Interview by Everett Potter
We’re giving away an amazing multi-sport trip with O.A.R.S. this month, to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks. if you haven’t entered yet, take a minute to do so,. And then read this interview with Steve Markle, Director of Sales & Marketing for the O.A.R.S. Family of Companies. He’s spent a decade with the company and is passionate about both conservation and adventure, leading O.A.R.S. into partnerships with environmental organizations and strategic partners around the world. He led O.A.R.S. into the world of social media long before the competition knew what a tweet was. Steve lives with his wife Nichole and their Son Preston in the Sierra Foothills overlooking the Stanislaus River Canyon in California. I’ve known Steve for years and we regularly run into each other at the Adventure Travel World Summit. He’s a busy guy and I caught up with him this morning.
EP: Rafting legend George Wendt founded O.A.R.S. more than 40 years ago, and still has a role in the company. But where do you, as the younger guy, see the rafting world in 2013?
SM: Aside from the pure enjoyment of getting repeatedly splashed in the face on a hot day, I still see rafting less as an adrenaline-inducing thrill ride and more as a means of access to some of the most untouched, pristine regions of the world. And, at the heart of the company, rafting is about exposing people to natural areas and inspiring them to care and take action for the future of wildness. River trips just have a way of taking people out of their comfort zone and removing all the distractions of daily life, which really opens the door for meaningful interactions with the natural world and their fellow travelers. I see river trips becoming increasingly popular as outfitters continue to raise the bar on comfort and more people seek to take a break from technology.
EP: Is adventure travel still a new experience for most guests or are you dealing with a clientele that needs new thrills and seems a bit jaded?
SM: A lot of the folks who join us have never been rafting before and many have never camped. It’s never gets old hearing about how people were scared of bugs, or whatever, before their trip and by the end of it, they’re sleeping under the stars outside of their tent. We have some veteran rafters too, but with some 30+ stretches of river and more than a dozen sea kayaking and multi-sport adventures around the world, we can always find something that will knock your socks off.
EP: How important are multi-sport trips to O.A.R.S., like the Yellowstone & Grand Teton Explorer that we’re giving away with you?
SM: By our standards, our Yellowstone operation is a pretty big piece of the puzzle. It gives us a solid foothold in two of the most popular national parks in the country, but what we offer is really unique. Generally people don’t think of Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks as good sea kayaking destinations, but it’s a great way to explore off the beaten path and away from the crowds. Like rafting, the boats are just the vehicle of access to some of the most extraordinary hikes and sites in the region and our small groups are ideal for exploring. And, generally, our multi-sport trips tend to attract a slightly younger, more active set of travelers, which gives us a great opportunity to introduce people to the world of O.A.R.S.
EP: There seems to be a big move to custom trips these past few years, trips where an extended family or a group of friends get together to raft or hike. What kind of numbers are we looking at – how many people do you need to make it cost effective, and what would a ballpark price per person be for a given trip?
SM: Indeed. We’re seeing more and more cases of grandparents booking trips for the entire family. Generally, you’re going to need to recruit 16-20 people to make it a private affair and prices will range from under $1,000/person to more than $2,000/person for a 5- or 6-day trip. However, in some cases we can bring our minimum number down to 10 or 12 people on a trip like the Rogue River in Oregon or our trips in Grand Teton National Park.
EP: You do sea kayaking trips as well, which people may now know about. Do you actually get to cover some distance on these trips?
SM: We do. On most of our sea kayaking trips we cover 5-8 miles/day at a pace of about 2-3 miles/hour. The rest of the time is generally spent exploring on foot and relaxing in camp, on a catamaran or in a family-owned inn.
EP: Your Crete sea kayaking trip looked pretty amazing to me. How tough is it, and are you staying in hotels on this one?
SM: Our Crete Sea Kayaking trip is pretty special and arguably one of our more active trips. We stay in local inns and eat at seaside tavernas while kayaking in crystal blue waters. This is the trip I’d like to take my wife on next…
EP: What do you think your most unsung destination is – anywhere on the planet?
SM: Fiji. It’s rafting in paradise with some of the friendliest guides on the planet. We employ exclusively native Fijians and compensate the community to help ensure the protection of the Upper Navua Conservation Area. This unique public-private partnership protects the UNCA from future logging or gravel extraction and, to date, the community has earned more than $1,000,000 through trip fees. It really is the model for ecotourism in the world today and I’m always surprised we don’t get more recognition from the travel press.
EP: Steve, let’s say I’ve done the Colorado River with O.A.R.S.. I want to do another rafting trip in the US with you guys, but what on earth could compare to doing the big one?
SM: I honestly think Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River is as good as it gets. Maybe I just prefer more mild summer temperatures, alpine scenery, crystal clear water, hot springs, wildlife and the nearly continuous whitewater, but I could run the Middle Fork over and over and it would never get old.
EP: Where are you looking next to expand to?
SM: We’ve got our eye on a new series of lodge-based river trips around the world that will include new adventures in Africa, Asia, Central America and South America.
EP: How about you own dream trip – where would you go tomorrow if you could?
SM: Alaska. There’s nothing I enjoy more than big mountains and wild, untouched wilderness where wildlife roams free. The Tatshenshini River is calling my name…