© Rowing the World

Marketing a Niche Travel Business

4 May 2023

I’m perched, birdlike, on the balcony of my hotel in Barbados when my attention is drawn to an orientation briefing for a group of birdwatchers by the pool. I had spotted some of them arriving the previous day; only a serious twitcher would show up at breakfast with binoculars around their neck. About ten travelers, most wearing khaki pants and long sleeve shirts despite the heat, are listening carefully to an animated presentation by their guide. From what I gather, they are starting a multi-day trip in the Caribbean, beginning with an outing early the next morning. 

Birdwatching is a prime example of niche travel. While hiking, biking, and multisport tours are a bit more common in the adventure travel sphere, other pursuits such as birdwatching, running, and yoga are geared toward travelers with very specific interests. My current adventure travel company, Rowing The World, offers group trips for experienced rowers – the kind in those little skinny boats that face backwards. We also recently launched Travel2Row, which offers independent rowing experiences – a niche within a niche. 

© Rowing the World

My previous business was Randonnée Tours, which I founded with my then-husband in 1991. We started off operating guided group cycling and walking tours in France. Inspired by the very European style of “randonnée en liberté,” we later decided to test the self-guided concept. It wasn’t long before we took the leap and switched entirely to self-guided. 

The motivation to offer only self-guided cycling and walking tours with Randonnée was not simply because we preferred a more independent style of travel, but also because we needed a larger client base. As our tiny company grew, we knew we had to find guests beyond our friends in Winnipeg. We published some ads in Canadian magazines and newspapers, as this was back before the internet and social media. If we wanted to attract travelers from the United States, we would have to advertise in bigger magazines, like Outside or Bicycling – who were also print-only back then. It was daunting to think of competing with well-established companies like Backroads or Butterfield & Robinson, which had much deeper marketing pockets than we did, but by going niche, we found a way to stand out and maximize our tiny marketing budget. 

The path to a niche rowing travel business was different. With Rowing The World, niche marketing is required because our passion IS a niche, and our business needs marketing.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Niche Business

Being a niche travel business offers distinct opportunities. Firstly, you really get to know your customer. Forget imagining avatars or creating customer profiles. I can think back to the people I meet on the dock, or conversations I had face-to-face with rowers while they are washing the boats or taking a break on the water. Everything from feedback to interests become personal and specific.

While a niche business might benefit from having few direct competitors, there is still competition to consider. In the case of my guests, the competition might be opting for a less-active vacation, taking the grandkids on a multi-generational trip, or going to the World Rowing Masters Regatta as either a spectator or participant. 

But according to Richard Mitsoda of Maduro Dive, a travel company specializing in diving for the last 40 years, “As with any travel, you are competing with many factors for a client’s discretionary spending. However, those pursuing a favorable recreational activity and if you target correctly will prioritize spending to support it. This gives those in niche markets an advantage if the economy downturns.” 

© ATTA / Joel Riner - Quicksilver Studios

Sometimes what is beneficial about being niche is also a disadvantage. Jennifer Hoddevik, the founder of The Travel Yogi, describes her business as an amalgamation of two distinct types of travel: adventure travel and yoga retreats. According to Hoddevik:

"The very best part of being a niche business is not having to roll the boulder uphill to differentiate ourselves. And, in not having to differentiate ourselves, the biggest negative is then working to educate people on exactly who we are... For adventure travelers it is about explaining that our itineraries are full adventure trips with yoga to enhance each day's experiences.  For retreat goers, it is about conveying that our trips allow them to experience the culture, nature, cuisine, etc of a destination with yoga, not a yoga-focused retreat without cultural immersion."

It all can be a bit overwhelming at times, and as noted, niche travel business owners usually have limited time to work on the business and not just in the business. I wanted to hear more about this topic directly from other adventure travel tour operators who have experience marketing a very specific product to a very narrow audience of enthusiasts.

Here are six distilled tips for marketing a niche travel business: 

1. To be niche and succeed, you still need to run the business well

While it may seem obvious, key business basics still apply. I believe that there is a certain cachet and pride in creating and running a niche travel business, which was reiterated by other niche business owners I spoke with. Still, cost control is as essential as having the unique product offer. Managing cash flow can be challenging when you have just a few trips a year. Niche businesses are often small businesses, even micro businesses. Being stretched too thin and confronted with insufficient resources of time and money is a challenge for niche businesses, including in marketing. As you develop a marketing plan and budget, keep in mind the general best practices that are true for every business. 

2. Content and messaging really make a difference

It is important to have a clear and substantive website. Substantive does not necessarily mean long or big or wordy. Your website needs to speak directly and clearly to potential guests, conveying essential information but also letting them imagine themselves enjoying a trip with your company. 

Having to explain to interested parties “what your business does” was a common theme throughout my discussions with other niche tour operators. For instance, Skyler Mason’s company SKYIN was born out of a passion for the people and communities of Kenya. As a niche adventure tour operator, he must appeal to a small group within the broad market that already exists for African safaris and cultural experiences – specifically appealing to those who want to support local communities and have an authentic and immersive experience when they travel to Kenya. 

Unfortunately, there can be significant barriers in getting the right marketing message across for transformative travel. Mason said that it is essential to understand the guests’ fears and concerns and know what might steer them away from buying. Because his company is a B2B business, clarity of message is extra important, since the companies or agents selling his product need to understand it to communicate it to guests. One of his key product offerings is a home stay in Nairobi. As a result, his marketing clearly explains the vetting process for selecting families, and  his United States office and presence to instill confidence in potential guests. Messaging also focuses on the positive aspects of the experiences, such as the way that travellers contribute to the local economy and experience Kenya more deeply in a non-exploitative way. 

3. Talk the talk

You are an expert in your field, so sound like it in your marketing. Doug Mayer of Run the Alps says, “make sure you are in the niche personally, and live and breathe the activity, so you can speak with authenticity and from the heart.” Showcasing this knowledge and expertise to potential clients builds confidence in the product and establishes credibility.

Niche lingo can also signal that the trips are designed for true enthusiasts – which are often not appropriate for someone trying the activity for the first time. At Rowing the World, our websites, social media posts and blog articles use terms that likely only rowers understand. This conveys to guests that we know what we are talking about and that our trips are designed by rowers, for rowers.

For Ancient Odysseys, a travel company that offers archaeology and paleontology dig opportunities that benefit scientists, legitimacy is showcased through the opportunity to actually participate in the research. According to founder Marisa Rodriguez, “Ancient Odysseys is the only travel business that offers archaeology and paleontology dig opportunities, with accompanying travel itineraries. We are proud to be beneficial to the researchers on these projects who need the extra helping hands and funding for their work, while tapping into STEM/citizen science related immersive travel.”

© Visit California / Kirsten Alana

4. Invest heavily in repeat business and word of mouth, and cut unnecessary spending

At Rowing The World, 83% of our annual sales are from people who have travelled with us previously or have heard about us from someone who has. We work to ensure that our marketing investment, in terms of both time and money, honours that remarkable loyalty. 

Because of the particularities of niche businesses, some “standard” marketing practices may not make sense for a small and niche travel company. For example, A/B testing of your newsletter database to hone your marketing message might be a good thing to do. But is your database large enough to make the results meaningful? In our case, we get very high open rates and click results for our newsletter already, so we choose to focus our limited time on other things. 

We also tend to ignore abandoned cart email automations because it doesn’t make sense for what we sell. We are not an item that people buy on impulse; most guests are on our mailing list for at least a year before they buy, and it is a big decision once they decide to travel with us. As a result, we spend our limited resources on attracting people to sign up for our newsletter, then cultivating them, sending monthly insights and gentle sales pitches.

5. You still need to find new people

Maximize SEO (search engine optimization), especially for search phrases that are used by your target market, even if not always directly related to your product. Through working with Liquid Spark, we have learned that Pay Per Click or PPC ads may not work if few people are searching for something like “rowing vacation”. Google display ads may be a better choice, combined with stellar SEO on your website and blogs so those few searching very specifically are able to find you organically. 

I am a big proponent of blogs, although they can be time consuming to do well. You can hire someone to help, but only if they truly understand your niche and your customer. Blog posts are a way to regularly add fresh content to your website. They can contribute significantly to SEO through thoughtful keyword selection and internal and external links from your website.

I maintain two blog sites, admittedly sometimes sporadically. The Rowing Travel Blog explores topics directly relevant to our rowing trips. For example, there are posts on how to choose between our two rowing wellness retreats, how to train for a rowing tour, or extra things to do in Montreal after our Eastern Townships trip. The Thoughtful Rower began as pure fun, writing about rowing, travel, the environment, business, culture, and ideas. As it turns out, the content is useful in my newsletters and for gaining attention on LinkedIn where there are many rowers, and the company can grow recognition within the rowing industry.

6. Go to where your niche is

There are specific, targeted means to reach those with special interests. Birds of a feather flock together, and so do people with a shared passion. In my case this might be visiting rowing clubs or regattas. In the case of the birders in Barbados, I learned from Ryan Chenery, the founder and guide from Birding the Islands, that word of mouth can be an incredibly powerful tool. “They mostly find me after learning about my website from their friends who have been on my tours,” he told me. “Or, they find my website via a specific search of the Internet for specifically what they have been looking for for a long time – a tour of these islands in search of the endemic species to be found on each of the ten islands I take them to.” 

For reaching larger audiences, specialist publications, websites, and social media are another channel.  Bryce Albright of the Dude Ranch Association says, “stay in your lane and focus on what you are good at and what is unique about your industry and experience. Many niche marketing outlets try to do too much in too many spaces in attempts to reach a larger audience. But if you focus in on your specific target audience and market the highlights of what you offer that appeals to them, your marketing dollars will go much further.”

For example, most rowers do not own their own boat, or if they do, they need a place to store it. As a result, my marketing has focused on rowing clubs. When I travel, I set up meetings or wine and cheese evenings at boathouses. We will sometimes send “cold call” emails to the staff or volunteers of different clubs. We organize our customer database by club – we use Salesforce, and the required “account” field is club name. 

Similarly, rowers generally like to go to regattas. My clients are “masters rowers”; this means they race at all the big events like San Diego Crew Classic or Head of the Charles Regatta.  There is also an international World Rowing Masters Regatta, a USRowing Masters Regatta, and many other events specific to my target market. These types of events are where I will rent a booth to meet past and potential guests.

© ATTA / Trevor Clark

Resources for Marketing a Niche Business

There are many wonderful resources on marketing and how to market travel. Seth Godin has a series of pithy little books, like The Purple Cow, plus regular blog and social media posts to inform and inspire marketing decisions. I learned a lot from Thomas J. Donahoe’s The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook, and I regularly dip into Ann Handley’s recently revised Everybody Writes which includes straight shooting advice for newsletters, websites, landing pages, ads and more. Marketing services that you may already use such as MailChimp, Yoast, or Hubspot suggest improvements and new approaches through detailed blog articles. You can sign up for newsletters from business support organizations, including ATTA, to be nudged towards what you know you really should do, or be exposed to something you never thought of. 

Two seminal books highlight the advantages of niche businesses. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson argues that business opportunities and benefits can be found in not selling the mainstream or blockbuster products. Something that is more scarce tends to be more exclusive and can potentially be sold at a higher price. Travel Research Online applied this principle to the cruise industry, arguing for the advantages of marketing specialty cruises like Antarctica, river cruising, eco-cruises, the Amazon or the Galapagos. The article also mentions Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. Their premise is about creating and capturing uncontested market space, and thus making the competition irrelevant.

A niche business does not necessarily start from a passion, but a niche business survives because of passion. I’d like to thank the following niche travel business owners who shared their perspectives and expertise for this article: Richard Mitsoda, Jennifer Hoddevik, Skyler Mason, Doug Mayer, Bryce Albright, Marisa Rodriguez, and Ryan Chenery.

About the Author:

Ruth Marr is the founder and President of Rowing The World, Travel2Row and The Thoughtful Rower. She has been rowing for over 20 years, and operating rowing adventures for ten. 

Ruth is a passionate traveller with more than 25 years of experience in the adventure travel and tourism industry. She was the co-founder and owner of Randonnée Tours Ltd. for 15 years, specializing in self-guided cycling and walking trips in Europe and North America. Ruth also has extensive experience as a consultant specializing in tourism, active transportation, public consultation and environmental assessment. She is the author of two guidebooks and an active volunteer, especially in organizations supporting outdoor adventures, such as the Trans Canada Trail. She has been a speaker at rowing and tourism conferences and workshops.