The COVID-19 pandemic meant that many travel workshops were canceled last year and the few that took place looked very different. Now, with vaccinations ramping up and new precautions in place, photo workshops are coming back … but they won’t look, feel, or be the same. We asked several NANPA members who are long-time workshop leaders what will be different and how the experience and logistics of travel photo workshops will change.
It won’t be long before spring arrives. The weather will turn warm. Trees and plants will bud and flower. Newborn animals will take their first, tentative, steps. Just like every other year, photographers will be afflicted with a sense of wanderlust, that irresistible desire to load up our camera gear and travel, often on photo workshops. But 2021 is not like every other year.
Most, but not all 2020 workshops and photo tours scheduled after March of that year were canceled, as were many slated for early 2021. That’s given workshop leaders time and opportunity to adapt to this “new normal” and modify their plans to keep everyone safe, healthy, and happy. Here’s what workshop and photo tour leaders Susanna Euston, Ron Gaskins, Jennifer King, Jeff Parker, and John Slonina (bios at the end of the article) had to say.
King safely managed four workshops during the fourth quarter of 2020. Her participants dined outside at restaurants or had picnics, which added an element of fun. However, she also had to postpone six international workshops and noted that it looks like, due to continuing travel restrictions, she’ll have to reschedule again. So, for now, she’s concentrating on locations within the United States. Jeff Parker also managed some late-2020 workshops. Where lodging was included, he arranged for each participant to have a single room at no extra charge. He, too, postponed several international trips and, with the unpredictability of travel restrictions and lock downs, feels overseas tours are too risky right now and is concentrating on domestic travel.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Gaskins had never had to cancel a workshop but, like many in this business, had to drop several. Slonina had to cancel a year’s worth of sold-out tours. Fortunately, he was able to reschedule many to later in 2021 or 2022. Many clients of each workshop leader opted to transfer their money to later dates. Being able to give a full refund to anyone who requested it was tough, but good for one’s reputation, said Slonina, who thinks that could ultimately pay off if those individuals book later trips. For our workshop and tour leaders, having clients shift their booking to later dates was a big help, but it also results in fewer available slots in the next round of workshops for everyone else.
Timing is everything
Airlines and hotels are offering deals to entice travels to return, so there are savings to be had but, even as travel slowly starts to pick up, the demand has been slow to rebound. While Gaskins, along with most workshop leaders, expects there’s a lot of pent up desire, people just aren’t booking early spring trips. Slonina agreed, but said that registrations for his trips scheduled for this summer and beyond are very good.
The downtime caused by travel restrictions and lock downs has given tour and workshop leaders a chance to rethink and revise what they’re doing. Some have started teaching classes and speaking (and marketing their services) to camera clubs and other groups via Zoom. They’ve revised their teaching to match the capabilities and limitations of online platforms. They’ve refined itineraries, added new stops, and done other things to enhance the experience they offer. While they each have their own styles and strengths, they all seem to agree on some major changes to the workshop and photo tour experience.
In addition to avoiding international travel for now, Euston is focusing on local places that don’t require travel by air. There are a lot of potential clients within driving distance of her base near Asheville, North Carolina, and many great photo locations an easy drive from there. Expect a lot of domestic options and few foreign sorties, at least before mid-summer. A lot depends on vaccination rollouts, both here in the U.S. and in destination countries.
Most workshop and tour leaders are limiting enrollment to about six people. King sometimes uses two instructors, increases the number of participants to ten and splits them into two groups to maintain social distancing. Smaller group sizes can lead to more intimate workshops but also mean fewer openings for anyone looking to book one.
Transportation & lodging
The option of sharing a room with another workshop attendee is pretty much gone and no one is offering shared transportation or carpooling (unless participants are traveling together). On many of his workshops, Slonina used to drive participants around in a 12-passenger van. The van was great for group dynamics and talking photography. It gave lots of extra time for answering questions, preparing the group for the next stop, informal teaching. Like others, he has reduced his maximum group size to six and now has everyone taking their own vehicles. Finding parking spots at popular locations, viewpoints, and trailheads becomes an issue when there are six or more vehicles instead of one or two, adding another layer of complexity to the workshop leader’s planning.
Most leaders are teaching the classroom lecture or demonstration sessions during their travel workshops via Zoom. Euston sometimes delivers sessions prior to a workshop and sometimes during a workshop, but with everyone participating from their own rooms. Parker has sometimes done his classroom sessions outside under a tree, with a large TV and tables set up six feet apart.
Each of the workshop and tour leaders requires participants to wear masks when inside as well as outside when in proximity to others. They keep extra masks and sanitizer available throughout the workshop, and some provide both in welcome bags at the start of the workshop. King does her meet and greets at the beginning of each workshop outside.
Slonina said that a few people had canceled because of mask mandates. King reminds her clients that wearing a mask is a requirement on federal lands, like national parks and wildlife refuges, as well as at some state and local parks and public lands.
Group meals are sometimes available where restaurants have outdoor seating but sometimes participants are on their own. King’s groups occasionally have picnics and Parker does some buffet-style group meals outside, where one person goes through the food line at a time, and masks and gloves are required.
Waivers and insurance
Workshop and tour leaders have long urged participants to get insurance but many travelers were surprised last year when their trip insurance did not cover cancelations due to the pandemic. With all the unpredictability around the coronavirus, they’re urging (and, in some cases, requiring) participants to get insurance and to read the fine print to be sure they know what is covered.
Most tour leaders have added COVID-19 to their standard waivers. Parker asks attendees to sign a waiver stating that they have not exhibited any COVID symptoms in the last 14 days and they have not been diagnosed, or had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID in the last 30 days. King revised her cancelation policies to give herself and her clients a little more flexibility.
Things workshop attendees may not know
Workshop leaders took a beating in 2020. Workshop cancellations and postponements cost money, both in revenue foregone and loss of deposits or payment of penalties for cancelling hotel rooms and other logistical items.
King noted that most national park hotels, international destinations, and many other hotels, require a contract where the tour leader agrees to pay 85% of the total group block, making workshop cancelation and rescheduling very expensive. For example, a five-night workshop with ten participants results in 50 room nights, meaning the leader would still have to pay for 42 room nights (85%) if the workshop was canceled! Last year some venues were themselves closed and some, but not all, vendors were flexible and allowed rescheduling or renegotiation. Know and appreciate that, whenever a workshop has a block of rooms reserved, your tour leader is on the hook for a big chunk of those rooms if the workshop is canceled.
Parker spoke for all of his peers when he said, “I’m really hoping that we can get the vaccine rolled out to everyone who wants it and get on with our lives.” For everyone who loves to go on photo tours and workshops, let’s hope so!
If you’re a photo tour leader and have instituted additional changes and safety precautions not covered in this article, let us know. And, if you’re thinking of signing up for a travel workshop, tell us what safeguards important to you. Drop us a line at [email protected].
Who they are
Susanna Euston is a prize-winning photographer, graphic designer, and artist. She teaches photography at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of North Carolina Asheville, leads workshops, exhibits in galleries, and is a regular speaker at camera clubs and photography events.
Ron Gaskins owns West Virginia Fine Photography and is president of Mountaineer Photo Excursions. He’s best known for images that illustrate stories, document events, and express the beauty and wonder of wildlife. His work has been published widely and held artist-in-residence posts at several parks and wildlife refuges.
Jennifer King is a multi-award-winning nature photographer, author, and speaker. Her work has appeared in publications from Outdoor Photographer Magazine, to Smoky Mountains Journal of Photography, to Camera in the Wild. She’s the founder of Photography for the Fight Against Breast Cancer and is a Singh-Ray Filters Ambassador.
Texas-based wildlife and nature photographer Jeff Parker, along with his wife Mary O, owns Explore in Focus, a workshop and photo tour company. His images have appeared in many publications, including Outdoor Photographer, Audubon Magazine, and Texas Wildlife Magazine, as well as several editions of NANPA’s Expressions journal. He and Mary O lead workshop and tours all over the globe. In addition, he is a Corpus Christi Certified Wildlife Guide and holds a NOLS Wilderness First Aid certificate.
John Slonina is a New England-based nature photographer, author, and workshop leader. Beginning with a childhood that was full of enriching outdoor activities, he’s been exploring the landscapes and wildlife of North America for decades and brings that intimate knowledge of nature to his photography, teaching and writing.