Wildflowers and waterfalls in Resolute Meadows
Before we can define what makes an adventure ours, we need to take a look at our context and how we approach experiences.
We are an inbound adventure travel company. Unfortunately, that means something different to each person. Here’s what we mean by that and how it compares with tourism and the outdoor industries in general.
In This Section
This is part of the guidelines we follow when developing new experiences, our way of making sure that they are uniquely ours. Find out more and view the full document here.
From the tour: An Evening on the Farm
Hot chocolate on the ice bubbles
Icefalls on the Cline River Canyon
Tourism brings up the image of big buses and resorts for many. There is a market and place for mass tourism like this but that’s not what we do. Our focus is on small groups of less than 12 guests per guide with activities that allow enough time for meaningful connections to be made.
What we do falls within experiential travel, a sector of tourism that has grown and moved beyond a niche market in the last 20 years but that has been around for centuries. In many ways, it is the modern art of ancient travel.
Experiential travel is a collection of memorable activities that create connections with place and people. What is memorable and how connections are made are inherently personal concepts, meaning that we need to have a clear understanding of who we are building the experience for if we are to succeed in creating something that is relevant and engaging for our guests.
Memories are created by the emotions we feel during the adventure, rather than by “doing” something. Engaging the senses and reflecting on what we’ve done are the two key elements that differentiate an experience from an activity.
Adventure travel is a type of experiential travel that includes at least two of the following three elements: physical activity, natural environment, and cultural immersion. It often involves some physical or mental exertion and a willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone.
Adventures are not necessarily about reaching summits and extreme conditions. The way we see it, adventures are about doing things that are new and different for each of us, doing things that can be a little scary but that also makes us curious to explore further.
Finally, inbound refers to our focus on sharing our region with visitors and locals rather than taking our guests on a journey to faraway lands.
Outdoor recreation and adventure travel are closely related. After all, adventures take all kinds of forms: taking a group for a walk through an urban park or an interpretive hike, heading out on a snowshoe tour, and many other activities. Our focus is on organized activities, either led by a guide or self-guided by the guest with some logistical or planning assistance along the way.
Other sectors of outdoor recreation and adventure programming we share a lot with include:
- outdoor recreation: recreational activities undertaken for pleasure that generally involve some level of intentional physical exertion and occur in nature-based environments outdoors.
- outdoor education: experiential learning in, for, or about the outdoors.
- environmental education: a process that allows individuals to explore environmental issues, engage in problem-solving and take action to improve the environment.
- adventure therapy: using the natural environment to help individuals overcome cognitive, behavioural, social, and affective disorders.
All of these have the power to transform participants. The difference is on what we aim to change. Recreation usually focuses on the physical activity (e.g. fitness or technical skills), education aims to change the way people think, therapy how they behave and adventure tourism how people feel and connect with place and people.
Sometimes a distinction is made between outdoor recreation and adventure tourism based on how far the guests have travelled to participate. We find that a focus on distance is unnecessary. Tourism is simply being outside of our usual environment, an escape from the day-to-day. Our best adventures appeal to locals and visitors alike, where they live is a distinction without a difference.
It took us a long time to find a way to describe our approach to adventure and business. The best we’ve found so far is the concept of finite and infinite games, as described by James Carse and more recently Simon Sinek.
A finite approach focuses on manipulations like price, promotions, fear, aspiration, peer pressure and novelty. It’s a theatrical approach, requiring an audience and performed according to a script. This is the approach made popular by Pine & Gilmore in their book The Experience Economy.
An infinite mindset, on the other hand, starts with a cause that others want to support, allowing us to work together toward a common objective. Short term goals and metrics become focused around getting better at what we do as we work toward our bigger cause, which by definition will never be fully achieved.
This approach is like a living drama. The guests are active participants, choosing to live their own adventure. The role of the guide is to be a trusted mentor, empowering the guests to answer the call to adventure by providing guidance, confidence, insights, advice or training. The transformation happens within the guest who is the hero of our adventure.
The infinite approach is at the core of everything we do, from developing new adventures to sharing stories.
The Retail Approach
This is the finite approach, the traditional experience development model based on Pine & Gilmore’s The Experience Economy.
It’s a great option for many, especially those in mass tourism looking for a short term solution to capitalize on trends.
It also works great for those operating in closed environments like nature centres, museums and sites or those delivering interpretive programming.
This approach gives products a special event feel, creating excitement around each offering.
It usually starts with identifying, based on trends, a new product idea or a new market. In some cases we may be looking at combining the two, attempting to reach a new market with a new product.
Through scripts and manipulations we connect the market with the product. In this case manipulations are not necessarily negative, but they are effective mostly in the short term. These include price, promotions, fear, aspiration, peer pressure and novelty. Gamification, the addition of take-aways or partners to increase the price, exclusive access, playing up the fear of missing out, and the focus on new experiences are common in tourism.
The guest is at the centre of the experience but in this context the focus is on what we want them to do.
Pros and Cons
The biggest advantage is that this is an easy approach to implement. It is based on business practices that are familiar to many and can be implemented as a somewhat simple recipe. This also makes it easier to find guides, since training can easily be standardized.
Because of the focus on manipulations like novelty, the fear of missing out and behind the scene access this is not a sustainable approach. We need to constantly re-invent products, making this an expensive approach in the long run.
Similarly, adding takeaways and partners is an easy way to show added value to justify a higher price point. This, combined with the need for novelty, creates a commodification cycle that requires to either replace elements of the tour on a regular basis or rely on promotions and discounts.
This is a great approach for mass tourism but leads to superficial encounters. It often leads to tours that promote travelling like a local but with the tour having little appeal to locals.
The Infinite Approach
We agree that we need a better name for this approach. Purpose based, infinite and transformational don’t bring up the right picture.
That aside, we find that this approach works best for organizations focused on the long term with a clear purpose that goes beyond short term profits.
It works best in the open environments that are common in adventure travel where the guides must have the competency required to go beyond a script as they adapt to the changing conditions.
The first step is knowing who we are and our destination’s sense of place. It’s about asking ourselves why we should be the ones to offer this product here.
The next step is to identify how we operate. It’s time to define our guiding principles, operating requirements and the other details needed to create a memorable experience.
Once we have this foundation in place, it’s time to connect with guests who align with our purpose. Having a clear understanding of who we are makes this part easy.
Finally, we can work on what is the best option that solves our guests’ needs while meeting our goals.
The guest is also at the centre of the experience in this approach. In this case it starts with empathy, looking at the experience from the guest’s perspective and considering how we can help them with their adventure.
Pros and Cons
It is a lot more work upfront to create this type of experience. However, once the hard work is done, the clarity it provides makes creating and adapting experiences much easier.
The experiences created this way have a timeless appeal to them but this approach makes it harder to capitalize on trends and short term opportunities.
Finding guides is harder and new guides require more training before they acquire the skills required to go beyond the script. At the same time, guides are attracted to organizations that share their cause. This improves guide engagement and retention in the longer term.
There is no recipe to follow. This makes the process appear daunting at first and harder for established businesses to make the leap. At the same time, it seems to be a more natural approach for most adventure companies we have worked with.
The Adventure Model
What makes an adventure? Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends”. Each adventure is unique. That means that there isn’t a list of elements that when combined together guarantees you’ll have a successful experience to offer.
There are however some things we need to consider, some questions we need to ask ourselves and constraints we need to include in our plans.
These are the elements we bring together to create the adventure. This is not about a list of things that must be included, but rather about asking ourselves a series of questions to determine which options will best work together.
Before we can build an adventure, we first need to know who we are. This goes beyond answering what it is we do. It’s about understanding why we do it and the principles that define how we deliver those experiences, in other words, our purpose as an organization. Being clear on our purpose helps us attract the guests who will most appreciate what we offer.
This gives us the foundation to then define the adventure we want to create, starting with the guest as the hero of their own adventure. Understanding their needs, combined with our knowledge of the activities and destination allows us to set the theme for the adventure. That theme is part of the journey, connecting each stage as one adventure.
Defining the journey requires empathy. We need to look at the adventure from the guests’ perspective, considering what they want rather than what we want them to do.
At its core, adventure is about sharing moments. For this to happen, we need to ensure that we have the right activity, challenge level and setting for our adventure. Once this is in place we can focus on the type of moments we want to create, whether they are goosebump, aha, pride or connection moments.
The stories we share help give those moments meaning and create stronger connections. We use the word story loosely, referring to communication that is designed to interest, entertain or teach. Stories have the power to draw us in, creating an emotional connection with the facts presented.
This requires us to set up a safe environment, physically and emotionally. Physical safety is usually top of mind when talking about outdoor adventure and it is widely covered through risk management plans as well as under occupational health and safety legislation.
Going outside of our daily lives is mentally demanding and requires a level of trust between the guest and the guide. Creating a safe environment allows the guests to focus on the task at hand and to enter a state of flow that is conducive to enjoying the moments.
Creating a safe environment means a number of things, from showing inclusivity and diversity early on in the journey to ensuring that the guests have the information needed to be comfortable with their decision. This will vary from person to person.
It doesn’t mean removing all elements of challenge, risk or uncertainty. These are essential elements of an adventure. It is about setting expectations that are achievable, and as guides, it is our responsibility to be there for the guests to help them recover if they fail.
Finally, we need to consider the best ways to reinforce the memories. This can be done through a more in-depth debrief or simply through a conversation over hot chocolate at the end of the tour, sharing the highlights and surprises of the day. This is the step that makes a collection of activities into an experience.
Destination and Product Experiences
The word “experiences” is used to mean a number of different things in tourism. One distinction we need to make is in regards to a destination experience versus a product experience.
Destination experiences are itineraries or packages that include multiple operators. They may be loosely coordinated by a destination organization, or fully managed by experience providers working together or a tour operator.
Product experiences, on the other hand, are the individual activities available to visitors. They are typically offered by a single operator or in close partnership between operators to create a unified guest experience.
Both types of experiences share similar elements but the development process is quite different. Our focus is on product experiences with the overall destination experience providing the context along the guest journey.
When planning adventures we need to account for the four constraints: authenticity, desirability, feasibility and viability. All four of them are needed to create a successful experience but in our interactions with guests, authenticity and desirability are the two we need to consider most.
Understanding these constraints allows us to be more creative in the design process and ensures that the new adventure can be successful.
Failing to address any of the constraints will result in an experience that will feel disconnected, which will be unsustainable, which will result in financial losses or in an experience that we will be unable to take to market.
Sometimes an experience isn’t right for the place, the provider or simply at this point in time. Identifying this allows us to keep a list of ideas to revisit from time to time or to share with other operators before investing our time, energy and resources into developing it.
So, what makes an adventure authentic? Authenticity happens when we are being true to ourselves. Unlike the experience, which comes from within the guest, authenticity comes from the operator, the destination, the guides and the partners involved in the delivery of the experience.
Authenticity is a fairly simple concept when you look at it this way. It means being true to one’s own character: the things we say and the things we do are what we actually believe.
What does it mean in practice? It means that everything we do is grounded in our purpose and guiding principles.
The destination’s sense of place is more subjective. We don’t need to worry about everything it could be or what it means for others, but rather we need to focus on where it aligns with our purpose and what we love to share about it.
Asking ourselves “why us?” and “why here?” is the easiest way to ensure that we remain true to ourselves and our destination.
A desirable adventure is one that meets the needs of the guests while having a positive impact, or at least minimizing negative consequences, on the local community and environment.
What does it mean in practice? We follow our guiding principle that caring for the environment and each other is not a trend, it’s part of living. We use an approach of normalizing actions like reducing idle time on vehicles, using reusable or compostable containers, and following Leave no Trace principles. Our guests notice those things without us having to tell them.
We also embrace the fact that anything we do in this regard will be imperfect. The goal is to do the best we can, given our resources and the reality we live in.
Can this experience be commercially viable? We need to look at whether this experience can generate a profit and if the investment required can be recouped. This includes looking at the market conditions, making sure that there is sufficient demand for this experience. If we are planning to work with the travel trade we need to take into consideration existing itineraries and whether this experience would be a match with their existing products.
In our experience working in developing destinations, it takes three seasons for a new product to reach viability. The first season sees mostly returning guests and visitors who are already familiar with the destination. The second season builds on these early adopters attracting their friends and family through word of mouth. The third season starts to see enough momentum to attract guests who are new to us or the destination.
We need to consider whether it is feasible within our current operations or if it requires major changes. Do we have the right permits, insurance and qualified staff to deliver it? It’s important to also consider the resources needed and how the new adventure will impact our regular operations. Should this be an experience offered on a regular basis or as a special event?
Paradigm Shift – Theatre or Drama?
“Thus, no two people can have the same experience, because each experience derives from the interaction between the staged event (like a theatrical play) and the individual’s state of mind.” – Pine and Gilmore
The theatre metaphor is used throughout Pine and Gilmore’s work and has become a common tool in experience development.
In the retail approach the guests participate in a series of scripted activities. The role of the guide is to direct the play, either directly as a sage on the stage or indirectly as a guide on the side.
As we move toward the transformation economy in Pine and Gilmore’s paradigm this means that we continue with the manipulative approach, applying changes from the outside rather than instilling them within the guest.
In this approach we shift within the paradigm of goods and services to experiences and transformation.
It seems fitting that James Carse also used theatre as a metaphor in his 1986 book, Finite and Infinite Games. In his view, finite games are theatrical. They require an audience and are performed according to a script. Infinite games, on the other hand, are like a living drama. They are enacted in the moment and involve the participants in the process.
In this scenario the guests are active participants, choosing to live their own adventure. The role of the guide is to be a trusted mentor, empowering the guests to answer the call to adventure by providing guidance, confidence, insights, advice or training.
In a dramatic approach, the transformation happens within the guest, the hero of our adventure. This requires a change of paradigm, a different way to look at the familiar.