Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) CEO, Shannon Stowell, addressed the adventure travel trade community at the Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS) Virtual 2021 on the topic of survival. In this speech, he shares a bit about his journey and experiences during the pandemic along with his outlook for the industry. Watch the video or read the speech below.
Hello friends and colleagues. Thank you so much for being here. I’m honored you’d take the time to hear my thoughts, especially understanding how real online meeting fatigue is after more than 500 days of stressful pandemic living.
Where to even start? I guess with acknowledging the disappointment that you are there and I am here and we are not together in Hokkaido, Japan. And that we should have been together in Australia last year. This trial we’ve all been forced into has been emotionally and mentally backbreaking as we try to make sense of the past, present, and future. But you are here or you are taking the time to listen to this after the summit which tells me you are still determined, even if it’s the faintest spark and you care about this community and where it’s going.
The title of my talk is “Survival” and I would like to share a bit of the journey that I’ve walked during this pandemic. For my wife Gabi and me, the low point was absolutely March 28, 2020, when our team was shocked by the news of the loss of our dear team member Aliaa to COVID-19. Nothing in this pandemic compares to the loss of loved ones and for all of you out there who lost someone to COVID-19, or to anything else for that matter, we acknowledge that loss and share in your grief. Some of you are recovered from COVID but experiencing the long haul of recovery. Blessings on you for the extra weight and pain you bear on top of everything else.
For ATTA, this low moment carried into the month of April as we staggered around trying to figure out what to do with this new reality of not being able to do what we do! No in-person events and no in-person anything. Travel is such a human business with real needs for personal interaction. At ATTA we plunged deeper into crisis as our bank failed to support us and we had a very scary time figuring out what to do. We did what many of you did to survive and just made all the hard decisions.
For Gabi and me, it became clear our current situation was no longer economically sustainable, so we sold our home, left Washington (34 years for me, 10 for Gabi), and moved to a small off-grid mountain cabin in Colorado. It’s 700 sq feet or 65 sq meters, with no power and no running water. There are no services there and only 7 other people who live there year-round. We figured if we were going to rough it, let’s really go for it. We ended up there for 9 months at nearly 3000 meters of altitude in the wilderness through the hard Colorado winter.
This year’s summit theme is Kyosei [pronounced “kee-OH-say”]– roughly translated as being in harmony with nature. We got to experience Kyosei firsthand nearly every day. What we learned would probably not surprise anyone in this outdoors-loving audience–that nature is boss, humans need help, and we cal live on a lot less than we think.
What we learned would probably not surprise anyone in this outdoors-loving audience–that nature is boss, humans need help, and we can live on a lot less than we think.
Harmony with nature is a concept which sometimes gets caramelized into a sweet, feel-good condition complete with rainbows and unicorns. That is only one side of the coin. Nature can be brutal and while sometimes inspiring, grand, and beautiful, can also force us to acknowledge our true place in the universe–that we are not the ones in charge of everything, there is something bigger than us as humans, and that we should be good stewards of what we have, embrace adaptation, and lean into true community with others if we wish to survive and thrive. This was the essence of our lesson.
We scrounged water from several sources including melting snow and a neighbor’s well when there was enough warm sun to thaw the tap. We preserved our food with ice in a metal box, created from leaving snowmelt water outside at night to freeze, brought inside to chill food, and then once melted, collected and frozen again or used for flush water. Water became the issue for us because every drop used had to be carried physically, sometimes multiple times, and used and preserved and re-used when possible. The average American uses about 85 gallons of water each day and we got ours down to about eight, which still is abundant compared to some places in the world. We picked up funny habits like sharing a juice glass at breakfast–one less dish to wash, one less bit of water lost.
Harmony with Nature
The glorious part was hiking nearly every day in dry or snowy weather, seeing elk, bobcat, deer, fox, raptors and the sign of big cats and bear. We hiked until our legs were able to carry us far. We explored high places in total silence and watched starry or snowy nights from the porch. What we learned from living as close to nature as we ever had was that it was both very difficult and beautiful at the same time. Harmony with nature sometimes looks like submission.
What we learned from living as close to nature as we ever had was that it was both very difficult and beautiful at the same time. Harmony with nature sometimes looks like submission.
After a few months, I had developed ‘chainsaw elbow’, a painful condition from too much water hauling and wood chopping. Still haven’t shaken it. Our septic system froze. I fell on a frozen lake on New Year’s Eve and limped for months. We dealt with dead car batteries, trudged through the snow to find a place for a cell signal, and worked out of the car, sometimes poaching another cabin’s Wi-Fi to continue to do the work of ATTA. At one point, Gabi used hot water bottles to keep her computer from freezing while working from a lawn chair in 10 inches of snow on a 9000’ ridge. Y’know- a standard adventure office.
We got into a life-threatening situation on a remote dirt road. We’d traversed this high mountain pass in December and as it was January, I thought we could repeat it to get to our cabin a bit more quickly and via a rugged, beautiful route.
At first, the snow was two or so inches deep and then the path parted, one to a neighborhood of summer ranches, one to our cabin. I kept driving though now we were breaking tracks. With no warning, we flew off into a ditch in a meter of soft snow, the hot and heavy car settling down on top of it, creating an ice pillar, suspending us off the base, and making it impossible to extract. I shoveled wildly for an hour, becoming soaked with sweat and fear with darkness closing in and the temperature dropping below freezing. I changed into dirty but dry clothes that were in the car and we hiked up a nearby hill to get service to find one bar. We called emergency services and they pushed us to a tow truck company who said they couldn’t help if we didn’t give them a credit card. As I began to read it, we lost service completely. We were alone, almost 40 kilometers from help, and in trouble. We made the decision to kick in the door or break a window of a summer cabin or ranch to survive and then pay reparations later when suddenly, the night was split by the headlights of a tow truck who had come for us. It took ten tries for him to get to our vehicle but we all got out. We were shaken by what had happened and overwhelmed with relief by our rescue.
Not long after another incident occurred that took me to the bottom. There was a community well that had gotten finally fixed after an accident the previous winter and I decided to figure out how to use it. I made one small mistake in the process of shutting the well off and the pipe froze solid. I was embarrassed and frustrated. I got advice from old-timers and did try many different things to thaw it before it went deep. In that process, I stood up quickly without looking and hit my face on a jutting board so hard I almost knocked out my front teeth. Reeling backward with blood pouring down my face I got in the car with one hand on my mouth, the other driving. When I walked in the cabin, Gabi thought someone had punched me in the face. Pacha Mama punched my face and she has a wicked blindside. I had had it. Mother nature won. I was beaten. I sat dejectedly in a chair with ice on my swollen face and felt totally defeated. The pandemic had won, winter had won, I had lost. Gabi and I talked about giving up and moving to town. Declaring nature the decisive winner.
And some spark had oxygen blow on it deep inside and a rage of emotion imagining giving up swept through me. Absolutely not! I will not give up. We will do this. We will get through! Failure and giving up was not an option. With fragile determination, I set about trying to get on top of this failure-acceptance attitude. We made plans to go to a friend’s bonfire that night though it looked like I had kissed a moving truck.
The next day I talked to two of the tough guys that live in the little mountain village year-round and got unintentionally vulnerable with them, telling them how beaten I felt by it all. They dropped their tough-guy characters and were actually sympathetic and said “Yeah, we’ve all gotten our asses kicked by it up here. It’s really hard and some things you learn only through getting them wrong and screwing it up big time”. As we stood there and commiserated, I felt hope and community standing on that platform of determination and suddenly it all seemed possible again. I could do this. We were not alone and in fact that community has rallied around each other numerous times since we’ve been involved in ways I never experienced before. Because we had no other options. No government or officials in charge were going to save us, we had to work together and make it ourselves.
As we stood there and commiserated, I felt hope and community standing on that platform of determination and suddenly it all seemed possible again. I could do this. We were not alone and in fact that community has rallied around each other numerous times since we’ve been involved in ways I never experienced before. Because we had no other options. No government or officials in charge were going to save us, we had to work together and make it ourselves.
We did make it through the winter and although we did move to town in the summer because it was too hard to work up there, we retain a deep love for the place and go back every chance we are free. As hard a boss as nature can be, it is also incredibly moving and special and calls us constantly.
Emotionally and mentally, everyone, especially the travel community, has been deeply stressed and I can tell you that beyond immediate friends and family and our mountain community, it was this ATTA community that has sustained us, with countless conversations with many of you over the last 18 months. And once we acknowledged our losses, we were motivated to continue to do what we can within this community of adventure travel professionals who care about the right things.
Adventure travel will come back. It will come back strong. I see everywhere in our community that people are taking steps to build back more thoughtfully. Comments like “Do I really want to grow ever bigger? Or build back to a level that I enjoy working with?”, or “Let’s figure out a better way to measure the local economic impact of adventure travel versus just heads in beds or arrivals.” Initiatives around sustainability, climate action, and inclusivity dot the landscape everywhere. Tomorrow’s Air is gathering steam in a very difficult economic environment. I think many of us have paid attention to mother nature’s recent lessons about humans and consumption while much of it was shut off to us.
I have to say that reading some of the major travel publications lately has been a bit depressing–it feels as though many in travel not only didn’t learn any important and obvious lessons from the pandemic and it feels like mass travel cannot wait to disgorge itself upon the planet again. Screw those clean waterways and skies, I want my vacation and I deserve it especially because I’ve been cooped up. Could humans hold a more entitled attitude? “Revenge travel”? Really? Could we be more blind to the realities that COVID-19 made clear to us?
This is why you matter. Why we matter as a special travel community. The world needs you in your role, whether you’re a tour operator, journalist, destination rep, travel specialist, lodging professional, content creator, or any role. The world needs sustainable adventure travel. If you are struggling today trying to decide whether to even stay in the business–hang in there.
Acknowledge the loss. Accept the unknown. Fail a bit. Decide to be determined- even if it’s a bit concocted at first. But then, connect with people who spark your inspiration and desire to stay in the game. Engage with this community! We have a very interesting opportunity while admittedly facing hard realities for some time.
The gap between the recovery of adventure travel and other forms of travel will be real. This is our time to fill that gap as much as possible with good and responsible travel experiences, marketing, and storytelling. We can start affecting the narrative around travel- that it is our privilege, not our right, and we can offer experiences and teach travelers how travel should be done.
Also, a lot of newcomers are testing the adventure waters. In a recent call with ATTA members from Brazil to India to the US, we’re hearing reports that a new customer is showing up. They bring boomboxes to nature, some want to just use lodges or campgrounds to hang out outside, and some of them don’t book rafting or safaris. Some have demands that are different than the classic adventure traveler. So, this will both be a challenge and an opportunity. Hopefully, our sector can help convert some of them from casino, cruise, and mall to responsible adventure travelers. How do we have real conversations with travelers to cause change for the better?
One of the best pieces of news I have seen came from the WTTC and World Bank/IFC. Their report shows adventure travel, nature-based tourism, and ecotourism registered the highest increase in importance compared to pre-COVID-19 levels for respondents when international travel resumes. Just behind that were domestic tourism, wellness and spa, and cultural tourism. This bodes well for us. We’ve always known how important our sector is to the world of travel, to be the conscience and flag-bearers for tourism done right, but it is now being openly acknowledged by the global institutions of travel.
We’ve always known how important our sector is to the world of travel, to be the conscience and flag-bearers for tourism done right, but it is now being openly acknowledged by the global institutions of travel.
Hang in there. You have a future. We have a future together. We will see each other soon, for which we are all desperate. We are an ecosystem and need everyone to be at the table. Are you the one at the bottom? Be vulnerable and reach out for help. Are you the one doing alright? Reach out and help someone in need. Symbiosis, Kyosei, harmony with nature and each other in the realest sense.
I love this community and the time apart has made the missing times together even more painful. There’s a Brazilian term that doesn’t have a great English translation but essentially, it’s the big Brazilian spirit of “I miss you deeply and longingly” I’ll part with that–Saudades. Saudades, I’ll see you soon.