The Interview: 10 Questions for Dan Austin, Austin-Lehman Adventures
The tag line for Austin-Lehman Adventures (ALA) is that they've been "Inspiring active bodies and minds since 1985." Quietly inspiring, it seems to me. This is a company that does what it does very well, without a lot of hoopla or bravado. Owners Dan Austin and Paul Lehman are actively involved in managing this small group adventure travel company that focuses on high-end, active vacations. Their attention to detail and planning has just rewarded them, for the second year in a row, with the distinction of being named one of National Geographic Adventure's "Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth." I recently had a chance to ask 10 questions of Dan Austin, ALA's co-founder and Director.
1. Many people are clearly anxious about the economy and their jobs. What kinds of trips are they interested in, based on what they're booking — and not booking — for 2009?
The biggest trend is that there is no trend. About the time we think we have figured out the direction our guests are going or planning to go – the wind shifts. The one thing that clearly is surfacing is the rush toward last minute bookings. People are indeed nervous and are taking a "wait and see" approach early in the process then eventually just saying, "what the heck" and committing to a vacation, turning their backs to worries and uncertainties.
2.One of your recent mailings extolled the virtues of "experiences" over "possessions." Could you speak a bit about that concept?
What we continue to hear from our guests is how the memories of past trips last a lifetime. We can meet up with someone who we have not seen for years and they still remember that "wolf pup" spotting from ten years ago, like it was yesterday. We have now been around long enough as a company that we are seeing guests that may have first come to us as children of travelers and now they are back with their own kids. What always seems to come up in conversations is "remember the time" .. The best and most memorable times we have with our loved ones are more often than not, experiences we have while visiting new places together.
3.How are you dealing with price-sensitive clients in this tough economy?
We are focused on just continuing to enhance the intrinsic value that Austin-Lehman Adventures have become famous for. We have never had a post-trip comment from a guest question or complain about the cost. Once one experiences all that goes into a trip, it is clear the value is there. The only thing we can continue to do is to educate the prospective guest (alums know the value) as to what is really included and involved. Then we ask if we could perhaps put them in touch with a past guest.
4.How would you characterize the ALA approach? Is there a company philosophy?
It all comes down to one thing: exceptional customer service before, during, and after a trip with us. It really is the basis of all that we strive to achieve. It's what drives us. From the first call, to lunch on the trail or that final good bye, it all comes down to the customer and their experience is our highest priority at all times. Everything else from responsible practices and authenticity to the quality of our equipment and lodging choices is related in some way to this.
Evolution is a great thing! ALA's evolution and history is what has led us to be one of the top operators in the world. The origin goes back 24 years and then some. Backcountry Tours was the genesis and foundation that established many of the great programs and systems we are currently still using today. Along the way we have been fortunate to continue to grow and add strength to the organization. In 1999 Paul Lehman came to the table (hence the name change in 2000) bringing with him not only years of travel experience but a passion and commitment to customer service second to none. Most recently (in the Fall of 2008) we acquired the 34-year industry veteran Euro-Bike and Walking Tours and along with it, one of their principals, Ron Van Dijk with his invaluable European cycle tour experience.
6.What makes ALA stand out in the crowded field of adventure travel?
There are far too many good companies out there to count them all. What we are "told" quite often is that our small size and intimate connection with our travelers is what makes us special. We are not the biggest or flashiest by far whether on the trails in small groups or around the evening dinner table we are able to connect on a personal level with each and every guest. We liken ALA and our travelers to one big happy family.
7.Any new destinations for ALA in 2009?
In a sense, this is an understatement! Through the acquisition of Euro-Bike we added and enhanced over 20 proven itineraries in Western Europe. We also added new trips in Peru, Panama and the Grand Canyon. 2010 is going to be yet another exciting year as we are currently developing even more domestic itineraries – revisiting our roots and past success in offering multi-sport programs for adults and families to some of most alluring National Parks in the West.
8.What are your favorite hotels in the world?
That's a hard one. There are so many wonderful properties. One that comes to mind is Ant's Nest in South Africa, an exceptional small and intimate nature lodge. Fox Island off the coast of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula is another. They really offer a sense of place with a collection of secluded log cabins right along Resurrection Bay. A little closer to home has to be Chico Hot Springs Resort: cowboy chic meets down-to-earth Montana hospitality. This place is the cornerstone of all our Montana-based programs.
9.What can't you leave home without when you travel?
Have to say my camera. I am a "wannabe" photographer and with today's great equipment even I can get some good shots. A good day pack with lots of pockets has to be second on the list.
10. What's on your short list of places you're dying to visit — and why?
Being in the adventure travel business, I have to say I just keep crossing them off the list. I have traveled pretty extensively on four of the seven continents. But yet there is still so much to see. New Zealand would be at the top of the list, while we have run trips there in the past, I have personally never been and have met some great Kiwis over the years. I have not been to any of the Asian countries and would have to say that they are on the list with Vietnam at the top. Madagascar, off the southern coast of Africa, is very intriguing. So is Cuba, once the veil has been lifted. That said, return or multiple visits are always high on the list. I can never get enough of Alaska or the Desert Southwest and I am just getting my feet wet in Europe.
For more info, visit Austin-Lehman Adventures' complete list of adventure vacations.