The Interview: Shannon Stowell, ATTA
Photo by Christina Heyniger, travelofftheradar.com
What's happening to the world of adventure travel during this global recession? The man to ask is Shannon Stowell (above right), president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), an organization that has grown into the largest international association of adventure travel companies. There are now close to 500 members, including dozens of tourism boards and major corporations. The ATTA also hosts the Adventure Travel World Summits and the next one will be held in Quebec in October 2009. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I sit on the board of the ATTA. So I know how committed Stowell is to the world of adventure. A co-founder of Altrec.com, an online outdoor and adventure travel gear retailer, Stowell is also co-author (with Don Mankin) of Riding the Hulahula to the Arctic Ocean: A Guide to Fifty Extraordinary Adventures for the Seasoned Traveler (National Geographic). I spoke with Stowell after a recent trip he made to Kurdistan.
So how are adventure travel operators faring in this recession?
They are certainly being impacted like everyone in this economy but our research shows that they are in fact being less impacted than the general travel industry. But they are having to put out special offers, add value, deal with shorter lead times between booking and travel and more customers who shop around. Buy one, add a friend at no additional (land) costs. No single supplement charge, things like that.
Where is the value in adventure travel? In other words, the inherent value in taking an adventure travel trip rather than just "a vacation."
Well, typically an adventure vacation means you are going to immerse- in nature, in culture, in your own physical activities . Which means you are going to walk away with something that will stick with you forever and in some cases you will have helped someone else- say a local community- by staying in local lodging, eating locally grown food, hiring local guides. Adventure does not have to mean adrenaline, but it usually means you're stepping into something extraordinary.
Is there any unexpected bright side for adventure travel in this downturn?
Well, the bright side is that adventurers continue to travel almost no matter what. Economic downturns, shoddy infrastructure, unrest, these can stop certain kinds of tourists cold- for adventurers, the road is still wide open. The other bright side I suppose is that operators, lodges, etc., are especially eager to receive you right now, so while there may be some deals here and there, more than anything you will be shown extra care, extra time and experience things that during high seasons might not be possible.
What are the emerging destinations that we should be aware, places where tour operators are beginning to develop new trips?
Central Asia, Kurdistan (Northern Iraq), Southeast Asia, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico are the first that come to mind.
Any changes in how adventure trips are being done? We saw how multi-sport trips evolved from the desire of guests to do more than one sport on a trip. But are there other sports or combination of sports that you're seeing?
Walking continues to be the #1 activity since almost everyone can do it and it becomes a part of nearly every trip now. But beyond that, the cultural immersion, whether it's an Arctic dinner or tea with Bedouins, it's something everyone wants- a connection with local people. The other trend we see is "done in a day" where people want great adventures, but want somewhere nice to spend their evenings. This also is reflective of the Baby Boomers entering adventure travel en masse.
You have access to the big picture – where do you see adventure travel in 10 years?
I think it will be increasingly conscientious- sensitive towards cultural erosion, economic benefits and environmental impact. I think the level of professionalism around the globe will be higher, that the network of responsible adventure companies will solidify more. I don't think in terms of how crazy or out there will it get. People are already going to space, to the bottom of the sea, to war zones, to former concentration camps, slums, etc. There will always be places and activities to discover that will feel new, but I think the trends will be sustainability and people connecting with people.
Where are you off to next?
I have South Africa, Mexico and potentially Argentina on the calendar for the near future. I wish I could say they were all for leisure purposes
What won't you leave home without?
Cipro. I like to try different foods wherever I go and I occasionally need medicinal backup.