Written by Milly Whitehead on 04 / 06 / 2020
Gap Year Advice
Milly Whitehead co-founder of The Leap, was a 'guest podcaster' for
Teen Tips, talking to them about the future of gap years post
lock-down. This is to help all those A level students who had amazing
plans for their gap year and now don’t know where they are going and
what is happening.
Q: The big questions is - will gappers be travelling long haul again? Any insight into when?
Q: Masses of gappers sitting at home (in fact 25% of students who were going to university this Sept have also deferred ) not knowing where to start with their planning - how should gappers approach their gap year?
Q: Let’s talk about the environment – has lockdown made a huge positive difference to the globe?
Q: How do gappers find these projects?
Q: Do you think gap year companies like yours will see an increase in demand when this is over?
Q: Stranded volunteers – so many hideous stories. Did you get all your clients home? Parents will want to avoid this happening to their kids – how can they do this?
Q: Independent verses organised travel? Which do you rate?
Q: Wish to leap – what is that all about?
Q: Key message to future gappers?
Welcome Milly, can you tell us a little about how The Leap came to be?
My husband and I started The Leap 20 years ago now, it has had many carnations. My husband is from Kenya and it started off by sending people to go and work on safari camps back in the day as that is what we both did on our gap years. Then over the years its evolved to team experiences where we send people to a particular country to get involved with a contrasting mix of experiences - adventure, conservation and community. It especially resonated with the generation of today where everyone has the attention span of a nat and it’s keeping them busy, they finish one thing and it’s on to the next. Therefore, sharpening up lots of their skills, communication, practical challenge, they are pushed out of their comfort zone in many different ways. That is the goal of each of our programs whether they go to Costa Rica, Madagascar or the Philippines. Each program has its own unique mix, its own level of challenge. We spend the time talking to each child and their parents about what is right for them, before anyone applies, we have that phone call which is hugely important to find out what your level of coping is. Madagascar for example, you will be sleeping on a beach, you will be on a mat for a few days whereas in Costa Rica you might have a fan and conditioning so it’s about working out where they fit and that is The Leap in a nutshell.
That sounds different to others in that you are cautious and careful about where you send them and that it is the correct fit for them.
Yes, that is true. We are not the biggest gap year company, there are huge out there that are internet based, very diverse and you get what you pay for and can go teaching in Timbuktu for a few weeks for £200. That is not our style, we are the polar opposite of that.
So, the big question right now is will gappers be travelling long haul again, any insight into when and how. What do you think the future for this year’s gapper holds?
Well, that is the million-dollar question. The one thing we have all learnt is that travel will once again be a privilege and we have to view it as such as do it carefully and responsibly and for me that is the drum that we have been banging for ages. There has been a huge lift with backpackers just going hostel hopping and going to Thailand with full moon parties and that has its place but I’m really hoping people will do more than just that and get on that aeroplane and think wow this is really special. When I get to the other side, I’m really going to make the most of it by giving back to these communities because they are struggling. They are struggling so much more that we are, yes, we are in a travel company with no business and everyone furloughed but we have the government support. The communities we work for have nothing, no support and we are desperately trying to support them as best we can from over here. Our clients have been amazing, the group that were due to go in April were 2 weeks from departing, all their money had been spent in Costa Rica, Madagascar wherever they were due to go to and you think do I get this money back from them and give it to the clients who want predominantly all their money back because that is the law or do I ask them to hold on, and every single one of them bar one said we’ll take the balance. Give us the balance back, keep that in place and we’ll come back, we’ll postpone until next year and it warmed the cockles of my heart to see that people actually sitting in this country and the US had that community supportive lockdown spirit.
That is so wonderful that they were willing to do that. There are lots of positives that come out of lockdown but that is another one I had not thought of, it’s amazing.
So, will they go you ask? Yes, they will, definitely travelling long haul again. I think it will start up as quickly as it collapsed. That famous Thursday when Trump closed his borders and literally within a week everywhere was closed. We will see this again, Europe is opening up, a lot of the overseas destinations we work in like Ecuador and Peru they are giving dates for opening and I think once the momentum gets going, bam, flights will be up and running again. But of course, there are other things we seriously have to consider before we hop on that plane and there are simple things like do we need to have an immunity passport, are we going to be insured, what happens when we get there? One of the key questions is when our gappers get there and they get off grid, how are the local communities going to view them? I think that will be a really important thing to consider because for example in one of the countries, they view it very religiously, they view it as a foreign disease and that they cannot catch it, but they view it as us. So we have to get over that barrier even if you can fly there and you’re insured and have the relevant paperwork because you wouldn’t want to go there and upset them so there are so many things to consider and that is our job as a company to help navigate these kids and their families through these really unknown waters to get them to the right place so their experience is to allow them to contribute and it is fulfilling and they are not scaring the living daylights out of a tribe.
You talk about how they are received by other countries and locals but from a parental point of view they must be more concerned about repatriation which I’m guessing you’ve had a bit of experience with now?
Yes, huge experience of repatriation. I am the world expert on repatriation. You are absolutely right, that is part of our post lockdown due diligence that we have to do and some of our countries are going to fair well and some will not and I don’t think they will be ready for us to go back in for some time. For example, with the air repatriation one of the considerations is how many of the airlines are flying in to one country. Costa Rica for example is luckily one of our favourites, they will fair really well because their hospitals are brilliant, there are respirators, they’ve not been hit, and you know they will be honest with their statistics at the end of the day. They are super cautious and there are loads of airlines that fly in and out. Kenya, we’ve just launched a new program there because everyone if familiar with it, feels comfortable with it and hospitals are good, ventilators are prevalent and loads of airlines flying. They have been hit but they will recover really quickly. It’s those types of questions that we will be answering. What we’ve found with the repatriation after Trump’s immediate closure is inside information is vital. I’ll tell you this one story about how inside information really got our team out of Madagascar. Once Trump had said no more travelling from Thursday and then on the Saturday Madagascar said they are closing the following Thursday. We sat there and thought it’s ok as our team is flying home on the Tuesday, all good, Sunday morning we got a call from our director in Madagascar saying actually it’s all gone pear shaped – the local minister, who runs the island airport, had decided today to close this border and ignored all government advice. No more flights. So, we scrambled together 2 coaches, 4 drivers, food etc – the chaotic bit, as we were ahead of Air Ethiopia who did not have this knowledge until Monday morning, so we were getting people to book another flight from the mainland. We scrambled this team to leave the camp on Sunday evening to do a 36 hour drive non-stop from the North West through the island to get the first flight out on Tuesday. Parents were kicking up thinking is this necessary as they hadn’t heard from Air Ethiopia yet, but we asked them to trust us. We had inside knowledge here, yes Air Ethiopia don’t know anything about it, yes, they can’t change your flight so we’re asking you to buy another flight ticket. Do it because when this gets out tomorrow and you’ve got everyone else in Madagascar trying to do the same and there will be no flights left. Luckily, they did, everyone left on Tuesday.
Going forward are people going to go on their gap years?
Yes, they are, but this is the time they’ve got to be really cautious, do their due diligence and go with a company that is financially protected, they trust, they like and who have got experience. It’s the old guys like us and friends of ours who’ve been in the business who will survive, and it is the young guys who are not financially protected and who have not done the right thing who I think will struggle.
So, I think, gappers moving forward, they can think big, they can go overseas but they really have to research what they are doing, how, with who and do it properly taking less risks. That’s what I think for the next year at least.
Are we going to see massive insurance hikes do you think?
We don’t know yet, we have spoken to many and they are all holding their breath. They will not insure for pandemic ever again and they won’t insure for corona virus for a fact. When corona virus is reduced from a pandemic to an illness then it will be insured, there is so much that they have to work through, the finer detail, the first company to come up with a reasonable viable response is going to be flooded. So, again nobody knows how that will look yet, it is still under discussion.
I assume there are going to be less planes in the sky as a lot of the smaller airlines will not be able to weather the storm?
Yes, that is one of the tragedies but short term we get asked are the flights going to be astronomical in price? We really don’t know; price is determined on supply and demand but they are in survival mode themselves so we don’t know what their decisions will be. It will all unfold, and we will get a taster for how it this summer as people are going to be able to fly to Portugal, Spain, France so we’ll see what those prices will look like.
There are lots of children who want to do independent travel, what are your thoughts on the independent vs organised programs?
Well, again coming back to getting the kids to do their due diligence and getting insider knowledge from people on the ground inside those countries about what it’s really like and not just taking the FCO advice. Yes, it is a contributing factor, but it is insider knowledge right now that is key and I guarantee there is going to be some really smart apps. I was speaking to someone yesterday who is developing a travel app to give alerts, such as whether the FCO advice has changed, that will evolve over the next few months. There will be those gadgets and technology will be created to facilitate the independent traveller.
There is still a place for independent travel and doing that vs one of our types of programs, my son travelled independently this summer as he refused to do anything is mother wants him to do. From a parent’s point of view, independent travelling is just as challenging as going on an organised program. Infact they marry really well together for today’s kid. What we are seeing is that the mental resilience of our kids has really changed in the last 5/6 years, the reliance on mobile phones, the decisions they are incapable of making, reliance on parents, it’s really changed the type of kid, the type of problems we have, it’s been a real eye opening in the last four years seeing those who are not ready. Even my own child who you think yep he can cope, was knocked by various things which we thought he would take in his stride. Looking back we wished he had done a two- or three-week program of ours, learn to feel comfortable with the overseas backpacking, bartering, fast paced crazy cultural challenges. They find their feet and then feel ready and equipped to go off on their own. It’s one of the things we’ve been discussing at home, should an individual pick say South America or Asia and start with a two or three grounding program and then they go off. I think that right now post lockdown it would be prudent to do so they get savvy and can cope if things go pear shaped due to the virus when they are travelling on their own.
If you were a parents of a gapper right now thinking even if universities go back on time I’ve now got 4 months until the next stage starts, there is a huge number of next year’s uni students that have already deferred for a year – what do you think they should do?
There are 2 groups there. The first group, those who are already on their gap year god I feel sorry for them, grounded. My son and his friends, all their plans cut. They’ve been sitting at home doing nothing for however many months. We’ve told our customers that we can move really fast and when if any of our countries was to open up the customers that we’ve got right now will have first dibs on any of our programs and they know that. They are sitting tight waiting for the thumbs if it is going to happen. We just don’t know. We do have confidence with Costa Rica in August, if the foreign office of this country will just change its non-essential travel to allowed. That’s what we’re really waiting on.
I’m also working on some fun things they can do in Scotland and in Ireland, a couple of local projects with our pillars of volunteering, challenge and teamwork involved. They will go out pretty soon, but I reckon there going to go out and do an adventure in Europe.
As for the lot who have just had their schooling stopped and they have this big gap year moving forwards, I think they’ve got to keep planning and keep dreaming because definitely post-Christmas things will be relatively back to a new normal of sorts.
We’ve set up a Wish To Leap list wanting people to book on to their dream trip so we can gauge who is interested in going where. We don’t want any money right now because we have to do our due diligence post Covid and post lockdown to work out which projects have survived and which countries will be good to go and then we will help people navigate accordingly but there will be a supply and demand issue. I know this sounds weird, but a lot of countries will not be here on the other side and a lot of projects on the other side will not be there. There are 2 threats I want people to be mindful of - there will be supply and demand, if you want to go with us or similar others such as Gap Force or Oyster who are brilliant at looking after their clients then there is limited numbers we can send at any one time. Yes, we can scale up to a degree, but we can’t swamp these places, there is a queue with a maximum we can send at any one given time. The other thing people have to be really mindful of are the scams because what happens is due to lockdown - companies and ground operators and NGO’s overseas won’t survive. Meaning a lot of people will be out of work. We’ve seen this with the orphanage’s years ago, they start up these projects quickly put together a website, offer everything and they won’t be well run, and you just don’t know what you’re getting yourself in to. Those are just 2 things to be really mindful of.
So those gappers right now sitting at home planning next year, and there is 25% more, as 25% of them have chosen to defer university until next year as they don’t want to miss their first term, I don’t blame them. Start planning, think big, if you want to do a ski season get your name on the list. You want to join one of our programs? Get your name on the list there is no better time when you’ve got time, and everyone needs hope. They need hope, we need hope, overseas need hope. Every time we get a booking that goes immediately overseas, and it gives them a spring in their step believing that this will be over, and life will resume and there is light at the end of the tunnel.
My key message I suppose is to keep dreaming, to believe it will happen and think big. Just do whatever you wanted and hoped to do and somehow you can make it happen, that is my take home message.
Thank you so much for creating this with me, it’s a lovely way of looking at everything and being really realistic with it all and looking at some of the pitfalls. I hope people will find it useful.
on 04 / 06 / 2020