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Travel Trends

View from the bridge

Don George  Feb 25, 2009

How are adventure travel companies faring in the current economic climate? What trends are they noticing? What are they hearing from their customers? And what measures are they taking to chart a course through the turbulent financial waters?

To get a sense of bearings and of the course ahead, I recently canvassed executives from the Adventure Collection – Backroads, Bushtracks, Canadian Mountain Holidays, Geographic Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Micato Safaris, Natural Habitat Adventures, OARS, NOLS, and Off the Beaten Path – to get their take on the state of the adventure travel industry, where we’re headed and how they’re navigating in these challenging waters.

In their remarks, a few common themes emerged. Central among these was the conviction that despite economic uncertainties, their travelers continue to believe in the value of travel and the importance of connection and family on their journeys.

“While the economic downturn has had a definite impact on the travel industry, the desire to experience genuine connections with other lands and cultures remains strong. People continue to seek settings and activities that offer high-quality, restful and reflective experiences; in some ways these are held as more important now than ever,” said Jim Sano, president of Geographic Expeditions.

Bill Bryan, co-founder and chairman of Off the Beaten Path, agreed. “Our clients don’t see travel as a luxury, but as an integral part of their continued quest to be whole. More than ever, our travelers are seeking exceptional experiences that connect them with family, culture, community, the land and the environment.”

George Wendt, president of OARS, said, “Increasing numbers of extended families are joining us on river trips and other outdoor vacation multi-sport experiences. We believe this is precisely because of our country’s challenging economic times. Families are deciding that it is better to get their kids active in the outdoors instead of having them hanging around shopping malls or playing video games.”

Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris, added, “Our family safaris, often involving three generations, remain strong. There is a sentiment that the economy will recover in time, but that missed opportunities with family can't be recovered.”

Tom Hale, CEO of Backroads, said their bookings also support this trend. “Our Private and Family trips are doing quite well. We’re offering more family destinations and departures than ever.”

Analyzing the family phenomenon, Sano of Geographic Expeditions said, “People want to reset their bearings, whether through immersion in extraordinary natural settings, as in the Galapagos, or rich vibrant cultures, as in Bhutan or East Africa. And they want to share this journey – and the revelations and connections it brings – with families and friends. Meeting people who make the equivalent of $200 a year and yet are content in their lives really puts things into perspective.”

“Our travelers are savvy people geopolitically,” noted Bryan of Off the Beaten Path. “They know that for the last several years our country has been disconnected from many other countries and cultures. They also know that within our society waning affluence causes a recalibration regarding what is important in one’s own life. Such importance easily equates to connecting with land, people, culture, and roots and often gravitates toward family reunions.”

The leaders also touched on another aspect of connection – the vital role travel connections can play within the destination countries and cultures themselves.

Ben Bressler, founder and director of Natural Habitat Adventures, passionately underscored the vital role travel plays in the countries his company visits. “We need to remember that for the people, places and wild things around the planet that directly rely on tourism to survive, travel is not a mere luxury. When practiced thoughtfully and responsibly, tourism can be a real source of good in the world. For example, when travelers visit wild mountain gorillas in Uganda, their trip fees provide direct support for the protection of gorillas on a day-to-day basis. And these visitors send a clear message to the government of Uganda that saving gorillas matters and that, when protected, these wondrous creatures can be a source of vital foreign exchange.

“I believe that without tourism, mountain gorillas would be extinct,” Bressler stated, “and this same scenario is playing out all over the world time and time again: From villages in Kenya that depend on tourism for the few regular jobs their members have, to direct permit fees that go to protect species in the wild, tourism is integral to protecting wild places and wild things and a source of livelihood for many people in the world.”

Sano touched on the same notion: “Take a property we work closely with in Kenya for example. Campi ya Kanzi is a tented safari camp in southern Kenya, located on private Maasai land and operated by the local Maasai community. Last year Campi raised $700,000 for that local Maasai economy.”

The Adventure Collection executives acknowledged that the economic downturn has affected their potential customers’ goals, expectations and behaviors. Addressing the challenges posed by these changes, the leaders focused on a new attentiveness to value.

Marty von Neudegg, director of Corporate Services and general counsel of Canadian Mountain Holidays, said, “There are a range of options available to travel companies. Some choose discounting, others cut services and some, the good ones, work hard at getting better and delivering the best value possible. It is not enough to just say, ‘Come travel with us and you’ll have a good time.’ Rather, people need to hear and believe, ‘Come and travel with us and you’ll have a great time because we are going to deliver on what we promise.’ For us, this means safety, passion, excellence, accountability, and sustainability. Over 44 years, loyal skiers and hikers have come to know that we will do our very best to deliver on those values.”

Bryan of OTBP said, “Our travelers’ vacations do not need to be as lavish or exotic as in the past, but they do need to be more authentic and connecting -- and less expensive. The fly fisherman may choose to stay not at a fishing lodge but at a locally-owned bed and breakfast or inn; at the same time, he or she will still hire an experienced guide.”

Sven-Olof Lindblad, president of Lindblad Expeditions, has responded to the quest for value in an innovative way. Last November, he wrote to past and potential clients: “I could argue, as I have in the past, that travel is important – a kind of tonic, if you will; that travel inspires, refreshes, clears the mind, etc. But these times are different and I feel uneasy making further arguments. The bottom line is that you will decide whether traveling is a good idea or not, based on your desire and reality. What I’m going to limit this letter to is an attempt at facilitating that decision should you decide that an expedition somewhere in this world is compelling for your sense of well-being.”

Lindblad offered two options: The first was to book a trip before the end of the year, with departure prior to June 1, 2009, by paying as little as 25 percent of the voyage cost before leaving. The balance could be paid at any time in 2009, at the traveler’s convenience. “No interest, no terms,” Lindblad wrote, “just trust and hope that this gesture is helpful and motivating for you.” The second option was for travelers to deduct 25% from the cost of any voyage. The response to the letter has been extremely positive and heartening, Lindblad said.

David Tett, president of Bushtracks, noted that accommodations in Africa are trying to attract visitors with great values this year: “Even the most sought-after properties are getting quite creative and vigorous in their promotional efforts. We, in turn, are passing these savings on to our guests.”

Dennis Pinto of Micato agreed: “We have seen some instances in Africa where it has been possible to secure ultra-luxurious accommodations that had been notoriously difficult to arrange in the past without a 12- to 18-month advance booking. In the same vein, excellent game viewing in parks that usually see a lot more visitors is a distinct ‘value-plus’ this year.”

As one outgrowth of the emphasis on value, Bryan of OTBP predicted that consumers will begin booking their trips closer to the time of departure this year. “Our travelers have the potential to remain in a holding pattern while waiting to see what transpires with regard to the economy, the new President, geopolitical turmoil, weather trends and the like,” he said. “Therefore, there will be less consumer planning that is six to eight or twelve months out, and more decisions made within a short planning horizon. Relatively last-minute bookings may very well be more the norm in 2009.

Along with shorter-notice bookings, customized trips are gaining in popularity.

“For East and Southern Africa,” Pinto of Micato said, “bespoke bookings are strong. Increasingly those who are travelling are electing to go first class, and are looking for special tie-ins to their interests (golfing, wine tasting and buying, thoroughbred racing, and private mobile safaris for families are a few examples).”

“We also see a shift toward tailor-made adventures,” affirmed Tett of Bushtracks, “trips that are made with consideration to the individual’s schedule and specific traveling companions to commemorate a milestone event. Even in hard times, certain events in life deserve special attention.”

Assessing Geographic Expedition’s customers, Sano said, “Though our clientele is in the top 5 percent of the country financially, even this segment paused between October and December. Our experience indicates that it generally takes six months after the first shock – be it the advent of SARS or the recent economic downturn -- for people to become acclimated to a new landscape. Our travelers still have money and they’re beginning to come back; our sense is that they won’t be content sitting around Dallas or DC for the next 12 months.

“Also, our main demographic is 50-70 year olds. Many of them have already retired or are nearing retirement and have more conservative portfolios, so they were less impacted by the market collapse. They’re also at a time in life when they want to do their dream trips while they’re still healthy enough to enjoy them. I think of this as the ‘bucket list phenomenon.’ People facing their mortality want to do special things with their family and friends now.”

Clearly, none of the Adventure Collection companies is immune to the effects of the globe’s current economic turmoil. But with a combination of innovative offerings, attentiveness to value, and commitment to excellence at home and in the field, their leaders are charting a course to weather the storms – and emerge with the loyalty of their customers and the quality of their offerings stronger than ever.

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