Though the world has many bigger things to worry about right now, the impact of the pandemic on freelance outdoor instructors has been devastating. Richard Prideaux examines the overnight collapse of an entire sector of the outdoor economy, and the livelihoods that rely on it.
Excellent article, thank you, very honest, Best wishes to you for the coming few weeks
Good article. I'm not sure I agree with the comments about the winter though. Jan was poor for conditions but there was as much work as ever this winter (though not for £120 a day!). It'll be interesting to see what the government proposal will be for self employed today - I hadnt heard of anyone getting out of the industry but I guess that might be a reality for some.
Nice one for writing the article!
I noticed a couple of oddities though.
Freelancers doing between 2-4 days work per week in the summer? Most I know are doing 6-7 sometimes pulling mega stints (that was never my thing!)
I no longer freelance, I’m self employed though, and have found customers desperate to rebook. I think there’ll still be a massive demand. It will be much harder for those without established business though.
Savings, this often gets banded around. I’m not a freelancer in the early stage of my career, but I’ve saved hard and have money to ensure my business isn’t going anywhere. The money in the outdoor industry can be pretty good I think. Take an ML training for example: 6 people x £340 = £2040. Take away another instructor for two days (actually only need them for one day, but I employ a person for two) £300, MT admin fees aren’t a lot, some fuel costs etc. You come out pretty well for 5 days work.
For most of us climbing and mountaineering types the fixed costs of running a business are pretty low. Insurance is cheap, membership of AMI is cheap, I’m old so my car insurance is cheap, my MT fees are a bargain, business kit cost is pretty minimal, my website costs are very low. I’m sure I’ve missed stuff but my business outgoings are really pretty low. Currently saving a lot on fuel at least!
I’m sorry if this sounds a bit down on the article, it isn’t meant to be, but I think it only reflects one side of our industry.
I should add, that the response from my customers, other instructors etc has been immensely supportive and heartening in these challenging times.
> I’m sorry if this sounds a bit down on the article, it isn’t meant to be, but I think it only reflects one side of our industry.
I think it reflects the freelance side of things - a world which neither you nor I really work in anymore.
We both run businesses and can weather the storm - but there are a lot more out there who are going to suffer this Spring.
It's an interesting one as the "outdoor industry" covers so many types of work. A large part of my summer work is with french tourists groups. With so few French speaking MLs, it means there is always more work offered than I want and this year I had ended up with some weeks back to back. It was looking too busy.
I can't see much of that work going ahead this year now, but I would imagine it will be busy as ever next year as people still want their holidays.
Schools are also likely to rebook their trips to outdoor centers which have had to be cancelled this year.
I think, as long as we can weather this year, the industry will pick up again.
As for this year, freelancers are by nature a resourceful and creative bunch! I have been doing some translation work and am due to start working in a care home shortly. I'm sure others will get supermarket work, delivery jobs etc.
I like to stay positive, so hopefully we will recover and come back as strong as ever 😊
Whilst I don’t freelance anymore, unless it’s something interesting, I did for a long time and employ freelancers on a weekly basis through the season so I’m still pretty involved in it.
I know all sorts of freelancers with various outlooks regarding this ranging from “I’ll get out of the industry” through to “time off, cool I’ll train and get strong” and everything inbetween.
Ive seen a great spirit within the industry, so much resourcefulness and proactiveness happening right now, ace to see!
I think Jez your a rarity in the instructing industry in this respect, as another instructor I was on a workshop with said "I only know 2 people who can make a living from instructing and their both called Jez" For the most of us the reality is somewhat different. I've no doubt its all down to your own hard work and expertise in marketing etc, an area I think we could all benefit from gaining more knowledge about. Anyway suns out so not all doom and gloom!
You have sun?! Stop panic buying the sun and share it around!! (It's grey and drizzly here)
> I think Jez your a rarity in the instructing industry in this respect, as another instructor I was on a workshop with said "I only know 2 people who can make a living from instructing and their both called Jez" For the most of us the reality is somewhat different. I've no doubt its all down to your own hard work and expertise in marketing etc, an area I think we could all benefit from gaining more knowledge about. Anyway suns out so not all doom and gloom!
Who’s the other one??? I’ve trademarked the name!
Weather is typical hey? So nice outside!!!
I suppose it would politicise things in an unhelpful way to add to the background how a decade of austerity has also almost killed off the local authority outdoor education centre. (And continues to threaten the few that are left.)
Today would have been day 4 of a 5-day 'rough water' sea kayaking course for me, with one of Anglesey's many excellent coaches/guides. (Probably two - I don't know, but 8-10 clients and 2 coaches is normal for these courses.) As a client, the absolutely glorious weather this week is not helping with the disappointment at having to bail!
I was offered a refund, but while I'm self-employed too I don't need it right now so declined.
Clients - if you're offered a refund on something that isn't now happening, please don't accept it if you can possibly do without it. But then when the self-employed guides/coaches/instructors are working again the last thing they'll need is to be asked to work for 'free' much of the time, so lets not all rush to cash in our 'deferred' guiding days straight away.
I've been seeing some quite imaginative efforts to come up with other ways to make an honest bob from kayak coaches, online stuff - are walking/climbing guides doing that too? Navigation exercises and such? Worth supporting those where we can? Especially those of us who still have a bit of money coming in?
This article has just convinced me to order a rather beautiful hand-knitted merino wool beanie. A friend of a friend knits them as a sideline, and usually has a bit of a waiting list - but production has been stepped up a bit while she's stuck at home to say the least. I wasn't entirely sure that I wanted one, but what the hell- you can't have too many nice beanies. (Ha! Well, could always pack a few of the more ordinary ones off to the charity shop when they're open again..)
> I’ve trademarked the name!
Careful now. You'll have stand-up comedians changing their name by deed-poll to protest your heavy handed bully boy tactics, like that Hugo Boss.
Another aspect of this is instructors on zero-hours contracts, e.g. with climbing walls. I know of one attached to a much larger organisation (i.e. the wall is not a small and struggling business) where:
- almost all the workers are on zero-hours contracts
- nothing was communicated to workers
- when one person raised this in a group email thread, they were told it "wasn't appropriate" to discuss it in a group email
- instructors were told that there would be no pay whilst the wall is closed.
This comes in the context of generally poor management of everything from recruitment to shifts to training.
Somewhere along the line we seem to have accepted that poor and precarious working conditions are normal.
The story here is similar in many sectors.
I work in building and I have in storage made to measure materials, unique for particular jobs to the value of around £6k. I've had to pay for those items but cannot turn them into income. Will the customers I've got booked in have any money left after this? Are my cancellations temporary? Will I go under?
Until later when we get an update from the chancellor on help for the self employed we can only 'stay at home'. We really are all in this one together.
Instructors and outdoors people, I feel for you. I really hope something concrete gets announced soon that covers not just sole traders but also small limited companies with single directors too since this is the structure a lot of us work under.
Like the outdoor industry, the corporate events, exhibitions & meetings market I work in has (due to the government shut down), seen all of it's work cancelled - 100% nothing going on for anyone right now.
What's more the industry is very seasonal with busy periods Feb-June, no work over the summer and then busy again Sep-Nov. So the earliest chance for anyone to get back to work will be September, and if we miss this window it will be Feb 2021. On top of that most corporate clients don't pay on time these days, with 90 day payment terms becoming the norm - so it could be another three months after starting work before anyone actually gets paid anything - that's if we have the cash reserves left to cover any essential upfront costs associated with our projects before we get paid by clients. A crazy situation and I'm sure there are lots of other industry sectors in a similar predicament.
if any freelancers are looking for work, look for 'farm labouring jobs', I got a text for x10 farm labourers around Chester area and several other agencies contacted me to. they are crying out for people atm. hope this may help some people.
Zero hours in climbing walls doesn't have to be badly run. Our shifts in our wall (on zero hour contracts) were done up to the end of April and when we closed we were told to do our time sheets as programmes and we would be paid for it all. I was pleasantly surprised!
Zero hours contracts are great for e.g. young people, students and the likes who genuinely want flexible employment without the complexities of self-employment (quite a lot of such people will work at climbing walls). They become (and have become) a problem where they're applied to people who are basically doing a full time job.
Yes, there should be more options as to whether you want zero hours or not. For me, it's the only type of contract I want as it allows me to take a bit more in winter and less when other work picks up in summer. If there is full time work and someone is doing it more or less full time then then a full time contract should be an option for them. Our wall doesn't have full time hours at all so it wouldn't work and we all work elsewhere. I am very thankful for zero hours!
I think one thing I'd do is to say that zero-hours contracts give both parties equal rights, that is the employer can choose not to offer any work, and the employee can choose not to do any if offered, and that neither of those can harm the contract, and that any notice period for not offering/not doing it is the same for both.
Yes, works really well for freelancers. Some summers I have had months where I have just taken 1 shift a month, whereas in winter I will often be in 3 or 4 times a week. We get emails sent with shifts needing covered, we say what we are available for and the boss divides them between us. I don't envy him the task of organising it!
> I think one thing I'd do is to say that zero-hours contracts give both parties equal rights, that is the employer can choose not to offer any work, and the employee can choose not to do any if offered, and that neither of those can harm the contract, and that any notice period for not offering/not doing it is the same for both.
I think you've fallen for the hype. I'm not at all sure what "rights" you think the employee has gained in this context, but it is quite clear that the employer has more power in a relationship in which they have no obligation to offer their employees work and no obligation to pay sick pay. Not having contracted hours also means that the employee has no means of redressing the situation when they are not offered sufficient hours, e.g. where new people are employed and they consequently lose shifts; or where they become known as "inflexible" or a "troublemaker", and are simply sidelined (perhaps for politely drawing attention to the fact that they are not getting enough hours!). In the context of managerial incompetence, it also means that they can more easily become victim to mistakes or (un/)conscious biases, since they are more reliant on a manager to schedule and negotiate shifts in a timely and professional manner.
We can also see that in the current situation zero hours contracts have transferred the risk from the employer to the employee; now there is no work due to Covid, the employer doesn't have to take the hit you might expect as a trade-off for taking the profits; they can just cast off their no-longer-profitable employees. Employers like girlmonkey's are a true rarity!
More generally, flexibility does not have to mean a zero hours contract. Working several jobs, it can be useful to have contracted and regular hours, so that it's easier to plot out when you have free time. Being flexible in offering leave or in renegotiating hours is still possible with a proper contract. Zero-hours contracts should be banned.
I would have no winter work without a zero hours contract as I can't commit to a "proper" one. Come to think of it, I think I have only ever had one actual contract in my working life. Zero hours have always done me well.
I think there should be more scope for people to be on proper contracts if they are doing regular hours etc, but for many of us who like the flexibility, they are great. I have been on them in swimming pools and climbing walls for many years and I am about to be on one in a care home for the duration of this shut down. When life starts to return to "normal", I imagine some of my summer work might run and some not, so the zero hours will allow me to keep doing other work around whichever summer trips go.
It's bad employers which are the problem, not the contracts.
I understand what you're saying, but I don't agree. It is still possible to have rights and have flexibility. An employer can give you a contract with nominal hours and nominal days, but be flexible in negotiating how these play out. A zero hours contract is a contract with no rights. Worse, though, is the way these are rolled out as standard across entire sectors for the explicit purpose of safeguarding profits in the context of "changing market conditions" (as per one of my contracts with a top-10 university).
To be fair, it is not only zero-hour contracts, but also fixed-term contracts and freelancing that become models for giving more power and flexibility to employers at the expense of their employees. I've had bad experiences with each of these over the last decade, and the fact that I, like you, have not had a permanent contract has not been through a lack of desire for one.
Perhaps you genuinely benefit from zero-hour contracts, but even if an outlier like yourself was disadvantaged, there are tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of workers who would immediately benefit from forcing organisations to commit to providing minimum hours and sick pay - not least in the context of workplaces being shut down by a pandemic.
According to legend, in the 1960s, when the economy was growing, workers had the power to walk out of a job without fear, simply because it suited them, knowing that they'd walk straight back into another when the time came. These days, this has been completely inverted: your employer has the right to walk out on you, whenever it suits them, safe in the knowledge that there are a hundred others desperate to take on the job, according to their whims...
Thanks for the article.
I've offered to help the guide I use by paying a deposit for a course next year so some of the income has been brought forward.
I'm not sure if it would help or be viable, but perhaps encouraging previous clients to book future sessions, maybe with something like a gift voucher so they are somewhat open ended rather than for a particular course (maybe with a discount or 1 session free for business' like climbing walls), could bring forward some revenue?
I hope as many in the industry and the wider tourism industry survive as possible. Best of luck!