On October 1, 2013, Shelia Schwartz and her group, Platinum Adventures from Barrington Bank and Trust in Barrington, Illinois, headed out for their national and state park adventure in South Dakota.
Most people in the travel world will remember that date as the start of the U.S. federal government shutdown, an event that sent catastrophic tremors through the tourism industry. Many others will recall that in early October, a record-breaking storm dumped four feet of snow in parts of western South Dakota.
“You never know what issues you are going to have to face when you are a group travel leader,” said Schwartz. “It turned out that the government shutdown was not the biggest issue we had to face on our trip. Being cold and hungry became the primary issues.
“I’ve been in Chicago most of my life — the Windy City — but I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
Although the Platinum Adventures group was able to view Mount Rushmore from a distance and visit a variety of interesting venues the first few days of the excursion, its hotel in Rapid City lost power when the blizzard arrived.
“That meant we had no heat, lights [or] phones and a shortage of food,” Schwartz said. “The hotel, not a full-service venue, did not have generators, but they did have limited portable lighting and candles. Most of our group’s rooms were on the fourth floor of the hotel, and it was a difficult walk with not much light. We had medical problems, including diabetes and cancer, to deal with.
“There were two tour buses on the same tour, and the two tour directors did a wonderful job in keeping everyone calm. However, at the same time they were searching for alternative places for us to stay where there was electricity, the big issue was being able to transport us on the buses since one was stuck in the parking lot and no one knew where the other one was.”
A Year of Travel Hurdles
Admittedly shuddering at the thought of such a trip, two professional tour operators spoke from experience while discussing major disruptions on the road and their advice to group travel leaders.
“The government shutdown largely affected our folks on the road in Colorado,” said John Lyons, owner of Landmark Tours, a company in Minneapolis that specializes in air and motorcoach packages for preformed groups. “We had much to contend with all over in 2013, including fires and flooding.”
Like Lyons, Susan Damon, president and owner of Nomad Adventures in St. Louis, a company that offers travels to national parks in the western United States and cruises worldwide, remembers well the events of 2013.
“It was challenging, to say the least,” Damon said. “We also experienced fires in lower Arizona near the Grand Canyon National Park.”
Both experts agreed: Professional tour directors are key to handling difficulties on the road.
“It is that professional tour director on the ground, backed up by the team in the home office and all the technology available, that is essential to know well and trust when choosing a tour operator,” said Lyons.
“A quality, professional tour director accompanies all of our trips,” said Damon. “They are the experts, compared to those of us sitting in an office planning tours that look beautiful on paper. Of course, they can get in touch with us 24/7.”
Thanks to the expertise of those tour directors and other travel professionals, both Landmark Tours and Nomad Adventures did more than just survive the traumas of 2013.
“During the government shutdown, we relied on local tourism people, the convention and visitors bureaus, and fellow NTA members to suggest alternative activities. They not only helped solve our problems, but they enhanced our knowledge of the area for future tour itineraries,” said Lyons.
With a group about to visit the Grand Canyon during the 2013 wild land fires, “they didn’t miss a beat,” according to Damon.
“We talked to weather experts, flip-flopped days, and all was great. If you hadn’t studied the activities on specific days on the itineraries, you would not have known anything had happened,” she added.
Advice From the Boy Scout Motto
Throughout the emergency experience in South Dakota, Schwartz learned it is important to always be prepared.
“I travel with a small flashlight that was the best item that I had with me,” she said. “The second- and third-best thing I had with me was a new pair of Go Walk shoes that were fur-lined and kept my feet warm, and a winter scarf that I used as a shawl.”
And although Schwartz conserved power on her cellphone by keeping it turned off most of the time, she has now purchased a battery boost that will significantly extend the charge of that essential device.
“We’re going to New England during the winter months, and this time I will be incredibly prepared — including taking boots,” she said.
Thanks to the hotel’s extended efforts in patching together meals and snacks and all the extra blankets they could find, Platinum Adventures endured three days without power in Rapid City. The group was eventually moved to another hotel where Schwartz and her group members fondly remember hot showers and a warm meal.
The tour operator also responded quickly to this situation that had largely been out of their control.
“Financially, they were very generous, and all of our travelers were very satisfied with what they received back,” Schwartz said. “But they were disappointed, of course, on all the great sights that we had missed.
“I certainly learned a lot from this experience. In retrospect, our group became very friendly, and their attitude was great. We really got to know one another and had fun together, but if it had lasted another day or two — I don’t know,” she added with a chuckle.
“When I returned I had a great story to tell and experiences that I will never forget. My best memories will be of the great people I traveled with and the friends that we all made.”