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Adventure Travel’s Existential Crisis, One Year In

8 Minute Read

A message from Shannon Stowell, CEO, ATTA

I’ve heard a lot of friends and colleagues exclaiming in astonishment lately the shock of realization that we just passed a full year into the pandemic. With this, everyone is discussing the resulting waves of economic destruction, loss on every level, and mental health crises.

I too look back at May of 2020 and remember debating whether our in-person conference in September of 2020 might still be possible to happen. Ha. Wow were we wrong and unable to see the length and strength of the crisis. 

In this article I will discuss why I believe this crisis hits especially hard, outline what I expect to come next (including a lot of good!), and offer some suggestions for emerging stronger than ever.

The COVID-19 Struggle

Like most of your journeys, our own at the ATTA of tragedy to despair to grief to determination has been difficult. Tragedy struck when our beloved team member Aliaa Abaza succumbed to COVID-19 on March 28, 2020. Despair set in at seeing everything we’d built for 16 years start to crumble and disintegrate. Our team shared your grief while hearing stories of your years of passion and hard work being ruined by something totally out of our control. And finally determination set in—determination to find a new path, innovate, get wickedly lean, and fight for our organization and community.

I’m betting many of you reading this had a very similar path to ours. While we know of many businesses that have had to give up or at least hibernate for a while, we also know how hard many of you are fighting to keep your snorkel tip above water.

It is commonly said that the typical stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. If you’re an adult, you’ve dealt with this likely multiple times in your life as things are thrown at you. Death, divorce, failure, loss … we are all familiar with it.

However, this situation is different, in my opinion, because all of it has sat on top of a murky platform of a state of limbo. Processing each stage of grief has been disorienting, confusing, and sometimes hand-wringing because the reality is that still, one year in, we cannot understand how to replace all the pieces of this dog-chewed, fuel-soaked, lit-on-fire, thrown-off-a-balcony puzzle.

In my own experience, limbo is the worst. It’s worse than bad news in some ways because bad news generally can be absorbed, faced, and dealt with, at least eventually. Limbo is insidious. It never lets you sleep well, wake well, or navigate well. Limbo seems to be the psychological state of flying blind. Or maybe even better described as flying through rapid successions of clear and foggy air. You never know what’s next, but it probably isn’t good.

I don’t need to recount the destruction of the travel industry here. Plenty of articles painstakingly tell us about that. So let’s talk about what’s next and the GOOD that is coming for the adventure travel space.

What is Coming Next?

All the signs are there for recovery. Traveler sentiment is improving, pent-up demand signs are everywhere. All your friends who don’t work in travel assure you they can’t wait to get back on a plane. Euromonitor and ATTA found that adventure travel is likely to recover 3 to 4 years earlier than mass travel. Tourism ministers over the world have been quoted as saying that they will focus on ecotourism, adventure tourism, nature tourism, etc. It’s obvious that adventure travel has an unfair (and excellent) advantage for the future based on small groups, more remote places, healthy living, and its myriad other benefits.

In some destinations, domestic tourism roared back to life and will likely continue to do the same in 2021. All those who were denied flights to Brazil, Japan, Chile, and the rest of the world are driving around their own countries, discovering how awesome a road trip can be. 10 million new anglers bought fishing licenses in 2020 in the US. Bikes became as endangered a species as toilet paper once was. Campgrounds were full in the U.S. (Side note—I know not every destination had this domestic revival due to many different factors, based on our conversations with members from all around the world.)

Here is one of my main concerns right now. I feel a potentially dangerous thinking creeping into the minds of our travel industry community. We’ve battled it ourselves so I’m very familiar with it. It goes something like this: “If we can just get to the other side of this, travel will roar back and we’ll be fine!” I’ve caught myself thinking the same thing. It’s like the plane has hit maximum speed, you can hear the bolts rattling and you think that once you get past that dangerous moment, all will fall back in place.

It won’t.

If your only goal is to survive to the other side you will likely be in trouble. Because everything is going to be affected and different. If you rely on buyers to sell your travel experiences to customers, you’re at risk. If you believe that customers will travel and spend the same way, you’re at risk. This crisis will have near-permanent fallout effects. The problem is, we don’t even know what many of those effects are yet.

These are just some of the factors of which I’m aware:

  • Economists PRE-PANDEMIC were predicting a dire economic bottoming-out in 2030 in the U.S., with worldwide aftershocks. A combination of government debt, health care costs, entitlements, inflation, shifting demographics, and consumer behaviors will drive it. ITR Economics described it as a coming “Life-altering shift in wealth and poverty.”
  • Last week I attended a “Future of Travel” online event moderated by the Economist.  One of the sages in the room reminded everyone on the panel that business travel has subsidized leisure travel for a long time. That the front of the plane seats purchased by these travelers has paid for the ability of the back of the plane to get from point A to B. And that business travel is going to be incredibly slow to come back as the (now seemingly frivolous) flights for a meeting or two in another city are likely to be extinguished. We’ve all learned how to work virtually now for business meetings and have been forced to become comfortable enough with it.
  • Climate change will change the tourism game. The potential of biodiversity collapses looms.
  • Economically weak communities that served the tourism supply chain may have been forced back to extractive activities to put food on the table.
  • Although no one really knows the number, I’ve heard from experts that between 50% and 70% of travel agencies will go under. How many are hibernating? No one knows!  What’s the effect of that?
  • Damaged incomes will prevent some travelers from fulfilling their pent-up demand dreams.
  • Governments will open and close borders like blinking Christmas lights with wildly varying rules and regulations around vaccinations, tests, and quarantines, rendering sanity for the travel planner impossible, especially for a multi-destination trip.
  • Mass media, now apparently fully addicted to tell only titillating and terrifying stories, will scare travelers off the planes, trains, and automobiles. Nutty media sources will feed more conspiracies and create more fear and xenophobia.
  • Airlift is the circulation system of international travel. IATA is predicting that levels won’t recover to 2019 levels until 2023/2024.

Does anyone really think there are no more nasty surprises in this journey!? Hahaha—grab your drink and let’s imagine all the other calamities awaiting us as travel industry professionals.

BUT, and I mean BUT! I do still believe that travel will come back with a vengeance and specialty verticals like Adventure, Religious, Food, Fitness, will be at the front of it. Why? Lots of reasons but the people who travel for adventure, for example, DEFINE themselves by it. Climbers, cyclists, paddlers, birders, hikers, foodies, culturists must get back out there because it’s who they ARE.

So the point I want to make here is that yes, you must ‘hang on til the other side’ and do whatever it legally, ethically, and morally takes to get there. But if you are not innovating, digitizing, learning how your finances REALLY worked, taking into account a wildly different future, being nimble to change plans at a moment’s notice, your survival to that other side might just end in a whimper.

Brazilians have a saying that basically says “They died on the beach.” Meaning, this person swam all the way across the ocean, braving wind, waves, wildlife, exhaustion, and terror just to slowly crawl up on the beach and then dievery anticlimactic. Reaching the supposed finish line which turned out to be more like a false summit. 

My Recommendations? Well…

Don’t try to save what you’ve builtaccept that what we all had is lost and gone. Then take a fresh look at what you DO have and rebuild a NEW business around that. This is what we’ve done at the ATTA. Acknowledge, mourn, rebuild.

Stop worrying about competition. Get closer than ever to your colleagues, even if you used to think they were your competitors.

Don’t consume too much informationit is confusing, depressing, and frankly often misleading. Personally I’ve almost completely stopped paying attention to most news media outlets. I focus only on those now where I feel there is real insight and cutting-edge revelations that matter to the adventure industry. Pay attention to what matters to your day-to-day operations.

Get closer than ever to your customers and even more importantly, your team.

Understand the part of your business or organization that scares you most. I’m hearing lots of stories that indicate financial management is a very weak point in the adventure travel industry.  Which is understandablefew of us engaged in the business of adventure to look at spreadsheets and sit in a cubicle. So, hire for that skill set if you can’t or won’t understand it.

As every mountain bike professional knows, target fixation means to look not at the obstacle, or you’ll hit it. Look beyond the obstacle so you hit the part of the trail you WANT to hit.

The ATTA remains here as a resource to everyone we can potentially serve as we all navigate not just to the other side, but to a future that will be radically different from the last century of travel from which we’ve built our current knowledge and skillsets.

There IS hope. Vaccinations, dropping infection rates in many countries and people’s deeply internal fire for travel is warming the pent-up demand engine. There’s even good news.  Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, saw that counterintuitively, people and companies redoubled their efforts to fight climate change DURING the pandemic. Think about thisthe CEO of the world’s largest asset manager said: “I believe the pandemic has presented such an existential crisissuch a stark reminder of our fragilitythat it has driven us to confront the global threat of climate change more forcefully and to consider how, like the pandemic, it will alter our lives.”

Yes, the year has been an existential crisis. Yes, there is grim news still rolling in. But I think the passion and the power of responsible travel will help raise this battered form back to its feet, we will rise, rebuild, repower, and hopefully set the tourism industry on a course that can, through near-total reconstruction, actually be a force for good in the world.

18 Comments to Adventure Travel’s Existential Crisis, One Year In

  1. Good article, I resonated with lots of points that you made. I run a business providing photographic holidays in wild places. I tend not to read much for like you I find it depressing and just focus on re-inventing, re designing and morphing almost on a daily basis. Each set back brings a small slump and then resilience sets in. We are looking to work more with local photographic guides rather than take our own (not all the time) this is economically, ecologically and culturally more viable in many ways.

  2. Dear Shannon
    wise words by a wise man, – you truly nailed it!
    Getting closer to your clients and their wishes is key, -keep sending out the right messages, and focusing on what cannot be denied, that is the desire to enjoy the freedom to roam, – to discover, to experience, to taste and feel nature, – while we all are battling to see the light at the end of the tunnel right now, – there is hope, – and here in Namibia we are convinced, that this country, (like many others) may have what it takes to provide the space and place for the global traveler to re-discover the freedom of travel.

  3. Excellent article Shannon – I am sharing this widely and I plan to quote you from it!

    What are your thoughts regarding how Indigenous Tourism fits into the recovery?
    It seems to me that it could be added to your list along with “ecotourism, adventure tourism, nature tourism, etc. “.

    Take care,
    Rick MacLeod Farley

  4. I am proof that travel will come booming back. All of our domestic tours are filling up faster than ever. March has been crazy with registrations. My older American clientele were among the first to get vaccinated. We have to get the world vaccinated as quickly as possible, for more reasons than travel, of course!

  5. Heather Kelly

    Hi Rick, thank you for your question! We agree that Indigenous Tourism is going to be incredibly important to recovery, especially because of the strength of Indigenous groups’ relationship to the inherent gifts of the natural world. In fact, four articles that we published in March feature Indigenous tourism (you can find two under ATN News and two under Member News). Please feel free to share any additional thoughts and comments you have on the topic here too.

  6. Having purchased a travel business a month before the start of the pandemic, I have no benchmark for ‘normal’. However, I agree with your insights and recommendations to limit the outside noise and focus on the business, including the finances – especially the finances -as well as your team and your clients. After getting through this hellacious year, I’m excited to share that we are hiring and growing despite it all!

  7. Keeping in touch with friends and colleagues who work in the travel industry with companies or advising governments and business, it became pretty clear, tourism as we know it will never be the same again. The pandemic combined with the climate crisis is forcing change. So many support companies to tourism have shut down or disappeared altogether, it will take time to get up and running again, as the air industry foresees. New methods of clean, low impact transport must be a priority. As a small adventure tour company in a far flung land, we’ve had very little income for over a year now, while still keeping on a few staff. We are struggling. However, we’ve reoriented to take advantage of domestic business, creating a few new products at local prices. It’s something that has to be built up. Again, from what I’ve read and conversations with former and potential international guests, I felt early on in this pandemic that small adventure tour operators, offering small group trips, away from crowds and in pristine natural environments, were well placed to attract clients when travel does open up. And we’re well placed to do just that, ….if we can hang on. Your mention of the “limbo” that we’re all in is very real to me and I have felt that for months. Even though we have bookings for the last half of our 2021 high season, I still don’t know if they actually come. They want to, but borders are still closed, infections are on the rise again in many places, and who knows what else can happen between now and then. We try to keep focused, but that feeling of limbo is still there. It’s hard to shake. What keeps us going, is the fact that we can still get out into nature, the mountains, on a good horse or a hike, and all that “heavy” lifts from our shoulders like a morning mist burning off to a beautiful day, knowing we have a good product that people are eagerly seeking when they can get here. It’s been a wild ride and looks to continue a bit longer. We’ll do our best survive.

  8. Shannon,
    Thanks for sharing. Completely agree with you on that this new future should not be seen in comparison with the state of things we used to know pre Pandemic, there is indeed a new shore to reach. To me, one of the biggest difficulties is to observe sharply, meditate and act instinctively, and walk out of the herd if needed. It has much more to do with a personal insight rather than with a collective and public call. The good thing is that there is many many people out there we will start resonating with, just like now. Saludos y Pura Vida !!

  9. Daniel Graser

    Nice piece, Shannon with some excellent thoughts.

    Cheers from Brazil
    Daniel Graser

  10. I love that a quote from Blackrock partly formed your thesis for this thoughtful article! Just one comment, I think those who serve the business traveler could also benefit from looking at that market in a new light. Similar to ATTA, who ultimately also serves the business market, rather than do a meeting that can be done digitally, instead offer what can ONLY be done in person, and emphasize that. This is why ATTA has so many passionate ATWS fans. What ATTA provides at their in-person events is so much more than what can be done over the internet. I think the rest of the business travel industry could learn a lot from that – and maybe take it further.

  11. Joseph Lewa

    Finally someone has hit the nail on the head. Well wrote article and quite realistic, thanks for shaking some of us back into our senses and we are ready to rebuild now!

  12. Hi Shannon

    I hope you are well. Some rough rambling notes and I mean rough.

    1. Limbo. Yes, I agree and see it and experience it on a daily basis when talking to operators online or on video calls. How to deal with this is super important because if it is not dealt with then everything else is done in a half-arsed way. I was fortunate I had 16 years of being trained to deal with it. This is easy to say but hard to do. You have to have blind faith in the outcome you want. Not faith in the religious type but blind faith in your own ability to survive and eventually no matter how long it takes get the desired outcome. The number one mistake I have seen by operators big and small but especially from the big ones and their leadership is blind optimism. Optimism is great but it is a poor foundation for strategy. A strategy needs to be built around realism. Optimists end up failing as they have a habit of focusing on dates and when things do not go their way the depths of despair follow and if you are leading teams they can sense it. In situations, like we are in we need cold calculated realism with the optimism that we will win eventually.

    2. Demand. I agree it is off the charts and to a level I do not even worry about it and I ignore all the reports and studies on it. Demand will return fact. As you point out it is not the demand that is the issue it is understanding that demand as data from 2019 and before is not much use to anyone and the little data we got from 2020 is not really representative and neither will this year be so we are in fact flying blind and making it up as best as we can be based on our own local experiences and guest interactions. The challenge as you know this demand is not going to be evenly and fairly spread. Some operators will boom others will be fighting to survive and luck will play a large part in this depending on where the are based in the World. We all know it is the operators in the developing world with next to zero local markets that are really going to struggle. They will be fighting for years. The only flicker of light I see for these operators is that they have in my experience always been much more resilient and able to deal with a crisis than operators in developed nations

    I like the” they died on the beach” saying. On every mountain I have ever climbed I have had to be at my most alert and watch the guests in the way back down after reaching our goal. I totally agree we are in for years of a disjointed travel industry that will deliver shocks on a constant basis. I think the difference will be is the shock for the last 12 months was evenly distributed more or less the future ones are going to be more localised and constantly changing

    3.Summary. I agree adventure tourism is probably best placed in all sectors of travel during the recovery ( luck) and I know the industry is super resilient. However, digital takes no prisoners operators will have to learn and use or it will consume their businesses. The technologists I hang out with talk about the products/experiences etc in nice ways but they are hard-wired on the technology and the business models and those matter to them much more than the ” experiences” we operators deliver. For all the talk about sustainable recovery and increased interest in sustainable travel, I have a feeling the “dash for cash” will demonstrate that the travel industry talks one game and does another. I do think sustainable travel has had an almighty opportunity and boost from the pandemic but I am far from convinced that it will scale up as we need. I am seeing news that multiple cruise lines have signed joint deals to cruise around the UK islands without stopping anywhere just to get customers back in the swing of cruising. We have learned nothing in so many ways.

    Shannon. We are about to start the most challenging and interesting journey any of us have ever embarked on and it is full of risk and opportunity in equal measure.

    Great article and well done in supporting the industry.


  13. Needed that dose of reality, spell of grief, and resurgence talk. Love the mtb analogy, do NOT look at that tree! Adventure travelers will need to set the tone and recreate responsibly.

  14. Fantastic article, one of the best I’ve read! Why? Because you are optimistic with a huge dose of reality! As you say, there are so many operators that are hanging in there and waiting for things to go “back to normal”.

    My hope is that operators do follow your advice and get closer to their customers, only by listening and understanding them are businesses going to be able to understand what has changed and adapt to thrive in the future!

  15. Very grounded and mater of fact. What we need more of in the world today. With focus on the beyond, not the target we will get there and survive.

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