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Coronavirus leaves Las Vegas tour guides with empty pockets

Brian Paco Alvarez, founder of Fabulous Story Tours, was confident his business would pull through the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus until Friday, when Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered restaurants, bars and other nonessential businesses to close for 30 days.

The decision pushed the tour guide operator and his colleagues to stop working, but their industry already was facing setbacks in the weeks leading up to Sisolak’s announcement.

The global spread of COVID-19 ignited a slew of convention cancellations in Las Vegas — at least 24 this month — while some restaurants, bars and shops began reducing hours and others closed. For those in the tour guide industry, dependent on these very locales, the impact was swift.

Alvarez lost more than $1,500 in three days after several tour groups canceled this month, citing the coronavirus and its resulting travel restrictions.

“It’s hard because we can weather a storm to a certain degree, but the reality is a lot of us cannot,” he said. “I’m a sole proprietor business. Any loss of income is going to be amplified tenfold.”

Las Vegas Detours founder Jerry Perkins also has had clients cancel. As president of the Las Vegas Tourist Guides Guild, he reports several members have had tours cancel this month.

“We have one guide who speaks Italian — she is Italian — and she’s had all her Italian groups cancel,” Perkins said. “That was five weeks of business, five separate tours for a week each, canceled.”

He said the majority of guild members are independent contractors.

There’s little recourse for tour guides unless they have a rainy month fund.

“There’s no work. There’s no money,” Perkins said.

Randi Thompson, Nevada state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said independent contractors can’t file for unemployment.

“In order to apply for unemployment benefits, you had to have been working for somebody that was paying into the system,” she said. “It’s really an issue. Trainers at gyms, Uber and Lyft drivers, I’m going to say there’s well over 10,000 contractors in this state, and they’re getting hurt the most because of the kind of businesses (Sisolak) wants to close are those businesses.”

David Schlesinger of Breakaway Guided Tours started his hiking tour business this year after quitting his job as a project manager for a software company.

“I decided to start this business, and now there’s an unexpected headwind,” he said. “I think it’s going to be OK in the long run, but in the short term, when you’re trying to start a new business in a market where there’s already a lot of competition and you know it’s going to be tough, adding another element like reduced visitors to Las Vegas — I’m concerned.”

Southern Nevada welcomes more than 42 million tourists annually, bringing the total economic impact to the state to about $57.6 billion while supporting 367,900 jobs, or nearly half the total private employment, according to the Vegas Chamber.

The Nevada Resort Association estimates the coronavirus-caused hotel-casino closures will result in a $38.9 billion hit to Southern Nevada’s economy. Nationally, the outbreaks are projected to cause an $809 billion hit on the U.S. economy and 4.6 million travel-related jobs this year, according to an analysis by the U.S. Travel Association.

Juggling Act

“Two words: survival mode,” said Michael Jensen, founder of Fine Travel Experiences.

While the more than 25-year tour guide veteran mainly holds international tours, his fingers are crossed a scheduled tour in May to Alaska will still happen.

“I’m hoping it still follows through but every single day there’s changes,” he said. “Boy, cancellations are just coming left and right.”

Alvarez of Fabulous Story Tours said he’s taking it day-by-day.

He and his roommate, Claus Schmidt, who runs photography tours, plan on creating a platform celebrating Las Vegas’ history. Alvarez also took up urban farming and is considering teaching gardening classes.

“Being an entrepreneur, you really have to think more outside the box,” he said. “The community is coming together. That’s giving us rays of hope we’ll get through this.”

Perkins said many tour guides are pretty nimble, “filling in the calendar” between tours by offering transportation services such as meeting people at the airport or working with destination management companies, a third-party company hired to plan the logistical services for event programs and services.

“Many guides have side hustles or other things they do,” Perkins said. “We’re survivors. I mean if you’ve been doing this for a while then you’ve been through something (like) the downturn in 2008, but how many of these can you survive?”

Contact Subrina Hudson at shudson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0340. Follow @SubrinaH on Twitter.

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