A relatively untapped niche, adventure travel continues to grow as clients demand more authentic experiences
Without my flashlight on, it was pitch black, and all I could hear was the squeaking of the bats hanging above my head. Occasionally, I would feel the brush of a soft wing on my arm or a drop of water on my forehead. The jagged lava rock walls seemed frozen in time around me. The rocks under my feet wobbled with every step as I crouched down to move through the 3½-foot opening near the end of a lava tube located in Los Tuxtlas, Mexico. In one hand, I gripped my camera, ready to snap a photo of one of the thousands of vampire bats swirling around me. In the other hand, I aimed the flashlight app on my iPhone into the darkness ahead. Now, this is adventure.
For me, adventure is pushing myself to the limits of both my mind and my body. I’m terrified of small, dark spaces, so I felt exhilarated when, at last, I reached the light at the end of the tunnel. This particular activity may not be for everyone, but that’s why adventure travel is growing so quickly — the feeling of exhilaration, discovering a new culture, learning something new. These experiences are what turn tourists into travelers. Clients don’t have to rappel down a cliff to call their experience adventurous.
“Use the senses,” said Fred Crema, tourism director of Maritaca Turismo in Sacramento, Brazil. “Adventure is not always an adrenaline rush that people experience when they are ziplining, cycling or rafting. Just leaving your city and leaving the place that you are used to everyday is an adventure.”
In recent years, adventure travel has become more important to the travel industry as clients seek new, interesting ways to experience a destination.
“People want to participate in a location and live the way the locals do,” said Jason Holland, owner of Travel Simplicity. “They desire authentic experiences. Adventure travel lends itself to this.”
The current rate of growth for adventure travel certainly belies this perception.
“According to the data and statements from various industry leaders, adventure travel is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the travel industry and is expected to continue growing well into the future,” said Michael Cooney, co-owner at Cooney World Adventures, a travel agency based in Cape Canaveral, Fla. “These growing numbers are in part due to the wave of baby boomers retiring and wanting to be more active — and, well, adventurous. You can also put it another way — these travelers don’t want their parents’ kind of travel.”
The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), which is dedicated to the promotion of the adventure travel industry, recently released the 2013 Adventure Tourism Marketing Study. The study shows that the niche has grown at a rate of 65 percent annually during the last 4 years. In fact, the adventure travel industry has gone from an $89 billion industry in 2009 to a more than $263 billion industry in 2013.
“The boom of adventure travel is good news for travel agents because it is a relatively untapped segment of the industry,” said Casey Hanisko, vice president, marketing and communications at the ATTA. “Fifty-six percent of adventure travelers don’t use a travel agent or a tour operator, but many indicate that they are open to it and planning on it.”
In fact, clients who book with a tour operator spend more money per day and take trips of about equal length. On average, clients travel for approximately nine days and spend about $308 per day.
“Booking adventure travel also takes more time, and trips often feature more logistics,” said Hanisko. “Agents can really demonstrate their value and earn good commission on the products that they sell. Partnering with reputable operators is key.”
Another key component is having travel agents experience adventure activities for themselves.
“The best way to sell adventure travel is to experience it yourself,” said Holland. “If you cannot get over your fear of trying something new and stepping outside of your comfort zone, how can you encourage other people to do it as well?”
Cooney agrees and recommends that agents attend events such as Adventure Travel Mexico (ATMEX), an event that is sponsored by the ATTA.
“Nothing takes the place of seeing a location in person, which is why ATMEX is so great,” said Cooney. “It gives agents a chance to experience, up close and personal, some of what Mexico has to offer adventure seekers.”
While we are certainly entering an age in which adventure travel will have a higher profile and more clients will be seeking experiential forms of travel, it doesn’t necessarily make this type of travel an easy sell.
“I look at the travel agent-client relationship as similar to a doctor-patient relationship,” said Richard Weiss, CEO of Strategic Travel Consulting. “When agents see a client, they like to sell from the shopping basket of products that they have. But before you sell, find out what the client wants. A doctor isn’t going to prescribe a remedy until she finds out what is wrong with the patient.”
Weiss also noted that people want their travels to be unique and said that it’s less about price and more about value.
“The evolution from tourist to traveler — that is what people are yearning for,” he said. “It goes back to differentiation. If you can show clients a trip that their neighbors haven’t done, it makes them feel like they did something special, something that makes them say ‘I’m going to remember this.’”
Don’t be afraid to push your clients a little, too. I didn’t want to go into the bat cave. In fact, I was pretty terrified the whole time, but as we walked out and realized that we had all been through a great adventure together, a bond was formed within the group that none of us will forget. Wouldn’t you like to form a bond like that between you and your clients?
• North America is the number-one source of bookings for tour operators offering adventure travel.
• Fifty-six percent of tour operators also report that their bookings are up over the last year.
• Couples and small groups of friends make up the majority of the travelers on these trips, but families and solo travelers also form a significant portion of the industry.
• In North America, the average age of the adventure traveler is approximately 46.
• Some of the most popular regions to travel to include South America, Europe, Southern Africa, North America and India/South Asia.
• The top itineraries for adventure seekers include: soft adventure, custom itineraries, activity-based adventures, cultural-based adventures and family/multi-generational adventures.
• Seventy-three percent of adventure travelers plan to participate in an adventure travel activity on their next trip.*
• Only 22 percent of adventure travelers plan to do the same adventure activity again. They are looking for diversity.*
• 45 percent of adventure travelers plan on using a tour operator on their next trip compared to 31 percent of non-adventure travelers.*
• Adventure travelers were more likely to use professional services such as guides, but 56 percent booked everything on their own.*
Source: ATTA 2013 Industry Snapshot
*Source: 2013 Adventure Tourism Market Study