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With more than 20 years in the business, Dan Austin is all too familiar with the travel industry.
His journey began with the purchase of Backcountry Tours in Bozeman, Mont., in 1994, which became Austin-Lehman Adventures in 2000 following a partnership with financier Paul Lehman. Then, in 2010, Austin and his wife had the opportunity to purchase 100 percent of the company.
Thus, Austin Adventures was born.
Today, the tour operator provides a variety of trips to all seven continents — from an expedition cruise in Antarctica and a “fitness vacation” in Montana to a vacation package in Cuba.
We sat down with Austin to discuss how the company has grown and evolved and what new travel trends are on the horizon.
What was your vision for the company when you started, and how did you decide what path to take? The vision of the company 20-plus years ago was never to be the biggest. We always wanted to be the best, and we wanted to be the best in the small-group, high-touch, friendly, first-class-but-not-pretentious tour sector.
When we set down this path, I looked at how my family and I like to travel. It’s interesting, because if you look at the hundreds of tour operators around the world, 99 percent of the time they mirror the personality and characteristics of the owner. We like to be active, we like to learn, we like experiential travel, we like nice accommodations, we like the environment. So we took all these different things that we personally like, and we tried to incorporate them into our brand.
In what ways have you seen Austin Adventures grow?Our alumni are always telling us where they want to go, and we want to make sure we keep them coming back. We have repeat clients who have been with us on more than 50 trips, so we have to make sure we’re looking for those next emerging destinations. However, we never want to waver from our core focus, which are our family programs and the national parks of the West. We’re never going to lose our roots, and we’re never going to lose focus on what we do.
What are some trends that have stayed consistent throughout your time in the industry?One thing that has been consistent for all these years is that our travelers expect us to be the experts and to have a high level of customer service 24/7, whether it is on the trails, at the restaurants, on the phone before they book or after a trip. Past that, I think our clients are engaging with us more. They always want to learn and experience more. We are active, but it’s not always just about burning calories.
What are some emerging trends?What we’re really seeing a lot of, especially in the last few years, are really high-end, custom FIT options. About 70 percent of what we do is group travel, but about 30 percent of what we do is custom FITs. Africa has always been a stronghold for custom travel, but now we’re seeing more demand for customization domestically. A lot of people want to have that five-star experience in and around the national parks of the West, so we use our expertise to tailor those trips for them.
Take us through the trip-planning process at Austin Adventures. How do you decide what to incorporate into an itinerary?For the first 20 years, I think I built every trip we had. We first started with what was in our backyard. I knew Alaska really well, so one of the first trips we made was to Alaska. We knew that you can never see all of Alaska in five nights, so we focused on the “best” of Alaska, and the area we chose was one that we knew really well. We look to create trips based on firsthand experience — what we know and what we feel will be the best experience for clients. As the company has grown, my family has taken over a lot of those roles, but I’m still actively building trips.