The Other Side: A South America Travel Company’s Pandemic Tale

Knowmad Adventures - A Travel Company's Pandemic Story

As we celebrate the coming of the New Year we honor our travelers, our Knowmad family, with a holiday letter that we hope conveys how much you mean to us.

Knowmad Adventures was founded in 2009 by husband and wife team, Tara and Jordan Harvey. Tara writes on their experiences making it through the pandemic in the hard hit international travel industry.

*Artwork by Together Apart

Lockdown & Layoffs

We watched in horror. Our dreams and hard work crumbled with each border closure back in March of 2020. The waves of shock couldn’t be dwelt upon; we had travelers on the ground to evacuate. At that moment, it felt like we too were on the front lines. Some countries announced their border closures a mere twelve hours in advance, leaving travelers stranded in foreign lands without access to anything they were accustomed to, much less their healthcare networks, in the face of a worldwide evasive sickness that, at that juncture, represented a world of uncertainty. March is still within the peak of our busy season, with Patagonia heading into fall, early spring breakers, and Peru plus Ecuador starting their dry seasons. We had thirty-two trips scheduled to run in that one month alone — couples, families, groups of friends, all spread throughout Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, and Colombia. All were needing to get home, and urgently.

Knowmad travelers were not among those stranded. We worked around the clock, sometimes buying flights without a go-ahead while travelers were out on excursions and unreachable. We had a couple on a small-ship expedition cruise at port in Chile where protestors wouldn’t let them disembark because they feared they were bringing the virus into the country (large cruise lines had been an initial spreader, after all). We even got them home – returning on an eerily empty flight, one of the last to leave the country.

What had been a trying couple of days morphed traumatic as we comprehended the layoffs we were going to be forced to make. 2019 had been a big year; we’d grown to a team of thirteen, poised to plan seven million dollars worth of travel in 2020. Jordan and I had just moved to Telluride in Southwest Colorado, fulfilling a long-time dream to raise our children in a ski town. Six of our teammates worked daily from Knowmad’s brick and mortar office in Minneapolis, while the rest of the team worked virtually from locations around the States and South America.

So we did what everyone else in the industry did; we tried to see into the future. We cut every single possible expense we could think of. We said goodbye to our physical office, going fully remote, which luckily wasn’t a big adjustment since we were already set up to operate that way. We spent hours on the phone with airlines trying to cancel and get any credit possible for our own flights — we’d had a season’s worth of exploratory trips planned for the team and an annual Knowmad summit where we would usually put our heads together on the coming year’s initiatives.

A couple of days of all of this to gain our bearings and postpone the unavoidable: even if the highly unlikely happened and travel returned after ‘lockdown,’ the landscape would be drastically changed. It would be a long while before we were doing the volume of trip planning our team of thirteen was built for. Payroll constitutes eighty-five percent of our expenses. And using the word ‘payroll’ was the only way we could bring ourselves to describe it, because it wasn’t ‘payroll’ at all; it was our team. Their livelihoods. Their careers. Dream jobs. Everything they’d been working for. It was our Knowmad family.

With the schools shut down, our kids spent two whole days in front of the tv eating pretzels, while we locked ourselves in the next room laying off four of our teammates and reducing those of us left to half time and half pay. It was pure anguish. There were lots of tears and attempts to comfort each other, but we all knew at this point that the furloughs were inevitable and holding on any longer only risked Knowmad’s ability to exist past the pandemic. Come Friday evening, Jordan made us some stiff cocktails and we sat side by side on the couch lacking words, beyond drained, turning over the unknown.


Postponements & Loans

The next phase was a little easier emotionally, but stressful all the same. The first government aid came in the form of the PPP loan and we knew we had to try for every cent available to us, buying as much time as possible. We’d always been savers and wary of loans or investors. We’d never gambled with our clients’ deposits as many companies do, eating into ‘promised’ profit before the trip was realized to pay expenses, and we weren’t about to start now. (In the end, this hard earned prudency was what saved us.) Our first financial advisor used to look over our books on a quarterly basis and instead of using the expression that we started Knowmad on a ’shoestring,’ she would say we started it “on dental floss,” a point of pride for us.

We’d been through some market ups and downs already; natural disasters, social unrest, and even viruses (Zika hit us hard in 2016) are par for the course in South American travel, so we’d squirreled away a healthy nest egg. Yet, with the toilet paper rapidly disappearing off the shelves, it was hard not to let the feeling of panic set in. Our financial meetings turned from discussing sales goals, profit, margins and hiring plans to one equation: X amount of time until Z date. And that Z date was all a guess.

We managed in the best way we could, getting the PPP1 and EIDL right away and working with a strong, albeit trimmed down team to postpone trip, after trip, after trip. Our high season is Patagonia’s summer or October through April.
With the pandemic hitting in March of 2020, we were fortunate to have had to postpone only a couple of months of that first high season. Most of those trips were rescheduled to the fall of 2020 (since the world had no idea how long the pandemic was going to last, or at least if it did, we were all in pretty heavy denial).

As to when the borders would reopen, the governments were being intentionally quiet. So we kept our eyes on cruises first, and lodges next, for clues, knowing that some of the owners had connections with officials and that they would have to staff their crews earlier than the guides and drivers who mostly work freelance in South America. During the summer of 2020, we began comprehending that nothing was going to run that winter; Chile and Argentina’s expedition ships canceled their departures, lodges either remained unstaffed and empty, or turned their attention to their domestic markets.

We therefore postponed another batch of planned trips; this time, for the most part, wising-up and issuing travel credits, rather than rebooking for a set date, since the rebookings took so much more effort with the logistics of availability, pricing and flights — almost as much as the initial planning of the trip. There was a small, dim light at the end of the tunnel as Peru and Ecuador dipped their toes back into international tourism in the fall of 2020, establishing their predeparture Covid regulations. However, our winters are their rainy or low season, so we didn’t have trips on the calendar for those regions until March of 2021. From a revenue perspective, we questioned how we were going to make it…an entire high season lost?


Despair, Hope & Planning

After the PPP1 ran out and before the PPP2 and Employee Retention Credit program was announced, we laid off two more of our teammates in November of 2020. We were now down to a skeleton team, prepared to hibernate for the long cold months ahead. Try as we might to stay light, it was an unnerving time. We encouraged our teammates to get outside and take care of themselves as much as possible. We reminded them not to get too emotionally wrapped
up in the trips, in all of the lost work, the constant redoing and replanning. We tried to take that advice to heart ourselves as well, and our kids helped with that immensely. You just have no choice but to hold it together with small children around. And with the unceasing school closures and quarantines from positive exposures, they were around! Childcare was so inconsistent, it felt impossible to carve out hours to work. The more important job at hand seemed like our kids’ happiness anyhow.

So, we fully immersed ourselves in the ski season here in Telluride, soaking in as much mood lifting Vitamin D on the slopes as possible. We felt so grateful for our access to nature during this time. It’s incredible how cathartic the combo of skiing and hot cocoa can be! Traversing the mountain, discovering new runs, our thirst to explore was quenched. Having a conversation on the chair with a stranger felt like traveling a little again. The kids’ enthusiasm, laughter and plain old ability to have fun on the mountain was the ideal antidote to what was happening (or wasn’t happening) on the Knowmad front.

Like most businesses, we tried to stay connected and supportive via Zoom, but it did prove to be a long winter and we missed each other. In August of 2021, after a summer of vaccinations and loosening restrictions Stateside (yet still no Chile & Argentina border announcements), we planned a retreat for us all to come together in-person in Colorado. We did nothing work related, just hiked and ate, celebrated being together and talked endlessly about travel: If you had to hop on a plane tomorrow, where would you go? What would your top three South American travel destinations be? What are your top three world destinations? Where would you travel purely for the food? Even, if you had to time travel, what era would you be transported to?

At first I had nothing to say, quite honestly. I had been trying so hard not to think about or miss travel for the past year and a half, that I could barely come up with my next dream trip, which is a problem I’ve never had. This realization shocked me and awakened some sort of last reserve of energy. Let’s plan a trip! Let’s plan for the future! Let’s just get on with it. Travel will return and we will be ready. Let the planning begin!

Machu Picchu Patagonia Custom Trip


Wait & Hurry Up: Border Openings!

A week or so after our return from the retreat, we started hearing murmurs that Chile and Argentina were going to announce their border openings. We did everything we could to hone in our processes and systems based on our other South American destinations’ regulations to be ready to operate trips in our highest volume regions, but nothing could have prepared us for what we would truly experience that season. The official announcement didn’t come until mid-October for borders opening November 1st, 2021 — 22 months after the first Covid cases shut countries down.

We were sent scrambling on the backend. The first thing we did was buy Jordan flights down to Chile and begin to sort through the Covid regulations
to get in, which were so complicated and involved. It was like some sort of bad joke of a scavenger hunt: a Mobility Pass QR code that you have to obtain in order to enter any public spaces by uploading ten thousand documents, including which batch of which Covid shot you received and your pharmacy; a health affidavit that needs to be filled out after receiving negative results from a certain, specific kind of Covid test but before boarding your international flight, etc. And that was only to get into Chile, let alone moving around from region to region within the country!

Needless to say, our trips planned pre-pandemic didn’t have all of these Covid regulations top of mind. Plus, only some borders were open to international widely known in the Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast publications for our expertise in creative itineraries combining Chile and Argentina, usually via Patagonia or the wine regions, which resulted in almost eighty percent of our trips being inoperable as originally planned. We encouraged travelers to do what they felt comfortable with — postpone again or we would guide them through the regulations and replan their itinerary to work with the new border constraints.

So many brave travelers opted to go! We will forever be thankful to this first wave of fellow globetrotters. Their words of encouragement when they grasped how much we were navigating to make their trip happen, their understanding if things didn’t go perfectly as planned, their gratitude when they returned home after reconnecting with the world.

Jordan was one of the first foreigners on the ground in Chile, informing the airline agents of the new regulations as he went. We had another group landing November 3rd and were creating guides on ‘How To Check Your Arrival Test Results’ and the like in real time, based on Jordan’s experiences. We translated web pages from Spanish when their English versions were glitching. We established contacts at Chile’s Ministry of Health when travelers’ paperwork wasn’t processed in time for their departure. It was a mess; quite honestly Chile’s systems weren’t set up yet to handle the requirements they were putting forth. We were making it happen through sheer willpower.

Knowmad Travelers in 2021


Regulations & A Hard Season

The 2021/22 season was one to remember. We had a backlog of almost two years worth of postponed trips to operate. Aside from borders only partially being open, causing most trips to have to be reconfigured, and the exhaustive regulations that we were navigating, the vaccination and testing requirements were also continually changing. The constant moving target and keeping track of what had been communicated and when to travelers was enough to make you want to throw in the towel.

We longed for the days when the only pre-departure reminders seemed to be ‘Remember your passport!’ Our inside joke during that time was that whoever was in charge at the CDC and the Ministries of Health just had to be drunk. Like all of them were at one big party taking shots of tequila, making this stuff up. As they say, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

We moved mountains during November and December to get travelers in the position to go. It was rocky, but trips were going off and people were truly coming home with experiences of a lifetime. Then, right before the holidays, with our biggest wave of trips about to go, Omicron hit and everyone was getting Covid. At that time, there was a US re-entry test requirement: you had to present negative test results taken within one day of returning home.

We have a phone that we rotate throughout the team and monitor 24/7 — its number is given to our travelers for urgent situations. Whoever was on the phone at any given point that season’s heart sank when they heard it ring. Mostly it was the normal stuff, like a flight time change causing an excursion to be moved around, but sometimes you got the call that someone had tested positive on their exit test. Although they were usually asymptomatic and thankfully feeling fine, it still threw a flurry of logistics into action; finding quarantine hotels, getting doctors notes, notifying airlines and travel insurance.

It was the icing on the cake and we ended the season simply burnt out. We knew if we didn’t spend some time regaining our footing this summer we’d be in trouble.


Fresh Faces, Silver Linings & Golden Moments

We’ve always treated our low season as a time to rest, rejuvenate and travel but this past summer we doubled-down on it. We normally only work half day Fridays from June through August, but this year we completely closed the office every Friday for an additional month. We encouraged personal time off, vacations, taking breaks often, getting outside, or just simply resting. Where our own exploratory trips to South America are usually what a traveler would do on hyperspeed, we planned more slow- paced and leisurely trips for the team this year.

Jordan and I took our kids to Colombia, a country so highly contrasted to Telluride with its vibrant colors, fresh fruit, seafood and Caribbean warmth. We didn’t push ourselves to see and do everything. Most nights we made it only a couple of blocks away to watch the street dancers in the plaza. I considered seeking out a fruit hawker to buy an avocado a full- day excursion. Watching our childrens’ delight at feeding the monkeys in the park popcorn, their wide-eyed interest in the colorful graffiti, their comprehension of the cabby’s Spanish – we felt the layers of tension and worry dissipate. This had been worth it.

Knowmad Adventures Co-Founders Traveling in Colombia, South America

With the financial ship righted, we turned to building our team back up again. Of the six Knowmaders we’d had to furlough during the course of the pandemic, four returned. We welcomed them back heartily, with the deepest feelings of relief. They brought a renewed energy that maybe only time away from the industry could foster. Nothing seemed too hard or too reverent. The worst had happened and we were almost whole again.

We hired three brand new Operation and Trip Specialists as well, and spent the summer training, laying the groundwork for a successful upcoming season. With all the extra hands on deck, we turned from reactionary-mode to preparation-mode.

In part to celebrate, in part just to connect we came together for a retreat in Northern Minnesota lake country in September. When Jordan and I first started Knowmad, we held summits just the two of us in the same cabin, planning future Knowmad, from roadmapping how we’d hire our first employee, to which new country we were going to operate that year.

Now, we find ourselves playing hammerschlagen with a team of 12, tasting Carménère brought from Chile in a suitcase, and looking towards the future once again. We are back to doing what we do best; connecting travelers in an authentic way with South America. And it feels so good!

The season and years to come will have their own unique set of challenges *ahem flight changes,* and nothing is ‘over and done’ because this pandemic will, of course, have lasting effects. But, we have all of this optimism and enthusiasm carrying us forward. Thank you for helping us find the strength, to each and every one of you who has stuck by us, believed in us, supported us, and who continues to live this adventure of the Knowmad family. It feels a little like everything has come full circle. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be more than okay. Actually, it already is more than okay, it is golden.

Knowmad Adventures Team at Northern Minnesota Retreat

Un Beso, Tara

South America Travel Tara HarveyTara is the Co-Founder, Marketing and Operations Manager at Knowmad Adventures, a company dedicated to creating unique, private and custom trips in South America. She first traveled to South America in college and is endlessly inspired by the cultures, food, colors and idiosyncrasies she discovers there. Read Tara’s biography and more about the Knowmad team.