New Research Reveals Adventure Travelers’ Complex Relationship with Risk

31 October 2017

Researchers Paige Viren and Alison Murray from East Carolina University in collaboration with Outside magazine and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) recently released “North American Adventure Travelers: Seeking Personal Growth, New Destinations and Immersive Culture,” a research report examining a number of developments related to today’s adventure travelers. The survey replicated elements of a similar study conducted ten years ago, allowing researchers to identify shifts in traveler preferences, priorities, and mindset.

Although the in-depth study provides a wealth of specific information related to shifts in activity preferences, plans, and personality, one of the most intriguing findings was travelers’ somewhat inconsistent relationship with risk. Adventure travelers in this study said they felt risk was far less important to them than culture or learning on an adventure trip. In fact, the statement “risk plays a large role in adventure travel” was 45% less popular than the statement “experiencing a new culture plays a large role in adventure travel.”

The traveler experience is made up of natural, cultural, and activity-related encounters.

Similarly, when asked about benefits they receive from their adventure travel experiences, respondents made statements related to learning and growth, such as “seeing the world and learning new things.” They said they were seeking life-changing experiences that would expand their worldview or provide mental escape. These motivations have been remarkably stable since 2006: Transformation, expanded worldview, nature and discovery, and learning were all leading motivators for adventure travel in 2006 as well. The most notable shift in motivation during this period has been the prioritization of mental health over fun and thrill. Adventure travelers in 2016 offered answers that hinted at the concept of challenge, but terms such as “risk” or “danger” were not directly mentioned among their perceived benefits.

Take these findings into account along with the activities tomorrow’s adventure travelers say they plan to engage in: “hiking,” “visiting friends or family,” “stand-up paddleboarding,” “visiting historical sites,” and “getting to know the locals.” Consider as well the activities they feel belong in the “adventure” category — hiking, backpacking, trekking, kayaking, and rafting — and a picture of a mainstream, soft adventure traveler emerges. Ten years ago, for example, “climbing - mountain or rock” topped the list of activities considered to be in the adventure category. Now climbing follows a set of much less technical activities in travelers’ conception of adventure.

And yet, when asked in an open-ended question to describe the “essential qualities” of adventure travel, risk was prominently mentioned. In fact, risk superseded culture. Key words used by respondents were “limits,” “risk,” “rush,” “dangerous,” “action,” and “reward.”

"Adventure travelers might not want actual risk — they will not identify it as something that motivates their travel decision-making — but they will likely enjoy the feeling of danger."

This research confirms what many of the best commercial adventure tour operators understand: Even travelers who seem to favor so-called “soft” adventure, need and want to be challenged in some way. Challenge can deliver the magic of the trip, providing the feeling of growth or transformation that is the ultimate benefit many adventurers say they are expecting from their travels. The challenge might present itself through a risky physical undertaking planned by the tour operator or through something unexpected. Adventure travelers might not want actual risk — they will not identify it as something that motivates their travel decision-making — but they will likely enjoy the feeling of danger (once it has passed and nothing damaging has occurred, of course).

Given the fact travelers are not mentioning risk as a motivating factor, it is may not be advisable to emphasize it in trip marketing, but trip developers should be aware that adventure travel trips without some element of risk or aspect that challenges travelers will not deliver on their deeper goals.

This research opens up a few new avenues for future research, especially probing traveler behavior and motivation. The softening of activity preferences, a continued interest in local cultures, and personal goal development could lead industry practitioners to wonder if adventure travel has gone mainstream. Yet, risk and danger continue to hold a distinct position in the adventure mindset and should continue to influence how adventure experiences are designed and delivered.

The complete research study is now available for download.