By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – One of the greatest outlets for people in southwest Montana throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been the adventure to be had in the wide open spaces found outside their own front door. From hiking to camping, to days spent at or on the water, recreation has gained a newfound appreciation from the active lifestyle-minded folks of the region and beyond. One summer staple—whitewater rafting—was no exception.
Upon returning from an international fishing venture, Geyser Whitewater Expeditions owner and founder Eric Becker was quickly made aware of the COVID-19 pandemic as it began to spread throughout the U.S.
“My job was to plan on not having a season at all and closing down and seeing how the business and family is going to survive for a year without income,” he said. “Then Nicole, our general manager, her job was to start planning on how we’re going to get open.”
Becker described that GWE made many adaptations to ensure a successful summer season including maintaining only 50 percent occupancy within transportation vehicles, utilizing seating charts and even dressing parties in necessary gear, individually.
“The enthusiasm was there,” he said referring to early summer operations, “and everybody was just dealing with the initial awkwardness of social distancing and trying to figure out how to do activities and travel during this new reality we were in.”
Becker said that the popularity of private raft trips increased this year, but the experience was not new territory for GWE with the company having offered the option for two decades. He recently spoke with EBS over the phone to recap and reflect on a unique summer season—the company’s 30th.
“This year everybody was just very patient and understood things are just different, so we couldn’t be more pleased with how people behaved and how the summer ended up,” Becker said.
EBS: Can you describe the feeling of returning to the water and launching the rafts for the first time this year?
Eric Becker: “You know it was great to be out there. Our employees were super excited to be back and just get to work. I think everybody was kind of going stir crazy there for a while. For us as a company, it was just good to be all back together and be out on the river and that was nice.”
EBS: What were the biggest operational adjustments Geyser Whitewater Expeditions made due to COVID-19?
E.B.: “We immediately went in and swapped out all of our plumbing so we had no-touch plumbing and automatic flushing toilets throughout the building. We had to buy special devices to disinfect the vehicles and sort of emptied out our shop to create more space—sort of a lot of the usual stuff. All of our equipment has always been treated with virucides so that wasn’t too big of a deal expect … right down to the paddles and stuff were being disinfected and that’s not normally something that we would disinfect in the past.”
EBS: How was business this summer as opposed to any summer pre-COVID?
E.B.: “We always have lots of returning staff members and we just hired fewer new people and from July 4 to Aug. 15 we were sort of chronically understaffed and we just have to change logistics to accommodate that. So, it was very busy for everybody, mostly because we were understaffed so a lot of our key personnel are doing the jobs of two or three people of a normal year. But, as I think most people saw, Big Sky was a popular destination this summer and every mountain community. … People flock there and outdoor activities, especially sporting goods stores ended up having a great season and we were no exception. It ended up being fun, safe, awkward and it all worked out.”
EBS: Do you believe the virus will continue to affect your industry and how so?
E.B.: “I think we’re going to have another year of social distancing and mask wearing and I think we’re going to see continued popularity of mountain—any sort of smaller communities I guess—whether it’s the mountains or just smaller communities. But we’re expecting to operate at COVID type scenario for at least another year and then I think in our business, I think we’ll continue to see a lot of the private boats and still people preferring to do activities where they can be socially distanced from other families for years probably, just becoming a new norm of avoiding crowds to some degree.”
EBS: What has been your greatest operational success in the last five months?
E.B.: “I just think getting through the summer and surviving, we’re lucky. We have an amazing staff, some of our people have worked for us—a lot of them—for over 10, 15, up to 20 years and we all just enjoy being with each other and I think just getting through the summer safely, in our industry, is always a bonus. And doing it in a manner where we were just able to successfully make people feel safe and clean and nobody getting sick and just everybody having fun, I think I’m just real proud of our staff for doing it.”
EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
E.B.: “My philosophy has always been about taking care of our people and there’s always a quote that says, ‘There is little success where there is little laughter.’ I think our whole company just sort of goes by that and we go out and our job is to make sure everybody has fun and my job is to make sure our staff is having fun and if that all comes together then we’re going to have a great business.”