You Win Some, You Lose Some: 2014’s Best Experiments in Adventure Travel

30 December 2014

Adventure travel is a risky business, but many of our members are running the kind of creative and innovative operations that result from venturing into the unknown. Most (77%) of the tour operators we polled for our 2014 Industry Snapshot were expecting revenue to increase this year, mostly due to finding new customers. That data tells us that these operators are good at doing business and we trust their instincts. So, we asked our tour operator members to reflect on the risks they took in 2014 and how those attempts affected business, for better or for worse.

We first asked about innovation: What changes to operations has your business made over the last year? Members tried new software, they offered shorter and longer itineraries, they changed their guide training policies, they created apps, went to new trade shows and gambled with advertising spending.

Starting with the Successes...


Mobile devices are rapidly changing the way we travel. “Whether it’s to get directions, find a place to eat or change your travel itinerary, smartphones have become an indispensable travel companion,” says Tnooz in a November 2014 article about mobile travel marketing. So we’re delighted to see operators incorporating phones and tablets into not only their booking process but also into their operations. The Cortez Club in Baja California Sur, Mexico, started using iPads to sign in their guests for diving expeditions. Europe-based S-Cape Travel developed a mobile app for their self-guided cycling and walking trips. Europe Active in the U.K. developed something similar called “route notes”:

“The creation and printing of route notes has always been seen as a real chore by our staff who would rather be getting on with other jobs,” says Harriet Bristow, manager of the company’s English speaking programs, “so this was our Christmas present to them.”


The ATTA spent a lot of time thinking about guide training this year, and we like to know that our members are thinking critically about it too. Expediciones Huaxteca in Mexico took it upon themselves to have all of their rafting guides certified by the International Rafting Federation. Rios Tropicales in Costa Rica started offering more interpretation and storytelling training for their guides. And Walkabout Scotland responded to an increase in demand from guests from France and decided to train more French speaking guides.


Speyside Wildlife, a birding and wildlife watching operation based in the U.K.,  started offering combination holidays, suggested by guests. “Our 'Birds and Music' tour to Prague sold out very quickly,” says Sally Dowden, “And our tour to Jordan, which includes a visit to Petra as well as spectacular wildlife watching is proving very popular.”

Amazonas Explorer started offering more frequent departures of their Inca Trails itinerary and lowered the minimum number of guests from four to two, which so far, has proven to be a successful change. Earlier in the year, tour operators reported in our 2014 Industry Snapshot that altering programs was only moderately effective, so we are encouraged to see positive anecdotal evidence that this is an effective strategy.

Salsa Retreat started offering music- and dance-focused trips to Cuba in 2014:

“It took some significant effort to convince the US government that our trip has a serious music and dance curriculum and is not a ‘party tour’,” says director and founder Alice Kupcik. “Our first Cuba tour in January of 2014 was a huge success, because it allowed our guests an insight into a layer of Cuban society that many tourists will miss.”


Speyside Wildlife runs a successful networking program where past guests can mix with potential guests at free events at national bird and wildlife centers. In the 2014 Industry Snapshot tour operators rated special events as only moderately effective, however here is another case of anecdotal evidence proving that certain types of events like this can be effective.


We also asked about trends: were you watching for trends and did you react by changing an itinerary or operation? Operators are responding positively to industry-wide trends like demand for shorter programs, family and multi-generational trips, and more self-directed tours, and they’re also acting on feedback directly from clients.

  • Travel Indochina noticed that many of the passengers on their Thailand itineraries were adding private post-tour extensions to Southern Thailand, so they added a Southern Thailand itinerary that could be combined with other itineraries.
  • Amazonas Explorer responded to demand for shorter programs and started offering a range of accommodation levels to give more affordable options to guests without compromising the quality of the activity: “It allows us to keep the clients who want a 4-star trek but cannot afford a 4-star hotel,” says Mark Smith, head of marketing.

    “Based on feedback received in 2014 we launched an entire line of self-drive itineraries,” says RED Sustainable Travel’s Chris Pesenti. “I call it ‘choose your own adventure’, much like the books I used to read as a kid. This feedback came from customers, friends and even family members who came to visit who either wanted to travel on their own, but with the support of our local knowledge and logistics, or people looking to complement an organized group trip with an outing on their own. People want to get out and do their own thing. It makes sense to me, as this is the way I enjoy traveling.”
  • Alluring Africa added more family-friendly options to their tours, including active adventures for teens and tweens.

  • After seeing the success of the Camino di Santiago in Spain, S-Cape Travel developed a multi-stage tour on the Via Francegena in Italy. “It’s expected to be the future trend among pilgrimage tours in Europe,” says Marco Verzucoli.
“We have had increasing demand for electric bikes,” says Europe Active’s Harriet Bristow. “It’s not a field we had wanted to get into originally. Being purist road cyclists, some of us in the team thought it wasn’t for us. However, the market has proved us wrong! And what’s wrong with making the beautiful island of Corsica more accessible to all?”

  • Tribal Adventure Tours abandoned its “glamping” option this year in response to demand from clients who wanted to participate in preparing their own camp. “It seems our clients want to revisit the experience of their youth,” says Greg Hutchinson, so they use smaller tents that are easier for passengers to set up.
  • Expediciones Huaxteca saw stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) trending, so they started included SUP activities on their tours.
Salsa Retreat used to offer homestays for their Oaxaca trips, but the option was buried at the bottom of the website. “I don’t remember getting any inquiries about this in the past five years,” says Alice Kupcik. Then she placed the homestay rates more prominently on the site next to the hotel rates and started getting requests. “I think people are realizing that they get more value for their money this way, and that this is a great option if you are on a budget. It is also a great way to connect with locals and learn more about the place you are visiting,” she says.

Things that Didn’t Go So Well...

We also asked specifically about experiments in adventure travel that didn't work and what members learned from those experiences. Knowing that we can all learn from each other's mistakes, we're grateful that these companies were willing to try something new and admit defeat.

Tribal Adventure Tours felt like attending the annual Philippine MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) conference was money poorly spent.

Europe Active regrets spending money on Google Adwords this year because they were priced out of the market by bigger operators:

"The amount of money we can afford to spend on Google Adwords currently gets us nowhere," says Harriet Bristow. "As a local operator, direct sales are very important and we want to reach more people directly. The internet, which should be a "˜free and egalitarian' space, is becoming more and more exclusive."

The Cortez Club added to their magazine advertising budget this year only to decide that online advertising is more effective for them. Indeed, print media advertising ranked dead last in a list of effective marketing strategies, according to the 2014 Industry Snapshot.

Pure Adventures concluded that "traditional press release distribution is dead." President Loren Siekman says, "We are looking for other ways to work with the media, bloggers, and journalists that will be more successful and useful for both us and the media."

Salsa Retreat had the great idea to offer tour dates adjacent to holidays in the United States, thinking it would better accommodate travelers work schedules. "It actually didn't work out," says Alice Kupcik, especially for dates around Memorial Day weekend and Thanksgiving. "I learned from this that my typical clients make travel a priority and have enough vacation time to travel outside of the big holiday weekends."

EcoColors in Mexico invested more in social media and are seeing some positive results but not as quickly as they expected. Above the Clouds experienced something similar with regard to social media investment: "I would say that the amount of input of effort and work certainly hasn't been returned on the same level at this point," says Lisa Kumari Conlon, "but we are certainly hoping to learn more about it and see a solid return in the future."

The ATTA's Adventure Pulse report found that social media scored low as a tool people used in preparing for a trip, but we know that guests are using social media to share their trips with family and friends when they return. "The takeaway here for adventure travel tour operators is to empower your guests to market for you to their friends and family!" says ATTA's Director of Research Christina Beckmann. "Send them home armed with great photos, memorable stories and incentives to travel with you again and to recommend your company to others."

You Win Some, You Lose Some

What are you going to try in 2015? New itineraries or activities? Changes to your staff or guides? More partnerships or a trade show you've never attended? Let us know and thanks for keeping being adventurous in everything you do!