our travelers home at a moment’s notice.
Here, Senior Vice President of Operations, Matts, reflects on how our global family of experts was able to support our travelers at the most pivotal time—and how we continue to do exactly that with our industry-leading EF COVID Care Promise and more so that you can plan future travel with confidence.
^ Meet Matts, our Senior Vice President of Operations!
Let’s rewind to March 2020.
The world was trying to come to terms with a new foe: a novel coronavirus that was spreading unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Along with many others at EF, I was up in the middle of the night watching the news—we’d been told President Trump was about to make a big announcement related to international travel, and I had a gut feeling about what was coming.
Messages were popping up left and right from colleagues in offices in North America and Europe. “What do you think he’ll announce?” we wondered. “Are we ready for anything and everything?” Then, the hammer dropped: All arrivals from Europe into the U.S. would be banned in 48 hours. Time to get to work.
My first call was to Roland, my colleague and good friend who leads Go Ahead’s flights department.
Roland and I go way back. I first got to know him when he was booking staff travel for EF about 13 years ago. He caught my attention as someone who was not only passionate about the airline industry, but also had a very customer-centric mindset, which he’d honed while working at Zurich Airport.
That night in March 2020, the connection we’d formed and our experience overseeing flights departments within EF mattered. It took Roland and I no more than 10 minutes to make a plan and get to work, each of us instinctively knowing how to divide and conquer.
Our challenge was to find ways to bring home the significant number of groups we had on the road, spread over many different continents.
From experience, we also knew that most other companies would start working on this in the morning, at which time flights and hotels would rapidly fill up. The window to get it done was now, before sunrise.
We followed a familiar pattern: Identify where the groups are. Check. Figure out how to bring them to the nearest big airport (small ones tend to get overwhelmed in these situations). Check. Book flights. Check. Secure hotel space near the airports. Check. Work on messaging for Tour Directors and our Customer Service teams so we’re all delivering the same clear communication. Check.
By 8am the next morning, we had a plan in place for every single Go Ahead traveler—all leaving in the next 48 hours, beating the travel ban.
Paradoxically, being able to react quickly in a situation like that takes a lot of preparation, and the groundwork for this day had been laid a long time ago. When we contract with airlines and hotels, we negotiate a lot more than price; the conditions, flexibility, and access to space and people is just as important to us as cost. Those things matter in situations like this because it means we can make changes that others cannot. That access starts with relationships.
That night in March 2020, the relationships that Roland and his team have built with American, Air Canada, Delta, United, and countless other major carriers allowed us to take care of our travelers before the majority of the world had finished their first cup of morning coffee.
Which brings me to the real point of telling this story: the importance of community. In the world of flights and operations, we work especially closely with two communities that play a crucial role in delivering great tours: Tour Directors and our suppliers. On the face of it, booking flights, hotels, and restaurants, or finding people willing to lead groups around the world, may not seem that difficult. In reality it’s a meticulous process that requires a lot of planning, strategic thinking, people-skills, and patience.
The process of onboarding a new hotel partner can easily take up to six months; before we even get to the contract negotiation, we start by figuring out whether our business goals are aligned, we visit and inspect the property ourselves, and we make sure that the things our travelers care about all check out. That includes the rooms, the breakfast and coffee, and the customers service.
Importantly, we also work with each property so that it meets all our stringent safety and hygiene standards.
All of this is part of building a relationship. Our best suppliers are the ones we’ve worked with for years, even decades. They understand the needs of our travelers inside and out, they know the Tour Directors we work with, and they also know that in times of crisis, we will stand by them.
The strongest relationships are forged in these moments. If you can get through them together by supporting each other, communicating well, and emerging on the other side, you know you’re onto a winner.
This is what my team is spending their time on now. Building community. The stories we’re hearing every day from Tour Directors and suppliers are both heartbreaking and inspirational; this is an industry in crisis, but its resiliency is remarkable. Our suppliers want nothing more than to welcome our travelers again, and Tour Directors are aching to get back to their life’s passion—their wanderlust for travel is high on a normal day!
It’s also been incredibly inspirational to see how our community is banding together and coming up with innovative ways to run tours again in the safest way possible.
Never before have I seen such a common purpose and spirit of collaboration—competitors are sharing ideas, rival suppliers are combining forces, and more than ever, we all feel like we’re in this together.
I’m proud of the role that EF and Go Ahead have been able to play in this. I myself got my start with EF in London in 2003, and since the very first day I’ve felt like I’ve been part of a big family—a diverse and dispersed one, but one that sticks together through thick and thin. And never before has family and community been as important as in the last year.
Most importantly, our travelers’ patience and eagerness to re-schedule their trips and book new trips in 2021, 2022, and 2023 is providing hope for the suppliers and Tour Directors we partner with; being able to show real future bookings is literally keeping businesses alive.
So on behalf of all of us at EF, I want to say a huge THANK YOU to the most important community of all: you, our community of travelers.
You’ve been incredibly flexible, positive, and loyal throughout this crisis, and that’s something we don’t take for granted. We’ve drawn inspiration from your resilience and from hearing how much you’re all looking forward to traveling again. As fellow travelers, we know exactly how you feel, and we can’t wait to welcome you back... see you soon!