1. Environmental Sustainability | 2. Safety First | 3. Selling Online | 4. Standing Out

Travelers are on the hunt for experiences that let them connect with the great outdoors. Whether it’s going for a scenic hike, rafting whitewater rapids, ziplining through a lush jungle, paragliding over stunning vistas, or racing exotic cars on the blacktop, the outdoor activity category is on the rise. Outdoor experiences saw a 56% growth from 2017 to 2018. The category is poised to keep growing for the foreseeable future as consumers continue to be drawn to these unique outdoor adventures. 

To understand how operators are handling the growth in this category, we set out to find the recipe for a successful outdoor activity business. We interviewed a number of operators who are flourishing. We talked about the ways they broke into the industry, their relationship with the environment, the benefits of selling their activities online, and how they get noticed in a crowded field. 

As expected, these operators care deeply about their environments and about building a business that is sustainable in every sense of the word. They are all driven by a dedication to giving travelers a unique experience that imparts a lasting bond with the natural world, leaving customers with a memory they’ll never forget.

1. To be successful in the outdoor activity category, you must respect and care for your environment

Many travelers are thinking about the way their travel affects the environment and how they can plan their trips in an eco-conscious manner. One report found that 87% of respondents indicated they want to travel sustainably. Furthermore, 60% of those surveyed said “being impressed by natural sights during their own travels” was a factor that inspired their desire to travel sustainably.

Building an environmentally-friendly business not only ensures happy customers today, but sets a strong foundation for a business that will last, says Laura Cook, Sales Manager at Southern Discoveries—an outdoor activity company based in New Zealand. “We believe the most important practice of an outdoor activity tour is that they’re committed to sustainability in the area they operate within,” she said.

“We’re so in love with our backyard of Fiordland and Otago and therefore sustainability plays an integral role in all of the decisions we make. We need to ensure these beautiful areas are in the best condition they can be for generations to come.”

This sentiment was echoed by James Taylor, Director of Marketing and Sales at Central American Tours. “The best practice is sustainable tourism. As we enjoy the best of Costa Rica on any of our outdoor experiences, it is important that we learn, appreciate, and be conscious of the impact we have in every destination we visit. This includes the use of recycling initiatives but also the way we care about our environment,” he said.

Central American Tours is a perfect example of how sustainability can help a business last for decades. Taylor said that the company has been around long enough to see Costa Rica go from a relatively hidden gem to a burgeoning tourist destination thanks to the country’s natural beauty. “Our company started in 1972 when Costa was not even considered a destination for vacationers. As the years have passed, and infrastructure has grown, the best of our country is still our outdoor experiences.”

Even a company that offers travelers a different kind of outdoor experience, like the ability to drive high-end cars in beautiful locations, is laser-focused on sustainability. When asked what the number one best practice for outdoor activities is, Chris Vaughn of Scenic Rush Driving Experiences in Vancouver, said: “Leaving no ‘footprint’ behind. Enjoy the great outdoors but leave the natural surroundings as you found them.”

At the end of the day, travelers are increasingly seeking out companies that respect the environment—and are avoiding those that don’t. As an outdoor experience provider, you’re under even more scrutiny to conserve the natural surroundings in your area. Showcasing to travelers that this is important to you not only betters your chance of securing their booking (and positive reviews), but also sets your business up for prolonged success.

2. Highly trained guides and clear safety protocols will lead to more relaxed, at-ease guests that enjoy the experience more

Safety is key in nearly every travel business, but it’s especially so for outdoor activity operators—who need to account for Mother Nature and/or are putting customers in situations they aren’t used to. With more and more travelers heading outdoors for unique experiences, it’s crucial that your business follows proper safety protocols.

Jason Rush, Director of Operations at Liquid Alaska Tours, a glacier guiding company, said that they prioritize safety and it results in a better overall experience for their guests. “The safety of our guests and guides is paramount! We invest heavily into proprietary rescue training and require all our guides to complete a certified Wilderness First Responder course prior to starting employment,” he said. “Our approach to safety leads to confident guides who inspire security in our guests.” 

Rush went on to detail the protocols they follow to create a safe environment. “We have found great success by directly involving guests in our safety briefings and skills review. By creating a two-way active environment between our guides and guests, we are able to create a trusting environment where rapport is quickly established,” he said. He went on to say that building a trusting setting simultaneously puts guests at ease and allows them to understand the safety risks. 

The idea of building your guests’ confidence by highlighting your employees’ expertise and experience was something that Lisa Hutchins, Daily Manager at Airtime Paragliding also hit upon. “It’s important to guests to know that we value safety above all else. We make it clear from the start that our pilots are highly experienced, and that their decision (based on their experience) is always final.” Guests that can rest easy knowing they are in capable hands will be more relaxed and able to enjoy the beauty around them.

3. The hunt for outdoor adventures often begins on the internet—sell tours online to reach a wider audience

“Viator has been an essential partner in our sales and marketing strategy from day one, and continues to be our best and largest single source referral for reservations.”

— Jason Rush, Liquid Alaska Tours

Travelers looking for a thrilling outdoor experience often begin their search on their computer or mobile device. In fact, around half of all online bookings are now made on a mobile device, up from 31% in 2016, according to a Skift report. That same report found that the experiences segment could drive as much as $183 billion in revenue by 2020. To fully take advantage of this rapidly expanding sector, you need to be selling your experiences online.

Where is the best place to sell your outdoor activities? Skift say it’s Online Travel Agencies (OTAs). These platforms give operators the most exposure possible, and have the advantage of travelers who are already searching for things-to-do in your location. “For those operators that want to maximize advance bookings, OTAs … have a clear brand advantage, primarily because they have already gained consumer trust” the Skift report said. 

It went on to highlight the increased trust that comes from booking through an OTA. “While a traveler might be reluctant to book an activity with an individual provider in an unknown destination, particularly prior to departure, much of this trepidation can be removed if they book through a reliable, household-name channel\

Jason Rush of Liquid Alaska said that selling their adventures online with Viator has given their business a huge boost. “Viator has been an essential partner in our sales and marketing strategy from day one, and continues to be our best and largest single source referral for reservations,” he said. “We have gained a sense of authenticity and trust from our guests because of the unbiased impartiality of TA’s services.”

Another key reason to consider selling your activities online is the rise of last-minute and in-destination bookers. Travelers are increasingly waiting until just before they travel or even until they are in-destination to book experiences. 38% of activities are booked on the same day or up to 2 days before a trip, according to Skift Research.

4. To stick out in a crowded field you have to think strategically about your brand

As a whole, the experiences and attractions industry being on the rise is of course a good thing for operators. But it also means that the field is getting more crowded, placing an outsized importance on establishing a strong brand that attracts customers. That is often easier said than done, but the suppliers we spoke with revealed some of the ways they have been able to differentiate themselves from their competitors. 

For Liquid Rush, they established their business because they saw the potential in the market. “There was a shortage of active, small group, day tour adventure experiences available for visitors into Juneau,” said Jason Rush. Combined with being able to access a new area due to glacier retreat, the company was able to pounce on the opportunity. 

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though. “The biggest challenge for our first year was establishing solid sales channels and creating brand recognition for our company. We had a late start, only being able to sell tours in April for a season that runs from May to September.” The company dedicated themselves to finding solutions to those challenges. “We overcame this by ensuring our guest tour experience and marketing collateral were perfectly aligned, and creating instant confirmation bookings with the largest Online Travel Agencies via our automated booking platform software.” 

Central American Tours saw almost the opposite problem—how does a company that’s been around for decades ensure they survive and aren’t overtaken by newer operations? They’ve succeeded by blending a strategy of focusing on what they do best and identifying new opportunities. 

“As Costa Rica grew as a popular destination, other international companies came into our country to establish operations. This was a challenge for us to maintain our levels of service and also to diversify our products,” said James Taylor, the company’s Director of Marketing and Sales. “How did we overcome it? By being loyal to our culture and values as a company.” That culture includes taking advantage of creating new adventures. “As our popularity grows we target popular activities and develop new ideas, for example, the Canopy Tour that was created in Costa Rica.” 

Developing a strong brand doesn’t always come down to marketing or adding new offerings, though. Spanish Trails out of Barcelona decided their brand identify would be personal and intimate—and caps the number of guests on any given tour while focusing on quality. Says Filippo Botti, General Manager of Spanish Trails: “We only do really small groups (max 8 guaranteed), we include lunch in truly authentic local restaurants, with a highly qualified team of experienced guides, top quality vehicles, extra snacks and surprises for the clients… we go only to the best locations and spots where the majority of the other companies do not go to.”

As an operator it’s incredibly important to always be thinking about how your brand is being presented to travelers, and what you can do to increase your visibility. Study market trends and be on the lookout for new opportunities that can attract more customers.

About the Author: Matt Ellis

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