Having already experienced a winter season impacted by the COIVD-19 pandemic, Apex Backcountry Guides, based in Chile, told SOURCE about how they fared and the trends they discovered to give some insight to our European readershuip. Chile remained closed to tourists, but Apex co-owner Forrest Schmidt tells us how the domestic backcountry market boomed with a particular interest in their ‘Intro to Backcountry’ courses. Interview by SOURCE Editor Harry Mitchell Thompson.
Tell us a about Apex Backcountry Guides. Who are the key players and what are their roles? How has your winter season been in Chile, conditions-wise?
APEX Backcountry Guides was founded by my wife Gabi Velasquez and I; our strength is privatised outings on custom routes. She’s the boss of all the business stuff, bookings, and packages while I get to pioneer new routes into unridden terrain and handle our social accounts. We’re both Lead Guides and as group numbers rise, we rely on our Tail Gunners- Andrew Draper and Joaquin Tobar, to ensure our guests have the best time imaginable. Gabi runs all of our ‘Intro to Backcountry’ outings, which involves teaching the proper use of beacons along with techniques of probing and shovelling through simulated rescues, followed by a couple of laps on appropriate terrain with additional instruction on best practices when splitboarding and route planning. The contents of the ‘Intro’ outings are to ensure customer safety. We split outings into beginner and intermediate. I focus on our APEX Days, 8-12hr outings into first descent zones.
Conditions have been all-time down here this year from the North to the South, with lots of storms and consistently cold temperatures; the snow has been plentiful.
And how have things been with COVID? How was your business affected with bookings? Any interesting trends to report?
COVID really reduced the number of people travelling as we spent the first half of winter with most of the country in quarantine, but as restrictions lifted the adventurous began to make day-trips to the mountains. Ski resorts remained closed for two-thirds of the season while the top online store for backcountry gear myline.cl had to re-stock multiple times. Though our booking numbers suffered due to a lack of foreign snow enthusiasts the local backcountry scene exploded. Zones that were previously ridden by us and a tight-lipped group of friends became hotspots as a result of a growing hunger for turns. The closing of all National Parks and reserves coupled with the quarantine of a majorly popular zone put a large amount of pressure on previously unexposed areas. The surprising trend for us was the number of ‘Intro to Backcountry’ outings we sold, 5 to 1 in comparison to outings for experienced backcountry enthusiasts. We had to create beginner and intermediate packages to allow for more growth.
Did you notice a particular type of demographic still keen to travel and use your service?
The demographic still keen on travelling and using our service has typically been male and between 30-45 yrs of age. We also saw several father and teen son outings for ‘Intro to Backcountry’.
Tell us more about the Chilean backcountry scene. Also, did you have any tourists visit?
After learning that the locals were heading out into ever more dangerous and exposed zones I formed a community meeting every two weeks to train their rescue skills, trip planning, and understanding of snow study so that they could make conscious decisions to stay safer, our true locals were all taken care of at no charge. Our extended locals come from the region we live in and accounted for 40% of our business this year with the remaining 60% traveling between 5 and 8 hours to arrive here. Our borders have remained closed to foreign ingress so all outings were Chilean residents.
How did you overcome any COVID-19 precautions/obstacles to ensure clients still had an enjoyable experience?
Upon realising the seriousness of COVID-19 we got active and contacted SERNATUR (Servicio National de Turismo) to obtain a sound protocol and have done so with the approved seal of Confianza Turistica. It’s not complicated to follow a few guidelines however, I still prefer to shake hands, I’m not down with elbow bumping a client when we meet so I just spray both of our hands with the recommended disinfectant and proceed as normal. Masks in the office and temperature checks before each outing help us to keep things feeling safe.
Do you have any advice you could give to your European brethren in anticipation for the upcoming snow season?
Prepare for a great season by making sure you have an approved protocol in place and to promote that you are prepared to ensure client safety. Colourful signage, precaution, and positivity go a long way to advance the chain of trust. The backcountry is where people are feeling the safest so position yourselves to meet all needs associated with the desire to be in the clean open air of the mountains, and capitalise on being that bridge… or at least a part of it.