From Above



The flower in the field

It's mid February 2020, and you are absolutely killing it. The whole team is busy, your sales funnel is looking great, and given the way you exceeded expectations for the first few months of the year you are bullish about this being a record year. There have been up and downs with this tourism business of yours over the years, but you've put a lot of work into systems, people, product and client relationships - and the future's so bright you got to wear shades.

There are a few grumbles of concern about a flu virus in the east. But its been around for a few months now, and seems to be localised in China. You are reminded of SARS, Ebola scares and other big viral boogiemen of the recent past - none of which have really made too much of a real impact on your life, despite short term media hysteria. Running out of water trumped all of those in terms of impact on your business, and even then you've bounced back nicely. You're pretty sure the flu virus is also just another one of those.

At the end of February, you take your team on a quarterly retreat, and you have a wonderful two days setting goals for the next three months, kayaking on the river and sharing stories over pizza and wine. You are still feeling bullish about the new year - every day there are new enquiries. There are also some clients (especially from places like Singapore) who start asking what cancellation policies look like if things get bad with the virus - but you set their mind at ease, internet searches reveal that most people are still dismissing it as mild flu (including the World Health Organization).

But as you ease into March, news starts to build up. Italy is going into lockdown, bodies are piling up, and people are encouraged to wear face masks when traveling. International conferences get cancelled right and centre- including the ITB in Berlin, the worlds biggest tourism show. You start paying attention to the statistics - and you still go on your business trip to Amsterdam. There are sanitisers at the hotel and some social distancing, but people generally still seem oblivious. Before the end of the trip, you get the news that several major conferences are cancelled - including one that you had a lot of clients attending.

When you come home, though, you realise things are changing rapidly. You are expected to quarantine yourself because you went on an international trip. You start checking your temperature daily. You have anxiety about who you might have infected. Your doctor tells you you can't be tested, you don't have the symptoms. You self-isolate anyway. You send your team home and start remote working protocols. There are suddenly no new bookings, and you start processing refunds for clients who are now cancelling their trips.

The president goes on tv. Then he does it again. Warnings are followed by restrictions and suddenly, late in March, you find yourself a prisoner in your own home. You keep on processing refunds. You try to balance supplier survival with client demands. Some clients are reasonable. Others are not. "We are all in this together" quickly becomes "every man for himself". You work hard to motivate your team, but it is harder every day.

As you calculate the economic realities, you start cutting costs and salaries. Everyone understands, but inevitably, you start losing good people. And you keep on cancelling trips, processing refunds. There are no new enquiries. No excited emails of honeymooners taking their first steps to their once-in-a-lifetime trip. No families celebrating their daughters college graduation by going on safari. No conference goers want to nip out to the winelands to sample the cuisine.

You try to be good to your spouse. See the wonder in spending so much extra time with your children. Appreciate the opportunity to bake more, learn how to juggle, make contact with long lost friends over zoom and binge watch netflix. You wonder what else could you do if things don't improve, you look for ways to pivot, you check in with colleagues peers and mentors on what to do. You worry about money, you worry about your community.

You lament that grandma can't visit the kids. You miss a good old braai with your mates. You struggle to find a quiet spot in the house to sit comfortably and take an important meeting. Your toddler kills the coffee machine. You miss swimming in the ocean. You have sneaky catchups with mates in the Spar parking lot.

April eases into May, and things ease up a little. You can actually go walk the dog. Get an essential services permit and drive somewhere other than the supermarket. Get a fine dining meal delivered to your door. But there is still no tourism. Hotels, restaurants and activities are still closed. There is no walking on the mountain, no getting away for the weekend. And there are no flights.

But you keep on trucking. The team does online training courses, suppliers keep on pushing out special deals, and you work on your systems, your product and your readiness. You find it hard to be motivated - but you put on a brave face. You send out your newsletters, call clients, check in with suppliers. Your buddies in tourism start cleaning companies, home kitchens and take up farming.

And as May becomes June, things become better for almost everyone around you. Industries open up, people go back to work, and the traffic on the roads start coming back. Tourism leaders start pushing, positive messages start coming through from other parts of the world, and the Covid Rollercoaster still plays daily with your emotions.

And people start responding to your newsletters. They wonder about a trip next year - they want to come back to Africa. Your staff talk to these people, and you encourage them to communicate - but there is so much uncertainty, so much fear still, that you don't really think much will come of it.

And then one day, on a Monday morning checkin, one of your team announces that they have received passport information. You feel delight, but you are still cautious. You feel like you don't want to be disappointed - things have been so grim for so long.

And then, on the Tuesday, as you open your mails and find that the client has paid their booking deposit - you find that you are celebrating with your team. It feels like the first rains after a long drought, and you want to just go outside and soak it for a second. But no, that doesn't quite describe it. And the answer comes from the person who handled the booking.

She says: "See, its like the first flower to bloom in the barren field. Its so exquisite - so out of place - that you are surprised by it. You feel unbalanced by it, and you don't quite know what to make of it. But is is beautiful -and pure - and completely expected. How could you not expect to see it?"

And you realise that she is right. Of course new flowers will bloom. You just have to be patient - nurture the soil, let nature take its course. But you are also aware of how messy the field looks. It might take years to grow back to its formal glory. Its probably going to look completely different, come to think of it. And you snap out of your lethargy, take a shovel, and contemplate your field. Which trees are completely burnt out? Which shrubs are just resting, and will sprout soon enough? Which ones should you remove, and which ones should you leave?

But flowers need space to grow. This was only the first one - and you don't want to get over excited. But there will be more. And you need to be ready.

You make your choices, and you get to work.

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