| The Pueblo Chieftain
CANON CITY — When its time to ditch the remote meetings and gather in person, one local rafting outfitter has a plan for getting people outdoors to reconnect with business associates, family and friends.
Andy Neinas, Echo Canyon River Expeditions owner, is ready to put the challenging year of 2020 behind him and focus on the upcoming summer season, which he hopes will be much closer to a coronavirus-free undertaking as vaccines are rolled out. To entice customers, he is unveiling the “Battle of the Bighorn” package which combines physical and mental challenges in a competitive and fun format — all centered around rafting.
“It is fun and silly and, I suppose, a complement to the COVID world because rafting is naturally a distance, outdoor activity,” Neinas explained. “Team building is something we are all struggling with right now,” thanks to the work-from-home and online meeting environment.
Neinas has talked to business people and discovered some have worked from home for so long that there are coworkers they haven’t met and offices they haven’t been inside. He believes the Battle of the Bighorn would be ideal for corporate team building groups as well as wedding parties, family reunions, sports teams or clubs.
The program is “a fun, healthy and outdoor shared experience that has proven effective in bringing people together,” Neinas said. “I think COVID fatigue is really setting in and with the upcoming warm weather and optimistic, positive stories about the vaccine people will feel like it’s getting better and they will realize they can get out with family and friends.”
He said the Royal Gorge areas’ “natural assets and wide open spaces” make it the ideal place to venture out in the transitioning time between pandemic and a post-virus world.
He for sure doesn’t want another summer like last summer, although it was “a mixed bag,” of good and bad.
“I am shocked — I am not sure what would have happened if people had not perceived rafting as a safe, naturally distant activity — we seemed to fit in a sweet spot.”
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There were challenges, as his company was dictated by a whole slew of different protocols ranging from transportation (busing passengers to the river takeouts) to rafting, to food and beverage service at his 8 Mile Bar and Grill to hospitality because he offers overnight lodging in luxury cabins and glamping tents (the nickname for glamorous camping accommodations).
State health officials had “everything in little boxes, but we’ve got five different things going on and they were all different as far as implementation and compliance,” Neinas said. “We had staff compliance and guest compliance, so I got to be a COVID cop all summer long and did not have fun with it.”
Another challenge was the disruption to the employee cycle.
“I could not find people to work. I had employment ads that went without response and all my peers — not just commercial outfitters — but recreation tourism and hospitality businesses, were the same way,” Neinas said.
“We were blessed to have the demand of people wanting to go rafting, but with the transportation capacity cut in half it raises the bottom line. Still I feel so darn lucky — COVID made winners and losers.
“Yes, I am a winner. Am I down over six figures in food and beverage sales — yes, but I still consider myself a winner,” because he is still in business, he said.
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Neinas has logged 35 consecutive seasons on the Arkansas River “as a glorified raft guide,” he joked, the past 20 of which he has been owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions. As a result he is ever the optimist that next season will be better and he has designed a way to make rafting even more interesting.
Among challenges incorporated in the Battle of the Bighorn are the rock toss, the watermelon delivery, a water shuttle and a paddling challenge.
Teams start off by tossing rocks to fill a bucket in an effort to get a one-minute had start on the race. Teams then manually inflate their rafts before hitting the Arkansas River to navigate the Big Horn Sheep Canyon west of Canon City.
Along the way teams must retrieve a watermelon from the Five Points overlook and carry it to the finish line, complete a bucket brigade-like water challenge and a backwards paddling challenge. As they near the finish line, they must turn their paddles upside down and use the handle portion to close the final stretch and reach the beach.
The event wraps up with a post-race catered party at the 8 Mile Bar and Grill and the awarding of prizes. Battle of the Bighorn is available in afternoons from May through September depending on water levels.
The base price is $700 to launch a private Battle of the Bighorn. In addition, the cost is $89 per person.
Expeditions will be available between May and September.
At least three teams are required with five to seven participants per team. For information email [email protected], call 1-800-690-3246 or log onto raftecho.com.