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Pandemic brings bus tour industry to a standstill

Operators hope to be on the road again as Alberta allows more businesses to reopen

The wheels have fallen off the bus of the motor coach industry. 

Nagel Tours' fleet of 10 motor coaches have been parked since March because of the pandemic.

Hayden Nagel, reservations and transportation manager, said all summer tours are cancelled, but hoped buses could be rolling again in September. He's confident the family business, which opened in Edmonton in 1977, will be around for at least another 43 years. 

Bryon Steinwand is less optimistic about his company's future. Promotion Tours in St. Albert has been around since the 1980s, but he only bought it in 2012. He owns no motor coaches but charters them, and has cancelled all tours, that he creates and sells, until 2021. The company is on life support, he said, and may not survive if things don't improve soon. 

"Before the virus we were doing very well. Of course it hit us as at the worst time of the year right after we put out our new brochures and our new website, and spent a ton of money on advertising. 

"This is a total shock to us, we've never seen anything like it and neither has the previous owner — to go from flat out with people excited about tours to complete shutdown with no end in sight and no clear guidelines when things are going to relax," Steinwand said.

Everyone in the tourism business has been affected by the coronavirus, but motor coach tours have been hit harder, shut down 100 per cent, because of the age of their customers and because many of the places they want to go to, such as casinos, have only recently started to reopen as part of Alberta's Stage 2 relaunch, and restaurants are operating at half capacity.

Most of the people who take motor coach tours are 65 plus, the demographic most likely to develop serious complications from the virus, Nagel explained.

"A lot of passengers are holding back. They're a little bit nervous (about travelling) right now.

"It's a wait and see game to see how long before things are a little more safe. There are insurance issues as well, the same as for pre-existing conditions, so if you had to cancel or you get the coronavirus down there, you may not be covered," he added.

That and the closing of the U.S. border prompted both companies to cancel tours they run on in both countries.

Nagel has survived other economic downturns after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, and the '80s recession. 

"We've seen a lot of ups and downs, but (COVID-19) is probably the most problematic," Nagel said.

Travel outside Alberta is not recommended at this time, but Nagel can't even run tours within the province because older adults don't feel comfortable. 

"Some people are okay with having to wait until tours start up again, others have been at home so long they can't wait to travel," he said. 

"We've been taking reservations for tours from September onwards. There is a lot of positivity with people in the next year wanting to travel again." 

Steinwand is planning to start up again in 2021, "but we've pretty much lost the entire year for 2020. I've cancelled upwards of 35 tours already.

"If anybody was willing to book I'd be accepting reservations for 2021, but everybody's pretty skeptical right now. Consumer confidence is really low." 

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Steinwand laid off all five full-time office staff and five tour guides, and he is closing his rented office to work from home.

Nagel had to furlough half of his 26 full- and part-time staff, but they are expected to be hired back as business picks up. In the meantime, those remaining employees have spent much of their time dealing with the tours that had to be cancelled, contacting travellers as well as travel agents to let them know some tours have been postponed to later dates.

The company has adopted a lot of new safety protocols as it prepares for upcoming tours, Nagel said 

"Drivers will do a good job of cleaning and disinfecting the coaches. We've purchased some (electrostatic) fogging equipment (as used by commercial airlines) and installed UV lights (that eliminate 90 per cent of microbial contaminants after 10 minutes of exposure and 99 per cent after one hour).

Drivers will sit behind plexiglass barriers and passengers will wear masks and sit spaced apart to comply with the guidelines at that time.

Normally, September is the busiest month for coach travel with up to 20 tours on the road, "but obviously there are not going to be those kinds of numbers this year," Nagel said. 

On the possibility that fall tours may also have to be cancelled, the company has shortened the date final payments are required from 45 days to 30 days before travel, "so if we do have to cancel a tour only the deposit is affected."

Nagel is optimistic about the future "and everybody being safe, and confident we're going to get over this in the next little while. 

"We're lucky in that we've been around for 43 years. With our experience and network with a lot of other operators that have been around a long time ... we should be in OK shape."

Steinwand has talked with repeat customers who are excited to see travel bans lifted so they can travel again. 

"That's encouraging, that some of the demand is still there," he said. "But if something doesn't change drastically in future so we can get back to creating some revenue, I've got to look for a job."

Chris Zdeb is a freelance writer and regular contributor to This story was funded by the Facebook Journalism Project Supporting Local News Coverage of COVID-19 Program via the Local Media Foundation.

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