Bus and Motor Coach Library

Adventure Travel – A Growing Market Opportunity     

Author – Frances Figart (2005)

Special Thanks to the NTA and the Courier magazine for allowing us the opportunity to publish this article.  Frances Figart, Editor in Chief authored the article which was featured in the December 2005 issue of the Courier Magazine.

Adventure Travel is a rapidly growing niche market.  Travelers in all age groups, including Baby Boomers, are more active than previous generations.  According to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), 98 million U.S adults claim to have taken an adventure trip in the past five years.  Yet, outside the circles of outdoor sports aficionados and seasoned travelers, the public perception of adventure travel is still somewhat limited by the sterotype that adventure is only for young athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

We asked members of NTA's Active Adventure Travel AIM (Area of Interest and Marketing) how the adventure travel industry can work successfully to dispel the myth and create an understanding that many different age groups and fitness levels can enjoy backpacking, camping, canoeing, cycling, hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, skiing and a host of other sports.  Their answer revealed that it's all a matter of educating the public about definitions, marketing the right way to the right audience and tailoring the adventure to the specific needs of the traveler or group.

Defining the Terms
The word 'adventure' has two meanings which when applied to travel delineate two audiences, one specific and the other broad.  The definition "An undertaking or enterprise of a hazardous nature," focuses on the classic types of "hard" adventures - sport climbing, sea kayaking, snowboarding and the like.  The definition "An unusual or exciting experience," encompasses the broader concept of "soft" adventure, which can be as open-ended as the traveler's imagination.

Canadian-born Richard Davidson of SkiEurope, based in Houston, Texas, says, "Hard adventure travel usually requires some level of training or skill in order to participate and enjoy the experience to the fullest.  Thus, hard adventure travel can mainly be sold only to individuals or groups that are already aficionados of the featured activity.  It is not likely that people will buy a cycling tour unless they are cyclists, and we probably wouldn't want them to."  In his business, Davidson said skiing is certainly a hard adventure activity.  "The individual (FIT) segment of our business reflects this in both the demographics of our clients and their travel expectations."

But by contrast, he says, "soft adventure is truly defined in the perception of the participant and can be extended to activities that might not usually be considered adventurous at all, such as 'an adventure of dining.'  Who are we to say that a golf or yoga vacation is not an adventure?  In our business, the group travel segment has increasingly drifted toward soft adventure.  Group members have become older, less active, but more affluent."  For a decade, SkiEurope has addressed this market by labeling excursions "winter vacations" rather than "ski trips" and by emphasizing the broad cultural experience of a winter visit to Europe, often booking more castle excursions that lift passes.

Mahen Sanghrajka, president of Stuart, Florida.-based Big Five Tours & Expeditions, believes the adventure travel niche is experiencing growth precisely because people are beginning to expand their personal definitions of the term.  "The adventure travel industry can encourage the broadening of the definition of adventure travel by incorporating the concept of soft adventure in their product development and marketing."  He says.  "Soft adventure is a term already used within the industry, but the general public may not be as familiar with it as it applies to their personal vacation activities.  The key concept of soft adventure is the active engagement and the exploration of new experiences."

Marketing Soft Adventure
Soft adventure offers opportunities for safe, outdoor fun and comfortable exercise to a wider audience of participants than extreme or hard sports, "but the extreme is too often what gets the headlines."  Said David Kaufman, CTP, president of Vermont Tourism Network in Burlington, VT; a state which has made a name for itself as a soft adventure mecca.  "Vermont portrays our soft adventure and beautiful scenery image as part of our unique brand, and the theme runs through all promotional programs.  As a result of constant visibility, Vermont has generally developed a market image as a place to enjoy soft adventure."
But more often than not, media and advertising bark up the wrong tree when they aim hard adventure images at the coveted soft adventure audience. 

"When I see an article on adventure travel it usually shows a young man mountain biking or rock climbing rather than a family canoeing," said Andrew Heidt, account executive at the Annapolis & Ann Arundel County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Annapolis, Md.  He says this type of media coverage reinforces "that preconceived notion that adventure travel is mainly for your 21-35 age group.  I think the best way to change this perception would be marketing to families, older couples and seniors."

Joyce Stinnett Baki, director of sales at the Annapolis & Ann Arundel County CVB, agrees.  "We need to use diversified images when advertising.  Instead of the cute, young, thin couple doing something adventurous, why not use photos of some healthy individuals that are over 30?"

Brenda Hewitt of Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks, Alaska, knows as a Baby Boomer how important it is to appeal to the Boomers' unique psychographics through marketing.  "Appeal to our sense of agelessness," she demands.  "We don't age.  We don't see ourselves as 'old' and therefore will do the active adventures.  We want the experiences.  You still have the energy and now you have the time and money: Why not do the things that make you feel alive, now while you can enjoy them?"  Given this psychological outlook, Hewitt suggests television spots should play music from the 60s, but have 50-55 year olds doing the activity.

Sharon Quinn of the Huntsville, Alabama Convention & Visitors Bureau argues that hard and soft adventure should be marketed separately "because the activities usually appeal to two separate groups of tourists.  The [hard] active adventurer will continue to rock climb, sky dive and [snorkel] with sharks.  However, the soft adventure tourist wants a safer exciting and exuberating experiences.  More and more people are enjoying the refreshing outdoor activities such as biking and canoeing, but we need to gear our marketing efforts to those groups."  Quinn advocates further market research to target publications and other media that will appeal to soft adventurers, as what they are reading and watching changes rapidly.  She sees the greatest success rates in articles penned by specialists in the health field who suggest training regiments, with destinations and itineraries provided as exemplary adventure travel experiences.

"Outdoor recreation is the backbone of our tourism offerings in West Virginia," says Tony O'Leary, media and public relations director for West Virginia Division of Tourism in South Charleston.  "Thus, our outfitters make it a point to continuously brief our tour operators, our tourism travel counselors and welcome center personnel that they have trips for entry-level, low impact visitor as well as the high-end adventure traveler.  We have used ads showing senior citizens and children in white-water rafts to help push this 'everything from mild-to-wild' message."

Skinnett Baki discourages travel professionals from marketing the entire trip as an adventure.  "Make sure there are other things in the package - historic sites, local color."  She relates an experience on a recent trip to Las Vegas: "While my husband golfed, my girlfriend and I took a Pink Jeep Tour.  The Pink Jeep took us to the west wall of the Grand Canyon, which we hiked down a ways.  But the driver, a very smart individual, also stopped along the way to let us experience some of the local color, meet people, and visit a chocolate store in the middle of the desert!"

Product Development And Sampling
Product Development that considers the wide range of fitness levels inherent in the soft adventure target demographics is of utmost importance to developing a larger soft adventure client base.

Lisa D Kruse, manager of sales and marketing with Alaska Heritage Tours, finds that many Baby Boomers are taking a more active role in planning a customized vacation.  "That includes activities like sea kayaking near Fox Island, hiking by Exit Glacier or taking a flightseeing tour from Talkeetna over Denali.  All of these activities can be done by beginners and are rated 'easy to moderate' - great for any fitness level."
Quinn of Hunstville CVB is a proponent of offering "alternatives in the itineraries that would include different activities from which to choose, such as biking, hiking or canoeing.  Have itineraries that will appeal to families, where the parents can include the children and/or grandchildren," she suggests. "Include qualified speakers or trainers on the tour who will work with the group in helping them develop safe skills such as biking or canoeing; they can also serve as guides."

Sefanie Gorder, CTP, senior vice president of Premier Alaska Tours finds in developing adventure programs that "it makes perfect sense to create 'optional' days where one activity is included for the group, but the guest must choose in advance which level would satisfy their needs - a glacier experience, kayak trip or full day hike.  In most cases we have offered the choice since this seems to satisfy the demand," she said. "There are not too many seniors traveling to Alaska that want to do extreme adventure, so the soft adventure options work well.  Find the balance and tour groups' expectations will be met."

How can potential customers sample a sport to see if they like it before they buy the trip? "I think one of the best ways is by offering workshops that give a person the opportunity to try fly fishing or kayaking - maybe a short daytrip with backpack and guide," said Mary Kay Vrba, assistant director, Dutchess County Tourism in Poughkeepsie, NY.  "There was recently a program in New Hampshire that was for women only that did this very thing.  I think personal experience is the key."

Vermont Tourism Network's Kaufman says, "Suppliers of product have to educate and convince tour operators that there is terrific opportunity out there for them to sell to their more adventurous and younger seniors.  Fam tours are an ideal way to develop the adventure product."

Engaging The Borderline Adventurer
While creative marketing featuring individuals of all ages and fitness levels participating is a given, "fine tuning the adventure to discretely cater to the ability of those individuals is a plus," according to Claire Spivey, ranch manager for Wildcatter Ranch & Resort in Graham, TX. "A specific example of this would be our hike and bike trails.  Not only do we provide trails for all levels and abilities, but we package these trials in a manner that allow our guests to participate at a level they choose."

To do this, Wildcatter makes a departure from the traditional philosophy of a hiking or biking adventure as a challenging experience driven by a challenging experience driven by a continual motion from beginning to end.  Instead, the ranch provides interpretive opportunities along the way as well as points of interest, such as scenic overlooks.  This way, "guests of all ages and abilities can participate in a level which is comfortable and enjoyable to them, thus captivating their interest for future adventure travel and ultimately increasing the demand from this particular demographic."

Big Five's Sanghrajka agrees that an important component of today's soft adventure travel, and thus a prime marketing point, is learning, citing TIA's statistic that roughly 30 million U.S adults reported taking an educational trip to learn or improve a skill, sport or hobby in the past three years.  "Soft adventure programs are geared to take travelers beneath the surface of a destination," Sanghrajka noted.  "Within the realm of soft adventure are the ideas of personal encounters that allow for one-on-one interactions with the people and places visited, genuine cultural interactions that offer insight into others' lives and off-the-beaten-path destinations where one finds a sense of individual discovery."

Susan Stilwell, owner of S & S Tours based in Sierra Vesta, AZ., says she promotes "soft learning adventure for active seniors.  My senior clients tend to be very fit and alert and active."  They'd have to be, as Stilwell takes them hiking up mountains in Machu Picchu, river rafting in Costa Rica and climbing pyramids in Mexico.  But not everyone's clients are quite so healthy, and yet they may still get a thrill from traveling to adventure destinations.

"We find that although most of our mountain destinations are considered 'adventure playgrounds,' travelers don't have to engage in all (or any) of them to have a good time," said Bryan Boice of Pacific Northwest Tours/Ski-Pak Vacations, a Seattle-based tour operator focused in tours into and through national parks and mountain resorts throughout North America.  "For example, Whistler is a great spot for mountain biking, hiking and skiing, but also offers tons of great shopping, dining and scenery year-round," Boice said.  "Even if you don't want to hike or bike down the mountain, you can still take a gondola up and have a look around.

"We find many of our non-adventure seekers enjoy the variety and beauty that surrounds these traditional adventure destinations," said Boice.  "And more than a few have come back to the lodge at night telling stories of the activities that they ended up trying while in the mountains!"

The Future, Hard And Soft
As more and more operators begin emphasis on soft adventure offerings, will pure hard adventure eventually become a thing of the past?  SkiEurope's Davidson doesn't think so.  "There is a good outlook for increasing hard adventure travel as aging Baby Boomers continue as the active generation pursuing their adventure activities beyond the normal age parameters," he says.

"In our industry niche, experience has shown that it is virtually impossible to sell a ski trip to non-skiers, even if it is specifically a learn-to-ski vacation.  Nonetheless, there may be an opportunity to expand the hard adventure travel market by selling learning or sampling experiences."  Davidson believes this can best be accomplished in partnership with existing hard adventure groups, who always are interested in increasing their membership base.

But while these niche groups can assist with the product design, they may be less effective in marketing.  "For example, contradicting an oft-proposed, new skiers are not found in ski-shops!"  Davidson cautions.  "One has to become attuned to where you might find crossover people that can be attracted to the adventure activity - in fitness centers perhaps."

What challenges are on the horizon for soft adventure travel?  Making this broader, more inclusive form of adventure travel more accessible and appealing to the mass market is one.  "Moving soft adventure from a lesser-thought-of tour opportunity to the image of a great reason to travel on tour requires all players to make a continuous effort to maximize the visibility and fun image of soft adventure," says Vermont's Kaufman. "The evolution of today's market, with the Baby Boomers dominating the population numbers, virtually mandates that more be done to create a much higher profile for soft adventure travel."
Additionally, Kaufman says, "the tour industry could and should do more to improve the image and increase the visibility of easy adventure travel through regular features, sending writers on personal soft adventure Fams set up by suppliers, and even working together across association lines to generate more public recognition of soft adventure.

For Kaufman, it's not only a matter of adventure travel succeeding, but of packaged travel itself remaining vital.  "The essence of the issue is that the market is evolving and the tour industry on all fronts must evolve with the market, or face losing the Baby Boomers to a permanent mindset of independent travel right from their front doors," he said.  "To move this evolution forward requires a higher profile for what Boomers love to do, and all stakeholders must play a role in taking tour travel successfully to the emerging generations."