Leisure Cycling Holidays & the Pandemic: Bird Interview Steven Rittey

Freewheel Holidays, one of Bird’s clients for many years, offer world-class leisure cycling holidays in Europe to enthusiastic cyclists looking to broaden their horizons and discover totally awe-inspiring cycling locations. But as you can imagine, the pandemic has created a seismic shift in the global travel market.

In this interview Bird speak to one of Freewheel’s team Steven Rittey about how the holiday business has responded to Covid-19, how it has affected him personally and how taking advantage of new webinar platforms has allowed him to create something new and exciting for Freewheel customers!

Firstly Steven, having been based in the office (practically 24/7!) how have things been different working from home?

“It’s been really eye opening. It’s something I’ve never done before and it’s something I’ve often wondered what it would be like to do on a long term basis. Not necessarily having to go on the train every day at a set time… The weirdest thing has been the lack of separation I suppose, between going to your computer from your bedroom and then also lunches and things like that. But when the lockdown restrictions were strict and it was a case of only going out once a day for essential things, it was good to be occupied. It’s been an eye opening experience from a personal perspective but I think it also proves that it is possible as well. People on the whole probably hadn’t heard of Zoom or Google Meet before this and now Zoom’s become like a big brand name. It’s almost become a verb! It’s certainly highlighted a few things as well, like being able to connect with the whole team and offices and people you can’t see face to face in the real world, but you can still keep in touch with them. It’s been unusual!” 

And what do you think of applications like Zoom?

“The thing about Zoom, though, is it’s not the perfect tool. There are some issues around how good your internet connection is, whether your partner is working in the room next door and they’re both zooming the connection can drop out. And it started off as quite “user-unfriendly” but gradually as more people started to use it, it became quite useful. But I do find you can overdo it on there, perhaps not being an active part of the meeting… It can make you get a headache or an eye strain too, because it’s not natural.”

How difficult has it been for a travel company to operate during this time?

“I think for a travel perspective, we’ve seen what’s been happening from the very beginning. There were certain events and holidays that got cancelled… It became clear that once Italy and Spain had suffered unprecedented lockdowns, something was going to happen in the UK. The hardest thing working in travel was trying to keep on top of each booking. Because there were so many different bookings in different countries, each with their own rules and regulations, it has been hard to deal with some of the cross-border tours for example… You’re having to tell somebody their holiday is no longer possible. Not just because the UK government said so, but also because the restrictions at that time simply don’t allow it to happen… Usually when a holiday gets cancelled it’s because a flight gets cancelled, or a customer cancels. But in this case everyone was in the same position.”

What’s been the overall reaction from customers?

“ I’d say people have been very understanding. We’ve had a lot of emails from customers who’ve had their holidays cancelled. And they’ve not only wished us well but the company well too . A lot of them have actually transferred over to next year. The desire to travel is still there, but ultimately there’s a lot of nervousness about going on planes… some people haven’t left their hometown or their county in 4 months! The idea that they’re suddenly gonna jump on a plane is just unlikely for some at the moment. I mean, I went to Manchester for the first time Friday, but technically I could have jumped on a plane to Berlin!  It’s an odd situation… I think when people appreciate that travel is back again and that you can travel safely, you’ll be seeing a lot more people going away.”

How encouraging is it to see more and more people taking up cycling during lockdown?

“One of the things about cycling during lockdown was that it was one of the few activities people were allowed to do. The opportunity to go out and cycle, whether it was for an hour or with their friends and family, has been something people could actually do outdoors. It’s generally a very safe activity too. I think with cycling in general booming, it’s a positive for Freewheel but also it’s positive generally. I’ve seen new cycling infrastructure pop up in Manchester that wouldn’t have been there.. You’ve got more people talking about cycling… ultimately the numbers of new cyclists have been a positive. And not just cyclists, but runners as well. More people are getting active. Even here, I’ve discovered new country trails, new routes, new paths. Because we’ve been confined and restricted to these areas, people swapped to the outdoor alternative I think this may shape the way people choose a holiday in the future too.”

“I hope what people do is carry on cycling in their local area as much as possible and then venture further afield. And then realise that it’s not totally taxing to do 25 miles and that you can do 50 miles and then you can start to challenge yourself. And if you do enjoy cycling a lot then you can go somewhere else in the UK or Europe when it’s possible to do so. Hopefully the outcome will be people think riding a bike is second nature and a great new holiday experience too.”

Tell us a little bit about your Freewheel webinar series, how it came about and how well it’s done!

“The webinar series was a bit of a strange one! To this day I still can’t quite figure out how it all started!.. I had all these cycling stories that I’d written up in the past, so I thought I’d go down to the shed at the end of the garden and turn it into a makeshift studio! Send out an email and see if anybody’s interested in what I’ve got to present. People really took to it straight away! I couldn’t believe it when there was more than 30 people all on at once. The first call was a nice sunny day during the heatwave and people were sat inside in front of their tablets watching me for an hour! I’ve really enjoyed it from a social perspective. You’re seeing people you wouldn’t normally see every day in the office or out and about, and I’ve quite liked the fact I’ve had about 500 people “come into the shed” listening to me ramble on about cycling trips to Italy, Germany etc. It’s opened my eyes to a new skill. And it’s something that I’d like to carry on doing… there’s an opportunity for someone to do quite well out of this micro-TV idea. Zoom’s been used a lot for meetings, but there’s a lot of potential with it… Once you get the nerves out of the way it’s good fun. So keep an eye out for Freewheel.TV !!”

Everyone seems to have loved it! You really connected with your audience, don’t you think? 

“It’s quite funny because when you’re doing these talks you’re not talking about yourself, but you are talking about what you’ve done. A few people have said they felt a good connection with me. And that I haven’t preached or over done it. I think that was a good comment. I’m quite pleased with how they’ve gone.”

I hear you also managed to get some national press coverage? Tell us about that. 

“A journalist we’ve worked with in the past on a few holidays and promotional things we’ve done with freewheel got in touch… Neil Simpson, who writes The Armchair Traveller in the Daily Mail & The Mail on Sunday. He said “Steven! I’ve seen some of your Zoom webinars you’ve been doing and I’d like to give you a little feature, because I think what you’ve done is quite pioneering. And you’ve inspired people to go travelling or talk about their travels at a time when people couldn’t travel.” So he gave me a nice little feature and promoted Freewheel as well, which is good! But ultimately I didn’t do it for any praise or glory! I just did it because I like talking about cycling and where people can go. I think sometimes when I focus on the more random things, like Fat Biking in Finland, or checking out some weird architecture in France and Belgium, people like that because it is different… Like Belgium’s first indoor shopping centre in Genk! That’s the kind of stuff people have been interested in. And there’s always been a Football reference as well.”

Finally, what do you think the future holds for Freewheel?

“A lot of countries have reopened and a lot of the EU countries have allowed their holidaymakers to go on holiday. But I think as long as customers are looked after, and that’s one thing I’m pleased about – all the customers we’ve been dealing with have been very friendly and approachable, but then the people we’ve been working with have been brilliant as well, understanding that our situation here is different from say Germany or Austria and they’ve been cancelling the holidays without issue – that’s translated into great customer service. Because those customers are happy that their holiday is securely transferred over to next year. And hopefully things do get back to, not necessarily normality, but back to travelling freely again. And hopefully with the boom in cycling, the two things will coincide and next year will be a big year for Freewheel.”

If you’d like to find out more about Freewheel and explore the Cycling Holidays in Europe they offer, head over to FreewheelHolidays.co.uk. And be sure to stay tuned to @FreewheelHols on Twitter for all the latest Cycling Holiday news.

We are Bird.
We are #YourDepartment.