Tom Hale founded Backroads, an active travel company, in 1979 to create extraordinary experiences for guests interested in exploring every corner of the globe. Regardless of whether his company is arranging biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, or other excursions, Hale ensures that sustainability and responsible travel are at the heart of everything Backroads does. For nearly 40 years, he has watched the industry evolve, but his love for adventure and active travel remains. Hale spoke with ATTA about his observations about the current status of adventure travel, how tour operators can commit to sustainable practices, and how he plays an active part in a company that continues to grow.
ATTA: What philosophies or values drive Backroads’ culture?
Hale: Values are so ingrained in Backroads that it’s inherently how we look at everything, but especially in how we treat people. Honesty, integrity, and treating people with respect regardless of who they are and where they come from all matter to me and they matter to Backroads. As in, they mean everything. These values matter, and we’re proud of it.
ATTA: From your perspective, how has adventure travel evolved over the last 30+ years?
Hale: More and more people have embraced it, and there is a bigger range of ways that guests can enter into adventure travel. Adventure travelers have evolved in their desires for comfort and expectations for a consistently high-quality experience. Time is evermore precious, and getting exactly what one wants out of a week’s holiday is paramount. Guests are looking for adventure, relaxation, challenge, flexibility, and serendipity – all without feeling like they are been herded.
ATTA: How can the adventure travel industry maintain the delicate balance of offering meaningful experiences while being stewards of the environment and communities within which they work? How can that delicate balance be maintained, and what things should business owners and/or tour operators be considering?
Hale: By being thoughtful and doing exactly that – maintaining that delicate balance. I believe it starts with cultivating a responsible travel ethic within the ranks of your employees, which is then visibly demonstrated and communicated to our guests and to the local communities in which we operate.
At Backroads we have worked hard to cultivate this ethic. We incentivize our employees to bike, carpool, and take public transportation to work to minimize our carbon footprint. We invested in our corporate headquarters to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 14,000 pounds annually. All of the products that we give to our guests, from their water bottles to their printed marketing materials, have been thoughtfully selected to be recyclable and sourced from environmentally conscious manufacturers. We invest time and resources in training all our new leaders with Leave No Trace principles, and we make it a practice to identify on every trip multiple ways we can recycle our materials and donate our surplus food and supplies in responsible ways.
By cultivating this awareness and devotion to responsible travel, our leaders are empowered to go out and not only practice it, but educate others and contribute to a greater good. Business owners and tour operators need to step up and acknowledge that we are in a position of influence, with the ability – and responsibility – to affect change and influence the world for good. Our leaders and guests are ambassadors to the communities where we travel, especially when traveling in lesser-developed regions of the world where we are looked to as examples of progress. We need to take this opportunity and responsibility seriously.
ATTA: How do you continue to maintain your enthusiasm and interest as a business owner in the adventure travel industry without burning out? What does your role currently involve?
Hale: Backroads has been my passion for 38 years and I’m as active in its development as I have ever been, on nearly every level.
I’ve always felt lucky because I love what we do, but I also love the business we are in. I get to bike, hike, run, and skate ski all over the world, and experience amazing places with wonderful people, but I also get to be continuously challenged. Right now I’m turning what feels like the world’s most horizontal org structure into something completely different, and better, and it’s giving me more time to do the impossible – to continue scaling quality in the most service-intensive, environmentally diverse conditions imaginable. I love these challenges. It’s fun to lead a company that feels more like a startup today than at any previous point in our 38 years of operation, and I get to do it without any private equity people telling me how to do it.
Currently, I continue to play an active role in just about every realm of Backroads, from identifying and developing new trip destinations and itineraries to recruiting and training new leaders to pursuing new marketing initiatives. The world seems to be changing so quickly and the active travel industry is evolving just as fast. This means there are always fresh challenges to keep me on my toes, which I love. I feel very fortunate and am very proud of what we have accomplished to get here. I’m excited to see where we go from here.
ATTA: What adventure travel experience is still on your bucket list?
Hale: Whichever new Backroads trips I haven’t done yet. There is always a great new place waiting.