Guiding businesses almost totally dependent on tourism are among the Jackson Hole industries being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic and closures in its wake.
Taylor Phillips, who founded one of the valley’s largest wildlife viewing companies, Eco Tour Adventures, made the call to lay off all but one of his guides March 16, the day after Jackson Hole Mountain Resort announced it was shutting down for the season. It was a prescient move. One week later, Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks — where Eco Tour guides primarily go to find critters — followed suit and also closed down.
“We thought the prudent thing to do was be proactive,” Phillips said. “Our guides weren’t comfortable, knowing tourists were jumping off planes from New York and other hot spots.”
“I laid them off,” he said. “Most of them are collecting unemployment, but I am committing to them to cover 100% of their health insurance premiums until they’re guiding again.”
Covering the premiums for the 10 guides and office staff workers who found themselves out of a job is a “significant expense” — at least a few thousand dollars a month, he said.
To help underwrite those costs while his cash flow is next to nil, Phillips and a staffer he was able to keep on, Josh Metten, launched an online store last week. Future tours are for sale, but there are also limited-edition prints from wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen, EcoTour-branded Stio apparel, Maven binoculars and other goods available, chiefly from Jackson Hole-based small businesses. All profits go toward health care costs for Eco Tour’s out-of-work wildlife guides.
Right off the bat, 25 or so orders filtered in to support the cause.
“It’s been awesome,” Phillips said.
Other wildlife safari businesses reached by the Jackson Hole Daily also reported having to slash staff down to next to nothing because of the coronavirus.
“We’re in the same boat,” Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris owner Jason Williams said.
The same day as Eco Tour, on March 16, Williams shuttered and stopped guiding for the season.
“We had guides who were still comfortable guiding, but we didn’t think it was the right thing to do for the community,” he said. “For us, this is about saving summer and saving the community from the worst-case scenario.”
All of Williams’ guides have been laid off, though he noted it’s not a “significant number of folks” because late springtime is one of the slowest times of year for Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris anyway. There is “never a perfect time for a pandemic,” he said, but losing the spring “isn’t terrible” relative to times like summer and early fall.
Brushbuck Wildlife Tours co-owner Adam Lackner’s 16 guides, like everybody else, are all out of work. Car payments have been deferred and mortgages refinanced to help the company stay afloat, he said.
“We’re trying to protect our cash on hand,” Lackner said, “and are in hibernation mode.”
Lackner himself has stayed busy though, trying to hold on to booked trips that were already in the pipeline for months down the road.
“Advance deposits are a huge part of this business, so it’s in our best interest to keep what’s been sold,” he said. “We don’t plan to cancel for summer at all, and we think that this will be mostly blown over.”
Brushbuck runs four or five trips a day in May, but that number bumps up to a dozen or 15 daily trips by mid-June. Lackner is hopeful to retain business booked in both months.
“If they extend another closure past May 1, I think that’s really going to hurt incredibly bad,” he said. “But I don’t see that happening.”
Eco Tour owner Phillips was a bit less optimistic for the return of normal life and business.
“If we are up and running at 100% capacity by July,” he said, “we’ll be excited.”