Keeping the show on the road: Behind the scenes of Missouri men’s basketball road trips with COVID-19

Missouri men’s basketball will venture out on more road trips as conference play kicks into full gear. Travel account manager Jason Staley ensures the journeys happen as safely and efficiently in the midst of the pandemic.

Less than a week before two proposed — yet never finalized — contests against Oregon and Boston College in the Bubbleville invitational tournament in Connecticut, Missouri men’s basketball withdrew from its games, leaving a 10-day gap between its season opener and second game.

The following Monday, less than 72 hours after the announcement, Missouri finalized a neutral site game in Omaha, Neb. against Oregon.

Such is life in 2020.

Games that should be concrete are instead in a wet-cement state, where COVID-19 concerns can seep in and ruin games that should be set in stone. Mere minutes before games are set to tip off, a positive test from a player, coach or other team personnel can trigger a cancellation. A team that possibly traveled a thousand miles to play a basketball game ended up as nothing more than a two-night hotel stay and average airline food.

In the middle of everything lies Jason Staley, Missouri athletics’ travel account manager. He is the metaphorical concrete finisher, whose job is to set travel plans for not just the Missouri men’s basketball team, but for all 18 Missouri teams that compete in NCAA-sanctioned sports.

It is a job made markedly harder due to the unique impact of COVID-19. Normally, Staley would have plotted out the travel plans for the basketball team’s entire season as soon as the schedule was released. But this year, he has to coordinate travel plans on a game-by-game basis, where he could receive a note at any point in the process letting him know he has to either cancel or make an entirely new plan just days before a game.

“As soon as they find out, they let me know right away,” Staley said. “It may be a week before the game was supposed to take place, or it could be just a few days before the game is scheduled to take place.”

Even though Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said his team planned to take part in the Bubbleville festivities, Staley said he had not scheduled any plans for the team to travel to Uncasville, Conn. for the tournament.

Paul Rorvig, Missouri’s director of basketball operations, informed Staley of the change on Friday and got right to work on the team’s plans to play Oregon. By the end of the day, the team knew where they would be staying and how they would get to The Big “O.”

“It is something that I found out about when Paul [Rorvig] sent me an email and informed me that it was happening,” Staley said. “I didn't have anything scheduled for the game that was canceled, so I just solely worked on booking the charter bus in the hotel for Omaha.”

The pandemic-affected season is Staley’s first with the Missouri athletic department, since he was hired for his current position working for Missouri in conjunction with Anthony Travel on June 1. However, Staley carries a wealth of experience from working with other athletic departments such as South Florida and Missouri’s in-state compatriot, Washington University.

As travel account manager, Staley books chartered flights, chartered buses and hotels for every road trip and every team at the lowest price possible, which usually hovers between $15,000 to $50,000 per trip. Staley’s job is equivalent to booking family vacations for anywhere between 15 to 100-plus people — but on a significantly larger scale.

Each of the teams has a different schedule and gives booking assignments to Staley at different intervals: Some give him their entire schedule at the beginning of the season; others are planned on a game-by-game basis. He has to juggle the needs and wants of almost 20 different programs with the deft hands of a magician.

“What I do is not rocket science, but it can be very complex,” Staley said. “There's lots of moving parts, and if you forget to note one thing on a calendar, it could ultimately cause the team to lose the flights that they wanted or a bus that they wanted or a hotel that they wanted.”

There isn’t a regimented routine that Staley follows with every single road trip, but more often than not, if a team needs a flight booked, he locks tickets down right away to ensure the team has enough seats to accommodate potentially dozens of players.

“Charter companies have so many buses in their fleet, so that is not something that has ever in all of my years presented a problem,” Staley said. “But locking in the number of flights and flight seats needed for a team could be a potential issue.”

If the team only travels a short distance — such as to Omaha or Wichita, Kan., where Missouri men’s basketball played two non-conference games in December — charter buses are the team’s means of travel since they are more cost-effective than an entire plane. Staley hammers out the details on hotels from there and usually finalizes the team’s travel plans within an hour.

With the Omaha trip, there was such short notice between receiving the word from Rorvig and the game that Staley began the process by searching for hotels to accommodate the team.

“I went to hotels first because it was a quick turnaround time,” Staley said. “I wanted to make sure that was solidified so that we were to be able to find a hotel that had the space to accommodate their needs.”

The coronavirus pandemic takes the already complex industry that Staley navigates — where he has to be in constant contact with not only the directors of operations of all 18 Missouri teams, but the vendors for all of Missouri’s hospitality needs — and raises its complexity to an even higher degree.

Now there are even more necessary precautions to make certain everyone is healthy come game time. Not only that, but the plans Staley cultivated could be undone in an instant.

These are conditions Staley has rarely dealt with in nearly two decades of hospitality coordination. He’s faced his share of adversity in the past though, as he had to put flight plans together for his clients on the fly after mechanical issues caused cancellations.

“I have had one experience when American Airlines grounded all of their MD-80 flights because of potential mechanical issues,” Staley said. “There was a very large group — I’m talking thousands of people — that were all being moved, and a very large bulk of them were on American flights, so I had to scramble to get them moved to alternate flights.”

Staley’s first seven months in Columbia have been one prolonged scramble. Missouri soccer needed to cancel or postpone games throughout the fall while Missouri’s final football schedule looked nothing like the initial 10-game layout set up at the beginning of the season.

A less travel-intensive fall, where none of Missouri’s teams travelled in back-to-back weeks, gave Staley the opportunity to learn about the protocols and precautions to take into account for each expedition.

“It was almost the opportunity for trial and error, so to speak, to kind of get the whole process down before the bigger teams started to move with their season,” Staley said.

Staley encounters the most difficulties when planning a team’s hotel stay. It is easier to manage chartered flights or buses because the team is only amongst themselves and does not have to stress as much about contracting the virus from someone not affiliated with the team.

Hotels are different in that the athletes have to share facilities like fitness centers and meeting rooms with other hotel patrons. Since the team wants to maintain as tight a bubble as possible, the team and the hotel — usually a Marriott — need to come to a compromise.

“We're always going to try to find a hotel that can meet those accommodations,” Staley said. “We have to find a hotel that can accommodate social distancing for the number of players that they have so that they can still do what they need to do. And in some cases, it's just not possible.”

The agreements Staley negotiates with each hotel require him to be even more active in planning each trip. In a normal season, the athletes could work out in hotel fitness centers at their convenience and eat meals in meeting rooms without any qualms.

But this season, Staley has to confirm with every hotel that Missouri can proceed with their game day routine as seamlessly as possible.

“It is a little more coordinated with the hotel than it used to be in the past, because they could just go into the gym whenever they chose to,” Staley said. “I'm trying to lighten the load for the director of ops as much as I possibly can so that they can focus on other things. I'm taking on as much as I possibly can from this angle.”

Along with the regular travel plans, Staley must also plan an alternate method of travel for players who arrive at their destination only to test positive for COVID-19. As a preemptive measure, Staley secures rental cars for every road trip in the event of a case. Missouri has not had to send anyone home separate from the team on its first two road trips of the year.

“Not often are rental cars necessary,” Staley said. “But right now they are in case something happens where someone from the team ends up testing positive and we have to get them home separate from everybody else.”

Another aspect that Staley needs to keep in mind is the cost of various accommodations. It’s something that travel account managers need all the time, but it is even more crucial now when the pandemic has cost athletic departments around the country millions of dollars in revenue.

Missouri’s athletic department has operated in the red for three straight years, a trend which is almost certainly going to continue in the first half of the 2020s. Staley maintains three separate calendars, all with the same dates and information, to verify he won’t miss any dates which would cost the team potentially thousands of dollars.

While Staley says his job isn’t too complicated, the decisions and calculations he makes in a budget jam have major ramifications, where miscalculations can prove costly — literally.

Everyone in the hospitality right now follows the “High School Musical” principle: “We’re all in this together.” Vendors for hotels, planes and buses aren’t gouging the prices or tacking on fees just to increase their bottom line.

There is a mutual understanding between everyone in the travel industry that COVID-19 can change anything and everything in an instant with one positive test or one close contact. As a result, Missouri doesn’t have to pay anything up front when they book and fees for changing flights — which were $200 per ticket — have been waived.

“It gives a little extra flexibility with being able to shift dates around when needed,” Staley said. “Everybody has learned to be more flexible. During this time, there's really no other option.”

Staley said the hospitality industry’s behavior has become more compassionate in the wake of the pandemic. The nation needs sports to serve as a form of escapism for all parties involved in the competition, from the fans to the athletes to the coaches who all need some distraction from a bleak winter.

While they aren’t out on the court or on the field, Staley, other travel account agents, and the vendors are the people who make these diversions happen behind the scenes. As the hospitality industry has banded together, it has made sports seasons possible and as hospitable as possible.

“I have learned that when times get tough and push comes to shove, we can all work together for the greater good of our own entities,” Staley said. “It used to be like fighting a losing battle before COVID happened. But COVID happened and these folks, these hotels, the charter companies, whether it be bus or air, commercial airlines, everybody is just happy to be having business and making money and being able to bring their staff back to work.”

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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