Hidden Gems tour operator’s fight to survive lockdown
Ashley Cassidy was gearing up for the continued expansion of her business 18 months ago.
She built the operation over eight years from a single employee operation and one vehicle to one of Bermuda’s best known tour businesses with ten staff and a fleet of buses.
But the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to that and forced her company Hidden Gems to suspend its services last year as the lockdown and airport closure at first cut off all tourist visits to the island and then saw only a limited number return.
Ms Cassidy had demonstrated resilience and grace under pressure, despite the stress, along with gratitude for what she does have – a family and two young children with whom she has been able to spend more time – and a quiet confidence that when tourism returns, Hidden Gems will bounce back stronger than ever.
Ms Cassidy’s passion is the natural environment and Hidden Gems, which grew to become Bermuda’s top-rated visitor activity provider, was the vehicle for introducing the island’s beauty to thousands of visitors who wanted to see beyond the beaches.
Ms Cassidy said: “Quickly, its popularity grew and within two years I had added two larger buses to the fleet. Eventually we needed to expand once again and invested in an even larger bus with 28 seats.
“Obviously, staffing had to expand, and our team ended up consisting of ten employees.”
Their five-star rating on Trip adviser was accompanied by comments like: “ … Our tour with Ashley at Hidden Gems was the highlight of our trip” … “we’ve been on quite a few excursions from cruising and this by far has been the best one,” … “an incredible experience!”
Ms Cassidy said the loss of air and cruise ship arrivals hit at a bad time.
She added: “The pandemic came along at the worst time, when our tourist season was about to skyrocket – April, 2020.
“It was going to be a record-breaking year for our company as tour bookings were the highest we had seen. This was extremely disappointing and difficult to work through.
“We kept one bus functioning and catered to the local community. Obviously, it did not bring an extreme amount of business, but we were grateful for the support.”
Ms Cassidy’s said plans to offer additional activities for tourists this year were also on hold.
She added: “Thank goodness most of our staff members were able to keep their off-season jobs with other companies. We felt blessed for that to have occurred.”
Ms Cassidy added she was “always hopeful” things would get better.
She said: “I had already accepted at the beginning of the season there may not be much business coming our way for a very long time.
“It was frustrating, but we knew there was nothing we could do to improve the situation and realised Covid had to run its course.
“This harsh reality was exactly what occurred and came as no surprise.
“We moved forward accepting the business which did come our way, here and there. We had hoped things would be back up and running for April, 2021, but things are still looking quite bleak.
“We are remaining positive for better days to come and in the meantime we are prepared for the new Covid regulations and restrictions in place which will in turn help our customers to feel safer.”
Ms Cassidy added it was impossible to predict when normal business would resume.
She said: “Currently we have no real plans and intend to just see what happens with Covid.”
Ms Cassidy said she also had to tackle controversy over vaccination.
She added that when Hidden Gems does get back to business, the risk of Covid-19 would probably mean an insistence on vaccinations for her customer-facing employees.
Ms Cassidy said: “Truly, I don’t think I’m going to have a choice on insisting staff be vaccinated as cruise ships may require vendors who are in direct contact with their ship’s guests to be vaccinated.
“Additionally, other visiting guests to the island may only choose to tour with our company if they know all staff are fully vaccinated.”
But she added: “This is something we have no solid answer for at this time and so will await the protocols.”
Ms Cassidy said that she had taken other jobs to help make ends meet over the crisis.
She added: “I, specifically, have not had much work, but do substitute teaching here and there in elementary education.”
But she insisted: “I feel blessed beyond measure. Life is good and I am grateful for the family time as this may never happen again, where I get to be at home with my little ones for so long.
“I remain quite positive. As I know the potential of the Hidden Gems product, things will become successful once again.”