In a down economy, adventure travel might seem like risky business. Adventure travel is often described as vacations that involve extensive exploration in an outdoor (and sometimes remote) location, and are typically highly physical outings. According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, while industry year-over-year sales were down in 2009, more than 70 percent of adventure travel operators expected to grow in 2010.
Furthermore, the majority of companies in the space are small businesses, reporting under $1 million in revenue each year. These five entrepreneurs explain how they traded in their office jobs for a more scenic view by starting their own adventure travel companies.
Lauren Hefferon, CEO and founder of the "boutique" tour operator Ciclismo Classico always had a passion for cycling and bicycle touring. After graduating from college, the New Hampshire native headed abroad to Europe for a three-month trip, which segued into one-year stay in Italy. Having explored thousands of miles and hundreds of tiny towns by bike, Hefferon was inspired to start her adventure travel hiking and biking tour company in 1988. Ciclismo was named “One of the Best Adventure Outfitters on Earth” by National Geographic Adventure magazine in 2009 and 2010.
Word of mouth is powerful in the adventure travel industry, said Hefferon, who estimates 30 percent of her clients come through referrals from other cyclists and active travelers.
But, word of mouth only goes so far. Hefferon's other marketing efforts include adventure challenge fundraising events, working with a PR firm, and ensuring her website has proper search engine optimization.
Before you chalk Hefferon’s job up to fun and games, she explains that the essence of her business is rooted in logistics.
“The average glorious Ciclismo Classico bike tour has eight hotels, eight distinct routes, 12 meals, five cultural visits and dozens of snack stops. Multiply this by 100 (the number of tours we run annually), over 1,000 guests, and varying weather conditions and you have lots of details to market and manage,” she said.
Hefferon advises aspiring adventure travel entrepreneurs to start by focusing on a specific location and activity that highlights their passion. She also suggests educating yourself on the financial aspects of the business.
She stresses that in this detail-oriented business, networks and trusted partners and resources are the key to success.
“It's good to know and learn your whole business but you won't be able to do everything for long,” she said. “You will have to be ready and willing to delegate.”
Mei Zhang didn’t foresee a career in adventure travel. She earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. Seeking solace from her busy lifestyle, she traveled the world for six months. While on a rickety plane flying over in Nepal, she reflected on her life and realized that she wanted to start her own business.
McKinsey serendipitously offered her a pro bono project in her hometown in China to find an alternative economic development model. The opportunity allowed her to thoroughly study the industry and realize the business potential.
Inspired by the clash she perceived between economic development and conservation of nature and culture in China, she identified a need for a sophisticated experiential travel solution that delivered China through a lens that did not exist. From that vision, she founded Wild China, a sustainable travel company offering distinctive, ecologically sensitive journeys to all corners of China in 2000.
Zhang knew her niche market -- sophisticated business executives who want to experience in-depth travel to China -- and how to reach them. She secured features on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal before ever opening her doors.
“We were truly the groundbreaking travel service operator in China at that time,” she said. Through word of mouth and her professional and academic networks, Wild China quickly became the default choice for anyone interested in experiencing China differently, she said.
Wild China has been awarded top recognitions by National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, and Travel & Leisure.
Zhang said working in the travel industry is both fun and hard work.
“If you work hard enough and smart enough, you'll make a great living enjoying the world, your family, your interests and make a small difference in the world,” she said. “But, if you measure your success mostly by a dollar amount, this is probably not the right field.”
In the late 1960s, Susie Fitzgerald was a flight attendant and third-grade teacher. Her husband Michael was on the verge of starting his own private dental practice. In 1969, noticing an opportunity in the market for adventure travel companies, they decided to experiment with entrepreneurship and opened Frontiers Travel.
The company caters to discriminating travelers, specializing in the worldwide fly fishing and shooting destinations, Africa photo safaris, as well as non-sporting customized journeys and has grown to include a combined staff of 75 travel experts. It is based in Wexford, Pa., and has a branch in the United Kingdom.
Initially, the couple networked and grew the business with the help of a respected outdoor writer named Roger Latham.
“Once we began having some success, word-of-mouth referrals from our repeat customers were the driving force to grow our business. Today, of course, electronic-based marketing initiatives (quality websites, email newsletters and social networking) are critical legs in the marketing stool, but references from satisfied clients are still the best prospects,” she said.
The world has changed quite a bit since Frontiers Travel opened its doors, and Fitzgerald acknowledges that working with the airlines in a post-9/11 era has presented its additional challenges.
“The time spent trying to solve problems and get a positive resolution with the airlines is overwhelming at times,” she said. She advises fellow adventure-minded entrepreneurs not to put all of their destination eggs in one basket.
“It is possible to have a specialty in terms of interest or activity, while having an adequate destination mix to provide a variety of experiences and price points,” she said. “Be prepared to tough it out, give it time, and don’t get discouraged if the clients don’t flock to your website.”
Christina Heyniger, founder and CEO of Xola Consulting, was once a consultant of a much different variety, working for a firm called Bearingpoint in Washington, D.C. Though successful in her career, Heyniger, an Alaska native, needed a change.
She felt “increasingly antsy, feeling empty, bored, underutilized, trapped in office buildings and cubicle-land and generally uninspired,” she said.
To recharge her batteries, she took a vacation to the Grand Canyon and Colorado River, where she had a pivotal conversation with her father, who encouraged her to make a change.
Inspired by the many river and hiking tour guides she met on that trip, she decided to take a leave of absence from her job and learn river rafting in Idaho.
In Idaho, Heyniger realized the transformative potential of adventure businesses in rural communities as she saw that the majority of the community made a living in a way very unlike her consulting career.
“I saw this community in which everyone had a job in rafting, biking, horseback riding, etc. These were happy people -- a lot happier than most of my colleagues, anyway -- and the entire local economy revolved around outdoor tourism,” she said.
A friend suggested she try applying her consulting skills specifically to outdoor companies. With that, Xola Consulting, which offers professional consulting services to outdoor companies, was born.
Hills of Africa
Sandy Salle is a native of Zimbabwe and has lived in and traveled extensively in Africa. She never considered a career in the travel industry until 2002, when her sister-in-law proposed creating a travel company focused on African excursions. Together, the pair founded Hills of Africa Travel, a luxury African travel company with one simple mission: to change lives, one journey at a time.
While many of her customers come through referrals, her marketing team uses tools such as Facebook, Twitter, webinars, a blog, her website, and a weekly newsletter to reach potential customers.
Hills of Africa has since grown into a multimillion-dollar company without losing the boutique feel. Salle also established the Hills of Africa Foundation, which partners with developing communities, educational foundations, nonprofit organizations and wildlife conservation programs that use sustainable tourism to help provide employment and income within the area.
She advises potential entrepreneurs to understand that being a travel entrepreneur involves far more than jetting off to exotic locations.
“It’s about helping travelers experience the beauty of the world and working hard to make their dreams come true. The payoff to helping others travel the world is tremendous. For me, nothing is more rewarding than sharing Africa with fellow travelers and helping them to enjoy an experience that goes far beyond their wildest dreams,” Salle said.