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Outdoor activity instructors in Highlands must wait for safe return to mountains and water

By John Davidson

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John Davidson speaks to some of those in the outdoors industry whose businesses have been affected by the lockdown

Close working in the mountains may not be possible under ongoing social distancing restrictions.
Close working in the mountains may not be possible under ongoing social distancing restrictions.

The easing of the one-a-day restriction on outdoor exercise in Scotland is a welcome blessing for those of us who love to spend more time outdoors.

However, for those whose livelihoods rely on sharing their experience, passion and knowledge of the outdoors with other people, especially visitors to the Highlands, the situation is still a serious one.

Based in Hopeman, Sandy Paterson runs his own mountain guiding company, Scotch on the Rocks Guiding, and is also the development officer for the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI) and technical officer for Mountain Training Scotland (MTS).

He told Active Outdoors that those working in the field will have to walk a tightrope to get safely back to business.

“It’s really challenging because everyone is desperate to get back to work,” he said. “They’re desperate to get back, firstly, because they need the money, but also there are a lot of mountaineering instructors who, like anyone who’s an outdoorsy person, are going crazy.

“Also, we’re really conscious that pretty much anyone who works in Scotland works in a rural community and the last thing that rural community wants is people driving from London, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh or Glasgow up into the Highlands.

“The outdoor community did really well during what I suppose was the last similar thing to this, which was foot and mouth, in that it did a very sensible thing and didn’t rush back to work.

“That has been remembered, and if we get this wrong now, people have long memories, so my gut feeling is that the only time that mountaineering instructors will properly be able to get back to work is when tourism goes back, because so much of it goes hand in hand with B&Bs and pubs and that sort of thing.”

Sandy said an AMI survey of some of its 1000 members suggested that they were set to lose out on an average of 50 to 60 per cent of their annual turnover if they can’t get back to work before mid-August.

Sandy Paterson of Scotch on the Rocks Guiding says the relationship with communities is of paramount importance for the industry.
Sandy Paterson of Scotch on the Rocks Guiding says the relationship with communities is of paramount importance for the industry.

He said he knew of some instructors who had got other jobs, including with the NHS, while others felt their businesses could survive if they could have a good season next winter.

“In Scotland the majority of us have just come off a really busy winter, so in a way our bank balance is healthy, but for those people who don’t do winter they are coming into it already probably in the negative,” Sandy said.

“I think most people have written off summer 2020 and are thinking hopefully we can do something in the autumn and fingers crossed next winter is good.

“But there’s also a bit of fear that if the lockdown is released too quickly or we don’t play this next phase properly, then we damage our industry by upsetting the local communities – and that will have a much bigger knock-on effect.

“At the moment I think we have an amazing relationship with landowners and Highland rural communities, and we work hand-in-hand pretty well, but that could easily be damaged.”

Other activities such as canoeing and kayaking are also balancing lockdown measures with planning to restart their sport. Guidance from the British Canoe Association suggests that individual paddling is likely to be the first element to be reintroduced, as social distancing stays in place.

However, Donald Macpherson, who runs Explore Highland and provides activities from stand-up paddleboarding to sea kayaking, warns that is the highest risk form of paddling and only suited to those with experience who are confident and have the necessary skills.

His business, like many others, has been hit hard by the lockdown but he said it’s a different story for everyone.

“In March, the future bookings stopped and then those who had booked for the rest of the year started to query whether trips could go ahead, and since then I’ve been issuing cancellations, though most local and regional clients are happy to postpone their trips,” Donald said.

Donald Macpherson of Explore Highland is keen to get back out on the water.
Donald Macpherson of Explore Highland is keen to get back out on the water.

“All these things are tripling the admin for a small business, which is not what we’re in the job for.

“From the end of October through to March is my off-season, so we’ve had to order canoes and kayaks. They have to be ordered in November as specials, as they are bespoke colours, so I can’t cancel them and shoot my suppliers in the neck!

“It’s been tough. A lot of the customers have been great, but the downside for all the tourism businesses as well as leisure, is that our season is eight months to earn 12 months of money.”

Donald added that it was important to distinguish between the impact of the lockdown on different types of business within the same sector, from freelance instructors with no overheads to staff instructors who are currently furloughed, then businesses with premises and equipment.

“For me, I’ve got premises, a minibus, HP repayments, you’ve got all the kit standing there and you can’t cancel your bills – so not only do I not get a monthly wage, I’m £1500-£1600 a month out of pocket as well,” he said.

“Some clients are saying they will defer their bookings until next year, which is great, but what that is doing is diluting your profit for next year because you have to honour those trips.”

The next concern for all those in the outdoors industry is when they will actually be able to get back to work, and what changes will have to be put in place to cope with the ongoing threat from Covid-19.

With summer fast approaching, a few weeks one way or the other could make a big difference in terms of businesses being capable of riding out the storm.

Mike Dunthorne has been running his outdoor activity business, In Your Element (previously Boots n Paddles) for 16 years. It operates TreeZone at Aviemore and Loch Lomond and has activity bases at those locations as well as Loch Ness and Loch Tay.

“The longer it goes on the tougher it gets for us,” Mike said. “Everyone in the company apart from me is furloughed.

“In the meantime, people are really hurting. The timing of it all really screwed us and a lot of people in the industry because the nature of the industry is so seasonal; we expect to be in the overdraft by the end of March every year and we always are, so we started all of this well into our overdraft.”

The timing also meant that 10 to 15 staff due to take up positions from early April were not able to be furloughed, leaving them with no help, and Mike also said that he was expecting his summer staffing levels to peak at around 25 this year rather than 40 as usual.

Mike Dunthorne of In Your Element, in his element on the North Coast 500.
Mike Dunthorne of In Your Element, in his element on the North Coast 500.

“There were only 12 staff that we managed to furlough because we had another 10 to 15 due to start at the beginning of April, and they’re the poor buggers; it’s just heartbreaking that we can’t do anything for them,” Mike added.

However, he is positive that the industry has all the tools necessary to get started up again, even with the additional threat from the virus.

“Our industry lives and breathes risk assessments,” Mike said. “It’s not us that the government is going to have to worry about. We are very aware of risk assessments and mitigation measures, and we aren’t going to be putting anyone at risk.

“The most sensible voice I’ve heard on this so far was at a forum from an ex environmental health officer who said the position in law will not change; as a business you have a duty to take all reasonably practical measures under the Health and Safety at Work Act to protect people’s safety.

“Nothing has changed there – the threat has changed, there’s a new hazard, but you just have to apply to that hazard what you apply to everything else that’s a risk.”

It may still be some time before things return to any sort of normality, but the outdoor sector is gearing up to get back to business – though only when it is safe and sensible to do so.

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