Whale watching group recalls struggle to stay afloat amid sea of viral troubles

Posted 4/30/21

With people the world over forced to remain at home and limit travel to the bare necessities, tourist-centered businesses like Point Hudson’s whale watching group Puget Sound Express were left …

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Whale watching group recalls struggle to stay afloat amid sea of viral troubles

Posted

With people the world over forced to remain at home and limit travel to the bare necessities, tourist-centered businesses like Point Hudson’s whale watching group Puget Sound Express were left high and dry.

Pete Hanke, who runs the family business, said in early 2020 that he and his staff were preparing to dive headfirst into the working season — which runs from March through December — having just completed an extensive vessel maintenance schedule.

Following several seasons of good business, 2020 was shaping up to be another fruitful year spent shuttling a steady stream of tourists around the Puget Sound in search of nature’s majesty.

But instead of carrying passengers to find and enjoy the majesty of the natural world, the natural world came knocking at Hanke’s door and soon left his business reeling.

“Just as we were cranking up last year, we were kind of looking out of the corner of our eye as far as what was coming down the pike,” Hanke said.

In late 2019, the owner said he had been following the rise of reported cases of “viral pneumonia” in China, but initially he gave little thought to the notion that a virus half a world away could reach Washington. 

When he first heard reports of infections inside the U.S., his ears pricked up. Then, shortly after the arrival of the virus in the U.S., the decision was made to shut down schools in Washington. Non-essential businesses followed soon thereafter; among them, Puget Sound Express.

“I think we got maybe 10 whale-watch trips in before we had to shut it down. Then we were down through the rest of March, April and May, running no trips,” Hanke said.

“The bigger issue with us in understanding what to do with COVID was our reservations.”

“We’re very much like a cruise ship operation, where we’re getting sales all year ‘round,” Hanke said. “We had quite a bit of pre-booking and how you treat that can be pretty crucial to how your cashflow goes. Probably more than shutting down operations, we were more concerned with pre-sales and what we were going to do with that.”

Initially, the group tried to offer refunds to customers who were seeking to cancel their tours, but the volume of customers canceling their trips necessitated they switch to offering rain checks, allowing customers to return in a time post-COVID to redeem their bookings.

Hanke credits government financial assistance from the Paycheck Protection Plan, unemployment compensation and the Federal CARES Act for helping his business at least partially bridge the financial divide during the most-trying months of the pandemic. Hanke said with the help of these programs he was also able to retain key staff members including captains, administration staff, marketing staff — as well as his two children and his wife on the payroll.

“We were able to re-scale Puget Sound Express and operate at a much-reduced rate, in terms of passenger sales from what we had known in 2019,” Hanke said. “To that end, we took one boat offline … made it a three-boat operation, and on those three boats, ran at about 25 percent capacity.”

While the government assistance was a welcome reinforcement, Hanke noted that it didn’t come close to filling the void from the loss of income.

“PPP didn’t put us anywhere near to what we would’ve been in a year like 2019,” Hanke said. “It did at least allow us to pay bills and keep some of our key employees.”

When they were finally permitted to return to carrying passengers, Hanke said measures had to be taken to ensure each group could adequately distance from one another. This involved installing plexiglass partitions in areas where groups could potentially come into contact with one another.

With a heavy emphasis being placed on “essential businesses,” Hanke pondered the notion of what truly is essential to the community of Port Townsend.

“On a normal year, we bring about 10,000 people to Port Townsend alone. That really helps the local economy here. There’s a lot of economic multipliers there that happen with restaurants and hotels; we tell all our passengers about all the fun things you can do in Port Townsend.”

“I think the idea that tourism isn’t as valuable to PT really strikes me as odd, because tourism really brings in a lot of dollars to the community that I don’t know the community really can’t afford to do without,” he added.

“We look forward to getting back to where we were and playing that role in the community.”

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