Last year at this time we were in a COVID-19 tailspin at Bird Watcher’s Digest. Our governor had issued a shutdown order for all businesses in the state, and, like everyone in the world, we were terrified and dumbfounded. Honestly, our team of 12 people (who capably handle the daily workload of about 30 people) was just starting to catch its breath after a challenging year in 2019, having adapted to the loss of our editor Bill Thompson, III, in March, and his mother and BWD‘s founding publisher, Elsa Thompson, in May.
Becoming the owner and chief executive officer of BWD and all that entails had been life-changing for me in 2019. I had humbly and fearfully agreed to take the helm of this beloved organization at Bill’s dying request, and with his full trust and confidence in March 2019. I fully understood how much BWD meant to thousands of people around the world. But I, Wendy Clark, was not part of the Thompson family. Although I had become an avid amateur birder, I wasn’t a professional birder or published writer. My education and professional experience was in management, sales, and marketing, not in publishing and birding. I had worked for BWD for six years from 2010 to 2016, but I had served as the advertising and events director, not as publisher. Now, following a year of tragic loss and transition in 2019, here was a global pandemic threatening the very existence of a company I’d only taken on just 12 months earlier! I desperately wanted to continue the beautiful legacy that the Thompsons had begun with BWD in 1978, and to honor everything they had built, but I felt awestruck at the prospect. Although it sounds a bit dramatic, my life was beginning to feel a bit like a Shakespearean tragedy.
I remember standing in my kitchen last March following the first of many “technically awkward” Zoom calls with my staff. I had dutifully rallied the troops during my call, but finished with tears in my eyes and desperation in my soul, digging deep to find strength. I lifted my eyes symbolically to the Universe and whispered, “This is completely out of my control. I need strength and wisdom beyond my years and experience. I don’t know how to do this. Help me take care of these dear people and guide us as we navigate our way through another big storm.” I prayed that this pandemic wouldn’t last long, that somehow lives would be spared, and that all of the small, locally owned birding businesses and tour companies like ours would survive.
For more than a year now, the pandemic has affected every single person on planet Earth. But in the bird-watching world, something wonderful and unexpected has happened. People who were stuck at home with little to do suddenly found their way outdoors, and they discovered birds! We’ve had more people subscribe to our magazine in 2020 than in any previous year in at least a decade. Within weeks of the national quarantine, people were begging for books, binoculars, and more digital content about birds and birding. We were busier than ever just trying to keep up with this unprecedented demand for information and products. Because the world suddenly became hyper-focused on birds and nature, they found us, connected with us, and enabled us to make it this far.
However, our Reader Rendezvous tours suffered a huge financial loss last year, and so did our advertising revenue, which underwrites the growing cost of our print magazines. Even so, our magazine subscriptions and optics sales have continued to grow during the pandemic. It feels so good to share beautiful stories about birds and nature with the world at a time when the world is hurting. Our goal was to help people focus on something other than politics and pandemic pain for a few minutes each day, and to help them find refuge and solace in the natural world around them. There is still beauty in the world if you know how to find it.
By July 2020, I realized that the pandemic was not going to go away anytime soon, and that it was time to rethink the way we meet the needs of the birding community and the way we do business. BWD had formerly been an industry frontrunner as we developed large, national birding events like the American Birding Expo – “The World of Birding in One Place.” By July of 2020 our American Birding Expo tagline seemed laughable, and a distant dream. We had been quarantined for months at that point, and we couldn’t be near anyone in one place, let alone the entire world of birding! Everything had changed. How would we continue to help birders feel connected to us and to each other when the entire world was isolated? We needed to find a new way to connect, to forge a path in this new pandemic wilderness, and to create a “new normal.” And so we did.
The birding festivals we had supported and participated in for decades were now establishing “virtual festival” models, which have been surprisingly fun and engaging! We’ve been involved in many of these over the past year and have enjoyed them tremendously. (Please allow me to pause for a moment and give a huge shout-out to all of our friends and colleagues who have developed and hosted virtual birding festivals. You are amazing, we love you, and we thank you!) But many folks in the birding community count on shopping for birding optics at these in-person birding events. Prior to the pandemic, Redstart Birding would set up shop at many festivals across the country, where devoted birders visited our booth, consulted with us, tried out binoculars, and made purchases. Although virtual birding festivals were a meaningful development during the COVID crisis, they could not offer birders the opportunity to see, touch, and try birding optics in person. So, we came up with Redstart on the Road—a series of small, COVID-safe, private-appointment-based events that would allow us to “bring optics to the people” in a safe and healthy way rather than expecting people to come to us at larger, now non-existent events.
As I write this piece in late March 2021, we have now hosted four Redstart on the Road events, in Florida, Indiana, and Ohio. Although we’re still working the bugs out and learning more with each experience, each of these events has been successful. People seem to love having a private, pre-scheduled appointment with an optics consultant. They don’t have to fight crowds, wait in line, or worry about having enough time to preview the products they’re interested in. Appointments are made in an easy, online system that sends text reminders 24 hours prior to each scheduled appointment. Venues are either outdoors or indoors in a spacious environment. Masks are mandatory, and hands and products are sanitized between uses. Products purchased are shipped directly from the manufacturer to the consumer. And the best part is, everyone who makes a purchase at one of these events receives a 5% discount, and 5% of all sales from each event are donated to our partner organization—a local bird club or conservation organization.
We’ve faced some challenges, though. Because of the high demand for birding optics around the world, shipping times have been delayed much more than in a non-pandemic year. Our optics partners are working hard to make products more readily available, and the shipping gap is closing a bit each day. Still, the demand for optics in 2020 and 2021 has far outweighed the supply. We greatly appreciate the patience of our valued customers as they sometimes have to wait weeks rather than days to receive the optics and gear they’ve purchased.
All things considered, we are thrilled with the development of our “new normal” optics sales experience, and are excited to continue our Redstart on the Road adventures throughout 2021 and beyond. We will be in North Carolina, Michigan, Tennessee, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania over the next six months, so please check our website for more information on a Redstart on the Road event near you.
We sure hope that big birding events and festivals will return to the birding community in the future, when the time and conditions are safe to do so. And although we will always participate in big events, we plan to continue our small, safe, Redstart on the Road events long after the pandemic is over because they are stress-free, low-key, and comfortable for all of us. It really is the best way to shop for birding optics, and we are enjoying spending quality, uninterrupted time with the folks who shop with us.
We’ve also resumed our Reader Rendezvous birding tours in 2021 and have redesigned our tour model in order to keep all of our attendees, staff, and guides safe and healthy. I’ll write more about that soon, but you can read a wonderful recap of our recent Indiana Rendezvous written by assistant editor Jessica Melfi. We’re developing a “new normal” with our birding tours as well, and thanks to our amazing attendees, we’ve somehow managed to keep the fun Reader Rendezvous spirit alive even during a pandemic.
What I’m learning is this: The keys to survival are adaptation, creativity, hard work, and positivity. And for me, my ongoing conversation with the Universe doesn’t hurt either. Prayer and meditation help me keep this crazy world, and my role in it, in better perspective. Mostly, it gives me the strength and courage to carry on.
About the Author
Wendy Clark is the president and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a career communications specialist, and an avid birder. She has three children and two grandchildren, and lives in Marietta, Ohio.