Alumni in Action: Canden Arciniega ’06 on COVID-19 and the travel industry

The owner and COO of Free Tours by Foot discusses the impact COVID-19 has had on the travel and tourism industry.

During her sophomore year at Elon University, Canden Arciniega ’06 studied abroad in London and had a life-altering experience. Soon after graduation, Arciniega returned to attend University College London to pursue a master’s degree in history, where she met her now-husband. When their visas expired, the two set off to Washington, D.C. to start a new adventure. Arciniega began working as a tour guide, using her history education background as an asset.

Today Arciniega is the owner and COO of Free Tours by Foot, which has grown into an international travel and tourism industry leader.

Free Tours by Foot offers highly rated “name your own price” walking tours in cities throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. The company also sponsors various other tours around the world. In addition to guided tours, Arciniega and her team in Washington research and develop self-guided and audio tours, write travel guides, and contribute to “Tour Guide Tell All,” a podcast where they discuss topics such as scandalous stories from American history.

As COVID-19 spread across the globe, resulting travel restrictions and stay-at-home mandates led to tourists canceling trips, airlines grounding planes and popular attractions closing their doors. Free Tours by Foot saw a decrease in bookings and decided to move online by offering virtual tours, expanding on their podcast and sharing much-needed distractions during this difficult time. The phased reopening in Washington, D.C. has recently allowed Arciniega and her team to offer tours to locals, giving them the opportunity to further explore where they live. All tours observe social distancing measures and take precautions to minimize further spread.

Throughout this experience, Arciniega has joined multiple organizations in an effort to support the interests of small business owners. Arciniega also balances managing Free Tours by Foot with caring for her family, including her one-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.

Read below as Arciniega shares the impact COVID-19 has had on Free Tours by Foot.

Q: Can you describe how the business and tours were initially impacted? What did you do to adapt?

A: It started in late February before anyone in the States started taking it very seriously. We noticed a change in our website traffic and a slowing in booking tours. Honestly, it’s a blur from there – I believe there was a solid week of no sleep as I tried to salvage what I could as far as what tours were running in what city and pivot to a virtual tour platform. Since the company operates in various cities and each city was impacted differently, I spent a lot of time going back and forth between what is happening in Dubai vs D.C. vs NYC vs London and coming up with plans based on individual locales. Eventually, everything worldwide shuttered. It was surreal, to be honest. I’m based in D.C. so when the government shuts down and my local tours are affected, things in London are business as usual. This was a complete shutdown of all cities across the world.

Like everyone else, we moved online. We began to offer virtual tours, which actually ended up being an experience we hope to continue to offer. Virtual tours allow us to focus on a theme without the restrictions of having to keep the sites within walking distance or worry about opening hours. We can use historic footage and photos in a way that was too difficult to do before. It doesn’t matter if it rains at tour time.

We also put a lot more effort into our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All. This was something we always talked about doing but never had the time and since I’m the only one of our D.C. team that has kids – there was a lot of free time to be had.

Now that we are slowly reopening in some capacity in many cities, we are focusing on domestic travelers and tours for locals. Many people don’t explore the history and tourist attractions of their hometown, so we are hoping to change that. A walking tour is a great short break to get outside and learn about the history and sites around the corner. We have a number of safety measures in place – we wear masks, we have an app that allows guests to use their cell phone headphones to hear the guide’s microphone, no matter how far away they are standing. We have limited tours to smaller groups and in some cities are only offering private tours. And we have rerouted all tours to avoid any interior stops, which was easy since most tours are outdoors only already.

Q: Has this plan changed over the course of the pandemic?

A: I learned in mid-March not to plan too much. I’d spend all day implementing an idea only to wake up to news that something had changed. We are fortunate that it doesn’t take much to change a walking tour to follow best practices. However, we have had to change the format of our operations in D.C. Spring is our busiest time of year. A number of our guides only work March-June and are able to make enough money to last them the rest of the year. This year, no one has worked March to June. At all. When tours do reopen, we are running them on a prepaid basis to help guides get back on their feet and to ensure small groups.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought luxury and business travel would be the first to return so we had a big push in those industries. When lockdowns and restrictions continued on, we redirected efforts to focus on locals. Travel is going to take a while to come back, but people are going to want to get out and explore without going far. We’ve developed more themed tours, neighborhood tours and hiking tours.

Q: What has the reaction been to your efforts?

A: The biggest market for tours in D.C. are school groups. Many of our school groups have toured with us every year for close to 10 years. School groups have made up all of the virtual tours that have been booked in Washington, D.C.

One of the things we discovered and one of the reasons we will continue doing virtual tour options is that we are able to share this experience with students who would never have been able to come to D.C. before. The cost barrier is prohibitive to some students, especially ones who live far away. We’ve been able to supplement teachers’ lessons by touring Capitol Hill online and talking about American politics or exploring downtown D.C. and the American south to talk about Civil Rights or hop across the country from state to state to talk about Women’s History.

Unfortunately, I think since everyone went online at the same time, it was a bit overwhelming for guests. People didn’t want virtual tours after a while. But we have had lots of interest in booking tours in the future. I think everyone wants to get out of their house and since we are marketing to locals, rather than encouraging people to travel, we are finding a new market.

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.