Why Tech Companies Suck at Adventure Travel

This week, the Adventure Travel Trade Association held its annual World Summit (ATWS) in Lucerne, Switzerland.  For the uninitiated, the ATWS brings together over 600 delegates from 55 countries whose business is, wait for it, adventure travel.  Media, tour operators, destinations, government tourism boards, agencies, technology companies and even a guy who drove his solar powered car around the world advocating for clean technology.

Everyone comes together to see what we can do to support our industry as a whole, while building relationships with others that can support our individual businesses.  For PathWrangler, we primarily seek out tour operators and adventurers who want to manage their trips better and improve the bond between them and the clients who buy their products.  So, the purpose of this post is show how it looks like from a tech company’s perspective coming to this conference and what I’ve taken away from it.  In short, I feel that tech companies currently, have failed in adequately addressing the needs in of our industry.

Technology has had a difficult time finding any real traction with Adventure Travel providers.  Previously, in my time at OpenTable, I saw the restaurant industry move from paper and pencil to 1’s and 0’s in a way that has forever changed the industry.  While the adventure travel industry is clearly in the digital age, they’ve been using 1995 technology to run their businesses and interact with their clients and also sell their trips.

Tech companies haven’t really been able to acquire a foothold in this industry.  There are aggregators who are trying to build the “Travelocity of Adventure Travel,” companies utilizing GPS technology to show where you are on a trip anywhere and anytime, social media integrators, and travel journals to name some prominent types.  From a purely technological perspective, there is some decent stuff out there, but if that is the case, why hasn’t anyone been able to get a significant foothold with actual users yet?

We tech guys feel that we are on the cutting edge of innovation, but our biggest failing is that we can sometimes get stuck in an echo chamber.  When we pitch our businesses to investors and to other tech people, we are told to format our idea in particular way, “We are the (blank) for (blank).”  Like, “We are the LinkedIn for Adventure Providers,” or “We are the Travelocity for Adventure Travel.”  People come to understanding of new ideas through things they previously understand and these elevator pitches are necessary to communicate easily.  However, what happens when the assumptions for tools made by previous companies are insufficient?

Since we’ve launched in March, Tour Operators have been expressing a lot of frustrations in dealing with tech companies.  They don’t think that people in our industry “get” what they do.  What I am witnessing are two people who go out on a date with common interests (tech companies want to build a business supporting the industry, Operators want cool technology to run their businesses better), but they are speaking two different languages and they have two entirely different agendas.

A Tour Operator’s main purpose is in enhancing the human experience.  Their vocabulary is filled with terms like “living,” “being alive,” “fun,” “life changing,” “natural”, while we are talking about “seemless integration,” “…click here and this happens…”, “mobile platform,” “widget,” “embedded,” and even worse: “robust.”  So, firstly, we aren’t even speaking the same language.  But most importantly, we have yet to build any technology that enhances the human experience that Operators are creating for people every day.

Some of our problems are inherent to who we are: tech people think in constructing frameworks.  We like formulas because they are easier to build.  If only people would behave like “x + y”, our answer of “z” would be perfect.  While process is important to any business, existing frameworks have fallen significantly short because they haven’t been able to prove they understand the language of the human experience in a way where the frameworks that we do create are ones that enhance people’s experiences and make the businesses that support them do it better.  In other words, techies feel that our existing formulas are sufficient because they’ve worked in other industries and verticals.

One of the speakers at ATWS recommended to auditorium full of Tour Operators, to paraphrase, “More and more people are using their mobile devices.  The way that you are expressing your current offerings are insufficient.  You need to change them so you can tap into this market.  People need to be able to book your offerings on their mobile device.”  While his reference about mobile usage was correct, his thoughts of why users haven’t adopted any of these aggregators/booking sites in a meaningful way is wrong.  Really, really wrong.  The current formula and frameworks that tech companies are offering are the ones that aren’t adequate.

While mass adoption of a particular tool set within the adventure travel will indeed require some new thinking on the part of adventure travelers and tour operators, it won’t happen until they feel like the new tool sets out there are doing something that can enhance the human experience in a meaningful way.

ATWS brings together an amalgamation of passionate misfits the world over.  However, these very people may be the ones that point those of us misfit geeks, who want to serve this community, toward building something that enhances the human experience far beyond just providing another plug-in or derivative product.

5 Comments

  1. A thoughtful article, Doug – thank you.

    The only aspect of the ATTA Summit that disappointed me was the technology content – partly because I’ve had the privilege and curse of working in this space since the Mosaic browser actually caught people’s attention three decades ago. What I did observe, as you did, was a tendency to suggest that somehow adventure tour operators are missing the bus by not jumping on the next technological car leaving the station DESPITE the fact that adventure travel is out pacing the rest of tourism – where technology has ripped through it like a hurricane through a small town in Kansas!

    You hit the button when you described the operator’s main purpose is enhancing the HUMAN experience. So this is likely where adventure and technology ships pass in the night. Techies assume that their intervention always improves the human experience when what it really does is improve the efficiency of a human-designed process.

    I believe adventure travel is growing because it is the last frontier where people can “be alive:, “have fun,” “change their lives” “get back to basics” and experience something real, earthy, juicy, unpredictable without a 24*7 support line that rarely supports anyway.

    But there was a much more insidious and dangerous remark made by the venture capitalist who is clearly eyeing up the opportunity for an adventure travel product comparison engine that seemed to go unnoticed.

    Adventure travel is growing faster than the rest of tourism because not only do its providers enable their customers to feel what it means to be human (scared, stretched; exhilarated; inspired; emboldened; and fully alive) but because they do so in a way that depends completely on a trusting, personal relationship. The nature of the experience is unique – success is determined by location, timing, weather and the relationship between provider and participant. It is difficult to commodify like a hotel room or a half day city tour. The intrusion of comparison engines into this space would be a step down a slippery slope, encouraging less aware customers to rely more on price and less on suitability. With accommodation, a bad choice might result in a sleepless night. In this aspect of tourism, a wrong decision could have fatal consequences.

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