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For 30 years, REI Adventures has been a big player in the adventure travel industry, providing memorable and meaningful travel experiences while paying special attention to the communities in which it operates. The company continues to stay on the cutting edge of adventure travel and has responded to community concerns and interests such as gender-specific itineraries and sustainability with innovative initiatives and programs. Cynthia Dunbar, the general manager of REI Adventures, spoke with the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) about the company’s latest industry insights, current areas of focus, and hints on what’s to come in the near future.
ATTA: This year REI Adventures celebrates its 30th anniversary. What are the biggest changes you have seen in the industry since it launched in 1987?
Dunbar: I haven’t been with REI Adventures since 1987, but in the 23 years I have been with the co-op, there have been many changes. Here are some examples:
- An increasing interest and participation in active vacations.
- A broader range of trips and activities to meet the desires of the membership of REI.
- An increasing participation of women. Since 2010, women traveling with us has grown by 60 percent, and we continue to see this figure rise steadily annually. Last year alone, 58 percent of all our guests were women.
- An increasing participation of families.
- People seeking deeper, more meaningful cultural and personal experiences. They want to stretch their comfort zone, but want the expertise of a well-qualified guide and team in the field and in the office.
- Younger travelers looking for higher activity levels over a shorter period of time.
- Technology advances that allow us to speed up our processes and improve our relationships with our travelers.
ATTA: What are the latest challenges facing the industry today, and how is REI Adventures addressing them?
Dunbar: REI Adventures firmly believes that responsible tourism is critical for the preservation of the world’s natural treasures. And when a traveler experiences a place with its natural beauty and its local culture in a truly authentic way, it instills a desire and a passion to become involved in the care and protection of that place.
Collectively as an industry, we absolutely must work to preserve ecological gems and sustain local cultures. Whether a location is off the beaten path or easy to access, the travel industry has benefited from these resources. We have the obligation to conserve and invest in the future of these resources of our most popular, fragile, and threatened destinations.
Most recently, I’m extremely proud that REI Adventures became a founding member of the newly formed Adventure Travel Conservation Fund. Together, we can be a force for good and truly make a positive impact in conserving these places for future generations. Late this year, the first round of projects being funded will be announced at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Salta.
In addition, we also offer eight volunteer vacations through our partnership with the Conservation Volunteers International Program, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to conserving iconic wilderness areas and cultural sites around the world. These trips are regularly sold out, showing the enthusiasm by REI customers to do their part to preserve natural places.
ATTA: Tell us about the women-focused adventures your company is offering. Why did you launch them, and how have they been received?
Dunbar: While we’ve had women’s itineraries on and off for many years, this January marked our deliberate action to launch 19 new women’s adventures that highlight some of the most incredible destinations around the world. These trips are designed by women, for women, and led by women. The new collection blends outdoor activities with local spots, cuisines, and communities a traveler wouldn’t find on her own, and includes surprises along the way.
We designed the collection by taking into account a number of factors: 58 percent of all our travelers are women (this number increases annually), research we had conducted the prior year, and the fact that across the co-op we are placing an increased emphasis on being a resource and on ramp for women to live a life outside.
Our women’s adventures have been warmly received, and we already have several hundred bookings across all departures. Our first trip was in May, and we look forward to introducing additional itineraries to new and inspiring places.
Additionally, REI recently launched Force of Nature, an effort to reset preconceived perceptions and advance gender equity in the outdoors. REI Adventures and the experiences we provide are an important part of our long-range actions. As we rolled out Force of Nature, we also released the findings of a commissioned study to better understand the role the outdoors plays in women’s lives and how the outdoors is perceived today.
For example, seven out of 10 women believe that women are under more pressure to conform than men, and they also view the outdoors as an antidote to that pressure. The study also found more than 85 percent of women see the outdoors as key to better physical and mental health, and overall well-being, and 73 percent say they would like to spend more time outdoors.
ATTA: What other initiatives has your company launched over the last 30 years that it is particularly proud of? Why?
Dunbar: I’ve been with REI Adventures for 23 years, and there are many actions and milestones I’m proud of. Some in-country partners are the same teams from our earliest years as a travel business, and in many ways we’ve helped each other grow and be successful. It’s remarkable. Our guide teams and the employees at our headquarters are our most valuable assets, and their dedication to REI Adventures inspires me every day.
Throughout our journey, the co-op’s core purpose — inspiring others to lead a lifetime of adventure — has guided our decisions and our steadfast commitment to stewardship of the outdoors. For REI Adventures, this includes supporting the local communities around the world where we take guests, providing grants and gear to nonprofits around the world doing important work in nature conservation, and making a positive impact in their communities.
We formalized our efforts by launching our Sustainable Tourism Award in 2013 with a donation of gear, apparel, and supplies to 500 Namibia conservation guards to support their actions in protecting the country’s natural resources and wildlife. We’re presently in a three-year partnership with Mountain Lodges of Peru and a nonprofit named Yanapana Peru. We funded the construction and operation of a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse to reforest the Andrea Forest along a popular trekking route to Machu Picchu. To date over 30,000 indigenous seedlings and cuttings have been planted that were all germinated in the greenhouse at the base of Salkantay mountain. We are well on track to achieve our goal of planting over 100,000 starts by the beginning of 2018. This project brought together adventure travel companies, the local community, and government officials.
One of the most humbling experiences I’ve had at REI was to help our long-time partners in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake. Our Nepalese guide team has been an important part of the REI Adventures family since our founding. We ensured our guide and support teams received their normal compensation for the lost trekking season so their employees could focus on their families, loved ones, and communities.
It’s probably no surprise to hear that our travelers are also REI co-op members. In the days after the earthquake we asked them to consider supporting the relief effort. With their incredible outpouring of support and funds from REI, we gave more than $900,000 USD to the relief effort. We also funded and coordinated the construction and stocking of supplies of the Everest region’s first disaster relief center in Namche Bazaar.
ATTA: Looking to the future, what new things can we expect to see from REI Adventures?
Dunbar: The future is bright for REI Adventures, and we have some exciting announcements coming up this year and in early 2018 that are response to what REI members indicate is of interest. We see incredible opportunity in North America so keep your eye out for some great new trips in the United States. We are also looking to introduce more women’s adventures, diversify the intensity of our trips, and release more multisport trips. That said, destinations we offered in 1987 continue to be some of our most iconic and popular trips.