Canola Fields in Red Deer County
Asking Why Us?
The first step is to define why you exist and what your destination stands for, in other words, your purpose. This will define the type of experiences that will be authentic and aligned with who you are. This is the step that most often get missed in the excitement of building a new experience. We jump right ahead to looking at markets, trends and new opportunities and forget to spend a few minutes asking why we should be the ones offering it.
This is a mistake we’ve made a few times and something we’ve learned the hard way. A few years ago when we started to expand beyond the ski bus, it was suggested that we should offer golf tours since we have some great courses in the region and it would certainly appeal to our guests. To this day we have yet to sell a golf tour.
What we realized afterward is that nobody on our team was passionate about golfing and our guests weren’t the one suggesting the new tours. We could have offered a good experience, taking care of the small details and making sure that every guest had a great day on the course. What we couldn’t do was get excited for the adventure because it never felt authentic. They weren’t wrong suggesting that there are opportunities for golf tours, it just didn’t line up with who we are.
The best way we’ve found is to start by asking ourselves why us? Why should we be the ones offering this new experience? Before we can answer those questions, we need to spend some time looking why we do what we do.
The beauty of an evening in the countryside
Your purpose is what defines why you do what you do and how you do it. It is what connects you with your ideal guests and differentiates you from the competition. In our case, our purpose is:
To inspire you to play outside and help you experience your adventure so that you can discover the people, food and natural beauty of the region.
Defining your purpose and developing experiences this way takes more work, at least upfront, but starting with purpose allows you to create experiences that are authentic and that will resonate with your ideal guests. There are some great resources, like the book Find Your Why, available to help you define your purpose. A short term option that will help you find a starting point is to combine your mission and vision statements to identify why you do what you do. For example, the Waskasoo Environmental Education Society (WEES) vision statement is:
A community that values and cares for its natural and cultural heritage.
Their mission statement is:
Our mission is to engage our community in our natural environment and cultural heritage through interpretation and education.
Based on these statements, we get a glimpse of why they exist as well as the impact of what they do. A purpose statement should be simple, actionable and focused on how it will contribute to others. For example, WEES purpose may be:
To engage our community in our natural environment and cultural heritage so that our community gains an appreciation for the benefits of natural and cultural heritage.
Defining your why is something that you only need to do for your first experience. You’ll refine the wording over time but since your purpose is the core of who you are as an organization it shouldn’t change based on trends or market conditions.
Your purpose provides the first check to see if a new experience is something you should offer. In our case, an experience must tie in with the outdoors and a sense of adventure to be considered. It must leave the guests feeling like they have a new connection with our region, especially its people, food and natural beauty. If the new experience doesn’t do this then it’s probably best to let someone else offer it.
Now that we’ve established why we do what we do, it’s time to look at how we do it.
Conversations with a local beer judge
Roasting marshmallows on the fire
Enjoying the sight of pelicans on the Red Deer River
The purpose answers why we do what we do. How we do it is defined by the values and principles that guide our actions on a daily basis. This is what truly differentiates our experiences from similar ones offered by other operators or destinations. This is the answer to the “what makes this your experience” question.
This step helps define what you stand for and also helps limit things that would be out of character if you offered them. It’s important to write these as actionable items rather than a list of aspirational values likes excellence, innovation or collaboration. General terms like this don’t drive action nor do they provide clear direction. Instead, state them in a way that every team member knows what’s expected of them.
Defining these takes work upfront but will make it easier to build authentic experiences moving forward. Start by looking at how you operate, what are the non-negotiable principles that drive all your experiences? Ask your staff what matters most to them since many of those shared values are the reasons why they’ve chosen to work with you in the first place. This should give you a fairly long list as a starting point. Then eliminate or expand on generic values, those ideas that are great but not defined in a way that allows everybody to know what they need to do. Group the remaining ideas along themes until you have 3 to 5 core principles emerge.
The most difficult part is having the discipline to always follow these and to turn down opportunities for new partnerships or experiences if they don’t align with your guiding principles. This is our list:
Get lost in the moment: Fun, shared experiences combined with breathtaking landscapes and amazing people create moments that naturally immerse us, making it easy to forget about daily life.
Simple is better: Life isn’t that complicated. Celebrate the simple pleasures, the raw beauty of nature and the connections with people you meet along the way.
Embrace the unexpected: Going on an adventure off the beaten path means that things are less structured. The best moments happen when you leave the checklist behind to create your own path.
Do the right thing: Caring for the environment and each other is not a trend, it’s part of living. Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures. Collect memories, not things.
Focus on the long term: Build relationships and memories that last. Taking the time to enjoy the journey will transform you.
Your guiding principles define how you deliver experiences. When you are considering a new experience, ask yourself if you can offer it within those constraints. For us it means that we avoid fabricated experiences or staging Instagram moments and instead look for locations that naturally provide these. It means that we build our tours for guests looking for deeper connections rather than those looking to complete a must-see list. If an experience doesn’t align with your guiding principles then it’s probably best to let someone else offer it.
What you do is the one thing that will change over time. These are the products your guests will purchase. The reason they are purchasing them from you is what brings all your products together: your purpose and guiding principles.
When looking at building a new experience, ask yourself where it fits within your existing product line-up. Adding a new product category requires more investment, is this something you’re willing to take on at this point?
This is what we do: We’re an independent, locally owned tour company established in 2010 and based in Red Deer, Alberta. We craft a variety of outstanding experiences that showcase our passions and the region.
These are our product categories:
Influenced by the outdoors and outdoor culture, we offer adventures throughout Central Alberta and beyond that showcase breathtaking places and amazing people. Whether it’s a winter sightseeing tour exploring the ice bubbles of Abraham Lake, sharing the story behind local food or spending an evening snowshoeing under the stars, we’re here to help you experience your adventure.
We offer a collection of scheduled tours as the Explorer Series, full and half day adventures available on demand, and custom itineraries with local partners for individuals and groups of all sizes.
Food is part of all great adventures. It keeps us fuelled on the trail, helps us slow down to enjoy the moment over lunch, and gives us an excuse to get together and share the memories we’ve made along the way. Pursuit Provisions features some of our favourite outdoor inspired food like handcrafted ice pops, marshmallows, graham crackers, hot chocolate, granola, soups and more.
Basecamp + Cafe
Our basecamp in Red Deer brings together outdoor inspired food, gear sales and rentals along with tour bookings under one roof in a place designed to encourage exploring the region.
Explore Central Alberta
Our website for guests looking for a self-guided adventure in the region. Working with other local experts, we offer detailed trail guides and itineraries, recommendations for experiences that will appeal to our guests and meet their expectations along with an easier way to book adventures offered by the other great providers based in the region.
Crafting Outstanding Experiences
Our way of sharing some of the things we’ve learned along the way. The blog features behind the scenes stories on how we build experiences and our way to help others develop memorable experiences for our guests to enjoy when they visit the region.
Guests enjoying a Nordegg mine tour
Pursuit Provision’s ice pops
Siffleur Falls: our most popular trail guide
Operational Requirements and Guide Training
Unlike purpose, values and guiding principles, operational requirements and guide training tend to change over time. It evolves as new rules are put in place by outside agencies and it gets refined as we continue to grow.
We prefer to identify these upfront, at the company level, instead of waiting until the planning stage. We find the constraints help us be more creative by forcing us to look at alternatives, potential partners and other solutions at the same time as we dream up what a new tour could look like. Others prefer to brainstorm ideas without constraints and both options can work, just make sure to take these into considerations before you finalize your plans.
Operational requirements include things like permits, licenses, logs and risk management. These are not the most exciting part of dreaming up a new experience but it is critical to consider them in the process. They do put contraints around what kind of experiences you can build in the short term and in some cases make experiences not financially viable. It’s better to find those roadblocks early in the process rather than after spending resources building a new tour.
One area that often complicates things and is usually overlooked is including alcohol or food on a tour. Something as simple as including a picnic lunch on a tour may require you to obtain a food handling permit from Alberta Health Services to ensure that the food is stored and transported in a safe manner before you offer it to your guests. We found out earlier that including any alcohol, even samples at a brewery tour, would have resulted in our insurance coverage being cancelled. Working with our insurance broker we were able to find coverage to include alcohol in certain tours, like our Raft + Craft Beer adventure. Making those changes often takes time, and can delay new experiences by a year in some cases.
Guide training on the other hand covers the technical certifications or training our guides must have along with setting the tone for how we deliver experiences across all our activities. Like operational requirements, training needs can limit some of the new adventures we can offer in the short term. Guide training focuses on combining four main categories:
- a coaching approach to ensure the guests have the technical skills required for the activity;
- an interpretive approach to create a sense of place and connection;
- a safety first approach to create a safe and inclusive environment; with
- sustainable practices, attention to details and great customer service.
Guiding and Technical Skills
The guiding style you choose defines the interactions between the guide and the guests in many ways. Different situations require a different guiding style and each has its own benefits. The challenge is to find the right balance between sharing information as a sage on the stage versus giving opportunities for the guests to experiment as a guide on the side. When developing new experiences for a closed environment (e.g. a historic site, museum or nature centre) you can define in your script and which approach will be used at various parts of the program. In an open environment (e.g. hiking trail or paddling on a river) it is possible to plan which approach may be used but the guide needs a deeper understanding of the various approaches so that they can choose the best method based on the current conditions and the skill levels of the guests.
We find that for our activities and guests a combination of direct instruction, demonstrations and guided discovery creates the best experience. Direct instruction leads to the best short term performance in situations where you need the guests to do as directed. This is a great way to introduce a new activity when time is limited or to guide a guest through a challenging situation. Demonstrations involve showing the guests how to do something and work best for specific skills, like how to put on snowshoes. Guided discovery allows the guest to discover for themselves through trial and error. It leads to the best long term learning when balanced with the other guiding styles to create an appropriate challenge level. The most important step in guided discovery is to debrief with the guests along the way so that they have an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned.
Knowing which guiding styles your guides have experience with will make it easier to build an itinerary for the new experience. For example, using direct instruction tends to take less time than guided discovery, allowing you to plan your timing accordingly. It will also help create consistency in the delivery of the experiences by the guides if similar methods are used.
Each activity requires certifications or in-house training for technical skills like hiking, paddling or snowshoeing. Most of these will be required by your insurance company and permitting agencies like Parks Canada or Alberta Parks. Creating a list of the minimum requirements for the activities you offer and keep a list of the certifications or experiences your guides have makes it easier to determine how quickly you can bring a new experience to market.
Interpretation is a broad term with varied meanings. In our context we look at interpretation as a way to create connections with the place and people rather than as an education goal. We look for facts and stories that appeal to our guests while giving a sense of the past, present and future as we explore the region.
One of the best resources on using stories and the hero’s journey as a way to engage the guests with the facts is Resonate by Nancy Duarte. It is a book about designing better presentations but offers some great advice that can be applied to weaving stories into a tour.
We’ll discuss story development later on, but similar to identifying your guiding style, choosing an interpretive approach will help define what makes an experience yours.
Safety and Risk Management
Understanding the regulations, rules and policies before starting the experience development process helps reduce issues later on. The process can be quite complex with information hard to find, especially information specific to the tours and activities sector. Some of the areas with regulations we often encounter for our tours include:
- Municipalities: each municipality has different business license requirements and different bylaws in regards to using local parks for experiences;
- Alberta Environment & Parks: a guiding permit is required for any activity on lands controlled by Alberta Parks and a Temporary Field Authorization from Alberta Environment may be required if you offer an experience on public lands;
- Parks Canada: a business license and/or guiding permit is required if you operate inside a National Park;
- Occupational Health & Safety Regulations: sets minimum requirements for guide safety including harassment prevention, working over water, working on ice, fall risk and exposure to inclement weather;
- Alberta Transportation: various requirements when transporting guests including driver training, national safety certificates, operating authorities and insurance requirements;
- Transport Canada: specific requirements for guided tours in canoes, kayaks, SUPs and rafts;
- Alberta Health Services: a food handling or mobile vending permit may be required if you offer any food on your tours;
- Alberta Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis: various rules may apply if you intend to include alcohol in any of your experiences;
- Insurance company: your insurance company will have specific requirements and restrictions on what you can do, often exceeding the requirements set forth by the groups listed above; and
- Industry standards: guide certifications groups (e.g. Paddle Canada, Outdoor Council of Canada) and established industry practices also need to be followed.
Navigating these requirements is frustrating, especially since many have requirements that are slightly different and in some cases contradict each other. Finding information is difficult and often written for other industries. Knowing these upfront however will save you a lot of headaches later on in the development of your new experience.
Establishing a risk management plan is a requirement under OH&S regulations and is usually required by insurance companies and public land administrators. Engaging the guides in the development of the safety programs helps create a safer environment for all and will make it easier to identify new risks when developing experiences.
Think about the small details that bring the experience together for your guests. These are the things you want to keep consistent across all your experiences, bringing your guiding principles to life.
When we look at sustainability we aim to do the best we can within our resources, without being preachy. We don’t idle vehicles, except when using them as warming shelters on very cold days. We use re-usable cutlery and containers whenever possible and the best alternative when we must use disposable. We serve lunch picnic style to reduce food waste whenever possible. All of this is done as part of normal operations because it’s the right thing to do. Rather than teaching our guests we show them how it is just part of life and how easily it can be incorporated into their own life.
We avoid takeaways but rather take the time to connect with the guests on a personal level. We use first names, take the time to get to know the guests and create moments, often over hot chocolate, that allows for reflection on their adventure. This gives us an opportunity to reinforce memories without using swag or other items as souvenirs.
We look for experiences that have an active component and that can engage the senses without fabricating a hands-on moment.
These are some of the elements of the guest experience we want to include in all of our tours and activities. Defining those at the high level before creating a new experiences helps to determine if it’s a fit for us and in deciding how to best deliver it.
The badlands at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park
The yellow fields of canola
Mount Michener and Abraham Lake
Should we offer this experience here? Sometimes the answer is obvious but most of the time it takes some work to decide.
The first step is identifying your destination’s essence, or Place DNA as Destination Think defines it. This is similar to your purpose and will once again help you identify experiences that can be authentic and create a sense of place for your guests.
Our focus is on Central Alberta, a place of amazing contrasts, from the majestic rockies to the badlands and the parkland, from rural to urban, all within a short scenic drive. We believe that Central Alberta is a truly amazing place, with outstanding experiences to be shared with our guests. It’s still a little rough along the edges, making it hard sometimes for our visitors to see what we see, but with potential for new experiences that connect the people, food and natural beauty of the region.
We’re working with fantastic partners and discovering new ones on a regular basis. Our other site, explorecentralalberta.ca, brings together a lot of options when building a new experience.
Putting This Into Practice
All of this takes time and work. On the positive side, once it’s done it gives us a much clearer picture of what type of experiences will be best aligned with who we are and our destinations. Tours that align this way sell better, create deeper connections with the guests and are a whole lot more fun to deliver.
This should be reviewed from time to time to see if anything has changed. It’s tempting to skip this step and jump right into identifying target markets, partnership opportunities and new experiences but we’ve learned from our mistakes that it’s better not to…
That being said, we know that this approach takes more time upfront and isn’t the only way to create memorable experiences. For larger operators in once in a lifetime destinations, we’ve often seen manipulations like using takeaways to increase pricing, special offers to display value, stoking the fear of missing out, tapping into the guest’s aspirations, creating a sense of peer pressure and exclusivety, and focusing on trends and novelty work very well, especially in the short term.
The next step is to look at who our ideal guests, what we have in common with them and why they might be interested in the experiences we have to offer.