– Brad Wuest, Natural Bridge Caverns, President/CEO, interviewed by Jeannette Cooperman
Since 1883, Brad Wuest’s family has run a ranch in San Antonio, Texas. Sixty years ago, four university students squeezed through a small opening in a sinkhole on the ranch and found a massive cave system, stalactites icing vast, high-ceilinged chambers. Now a national natural landmark and one of the world’s top show caves, Natural Bridge Caverns is run by Brad, his brother, Travis, and their mother, Joye. This spring, they made one of the toughest decisions of their lives and closed for seven weeks. They reopened May 8.
Pictured: Brad Wuest, Joye Wuest & Travis Wuest
What first flagged the pandemic for you?
One of our team members, actually. He was concerned, so we started paying closer attention to it.
You’re known for treating employees like family. Did that make it even more painful to put people on furlough?
Oh, yeah. At first, we kept everybody who wanted to work on the payroll doing projects, such as repairs and maintenance. We had no idea how long this was going to last—things were changing so rapidly. After a couple of weeks, we had to make the hard decision to furlough most of our team. My brother, Travis, our mother, Joye, and I made personal phone calls to many of our team members. Their loyalty, appreciation for what we had done, and understanding of the situation was humbling. They understood that the survival of the business was the best thing for everyone in the long run. We were able to keep a very small crew on performing essential jobs. Then, as soon as we got a payroll protection loan, we brought the whole team back, starting April 20. We had to get creative to provide jobs for everyone while we were still closed to the public, all the while maintaining safe working protocols. We had teams working on painting, landscaping, and cave development; we even had tour guides working as ranch hands clearing fence lines and removing brush! We also started preparing our procedures and guidelines for reopening, had sewing teams making face masks out of old uniform shirts, and had other teams building hand washing stations and plexiglass screens.
And on May 8, you reopened, new protocols in place. We heard you led one of the tours yourself?
Yes, I guided a tour on opening day. Some of our tour guides were anxious, so it was good for morale. My brother, Travis, guided a tour on Saturday as well. This gave us the opportunity to see if our reduced tour capacities provided adequate social distancing between families, evaluate group dynamics under the new norm, see what guests thought, and make improvements. After a couple days, our team was saying, “Yeah, this works. I feel safe, and we are providing a safe experience for our guests.” And the visitors were so excited to get out, and to be in such a beautiful natural setting. Currently we are only taking fifteen people on our Discovery tour and six on our Hidden Passages tour, so it has been great—the tours are more intimate with more time for questions and interpretation of the spectacular cavern system.
Why do people care so much about travel?
I think we have a desire deep down inside of us to get out and explore, experience new things, share those experiences, and keep expanding our knowledge of the world. Travel can be transformational. We don’t just want people to have fun here. We want them to leave saying, “I’m going to be an advocate for caves,” or “I want to be a geologist!”— or, better yet, “Today our family was able to reconnect with each other while discovering nature and adventure.”
Pictured: Justin Royce, Travis Wuest & Brad Wuest
You’re a caver yourself. What’s so special about exploring underground?
There is no mountain in the world that hasn’t been summited. We’ve had people on the moon. But there are thousands of caves that no human has ever seen. Last May, Travis and I led a twenty-hour expedition into a remote part of our own cave, through Satan’s Pit Passage—which is like a maze, with tight crawls and pits you need to shimmy down, then rappel into the Lake Passage and eventually arrive in a 120-foot tall room called the Dome Pit. The chamber is beautiful and ominous. Our objective was reaching what we believed to be an upper-level passage at the top of the room. For sixty years we’ve wondered and dreamed about what might be up there. One of the best cave climbers in the world, Lee White, was on our team, and he free-climbed to the top and rigged a rope for us to ascend. We found a virgin passage that has since led us to spectacular hidden chambers. Our eyes were the first to see it, and we placed the very first footprints there. What an awesome and humbling experience, to go where no human has ever been. We found ancient bat roosts and had the guano samples carbon dated, with the oldest being 7,500 years old. On our second expedition, I rappelled down a pit over ninety feet and found this spectacular passage of travertine dams and clear lagoons. Later expeditions have shown that the cave keeps going with no end in sight.
You’re president of the International Show Caves Association. What are you hearing from other countries?
We’re all in the same boat. Practically every show cave in the world closed. A lot are still not able to open. We’ve been sharing information daily, offering safety resources and recommended guidelines for reopening, comparing ideas, and sharing how our reopening is going. What’s really cool is to see all the collaboration across the tourism industry, even among people who usually see themselves as competitors. We are all in this together and can help each other.
Is this the biggest crisis Natural Bridge has faced?
This is a huge crisis, and our business closed longer than ever before in history. But honestly, it’s not the biggest crisis we have faced. Losing the three founders of the business—my grandparents and father—over the course of sixteen months was far more challenging for our family, employees, and the survival of our business. This happened shortly after I graduated from college in 1996 and returned to the family business. In October 1996, our founding GM/secretary, my step-grandfather Harry Heidemann, died. One year later, our founding president, my grandmother, Clara, died. My father, Reggie, who was our founding vice president, became president after his mother died, and I became vice-president for a short while. Four months later, my dad died of cancer. I assumed the role of president, and Travis became our vice president while he was still a student at Texas A&M. My mom assumed the role of chief financial officer and cave mom. Fortunately, she had been working in the family business for years while caring for my grandparents and dad as their health failed. That was a “slow burn” crisis, and my mom was the rock of our family and held things together. Our family is known for its amazing and strong women!
Pictured: Reggie Wuest, Clara Wuest Heidemann & Harry Heidemann
When my grandfather was killed in a ranching accident, my grandmother, Clara, was left to run the ranch, with two kids, in a drought. Then, after the caverns were discovered, she was the driving force behind developing the caverns and diversifying into the tourism business when people were saying, “Oh, you can’t do that, Mrs. Wuest. You don’t even have any public access roads to your ranch. And you’ve got a lot of rocky ranch land and some cattle, but you don’t have any money.” Or “Mrs. Wuest, as a woman, you don’t need to burden yourself with risky business ventures like this.” As I said before, our family has strong-willed women! They just motivated her even more to prove them wrong.
What would she have said about this pandemic?
With her spirit? She certainly wouldn’t have given up. She’d say, “This current crisis is not going to bring down our family’s legacy. It will soon be a part of our history, and we will come out of this stronger for having been through it. Adversity, faith, and family make us stronger at the hardest times.” I’m sure she’s lookin’ down right now, and I hope she’s proud of us, because we are going to be just fine.
For the latest industry research and recovery solutions from PGAV Destinations, visit PGAV Destinations Dispatch