– Nick Gold
Nick Gold, of Nashville’s Entertainment Travel, knows far better than most how to get bands and crews from point A to point B and then to points C, D, E, F, G, H and far beyond. This because he’s done it for nearly half a century – 49 years to be exact – with an array of artists including Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper, CeeLo Green, Alabama and the late Charlie Daniels, to name but a few. What he and his 11-person staff are finding as the live industry returns is that much of the traditional market conditions in the travel industry are out the friggin’ window – which, in some cases, is a good thing.
“Our pre-pandemic was phenomenal,” says Gold in his heavy British accent, noting he was on course for another great year in 2020. Then the bottom of the industry did a freefall, which thankfully we are moving past. “I currently have 14 tours on my desk,” says Gold, who is working while being interviewed.
Though he’s not doing any stadium tours at the moment, there are a number of mid-level tours he’s working on. “Most of my tours are between one and three buses, for the most part,” he says. “I have a couple that are five buses. It just depends. I never know who is going to walk in my door and then how big they are. Last week I had two tours walk in my door I never heard of.”
Gold says his primary challenge is on the accommodation side of the business. “Some hotels are closed and will remain closed or gone,” the travel pro says. “Others are open but have limited staff. So my salesperson is also doing a front desk stint or something else. And it’s taking a really long time to get answers from hotels, it’s at least a day sometimes. Even the salespeople that oversee a chain are having the same problem getting answers. The delay in booking rooms is probably the most challenging thing I’m bumping up against. I’ve been emailing all my tour managers to say, ‘Here’s what we’re dealing with, here is my problem and I’ve got to get this done quickly.’”
One solution Gold has found is to divide tours into segments. “I had a tour that was going out in two weeks, and I did it in two parts,” he says. “Normally, I just book the whole thing. Get it all done, send it out, get it approved and do my paperwork. But it was taking me so long, I did the first half, got it all done, got it contracted, sent it out, itinerized it and then did the second part. I was scared I would lose my rooms because it took so long to get them and they would give up on me. That’s the biggest challenge. Some rates have gone up. One hotel actually was quite honest and said they’re raising their rates because of what’s going on. I thanked her and just went to a different hotel. But that’s their prerogative.”
The rules surrounding room cancellations, Gold says, are different these days, with many hotels perhaps being more amenable than in pre-pandemic days. Individuals customarily have 24 to 72 hours to cancel a reservation with a full refund, but it’s always more difficult for larger tours.
“When you’re booking groups, you’re now talking about doing some of them with contracts,” Gold says. “Currently in our industry, because of the pandemic, there is a lot of leniency because you just don’t know what’s going to happen. If you look at what Garth Brooks did, he decided he didn’t want to be [out now] with 50,000 people at every single show, much like what The Stones are going to do. But then he announced next year he’s doing 23 stadiums. They’re not already sold out on paper, but they will be. But when you’re putting groups together like that, you got a contract. Can you get out of it based on our current environment? Yes. In a normal world, no, depending on how far out you book and how far out you cancel. But you sure can’t cancel 20 rooms 24 hours out and not pay anything.”
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images – Leaving On A Jet Plane
LEAVING ON A JET PLANE: Flights are taking off
Tours planning to return to a market, however, may have more leverage. “I had a band doing a show in New York in two weeks,” Gold says, “but because it was a big show, they decided they didn’t want to do it. I called up the hotel chain and said, ‘Here’s my predicament, and because of COVID, we’re going to need to cancel. But if we redo the dates, I will come back to you. You will get first right of refusal on the rooms.’ I do that for every hotel I cancel on because it’s only fair that they looked after my band the first time around. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t offer it to them a second time around. It gives them the ability to make up for the loss that we all have. If they can’t do it, well, then OK, well, then I’m off the hook. They’re off the hook. I find another hotel and that’s it. But I’d much rather go to somewhere I know that works because I already did it once.”
Much like the rest of the country, Gold says he’s seeing a variety of health and safety guidelines – or lack thereof – with lodging. “Some are doing full COVID protocols, others some COVID protocols. Some hotels, wearing masks. Some hotels are not,” he says. “I try and make sure that it has as many of the protocols, distancing, cleaning rooms and the like as there are.”
That said, Gold says there’s no U.S. market he’s not in. “I’ve got national tours on my desk and they’re going everywhere,” he says. “They’re in California, Texas, Iowa, New Jersey, Florida.”
The harsher news for many staying at hotels will be the lack of a palliative rock star staple that for decades helped soothe many hangovers after a hard night of rocking and rolling and partying. “Right now, finding a hotel that has room service, good luck with that,” Gold says. “I would probably say of a couple of hundred hotels I’ve booked in the last 10 days, probably less than 10% have room service.” Soe mornings, that’s gonna hurt a lot.
Gold says the air travel market is more difficult to gauge. “Airlines haven’t increased their network of service between cities because there’s still half a million less people a day flying than there were when [the pandemic] started,” the travel executive says. “Based on 2019 numbers, they were at 3 million a day. They’re at 1.9 or 2.3 million so the numbers are reduced. There’s no point in putting out an airplane that’s going to go out empty. So the problem you have is the planes they do have are going out are completely full. Some fares in some markets have gone down and some fares have gone up. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I did some tickets the other day and it was $118 roundtrip. It’s like, ‘Wow, OK, that’s cheap.’ But another guy coming from another city to the same show, his ticket was $658. So it’s very, very difficult to categorize.”
Similarly difficult to categorize is the lack of decorum on flights, which these days seems to follow UFC guidelines rather than FAA rules, Gold says airlines are cracking down increasingly more, even beyond duct taping passengers to seats. “I believe in the United States, there’s about 4,000 people who are currently banned from flying for some form of misdemeanor – whether it’s masks or being rude or drunk or whatever,” he says, “which is why now you’re seeing airlines not serving alcohol because people are getting out of control. The airlines are trying to work with the FBI to make some of these situations the FBI’s responsibility. So they not only get arrested and fined, but do time. The two highest fines right now are $42,000 and $45,000 for two passengers who basically misbehaved, let’s just leave it there.”
The car rental market, too, has also become more difficult since the pandemic’s onset. “COVID happened and people weren’t going anywhere,” Gold says. “The car rental companies had huge fleets that weren’t on the road. They sold parts of their fleets to raise cash because nobody was working and some of these airport lots are not big and the cars weren’t rotating in and out. So everyone’s fleet got depleted. Then you’ve got the lack of microchips being used for games and cars and all sorts of electronic whatevers and now you’ve got a lack of new cars. So now they’re trying to get cars back out and they can’t make them fast enough because they don’t have the parts and supply chain problem. In lieu of that, you’re paying higher rates. And if you don’t book your vehicles in a timely fashion, you won’t get one.”
Gold suggests going to local branches outside of airports where you may be able to more easily score cars because most travelers want to get off the plane, get in the car and go.
Despite the challenges in today’s travel industry, Gold says there is more leniency, more collaboration and more understanding than ever. “In a normal world, it’s all about business and money and rules,” he says. “Right now, we don’t have those because everybody loses. Show cancels, promoter loses, band loses, city loses, hotel loses, travel agent loses, manager loses – everyone loses. We have not had that at all in any of the events I’ve done since this happened.”