Horseback riding is an easy addition to luxury itineraries. // © 2015 Travel Leaders
Feature image (above): The adventure travel and experiential travel amrket is rapidly growing. // © 2015 iStock
Adventure travel has become all-encompassing.
“There is no one age target now, as age does not define this type of travel experience,” said Cece Drummond, managing director of Destinations & Experiences for Virtuoso.
According to Shannon Stowell, president of Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), the adventure travel category has risen from relative obscurity, with at least 80 percent of tourism boards now recognizing adventure as its own travel niche.
“Adventure is moving toward the mainstream, and the mainstream is moving toward adventure,” Stowell said.
The legitimization of adventure travel — which encompasses physical activity, a connection to nature and immersive cultural experiences — is due in large part to the increase in demand for it. Contributing factors include the rise in the activity levels of baby boomers, the proliferation of vacationers sharing brag-worthy adventures across social media, the softening of many types of adventure travel excursions by innovative tour operators and the growing ability to customize everything from trips to gear. Following are some of the most interesting forecasts from adventure travel experts predicted to occur within the coming year and beyond.
Curating for the “Adventure-Curious”
The popularity of “soft adventure” — activities such as horseback riding, kayaking and expedition cruising — is here to stay, thanks in large part to how these activities cater to what Stowell calls the “adventure-curious,” or the rising group of mainstream travelers who would like to try their hand at adventurous fare, even if just for a day. These clients often seek out stays at a luxury resort with high-touch amenities and service, in addition to the inclusion of a day or two immersed in soft-adventure activities.
“For example, people going down to Mexico resorts might take two days out of the seven to get a little out of their comfort zone,” said Perry Lungmus, vice president of Travel Leaders.
Stowell and Lungmus both referred to this growing travel preference as “adventure by day and comfort by night.”
“With soft adventure, you’re pampered at night and go home rested despite the level of activity during the day,” said Robin Weber Pollak, president of Journeys International.
Soft adventure could even be as simple as taking a less-traveled path to a destination.
“One example I saw was Petra through the back door, where instead of going through the main entrance with the giant parking lot full of buses, you actually do a three-hour backcountry hike,” Stowell said. “It’s the adventure travel twist on a classic.”
Indeed, adventure isn’t so much about adrenaline as it is about adding creativity to conventional travel itineraries.
“Demand is going to continue to grow as people who consider themselves mainstream travelers hear the message more that adventure travel does not have to be scary,” Pollak said.
Gearing up for New Possibilities
Long gone are the days of dull, boxy gear with endless zippers and no reflection of personal style. According to Stowell, adventure travel gear has reached an all-time high in terms of high-quality function and even fashion. Brands including Eagle Creek and Toad&Co are making more attractive clothing, such as insect-repellent dresses, and working with a team of athletes who relay their product experiences for improvement. Plus, better tech also opens up the doors to new activities.
“Better gear could inspire people to take the next step in their journey,” Stowell said. “I’ve been river stand-up paddleboarding because there are now paddleboards designed for rivers. New tech made me pick up a new aspect of a sport that I am intrigued in.”
Working With Niche Groups
“Going forward, I think we will be seeing more specialization,” Lungmus said. “We’ll see a lot more people in this business making a living by selling things they have a passion for themselves.”
Agents and tour operators who are interested in certain aspects of travel, whether it’s cycling or hiking, will choose to start working within that niche and clients will begin to request more specialized trips, as well.
This is already happening with clients traveling to Cuba, said Kristin Day, business director for International Expeditions. Due to the country’s people-to-people program, clients can choose what aspects of the country they would like to learn more about, whether it’s experiencing the country’s culinary offerings in paladares (private restaurants) or hearing from Cuba’s medical professionals about its healthcare system.
“Because of communication and technology, it’s now far easier to connect with lifestyle and passion points when traveling anywhere, whether that’s archaeology in Turkey, practicing yoga in India, kayaking in Patagonia or researching ancestry in Ireland,” Lungmus said.
Leigh Barnes, North America marketing director for Intrepid Travel, expects to see more niche trips, and tour operators developing their products based on feedback from niche groups.
“There’s a sense of community around specialized products,” Barnes said.
The Exotic Destination Boom
While locations such as Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and the Galapagos Islands will continue to be popular, many tour operators are seeing a demand for more exotic and offbeat destinations, including Montenegro, Uganda and Central Asia.
G Adventures is betting on Central Asia for next year, and is also offering trips to underexplored destinations such as Rwanda and the Philippines.
Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) is looking at destinations where a sense of being away from it all is combined with unusual natural wonders that are difficult to reach by any other means. Locations include Antarctica, Greenland and the remote islands of the South Pacific.
“I am looking into those truly adventurous destinations where there are no direct flights,” said Geoffrey Kent, chairman and CEO of A&K.
Exotic destinations aren’t just on the itinerary for millennials, but baby boomers as well.
“I think the boomer today is a bit more adventurous and wants to get off the beaten path, stretch their limits and go to destinations they wouldn’t have before,” said Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, vice president of product at Collette.
For Collette, this includes places in South America, such as Chile, Buenos Aires or Rio and the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Dubai.
“South Africa is doing really well,” Leibl-Cote said. “Morocco is a new offering, and lots of people are going to Iceland to see the Northern Lights.”
Authentic Gains With the Sharing Economy
The sharing economy and peer-to-peer companies are bigger than ever, especially among the millennial demographic, who often combine traditional hotel stays with offerings from companies such as Airbnb. While some may see that as a threat to the traditional travel industry, others are seeing it as a way to reach millennials and broaden the services offered by agents.
Pollak predicts that tour operators and agents may begin to work with companies following the sharing economy model.
“People have always wanted homestays as part of their adventure travel itineraries, but I’ve heard very few people comment on the similarity between Airbnb and the traditional homestay,” Pollak said.
The traditional homestay will move toward an Airbnb-like model, causing a surge in popularity for other websites and apps that put clients in touch with a destination’s natives, Pollak predicts.
Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations, has also seen a trend among millennials who are interspersing normal hotel bookings with Airbnb — and he’s comfortable with that. When filling out reservation forms for Avanti, travel agents can mark that clients found their own accommodation.
“Doing this has certainly broadened offerings, and it assures travelers that they will have the authentic, local experience,” Dalgaard said.
But one thing lacking with peer-to-peer tools is quality control. Agents and tour operators cannot ensure the quality of these new types of homestays, as they rely so much on the individuals offering up their homes. Adding a peer-to-peer company to the mix can also add another layer of difficulty when things go wrong — many promise to uphold the privacy of their users, to some detriment when an emergency occurs.
“It’s going to take some collaboration between the folks in the tourism industry and the tour operators to figure out how we’ll take care of our customers in those situations,” Pollak said.
However, this can be a plus, as travel agents can provide a measure of safety for those clients choosing to use peer-to-peer programs. Experts advise travel agents to remind clients that agents have more of an interest in their client’s safety than any website or app would have.
Social Media Buzzes On
It’s no surprise that social media now influences where people want to travel, and this trend will only continue.
Many clients are picking destinations based on what they see shared on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. For example, Iceland is one destination clients are choosing due to its huge popularity on social media, says both Jeff Bershaw, marketing director of Avanti Destinations, and Dalgaard.
While some clients may be choosing to disconnect during their trips, others are providing a live stream of their activities with apps such as Periscope, which allows users to film video clips and create a real-time broadcast of what they’re seeing. Friends and family back home can get an update on what they’re doing and even feel as though they’re on the trip themselves. It also allows clients the chance to connect with strangers interested in their travels, which is why operators are getting in on the action by using the same apps to showcase their tours.
“I think technologies such as Periscope will be really interesting for people to experience adventure from the comfort of their home,” Intrepid Travel’s Barnes said.
Intrepid took it even further by using drones to film one of its new northern Brazil trips.
“We anticipate that, as drones continue to increase in popularity, all major tourist attractions will have to implement policies on drone photography, filming and usage,” Barnes said.
As more travelers experience the culture and nature of destinations through adventure travel, the population at large will become more aware of the need to travel responsibly.
“Sustainability is key and all our Virtuoso Active & Specialty Travel partners are committed to this, whether it’s funding a school, supporting community conservation efforts or using local products and resources,” Drummond said.
All members of ATTA have to sign a values statement which boils down to the protection of people and place. Stowell has seen countless tour operators work toward protecting and sustaining the environments they visit, as well as cooperate with local communities and make sure they are also benefiting from tourism dollars.
“When tourism is lazy and just uses the environment or local people for their own quick gain, exploitation happens,” Stowell said. “The companies who evolve responsibly will better resonate with the good customer of the future.”