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The Viva Story- Part 4: OUR COVID-19 STORY

Rachel Williams

Rachel Williams  |  9 July 2020

Part 4:  OUR COVID-19 STORY

Continued from Part 3: Viva Today – Pre COVID-19 

On 22 January 2020 I turned 40! I was full of optimism; it was going to be my year!

Two days after my big birthday bash myself & Brendan headed to Patagonia to pursue an amazing new opportunity.  We had an incredible and successful trip and returned home to New Zealand ready to take Viva to the next level.

 Viva Team South America

Image:  Myself & Brendan with one of our Viva groups in Torres Del Paine National Park, Feb 2020.

At this stage Corona was not much more than a whisper, something happening in China & Italy, but not yet a concern for the Southern Hemisphere. We even saw some opportunity as Latin America was still COVID free. 

But not for long.

Day by day the situation worsened as COVID spread throughout the world and by early March we were repatriating clients and planning for the worst.  I headed over the Australia mid-March to meet with my partners, we talked about COVID, tried to make plans, find windows of opportunity, but everywhere the windows were quickly closing.   The reality of the situation was quickly hitting home.

Over the following couple of weeks, the world started to shut down. Just a few days after I returned from Australia lockdown was announced and our team of 12 in the New Zealand office bid each other farewell as we went home seemingly at the mercy of COVID-19. 

viva team2

We went from selling a million dollars of Latin America & Antarctica holidays a month, to nothing.  Almost overnight.   We suddenly relied on Government wage subsidies & COVID Business Response packages to survive. As airlines and retail travel brands announced massive redundancies, we reduced staff hours and cut almost all expenses in order to make it through for an unknown period.

I felt like the carpet had been pulled from under my feet. 

It’s different to describe the range of emotions I felt at the time.  I’d run 100 miles an hour straight into a brick wall.  Everything we had built was falling apart so fast, it truly felt like a bad dream.  It was surreal.

But we didn’t have time to dwell. Our most immediate challenge was helping our clients who were already on their trips.  We had people cruising in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, hiking the famous Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu, even exploring Antarctica on an expedition cruise.

We had a small group of 10 Aussies, Kiwis & Americans who were exploring Patagonia on one of our Wild Patagonia expeditions.  As they entered remote Southern Patagonia, into Torres Del Paine National Park, all seemed well.  The guests were happy, the trip was due to finish in 8 days, and it seemed it would be no issue to get their scheduled flights home as planned.  By the time they left the park 4 days later the world was shutting down at an incredible pace.   

 Patagonia Group Tour Viva

Image: The walkers in the group had a great day to walk the Las Torres hike, meanwhile the non trekking group saw 3 Pumas!

Threats of an imminent Argentinean border closure meant we made the decision to get them out from Punta Arenas in Southern Chile as soon as possible. Our reservation staff and our team on the ground in Chile worked 24 hours and managed to get everybody rebooked on flights to Santiago and connecting home.  Luckily, we did, because Argentina closed its border the following day! 

 Group tour to South America

Image:  The group departing for the airport.  Happy to be on their way home.

From then, it was game on getting people home. Worried families were contacting us, we spent hours online to airlines to rebook flights and worked hard to secure last minute land arrangements for our transiting passengers.

By the end of March most of our clients were safely home.  We had only 8 of our clients who were stuck onboard a ship that had just returned from Antarctica.  Before they could get back from the frozen continent Argentina had closed its borders so the ship was not allowed into port.  The voyage was actually an exclusive charter, organised by our Aussie partners, and as such we had to get everyone off the ship and home.

 Repatriation flights from South America after COVID

In brief this required negotiating special opening of borders and changing port regulations allowing us to berth in Montevideo, Uruguay.  In order for this to happen our guests needed a connecting flight home. Flight to USA & Europe were infrequent but still operating, however for the other 153 Aussies & Kiwis onboard we needed to organise a special repatriation flight.  Amidst all of this New Zealand had moved from Level 2 – Level 4 lockdown within days. Borders were closed to all but repatriating nationals, and strict quarantine rules needed to be introduced.   This all needed to be manoeuvred to make the repatriation flight a success.   When this flight landed on the 3rd of April, we finally had all of Viva clients safely home from Latin America & Antarctica!

 Thank you card from Columbia

 Pic: Created during lockdown by one of the grateful travellers we repatriated.

We then turned to our next mammoth task.  Dealing with all the bookings that we had for people due to travel in the immediate future.  Cancelling, rebooking, reissuing and reassuring people was our key focus.    Most people understood that many things were outside of our control, others not so much, so it wasn’t a very nice time.    And all the while we had 0 new bookings.  It was disheartening to say the least. 

But then the NZ government reached out for help in repatriating other Kiwis who were still stuck in Peru.   Of course, we were up for the challenge.

This involved utilizing our huge network of contacts throughout Peru, our relationships with the airlines, and our reservations and logistical expertise to manage operation of the flight.   Peru was in military lockdown and people had to be located and moved to either Lima or Cusco.    Moving people meant each traveller, driver & vehicle needed a special authorisation issued by the Peruvian Government, some were based 3500km in the north and travelled by road for 5 days, almost without stopping.

 Repatriation flights from South America after COVID2

Contracts were signed with airlines and arrangements made at airports.  Bear in mind, in Lima the International Airport was closed so arrangements needed to made with the Peruvian military to open their airport.  Even getting people to the airport required special police meeting points, escorted convoys, special COVID protective gear … it was quite an operation. 

Meanwhile we had decided to try and bring New Zealanders remaining in Brazil & Chile back on the same flight which was due to transit through Santiago in Chile.  The race was on to get people home.

 Flight from SA

After many sleepless nights and working around the clock it was a relief when on 15 April, 78 more Kiwis arrived home.  All of this done in lockdown, with kids at home, using zoom technology for daily meeting with the government.  It was insane.

From then things settled down and, in many ways, the sad reality of the situation fell upon us like a blanket. It felt like we had lost so much, all that we had been building for the past 10 years was crumbling before our eyes.   But what we did have was people.  Great people!  It has been incredibly overwhelming how, despite the hardship and uncertainty we are all experiencing, that all have stuck by me and have stuck together as a team.  Working harder than ever and going out of their way to help and be supportive, knowing that their future is uncertain.   

 Viva Team Auckland

We needed a project, something positive and exciting to work on.

Never ones to be idle, we set to work on a project that we had actually been planning for some time, inbound tourism into New Zealand.  As after all, there is only one place we know better than Latin America & Antarctica, and that is our home, New Zealand.

Our experience with luxury lodges and unique experiences throughout Latin America has given us a unique perspective on what we can offer travellers.  We are able to offer travellers some truly unique ways to explore magical Aotearoa, New Zealand.

In the short term we have some amazing offers for Kiwis wanting to explore New Zealand in a unique style, and we look forward to being able to bring people from Latin America and beyond to explore beautiful New Zealand.  

And once the world reopens and travellers can once again return to beautiful Latin America & Antarctica, we will be ready, we will have survived and will be stronger than ever.

Credit:  I just want to take a wee moment to acknowledge my partner Brendan and my amazing family and friends for putting up with my shit through this crazy time.   Love you guys!

Viva Team South America

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