Adventure Travel

Focus, exhilaration, intensity: Adventure is the driving force behind the fastest-growing segment of the national travel market. And the adrenaline rush that Baby Boom professionals demand from their leisure-time activities is growing as an incentive travel option, as well.

"What you've got is a bunch of Type A personalities working in the corporate world, and for incentive travel they've been getting a deck chair," says Jerry Mallett, president and founder of the Adventure Travel Society, based in Englewood, CO. "Instead, they're looking for active outdoor travel. They're not people who like to sit around."

Sandy Molina seconds that idea. As the marketing coordinator for the travel department at Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), a computer animation and special effects company in Mountain View, CA, she has found that adventure incentives are very attractive to her well-educated, well-traveled Silicon Valley employees. "They have already done the regular trips," says Molina. "Now they want something different. Even if the trip is to Hawaii, they want to go to Hawaii and come back having had a unique experience. Lying on the beach isn't unique." As a result, SGI offers fishing trips, horseback riding, walking tours, mountain biking, and other outdoor-oriented packages in the U.S. as well as Costa Rica, Belize, and the Galapagos Islands to satisfy its employees' cravings for adventure.

Perceived Risk The definition of adventure travel is not exact. Most industry officials agree it includes activities such as diving, backpacking, horseback riding, off-trail skiing, river rafting and canoeing, mountain and road biking, and fly-fishing and deep-sea fishing. Of course the setting is significant as well. As a rule, it must be natural, wild, exotic, or extreme. In other words, something a traveler is not likely to find at a country club or theme park. Most resorts would not qualify. While golf and ocean swimming are certainly outdoor activities, they're not considered, well, adventurous.

While an adventure travel incentive program is not the kind of life-threatening experience of climbing Mount Everest or crossing the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon, to Mallett, risk is the key factor. "But nothing really extreme," he says. "Corporations are not going to put their top people at risk. Good food and good scenery are musts. And they want an experience that will be memorable, but not extremely risky."

Gregg Armstrong, president of All Outdoors Whitewater Rafting, Walnut Creek, CA, agrees. "Adventure travel is doing something out of the ordinary, with some form of risk involved. Or at least 'perceived' risk. That's a technical distinction, but it's an important one, especially to our lawyers and insurance companies," says Armstrong. "We've put more than 130,000 people down the river and have had no deaths. With activities like white- water rafting, there's the perception of super risk, but in fact, with trained guides with years of training and safety experience, the risk is small."

And while the real risk is small, the intensity is extremely high, bringing groups together in ways that ordinary circumstances wouldn't. Mike Leeds, president and chief executive officer of CMP Media in Manhasset, NY, has experienced the power of adventure travel on trips to British Columbia, where he has invited achievers to join him for a helicopter ski experience. Being dropped off together on snow-covered mountainsides, with only a guide to show the way, is an event Leeds's groups are unlikely to forget. "Heliskiing for a week is a dream trip for advanced skiers. We could go to any traditional ski resort, but the adventure aspect really makes it more memorable and promotes a real sense of camaraderie," says Leeds. "It's a great opportunity to spend a significant, quality length of time in a beautiful place, and it creates a comfort level between senior people that improves operations all the way around."

A Booming Industry The Adventure Travel Society, which has a membership that includes 300 outfitters and tour providers nationally and internationally, is a by-product of this booming segment of the travel industry. It was started in the late 1980s but boomed in 1993 when the demand for adventure travel took off. In the United States, 80 million people will head off on an adventure travel experience next year. Add up the outfitter fees with the cost of transportation, meals, lodging, and equipment, and that amounts to a $200 billion annual industry, and it's projected to grow eight to ten percent each year, according to Adventure Travel Society estimates.

All Outdoors Whitewater Rafting has been watching the growth since it began working with corporate clients back in 1975. All Outdoors is one of California's largest rafting companies, with nearly 100 licensed guides. "When we first started, we worked with only 20 or so corporations. Confidence in our abilities to offer quality and safety had to be built," says Armstrong. "Then Lockheed took six or seven trips with us, and now we see almost everybody out there."

The motivation that drives the increased interest in adventure travel is obvious to Armstrong: "What we are finding in an intense, competitive business climate like Silicon Valley is that, as a retreat, these people need to do something that's completely captivating, completely different from their work environment. In an adventure travel activity, they're put in a situation where they can't think about anything else. Then they return to work refreshed."

Armstrong estimates that 70 percent of his adventure travel packages are simply used as corporate retreats, 20 percent as teambuilding exercises, and ten percent as incentive award packages. Trips range from one-day white-water romps to five-day river floats with overnight camping or bed-and-breakfast lodging.

David Sakowski, a senior staff engineer at Lockheed who sets up packages for the aircraft company, has been rafting for a dozen years and swears by the power of adventure to break people away from the stress of deadlines and quarterly goals. In fact, he's become so hooked on white water that in his spare time he's become a licensed guide.

Rafting has become so popular at Lockheed that it's not uncommon for several dozen managers, engineers, and executives to spend an overnight together on a northern California river. "It takes a lot of preplanning, but it's worth it," says Sakowski.

The Typical Adventurer? According to Adventure Travel Society statistics, typical adventure travelers are not young men, as many would suspect. "They are too independent and they don't have much money," says Mallett. The majority of the market is a mix of women, families, and the so-called "mature" traveler-educated professionals over the age of 40.

Groups are always small for adventure travel activities. Dive trips, for instance, usually need at least ten people to break even, but fewer than 25 for safety and aesthetic reasons. Most river trips are capped at 25, while backpacking and fly-fishing trips, where solitude is important, will be half that size or even smaller.

Seattle-based Adventure Associates holds its group size to a maximum of 12 people, but more typical are groups of six to eight. "We hold to that number whenever we can," says President Sandy Braun. "If you get much larger than that, you're sacrificing quality. Small group size has obvious benefits for the client. For one thing, a large group can dwarf a setting, whether you're in a village in Africa or on a ski trail in Yellowstone."

Braun's client list includes Ford, Key Bank, Boeing, Weyerhauser, and Allied Telesyn, among others. And their attraction to adventure, she says, is clear. "Executives and managers need time to unwind, time to relate to each other in a different environment and in an informal way." And the more exotic the landscape, the better. "They want ways to get close to the people of foreign countries or wild lands that they wouldn't likely get in a more traditional travel package," says Braun. "They are seeking other ways of being stimulated, of being challenged."

For example, Braun led a group on a backcountry ski trip through Yellowstone National Park in January. In addition to geysers, hot springs, and scenic vistas, the park in winter offers few tourists and an abundance of wildlife, including elk, bison, and moose. But the snowy Rocky Mountain landscape is rugged and potentially life threatening.

"Attendees become highly focused in the backcountry. They have to. It requires their full attention," says Braun. "It's an experience that's fully challenging but completely relaxing, in an environment that is not routine. It takes them out of themselves."

For high-achieving corporate clients, though, it often takes some time to switch gears from work to play. "At the start, they're often still competitive with each other and themselves, but by mid-week they breakdown and unwind and go with it."

In foreign countries, the clash of cultures is, in much the same way, a challenge that focuses and exhilarates. Braun is reminded of a trip in Africa, during which a client was given a traditional thank-you by a grateful Masai woman. The gratitude was delivered by the Masai spitting in the open palm of the American.

"This is the part of adventure travel to foreign cultures that requires preparation and education, which we do a lot of on these trips. In an African country where water is precious, spitting in the palm of another's hand is taken as the highest form of thanks," explains Braun.

Adventure Associates offers 52 programs, largely in the Pacific Northwest, including sea kayaking, whale watching, hiking, and backpacking. The trips offer a spectrum of services and comfort, from lodge-based trekking with gourmet health food and massage therapists to backpacking and camping with traditional fireside cooking. A majority of Braun's business is corporate-centered, but only 15 percent is corporate incentive travel.

Big Players Want a Piece For years, the adventure travel industry was made up largely of small regional, independent outfitters, such as All Outdoors and Adventure Associates, but the gold rush is on. Larger corporate entities are out to stake a claim in this burgeoning market.

Eddie Bauer, the outdoor clothing and equipment retailer, has recently joined Ambassadors International, Inc., a California-based travel company, to launch an adventure travel program called "Eddie Bauer Travel." Its initial destinations include Australia, Switzerland, Nepal, the Pacific Northwest, Peru and the Galapagos Islands, and the American Southwest .

While Eddie Bauer is just beginning to research the incentive travel market, its partner has already included adventure travel on its corporate travel menu. Jeff Thomas, president of Ambassadors International, considers adventure travel an important element of their corporate offerings. Right now it's at about ten percent of the mix. "In our view, it's another product to offer," says Thomas. "We offer packages for fishing in Mexico, road biking throughout the western U.S., and white-water rafting in California. We have sea kayaking, scuba diving, and hiking in the rain forest. Even more educational, we have ecotourism trips to Peru and the Galapagos Islands."

The allure of adventure travel, sums up Thomas, is that it's become safer-a kind of "soft" adventure. It appeals to a new style of management that wants teambuilding experiences out in the field. "You're focused, you have a goal, there are no distractions, so you get to know each other pretty well. There's no place to hide."