A year of evolving tourism trends impacted the Adirondack guiding industry in a range of ways
By Holly Riddle
It’s no secret the Adirondack Park saw a surge of visitors in 2020. The increase in visitation impacted just about every industry in the region. For some New York State licensed outdoor guides, an increase in business helped them weather an uncertain year, while for others, the pandemic provided a push to make changes ahead of 2021’s summer guiding season.
A year of change
Helene Gibbens is co-founder of Adirondack Riverwalking & Forest Bathing, a guided excursions provider that focuses on intimate, sensory nature experiences in some of the Adirondacks’ quieter, less-crowded corners. Before the pandemic, visitors could book group river walking and forest bathing experiences with strangers; now, Adirondack Riverwalking & Forest Bathing only books experiences for individuals or private groups. Still, even with this change and the loss of experiences hosted via partnerships with venues like The Wild Center and Elk Lake Lodge, Gibbens said last summer wasn’t dire, as it could have been.
“We pretty much had the same revenue as the year before,” she says. “It was a busy summer and fall.” That busyness extended into the winter months, when she said the company guided more winter forest bathing experiences than they had in all of the previous years put together.
She also considers the pandemic may have helped shed a light on the health benefits of forest bathing and similar activities, encouraging more Adirondack visitors to book one of the company’s experiences.
More about forest bathing
Read about an excursion at Paul Smith’s College VIC with guide Helene Gibbens
See a photo gallery from that same session (photos by Explorer multimedia reporter Mike Lynch)
There’s been a lot of research done on forest bathing and there’s a greater awareness about the physical and mental health benefits of the practices and, now, with COVID, things like boosting your immune system and reducing anxiety and stress are really important, so that was very helpful for us.”
A different experience
But while Gibbens’ customers are often looking for a tranquil, serene experience in nature, other Adirondack guides offer experiences that are a bit more adrenaline-pumping. Mark Scott owns Great Range Mountain Guides, guiding technical rock climbing and ice climbing excursions. Working for another guiding company prior to last year, Scott’s employer decided not to offer guiding during 2020.
“My last day of guiding for the year was in March of 2020, after New York State went into lockdown,” he says. “I stopped guiding for the remainder of the year. The impact was considerable.”
Scott formed Great Range Mountain Guides in early 2021, noting, “the pandemic drove home the point to me that the future is not guaranteed, and it seemed about time to take action on something that I had been contemplating for a while.”
Still, despite Scott’s later entry into the industry as a business owner versus an employee, he, too, has seen the impacts of the pandemic.
“Once guiding resumed this past winter, no large groups were allowed and everyone had to be from the same household. This is a significant departure from most years, when it is not uncommon to have 8–12 people out climbing in a group of friends,” he says.
Scott’s experience is not an uncommon one, according to the guided excursions booking platform he works with, 57Hours. At the beginning of the pandemic, 57Hours surveyed its network of climbing, skiing and mountain biking guides and found, in May 2020, 92% of guides had been out of work for several months and, even now, 50% of surveyed guides said their 2021 bookings are down compared to a normal year. Scott chose to partner with a booking platform to help reach new customers as he bounces back from the past year.
“I expect that, as a new business, my overall volume will be lower this year than it has been pre-pandemic,” he says.
Prepping for the season ahead
Tourism professionals in the region are expecting a strong travel season comparable to last year as well, and possibly even larger numbers, depending on how the summer plays out. James McKenna, president and CEO at the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid had this to say: “There is pent-up demand for travel that continues to grow as COVID cases decline and vaccinations increase. With major U.S. Northeast metro areas within a day’s drive to the Adirondacks, combined with a probable reopening of the Canadian border, all indicators point to a busy summer and fall travel season.”
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Guess this was posted before the extended border closure? I am super sympathetic here, because this summer is going to be just horribly difficult to predict. I know you can’t get an AirBnB though, so maybe a good sign?