© Epic Trails / Lukasz Warzecha

Key Considerations for Customizable Tours to Boost Inclusivity in Adventure Travel

28 August 2023

Travelers who enjoy the adrenaline rush of exciting activities during their travels may fearlessly sign on for just about any adventure, and not think too much about the day-to-day itinerary.  Other travelers who are interested in certain aspects of adventure tourism may be unable to commit to full days or specific activities due to accessibility concerns, medical restrictions, or limited ability to participate in activities depending on their length and intensity. Meanwhile, some travelers may be well suited to adventure travel, but lack the experience or full understanding of what it entails. A common misconception that adventure travel is limited to hard adventure activities like skydiving or rock climbing can lead these potential travelers to avoid adventure travel altogether. But adventure travel is defined as a trip that includes at least two of the following characteristics: physical activity, interaction with nature, and cultural learning or exchange.

Research indicates that there is a growing interest in soft adventure tourism and cultural experiences throughout the industry. The ATTA’s 2023 Annual Industry Snapshot report revealed that the number one motivation for adventure travel was new experiences, while cultural encounters was also high on the list, falling in the top five motivating factors (50). Cultural encounters were also the second most popular trending activity (51). Similarly, the report listed custom itineraries as the number one trending trip style, with slow travel itineraries falling close behind (49).  

Typical itineraries for group tours offer a set schedule for the activities that will be completed, with the trip designed and rated for difficulty with the intent that everyone follow roughly the same itinerary. By making an effort to develop itineraries accessible to people of varying abilities and interests, tour operators, destinations, guides, and lodges can educate and market their products and services to a wider range of consumers and help make the industry more inclusive, reaching a broader market of potential travelers. One way to do this is by offering customizable tours and flexible itineraries.

Designing customizable itineraries could be as simple as having multiple options for the length of a hike, or having the option to do a different activity altogether. In an effort to gather more insight as to the practice of adapting a group itinerary to individuals, we reached out to the ATTA community to gain perspective on the matter. The industry professionals who contributed to this article are:

Each of these experts shared their own company’s experience and approach to the idea of offering customizable tours, with a few common threads echoing throughout their responses. Below are some of the key takeaways shared that can be used as guidance and inspiration for other businesses who may be interested in developing flexible itineraries for their own customers.

Have a clear idea of what you hope to achieve with this approach 

Different companies each have their own unique purpose with what they offer customers, and as such have different goals they hope to accomplish through the design and structure of their tours. What you are trying to achieve through your tours will directly affect the ways in which they can be altered and customized; it is important to have a clear picture of what your purpose is before you begin creating these flexible itineraries to avoid any unwanted surprises or outcomes. Offering customizable tours is a great strategy to make adventure travel more inclusive overall, but it should also help you achieve your own business objectives. If your business goal is to execute seamless itineraries for difficult treks, efforts toward accessibility may not apply.

In essence, make sure that offering customizable tours will strengthen your current products/services and contribute to the achievement of your overall company goals. Rebeca DaCosta, Partner and Events Coordinator for Travefy, shared her company’s perspective on the primary driving forces for businesses to choose to offer customizable tour itineraries. 

“The reason why advisors choose to create customized itineraries is because of three main reasons,” DaCosta said. “One, is because they want to deliver a unique experience that just booking online does not deliver. Two, because focusing on the customer's wants will elevate the client’s trip. Three, they want to create new customers that would become loyal customers.”

This desire to offer a unique experience and enhance customers’ trips goes right along with the idea of making trips flexible in order to accommodate different needs and interests. Kirk Reynolds, founder of Wilder Retreats, explained how his company designs their tours to be easily adaptable to best address the needs of each different group of travelers.

Each itinerary we design and operate is fully customized to meet the objectives of the retreat, whether it’s team building, strategic planning or just a fun and active company retreat,” Reynolds said. “Because we’re bringing a group of mixed interests and physical abilities together for a common experience, we need to be flexible, both in the design phase as well as on-site. Hiking distances need to be modified. Expectations need to be adjusted.”

To better understand how itineraries can be structured in a flexible manner, consider how Zephyr Adventures, a Montana-based company that leads active adventure tours around the world, has structured their itineraries to be personally adaptable. Allan Wright, owner and President of Zephyr Adventures, described the business’s strategy for allowing their public, private, and custom tours to be altered.

“All of these are ‘customizable’ to the individual within the itinerary,” Wright said. “In other words, we usually offer two or three route options per day so people can choose their own distances and difficulty levels.” This allows two travel companions, one who may be an avid hiker and the other a novice, to join the same trip and enjoy activities developed for their individual experience levels.

© ATTA / Matt Corliss

Understand that customizing tours invites both new benefits and challenges 

Like any new business strategy, offering customizable tours that can be adapted according to the individual will bring its own set of challenges in addition to the benefits it offers. While allowing clients to adapt an itinerary to better suit their abilities and interests will certainly expand the available market of travelers, it also creates new challenges in terms of how best to develop and market this new structure.   

Reynolds summed up this predicament when he described some of the effects of this approach within the execution of his company’s tours. 

The benefits of being adaptable is you’re giving the client their optimal experience, not just the one we had planned,” Reynolds said. “This comes with challenges, of course. Each change has a downstream effect — delayed return time to the lodge or perhaps someone in the group has to sacrifice their own goals for the sake of the group.”

Greg Hutchinson, co-founder of Tribal Adventures, offered another prevalent challenge of allowing individuals to customize their own trips that has been a prominent issue for their company since introducing flexible itineraries – extensive communication with clients, which can strain company time and resources.

“Keeping up-to-date with tailoring, changes made for clients: there's exchanges of emails for some bookings approaching 100 two-way exchanges! And communicating the changes to the team and ensuring the tailored itinerary runs smoothly,” Hutchinson said. 

Despite these challenges, successfully implementing and managing customizable tours tends to have overwhelmingly positive results for both travelers and businesses. Samantha Reid, Senior Manager of Digital Marketing for Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, shared how beneficial this strategy has been for their organization when explaining their comprehensive Trip Builder tool

“The tool was created with the visitor at front of mind and the uptake of the tool has been a huge success with over 60,000 unique trips created by visitors,” Reid said. “It’s obvious that this is adding value to our visitors and we’re excited to see where we can take this tool in the future. We’re continuing to grow and enhance it to create an even better user experience for the visitor while also using data and trends from the tool to improve our marketing efforts and inform strategic business decisions.”

Ensure you are properly equipped to create the best experiences possible when customizing

While the idea of offering itineraries that can be adapted to the individual may seem simple on the surface, there is no universal set of rules for how best to do this. Different companies will have different needs and restrictions within the itineraries they create depending on that company’s goals and structure. 

Each of the respondents expressed overall enthusiasm for businesses interested in offering customizable tours. All of them agreed that they would recommend this approach to others, provided those looking to incorporate it into their service offerings have sufficient resources and experience to make it a smooth transition. 

Reynolds emphasized the importance of being able to cohesively offer flexible itineraries for consumers to adapt as they wish so as to avoid any accidental trickling effects that could detract from the overall experience. 

“I recommend offering customizable itineraries, both for company retreats and for leisure travel, if the operator has the expertise to make changes seamlessly,” he said. “This takes experience. Otherwise, changes can lead to unintended consequences later in the itinerary.”

Hutchinson shared a similar sentiment; she suggested that, in her experience, offering customizable tours with a mixture of activities may work best for smaller companies. 

For small owner-operators, yes, it's worthwhile when there's one person driving the designing, tailoring and communicating with clients,” she said. 

This does not mean that a larger business should not offer customizable tours to its customers. It simply highlights the need for companies to carefully prepare and strategize their approach to designing and booking customizable tours so the changes can be made seamlessly as travelers adapt their desired itinerary. The available resources may shape the extent to which a company is able to offer flexible tours as well, ensuring the shift is mutually beneficial for the business and clients.

Rocio Guzman, Sales and Marketing Manager for Rainforest Expeditions, shared how her company was able to incorporate different options for travelers to adapt their own itineraries according to their needs and interests. 

“What we, as the tour operator of our ecolodges, did a few years ago was to change from a fixed program to an experience with à la carte activities, in such a way that each of our guests can have the experience to suit their needs,” Guzman said. “With this, our purpose was to fulfill the brand promise of having truly authentic and unique experiences in nature for one.”

© ATTA / Cory Rossnagel

Start small and be upfront with your clients  

If you are just getting started or are unsure about how best to design customizable itineraries to suit your existing offerings and market, try to start with just a few alternative options and be upfront about the process with travelers. 

It is just as important to recognize the limits of offering flexible itineraries with an array of options as it is to recognize the perks of this service; keep things at an organized and manageable level in order to avoid too many complications. 

When sharing his company’s approach to allowing travelers to customize their own tours, Reynolds explained how they are able to set clear expectations and limitations to offer the best experience possible. 

“While we offer customized itineraries, we limit the changes so the greater itinerary stays on the rails,” he said. “If a significant change is requested and will affect many other aspects of the itinerary, it’s critical to set expectations on the costs of the change and get payment upfront.”

It’s important to remember that this is not a one size fits all process. Everyone has slightly different needs and priorities, and what works for one business may not work for another. And while making group itineraries personally adaptable is not without its challenges, the perspective and insight offered by these members of the industry show how beneficial it can be in making adventure tourism more accessible for a wider range of people. If you are looking to expand your consumer market, or are just interested in testing new ways to elevate your clients’ travel experiences, consider incorporating this tactic of flexible or customizable itineraries into your tour offerings. 

Special thanks to Rebeca DaCosta, Kirk Reynolds, Rocio Guzman, Allan Wright, Greg Hutchinson, and Samantha Reid for sharing their knowledge and expertise.