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 tourism company. Unfortunately, that means something different to each person. Here’s what we mean by that and how it compares with tourism, outdoor recreation and interpretation.
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 is simply being outside of our usual environment, an escape from the day-to-day. It can be in a foreign destination or simply exploring our region.
For most people, the word tourism brings up the image of big buses and resorts. There is a market and place for mass tourism like this but that’s not what we do. Our focus is on small groups with activities that allow enough time for meaningful connections to be made. That’s partly why our adventures appeal to locals and visitors alike.
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 tourism 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 the guests are if we are to succeed in creating something that is relevant and engaging for them. Engaging the senses and reflecting on what we’ve done are the two key elements that differentiate an experience from an activity.
Adventure tourism 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.
In other words, adventure tourism is about crafting moments that create connections with place and people for the guests.
The way we see it, adventures are not necessarily about reaching summits and extreme conditions. 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.
Another type of tourism that is related to adventure travel is ecotourism. While both share a setting in nature and responsible tourism objectives, the difference is in their purpose with ecotourism being travel for the specific purpose of visiting pristine, fragile and relatively undisturbed natural environments.
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 tourism are closely related. After all, most adventures involve outdoor activities. While outdoor recreation is often thought of as the activities people do on their own, our focus is on organized activities, either led by a guide or self-guided by the guest with some logistical or planning assistance from us along the way.
Sectors of the outdoor industry and adventure programming we share a lot with include outdoor recreation, outdoor education, environmental education and adventure therapy.
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 focuses on how guests feel and connect with the place and people.
Interpretation is another sector that is often associated with adventure tourism. Like outdoor recreation, interpretive activities are often part of adventure tourism. The difference is once again one of purpose where interpretation aims to reveal meaning and to enhance the participants’ appreciation for the cultural and natural heritage.
A Purpose Based Approach
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 on 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. We refer to it as a purpose-based approach.
The Retail Approach
This is the finite approach, the traditional experience development framework based on Pine & Gilmore’s The Experience Economy. We also refer to this one as the spreadsheet approach since it tends to be very quantitative in how experiences are defined.
It’s a great option for many, especially those in mass tourism looking for a short-term solution to capitalize on trends. It can also work great for those operating in closed environments like nature centres, museums and historic 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 all 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 either replacing elements of the tour on a regular basis or relying 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 tourism 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 as an organization 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 Framework
Most experience development frameworks we’ve come across were designed for closed environments like historic sites, organizations with a broad mandate like parks, special events or the retail approach. Over the years we’ve developed our own framework, based on our experience offering purposed-based adventures.
This brings together the elements we consider when crafting an adventure. It’s not a list of things that must be included but rather a series of questions we ask ourselves.
We’ll briefly discuss the elements of the framework here and then go into more details on how we implement them. This is only an introduction, we’re working on sharing more in-depth details through our guide training workshops.
The first step is to take a look at the guests as the hero of their own adventure. Understanding their needs, motivations and interests helps us create an adventure that will appeal to them. At this stage we start to consider the whole of their journey, which starts long before they join us in person.
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.
Next, we need to define the adventure’s purpose. It’s similar to the vision, theme or big idea that other frameworks use. The questions we ask ourselves are why do we want to offer this adventure, what are the problems we’re solving from the guests’ perspective and how might we help them.
The other overarching element is choosing the settings. That includes the location, the season, the time of day and the type of product (e.g. rentals, full-day tour, package, etc).
Once we have these in place it’s time to tackle the building blocks of the adventure. That’s where the smaller details come together to create the connections with place and people.
For this to happen, we need to ensure that we have the right activities for our adventure. Once this is in place we can focus on the type of moments we want to create, whether they are goosebumps, aha, pride or connection moments.
The stories we share help give those moments meaning and provide context for the adventure. We use the word story loosely, referring to communication that has 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. 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.
The logistics cover all the work that’s done behind the scene to create the experience for the guests, the customer service and the small details that have a large impact.
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.
The Adventure Framework we use to craft and facilitate our experiences.
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.
The other aspects we’ve been trying to incorporate into how we craft adventures are the elements that are bigger than a single tour. These are the things, company-wide and external, that need to align for us to build a successful experience.
We found that other experience development frameworks addressed these late in the process, if at all, or as a layer to be added on to appeal to customers. We see these as core to everything we do.
Those familiar with design thinking will recognize desirability, feasibility and viability as key constraints of product development. We find that adding authenticity as a separate constraint helps us stay focused in our context.
Understanding these constraints early on in the planning stages 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 adventure 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.
The constraints that need to be addressed for a successful adventure.
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. Let’s take a look at each component needed.
The elements of an authentic experience.
The Organization’s Purpose
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 along with guides and partners whose motivations align with ours.
We come back to our purpose as we craft and facilitate an adventure to make sure that everything we do is aligned.
Applying Our Guiding Principles
These are some of the things to consider when crafting or facilitating adventures to ensure that they are authentic to us.
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.
- Create moments that make guests forget about the outside world by focusing on the positive.
- Create moments people enjoy first, then want to share as a result of the experience.
- Build in time to enjoy the natural beauty, allow the guests the freedom to experience on their own.
- Build programs around digital detox, disconnect in nature or nature deficit disorder.
- Create moments designed to be shared rather than experienced. Instead of fabricating “Instagram moments”, choose locations where they happen organically instead.
- Create itineraries with a strict schedule where each element must happen for the experience to be complete.
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.
- Add value by constantly getting better at what we do, delivering great experiences.
- Use as few ingredients as possible, serve food family style and allow conversations to happen.
- Use props, a fabricated environment or elements (visual, sounds, smell, touch) that distract from the natural beauty.
- Add features (takeaways, experience elements, partnerships, ingredients, etc) for the purpose of increasing price or showing additional value.
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.
- Celebrate the imperfect: whiteout conditions, cloudy days, rain, snow, wind, cold, etc.
- Keep itineraries flexible to allow time to personalize the tour and adapt to conditions.
- Sell tours based on “must-see” lists, unrealistic expectations or perfect conditions.
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.
- Lead by example, demonstrate what we do instead of talking about it.
- Engage in meaningful discussions led by guests.
- Accept that we can’t do everything we would like, do the best we can with the resources we have.
- Be preachy, condescending or academic when discussing environmental or societal issues.
- Greenwash and virtue signal. Focus on what we are actually doing instead by demonstrating it.
Focus on the long term
Build relationships and memories that last. Taking the time to enjoy the journey will transform you.
- Focus on the journey. Celebrate milestones and small successes along the way.
- Get to know the guests on a personal level. It’s about them, not us.
- Focus on the destination: the summit, the viewpoint, etc.
- Make the story about us or our partners. The adventure is about the hero, our guests. We play a supporting role.
The Guide’s Motivations
The staff are the ones interacting with the guests, and in our context have to be able to make decisions as they go to create memorable experiences. We can’t rely on a script and that’s why it’s so important that their motivations as mentors to our guests align with ours.
Most of this is handled at the hiring, training and company culture level but when crafting an adventure we need to make sure that we have the right guides to facilitate it.
The Destination’s Sense of Place
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.
In our case, it’s about the natural beauty of the region, its history and the people making it a special place. It’s a different kind of Rockies experience where nightlife means campfires and starry skies.
Our best trails are often unmarked, sometimes even missing from the maps. Adventures off the beaten path take a little more effort, but the rewards are well worth it: stunning canyons, incredible peaks, glaciers, amazing rivers and the ice bubbles of Abraham Lake.
Our region is a little more rugged than the nearby National Parks to the west or Central Alberta to the east, but that’s part of the charm for those who love an adventure.
The question becomes simple: does the adventure represent the place?
The Partner’s Motivations
Partners, collaborators, stakeholders, team members… We have not found a word that properly describes what we mean here, other than everybody who is involved in making the adventure a reality.
Some of these are true partners, involved in various aspects of developing, marketing and facilitating the experience. Others, like land managers, are usually involved in an indirect manner, even if they sometimes have a large impact on the adventure offered.
Each of those partners has different reasons why they are involved and different priorities. Understanding their motivations is critical to creating a successful adventure.
In some cases we have a choice of partners. Understanding our purpose, the destination’s sense of place and the adventure’s purpose helps us find the right partners.
In other cases, especially for regulatory partners, we have no choice. In those cases, understanding their objectives can help us create an adventure they can approve.
Using a stakeholder map like the one on the next page helps us identify all the partners involved. The inner-circle represents our partners who are directly involved in the adventure. The outer-circle are those who are indirectly involved, for example the land manager issuing a permit or the Destination Management Organizations (DMO) promoting a tour.
We use six categories to help us ensure that we have identified all partners. Delivery partners and suppliers include our guides as well as lodging, logistics and experience providers. Sales and guest experts are those working directly with guests at the planning and booking stages. Marketing partners include our staff, DMOs and creators. Regulatory partners include everybody who has to approve or grant permission for the adventure. These include land managers, property owners and insurance companies. Communities and user groups cover other users of the area that we need to work with as well as partners that could be involved in delivering the adventure but who are not doing it on a commercial basis. Finally, experience development partners are our staff crafting new adventures and the support organizations like consultants and economic development officers.
Having the partners identified and their motivations understood early on allows us to create an authentic experience. It also plays a key role in ensuring that we can provide a safe adventure, that all aspects of the guest experience are covered and that we provide consistent messages throughout the journey.
Once we’ve considered each component of authenticity, asking ourselves “why us?” and “why here?” is the easiest way to ensure that we craft authentic adventures.
The stakeholder map.
Partnerships and The Visitor Economy
In many cases, vertical integration provides a better guest experience by having one company controlling all aspects of the adventure. That’s why we chose to expand with the Nordegg Canteen so that all the food for our tours could be done in-house. It’s also why we have invested our resources in developing explorenordegg.ca to provide a more cohesive experience for our guests.
That being said, there are many cases where partnerships make more sense and where working with others creates the best experience for our guests. One of those is where our limited resources, interests and expertise make it better to partner with others who can deliver a higher quality product than we could. This is also true when other experience providers can bring a different perspective that complements our adventures and further enhance the destination experience for our guests.
There are three types of partnerships we usually do. The first one is with suppliers or marketing partners. These are usually operators offering their own experience we can resell, package with our products, or work with to promote various itineraries. It’s a similar relationship with destination management organizations where we can collaborate with their campaigns.
The second type is the “guest star” partner. This may be a supplier offering a customized tour as part of one of our adventures. It may also be a guest guide, like an artist, chef or other local storyteller joining us for a special tour. These types of partnerships work best for special events and one-off tours.
Finally, in some cases, we may co-create and/or co-deliver a tour with another provider. Partnerships like these require a lot more work to plan and on an ongoing basis to maintain a high-quality standard.
Each of these types of partnerships requires an increasing level of alignment between partners. Understanding our purpose helps us find the right partners in the same way that it helps us connect with our ideal guests.
At the local level that means celebrating and including other providers that appeal to our guests and provide a consistently great experience. Some of these include the Girth Hitch Guiding, Rockies Heli Canada, Miners’ Cafe and Expanse Cottages.
At the regional level we continue to work with David Thompson Country, a collaboration of Clearwater County, the Town of Rocky Mountain House and the Village of Caroline, to promote the region. Their content tends to be more informational, filling a gap for visitors learning about the area. They have introduced us to many of our guests and are a great resource for guests looking at options to add to their itinerary.
Other communities like Jasper, Banff, Canmore, Sylvan Lake and Red Deer have the potential to play a bigger role as a basecamp for our guests or as part of an extended itinerary. Awareness of our region within these communities is still very limited however and interest from their DMOs limited.
At the provincial and national levels, Travel Alberta and Destination Canada play an important role in the early stages of our guests’ journey. While their content tends to be more trendy than our guests, the appeal of their inspirational content drives a number of bookings. We have had limited success sharing their content, instead we find that the best option is to provide them with current information about our adventures and supporting media visits.
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? First, it means that there needs to be a market for the adventure. We’ve identified who the hero is, our ideal guest, but we also need to consider if they are willing to pay for it and if the demand is high enough.
It also means following 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.
Finally, it means having a positive impact in our community by supporting like-minded organizations, encouraging our guests to further explore the region, making adventures inclusive and accessible while also working toward improving wages for our staff.
The last one is particularly challenging given the low margins in the hospitality and tourism industry. We need to balance charging for the true value of the adventure with maintaining a price point that is accessible to most. At the same time, organizations like Alberta Parks and nonprofits put downward pressure on prices by offering heavily subsidized programs. These programs have a similar impact on tours as fast-food chains have on restaurants; they create the expectation of prices that do not reflect the true cost or value of the products offered, most often at the expense of the staff providing the experience.
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.
This is an ongoing process that starts as soon as we start planning a new adventure and continues as we facilitate the experience.
We won’t go into the details of permits, regulations, insurance and staffing here since they tend to vary across the types of adventures we offer. The main ones we need to keep in mind include:
- OH&S legislation in general but also specifically for swiftwater, ice safety, fall prevention, personal protective equipment, risk management plans, first aid kits and emergency action plans;
- employment standards cover guides working hours and conditions;
- insurance policies restrict which activities are covered;
- Alberta Gaming Liquor Cannabis (AGLC) regulations apply to any tours that involve alcoholic beverages;
- Alberta Health Services regulations apply to any tours that involve food;
- civil law and industry standards set the standard of care;
- Transport Canada regulations apply to passenger vehicles in certain circumstances and to all paddling activities;
- Alberta Environment & Parks requires permits for guiding activities in protected areas and public land use zones;
- Alberta Transportation has regulations governing the transportation of passengers;
- local municipalities through bylaws and business licenses have requirements that apply to some tours; and
- the Outdoor Council of Canada’s Scope of Practice applies to our guides with a Field Leader certification.
We also need to consider whether we have the right equipment to offer this. Do we have enough snowshoes, vehicles or rafts? Do we need to add specialized equipment that can only be used for this tour or does it share an equipment pool that we already have?
Finally, we often overlook the impact that set up and tear down time has on the success of a tour. We’ve noticed over the years that tours that require a lot of effort to set the stage and transform the venue are less successful. This is in part due to staff preferring to promote tours that are less complicated and the challenge in having the pricing reflect the true costs of the adventure. In those circumstances it may be better to explore the idea of creating a special event instead of a tour.