I think it’s fair to say there’s a growing anxiety and stress which accompanies the current coronavirus outbreak, and with seemingly more bad news on the hour, we really don’t know when this thing might bottom out.
So if your business is in the photography workshop space like my company PhotoEducate is, you take notice.
One of the biggest economic casualties from the novel coronavirus happens to be one of the world’s largest industries.
Tourism is responsible for roughly one in ten jobs on the planet; that’s more than 300 million jobs and almost $6 trillion in revenue.
And the tourism sector is particularly vulnerable. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, and their suppliers around the world are all feeling the devastating economic ripple.
It was a quick decision to cancel our Milan workshop set for April after a quick consultation with my friend and co-workshop leader, Ugo Cei, currently on mandatory lockdown in Milan.
But I was really looking forward to the Photobook Masterclass Workshop in Tokyo next week, which had a much better chance of going ahead.
Those of us that travel much, know that perception of a place is often very different from the reality on the ground. With the media amplification of bad news from COVID-19, I knew that daily life in Tokyo was different from the worries I was hearing from people readying to go.
My partner in Tokyo Soichi Hayashi kept me updated several times a day. There are fewer people out and about he told me with many public institutions closed including schools, but the health risks to participants he thought were no different than the places participants were departing from.
In the end however, with the safety and well-being of participants our primary concern coupled to the introduction of a self-quarantine for the four of us who were traveling from New York, we decided just hours ago, to postpone this workshop until November. God-willing, things will be better by then.
We always highly recommend comprehensive health/travel insurance coverage for our students as do most workshop providers. I have seen too many last-minute cancellations for health or other reasons out of the participant’s control. Just what these policies actually cover and more importantly, what they don’t— is now under close scrutiny.
The banner on our PhotoEducate website highlights “Cancel for Any Reason” travel insurance, which is getting harder to find as the situation worsens. This type of coverage is often near twice as costly as most standard policies, but covers 75% of your cost, whatever the reason for your cancellation as the name implies. It’s definite peace of mind when booking workshops in this uncertain time.
Some workshops, like the X-Peditions trips from David Hobby of Strobist fame, are scheduled for later in the year where there is still time for more clarity on deciding whether to go ahead. But in the meantime, Hobby takes the pressure off prospective students with generous refund policies.
“Our students already know that one of their options will be to stay home and be refunded. That's an important pressure valve when we all have other things to worry about. But we'll also be looking to retain the best options for people who do still want to go. That might mean folding the September and November trips into one November trip, for example. But we would only do that if the virus had abated significantly to the point to where any remaining risk was minimized.”
Jeffrey Chapman, has completed three tours with his company Within The Frame Adventures so far this year and noted a difference in attitude toward the virus in different parts of the world where he recently photographed with his groups.
“In Asia, on many flights it was more common to see passengers and crew wearing masks than to not see them wearing masks — despite the dubious efficacy of masks as a measure of prevention.”
He said this was true for Asian countries visited even before cases of COVID-19 came to light.
On his recent trip to Africa, they saw very few masks. On his last trip to South America (that he finished just yesterday), only a handful of people were wearing masks across seven flights and three countries.
“If masks are a visual manifestation of underlying fear, then it’s clear to me that people in Asia are more fearful of this virus — at least for now.” said Chapman.
Two of the biggest photo workshop providers in the United States have fortunately not had to make many adjustments thus far.
“We are holding our spring workshop season right now in Santa Fe”’ said Reid Callanan, founder and CEO of Santa Fe Workshops.
“Nothing has been cancelled, although we have had a 10% cancellation rate due to the virus. We are figuring out what to do if this continues for months, but haven’t taken any action quite yet.” said Callanan.
Elizabeth Greenberg, Provost of Maine Media Workshops has been consumed by the ongoing news of the virus.
“It is hard to respond to much right now since my hourly efforts seem to always involve dealing with COVID - 19 and trying to stay abreast of all the rapid developments. We have thankfully not (yet) seen a tremendous impact from it. Registrations are slower than usual, which is to be expected given the circumstances. However we have had only a few registered students alter their plans to attend workshops. We have not (yet) cancelled any workshops.”
Much of the Maine Media Workshops are local and she said the company, like many others, will reduce travel which isn’t urgent and essential. It’s the destination workshops which are most at risk.
“We are reconsidering travel workshops scheduled for the upcoming weeks/months, though several of those are co-marketed, so not produced directly by us. In those instances we are in consultation with the faculty leading those workshops, and monitoring the circumstances in the areas where travel is planned.” said Greenberg.
Personally, I have the sense that for the next while, passionate photographers will be more comfortable participating in photo workshops closer to home. PhotoEducate has added workshops here in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Vancouver. Most of our international destinations have been pushed back to the fall.
Landscape photographer and workshop leader Josh Cripps doesn’t have any workshops booked until September, in New Zeland.
“Unless things go really wrong, I suspect we won't be talking much about the virus by then. In the meantime I am attending professional conferences in March (Utah) and May (New Orleans and Spain), but all are proceeding as planned. Much of my revenue now comes from online courses so I'm thankful in that regard that I don't anticipate a large impact on my bottom line this year,” he said.
When asked what he was doing to mitigate any potential damage to his business caused by COVID-19, David Hobby said this…
“Not a single thing. At this point the damages are already going to be considerable. But it is what it is. You can't put a price on human life, and we refuse to balance profit motive against safety. Our decisions this summer will be reached in consultation with our travelers, with every person involved making choices based on their individual comfort level. That's an expensive call for us, but an easy one.”
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Keep your camera gear and hands clean and stay healthy everyone. It’s always a good time to take pictures.
About the author: Steve Simon is a photographer, educator and author of the best-selling book: The Passionate Photographer. When he’s not on the street with his camera, Steve shoots advertising campaigns for Nikon and leads photography workshops around the world through his company PhotoEducate. You can find more of his work and writing on his website, blog, Twitter, and Instagram. He is based in New York City and always washes his hands for 20 seconds or more.