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The Evolution of the Tour Operator: Your Brand, Your Experience

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By: Leigh Barnes

ATTA has received permission to reprint this article in AdventureTravelNews.


On Monday, after settling in here in Anchorage for The Adventure Travel World Summit and checking out a few of the local haunts (most notably the IPAs at 49th State Brewery and the Alaskan Crab at Humpy’s), I had the pleasure of going on a glacier cruise with a few friends and colleagues. It was a pretty powerful experience.

As someone who works in this industry, people often ask me if I get tired of travelling all the time. I’m sure you get that question, too. And yeah, sometimes I feel like I’d trade the hotel rooms and cramped airplane seats for a little more time at home. But standing there on the deck of the ship, looking out over the sea, I was reminded of how truly lucky I am to work in this industry.

And as we cruised past massive glaciers, listening as they cracked and calved, I was also reminded of the responsibility we all have to this amazing planet.

So as adventure travel grows and changes, it’s more important now than ever to make sure we practice sustainability in everything we do. As brands, we need to stand for something.

But staying relevant means we need to be open to change, too. That’s what I want to talk about today — that, as tour operators, we have to strike a balance between standing firm and pushing for progress. We need to listen to what customers want, but never at the cost of the planet or the communities we visit.

And from a business and marketing perspective, we need to tell these important stories with our brands in a way that is simple and consistent around the globe.

So how do we tell the story of travel in a way that makes people want to drop everything and go? And how do we stay relevant in this rapidly changing industry?


Be real

At Intrepid Travel, our story has stayed the same. Demand increases, our trips change and evolve, we look for new and better ways to give back to the community, but our core value proposition is still the same. We give people real life experiences.

As the largest adventure travel company in the world, travelers choose Intrepid because we give them access to sites and stories they couldn’t access on their own. Think about your own most memorable travel experience. It probably wasn’t when you got your photo taken in front of the Taj Mahal or bought trinkets at the tourist shop. It was when you went wandering at sunset and found a hidden cafe serving tea, or when you bonded with a new friend over your mutual fear of heights (which you then conquered by crossing a rope bridge over a ravine together). It’s moments like these that define travel.

Some people have a misconception that group tours don’t allow for that kind of spontaneity, but our tours — and our whole brand — are designed to give you those real life experiences.

Travel isn’t the only industry that’s looking for more real things and experiences, either. Millennials are foregoing fast food like McDonalds for real food they can make at home or more casual, healthy options. In fact, the number of 19 to 21-year-olds visiting McDonald’s monthly has fallen by 13% since 2011. Companies like American watch manufacturer Shinola are finding success by promoting that their products are made in the U.S. Words like “artisanal,” and “small-batch” are popping up in discussions about everything from bread to whiskey. Use of the word “bespoke” is on the risefor the first time since 1920.

But trips are complicated products with many moving parts. It’s not like selling shoes or watches. There is no assembly line. Keeping quality consistent from San Francisco to the Serengeti is no easy task. So much can change depending on the destination, the guide, the group, and even the weather. And while there are some things we can’t control, there are a lot of things we can.

As a way to keep our brand consistent, for example, we own and operate our own Destination Management Companies, meaning we can ensure quality on the ground at every destination. We employ more than 1,000 local guides around the world, we train and educate them, and we make sure they’re paid fairly, even in the off-seasons.

With that kind of consistency across the globe, our travellers become our best brand evangelists. Our customers may not be able to wear our brand like a pair of shoes, but ensuring they have a consistently awesome experience with us means they’ll carry Intrepid with them wherever they go next.


Don’t fight change, enable it

We run trips in more than 100 countries worldwide, so it’s really important that we make sure our value proposition is easy to understand around the globe. Everyone in the company, from the founders to the newest hires, understand what we do and why we do it. We stand for something, and it’s something that everyone can get behind.

And though we’re firm in our beliefs, we also know that a massive part of staying relevant to travelers is making sure we evolve based on their changing wants and needs.

A really good example is our cycling tours that will launch on Wednesday. They represent how we stay true to our brand through growth and evolution. We use bicycles to provide experiences you couldn’t have in cars, like touring Maasai villages in Tanzania and meeting local Berber Nomads in the Sahara Desert. We will be the first tour operator ever to run cycling tours in Arusha National Park and parts of Japan’s Noto Peninsula. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Bicycles for Humanity to supply unused bikes to people in the developing world. Plus, we will match all donations dollar-for-dollar through The Intrepid Foundation, which has disbursed over $5-million into projects around the world since 2002.

In addition to our 16 new cycling tours, we’re soon starting up adventure cruises. These ideas all came from feedback that our travellers gave us of what they’d like to see and do. We don’t micromanage our trips — we crowd-source ideas based on what our travellers tell us they want. A million minds are, after all, better than one. As a result, it never ceases to amaze me what kind of trips we’re able to offer. I look at the new expeditions and it blows my mind. I never thought I wanted to see a snow leopard in Ladakh, but now I know I do.

Adapting to meet customer needs is also why we have three main distinct brands: Geckos Adventures, Intrepid Travel, and Peregrine. Taking a multi-brand approach may not simplify our lives as marketers and managers, but we do it because we need to make sure we get the right product to the right customers at the right time. It’s not fair to assume that an 18-year-old on a gap year wants the same things out of a trip as a 55-year-old whose kids just left home for college. All of these brands evolve to meet demand.

But through that evolution, our purpose stays the same. Our purpose keeps us consistent, even as our products evolve and change.


Stand for something

Sometimes, our purpose comes into conflict with the desires of our customers. This is when things could get complicated, which is why it’s important to have a strong purpose as a company.

Elephant rides are the perfect example of that. Travelers wanted to go to Thailand to ride elephants. There was tons of demand for it. But it just didn’t feel right, so in 2010–2011, we supported extensive research by World Animal Protection into captive elephant venues and learned that it was extremely detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the animals. Elephants are not domestic animals. Taking them from the wild and forcing them to participate in human-like behaviors like kicking soccer balls, painting pictures, and giving people rides is exploitation. Stopping elephant rides was not what our customers wanted at the time, but it was the right thing to do.

And today, more than 100 other tour operators have stopped offering elephant rides.

Through Intrepid’s not-for-profit, The Intrepid Foundation, we’ve been able to be part of so many amazing projects around the world and affect so much positive change. Right now, as we’re talking, we’re supporting a maternal health clinic in Indonesia, we’re providing holistic community education to underprivileged children in Egypt, we’re creating social services to marginalized communities in Russia, and many more amazing and worthwhile projects. For me, it’s so powerful to work for a company that approaches tourism from a global perspective, not just a business perspective.

As the popularity and demand for group tours continues to increase, it’s more important than ever to make sure travel is sustainable. For Intrepid, that means giving back to the communities we visit and always being mindful of the impact we have on a destination. It also means making sure all our company is 100% carbon neutral. People tend to be believe taking a strong stance on carbon emissions hurts business, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. While the travel industry has notoriously been seen as a large source of emissions, Intrepid Travel has quietly become the largest carbon neutral company in the world. Since 2010, we’ve offset 200,000 tonnes of carbon emission from our trips and offices worldwide. And, since starting our journey to carbon neutrality in 2005, our business and sales have grown 317%.

As consumers, we’re demanding more from vendors and brands than ever. When making purchase decisions, millennials care more about environmental sustainability, as well as commitment to social value, than previous generations by roughly 13 percent. Tour operators and brands in the travel industry need to rise up to meet the demands of consumers, as well as educate travellers on sustainable practices both at home and abroad.

Bringing it all together

Stand for something. Adapt and evolve your products. Have a clear, accessible value proposition. Hire exceptional people, educate them, and put them first. These are all important things that tour operators must embrace in order to stay relevant and trusted with travellers.

The final piece? Get out there and see the world yourself. Go on tours you wouldn’t normally go on. Take a winter cruise. Learn from the world around you. We’re so lucky to work in travel and have the opportunities and experiences we have. Sure, a trip is a more complicated product to keep consistent than a pair of shoes. But research shows that spending money on experiences like travel is one of the few purchases that actually makes us happier in the long run.

So as you invest in your happiness, make sure you invest in the world, too. Make sustainable choices as a tour operator and as a traveller so that we can all enjoy the wonder of travel for years to come.

Let’s keep these glaciers icy.

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