For an industry founded on the idea that bearing witness to the world should be a tangible experience, the act of staying put during the COVID-19 pandemic hit particularly hard.
And so there was a palpable energy in the air as more than 750 delegates from across the globe converged via train in Lugano, Switzerland for the Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS) last week, held in-person for the first time since 2019 when the event took place in Sweden.
The energy highlighted the breadth of emotions humanity has collectively felt over the last few years. Within the adventure travel community, colleagues and friends are often scattered across the globe; for many delegates at ATWS, this was the first opportunity in years to reconnect with each other, celebrate milestones, and commiserate over the challenges faced and losses felt due to the pandemic.
"Kindness, togetherness, focus and determination – the adventure travel community is stronger than ever before,” said Hayley Wright of Black Mountain Montenegro. “ATWS Lugano proved testimony to this during our inspiring four days together, reflecting on the recent challenges our industry has endured and considering innovative and thoughtful new choices for the way forward."
Reflecting on that sense of coming together as a community, Vancouver-based writer and author Claudia Laroye shared, “We took time for collective and individual gratitude and to acknowledge that we were there, in the room, working towards a determined path forward for adventure travel and tourism, gleaning what was learned when so many of us were grounded for so long.”
Being grounded during the pandemic was in many ways literal – from cancelled flights to stay at home orders to striving for a sense of stability amid global turbulence. But that search for grounding also brought forth a time of deep reflection across the travel industry, which was echoed in ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell’s keynote speech that touched on the “Earth” part of the Summit’s theme of “Air. Water. Fire. Earth.”
In his address, Stowell reminded the audience, “Earth grounds us. We all know the joy of walking through forests, on sand and soil while barefoot. Of plunging into a clean lake…that connection you get with the elements when you are in nature, on a trail or in a desert or open plain, walking long enough that you get into ‘the zone’...that joyous experience.” And, grounding can be good for us. Echoing what Jean-Claude Razel shared in his keynote address, Stowell added, “It brings us lucidity, humility, and can guide us to responsibility.”
Everyone from key tourism leaders to newly-established entrepreneurs in the adventure travel community experienced some of that opportunity for grounded reflection while in survival mode the last few years. That reflection has led to noticeable changes industry-wide in a very short time. Most notably, there has been a marked shift away from ‘the way things have always been done’ and toward bold actions to make the adventure travel experience more sustainable, accessible, and innovative.
At the micro level, those environmental commitments were showcased throughout the course of the event. Ticino Tourism and Switzerland Tourism highlighted the country’s “Swisstainable” campaign and commitment to sustainable tourism. Delegates received a complimentary Swiss Travel Pass to arrive in Lugano by public transport. From recycling stations and zero waste initiatives to locally-sourced wine and food (which was all vegetarian), the Switzerland team successfully executed a climate neutral event for nearly 800 people – which was no small feat.
Eric Stoen, Content Creator behind Travel Babbo, noted that, “I’m not a vegetarian, but I like that the conference was. Both Switzerland and Italy have so many good non-meat options that it was easy to not notice the lack of meat. I still went for bacon at breakfast at my hotel, and a prosciutto pizza at one point, but that was it for a week.”
The industry shift has been evident on a large scale as well. The collective reckoning with responsibility to nature and communities has, of course, not occurred within a pandemic vacuum. Worldwide, calls for social justice reform and climate action have heightened. Travel and tourism leaders witnessed the landmark creation of the Glasgow Declaration. But for many businesses in the adventure travel sector, an optimistic view toward a more sustainable future can be difficult to fathom while still trying to recover financially.
It was with this delicate balance that many of the themes throughout ATWS accelerator and plenary sessions offered a practical and achievable sense of responsibility toward the planet, people, and the future of adventure travel. From reversing biodiversity loss to small businesses taking steps to operate carbon-neutral trips, the event covered pressing issues worldwide while providing guidance and solutions for companies and operators.
Delegates heard how to transform their business for the digital age, utilize technology to streamline the customer booking experience, and improve their content marketing for more effective consumer engagement. In many cases, the relationship between achieving sustainability and recovering business was inextricably linked.
In his keynote speech, Fire: Our World in Transition, entrepreneur and Alaya co-Founder Jean-Claude Razel said that as an industry we need, “A transition narrative for tourism – less is better.” Looking ahead to a future that is decarbonized, local, and educational, he challenged the industry: “Don’t sell what customers want. Start selling what destinations need.”
The next Adventure Travel World Summit will be held in Hokkaido, Japan 11-14 September 2023.