A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
Kurt Kutay, Founder and CEO of Wildland Adventures, believes that “luxury adventure travel” does not have to be an oxymoron. In fact, for the past 27-years, he has specialized in bringing exotic travel destinations to those of us who are healthy and active but whose competitive sporting days are long behind us.
Ever fantasized about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro but aren’t on speaking terms with any Tanzanian Sherpas? How about hiking in Patagonia without carrying a 60-pound backpack and eating freeze dried food? Kurt and his crew can make these, and about 35 of other once-in-a-lifetime treks, a reality.
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I recently read Chuck Thompson’s aggressively confrontational look at the travel industry, Smile When You’re Lying. Although far wittier than yours truly, Chuck shares my heightened sense of cynicism. For instance, here’s his critique of the Lonely Planet Founders’ plea that travelers tread lightly when visiting off-the-beaten path destinations: “This from a bunch of Australians who laid the groundwork for the hordes of faux-rasta backpackers and unwashed freeloaders that launched the near-total tourist holocaust on old Siam.” If you enjoy snarky, clever prose, you should check out Chuck’s book.
After finishing Mr. Thompson’s jaded take on the travel industry, I wondered if there was a travel company that bucked his stereotypes and properly balanced making bold destinations accessible while respecting the unspoiled resources and culture that made the locales interesting in the first place.
My research led me to Wildland Adventures, one of the pioneering companies in the ecotravel space. I reached out to the company and Mr. Kutay graciously shared his multi-decade entrepreneurial journey with me.
Greathouse: Let’s start with a question that will be especially helpful for my UC Santa Barbara students. If you could share one startup lesson with a young entrepreneur, what would it be?
Kutay: “Starting out today is a much more challenging venture than it was when there were fewer of us and anyone getting into the game could use their unique story and experience fairly easily because there weren’t very many others competing in adventure travel and ecotourism. So I ask prospective new entrepreneurs, ‘What is it specifically that you can bring to the industry?’ For example, some people have special destination experience, perhaps Peace Corps that they can parlay into a meaningful and unique travel experience. Outside of mainstream, packaged tourism, in our realm of adventure and ecotourism one must have real expertise to compete based on detailed destination knowledge derived from personal experience on the ground.”
Greathouse: Yes, it always seems to get harder to launch a startup when a market begins maturing. How has this reality impacted your customer acquisition strategies? What tactics have worked best for you and how have these changed over the years?
Kutay: “At first it was exclusively word of mouth in local markets. Then we started advertising and getting media attention. Over the years, as our reputation grew, we got more repeat business and corresponding word of mouth (then) everything changed, especially with the web.
The first iteration of our website was live in 1997, and that version lasted many years. Today, we’re in the fourth version of Wildland.com and we always try to bring the right balance of destination information and multimedia to our prospective travelers. We now find that our website does well for the reason it should: We have amassed a body of great information and multimedia content about adventure travel to our favorite places on Earth.”
Also, advertising in print media just doesn’t have the ROI that it once did. Whether our presence is print advertising or we are featured in a story, print just doesn’t sell like it used to.
Obviously, we participate in social media, as everyone does, but unlike everyone else, the stories and pictures we share are those from our travelers or staff, much like we share our adventures personally. Travel, and the trust it requires, is too personal to rely solely on email and social media. There is good reason that most of our business is word-of-mouth. No matter how we gain a new lead, it’s all about making personal connections, before, during and after the trip.”
John Greathouse: If you could have a “do over” with regard to your career, what would it be and why?
Kutay: “Sometimes (I) miss having had a career in conservation after obtaining a masters in Natural Resource Management from U of Michigan. I ended up starting an ecotourism business, but in that capacity I’ve had many hands-on opportunities to spearhead some important projects on the ground.
For example, Wildland Adventures is directly involved in conservation and tourism management in Galapagos Islands. I was a founding member of the board of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association in 1996, and resumed the same role recently as the President of the IGTOA board, providing tens of thousands of dollars for local conservation and research initiatives. And, for many years I was deeply involved in reforming harmful tourism practices in Kenya and Tanzania working closely with the non-profit Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition where I worked in local Maasai communities so they could be direct beneficiaries of ecotourism rather than subservient to mass safari tourism. So, no real regrets after all.” <laughs>
Greathouse: As you know better than most, consumers have a lot of choices when it comes to adventure travel. I realize WA’s corporate culture strives to provide an authentic travel experience to your customers, but how do you go beyond marketing jive and turn the platitudes into a truly unique product?
Kutay: “An important question and one that I’ve focused on a lot. When Anne and I started Wildland, after both of us worked in different capacities in tourism, we asked ourselves, ‘How do we want to be different?’ In 1986, based on our experience it was simply ‘authenticity.’ At that time in travel it was very relevant. Throughout the 90’s that term popped up throughout other industries and today it’s become passé in marketing speak. So, in anticipation of our 25th anniversary, we launched a re-branding campaign with the specific intention of finding new ways to express the idea of ‘authenticity’ so we didn’t have to use that word anymore. After all, we have over two decades of experiences to share that express what authenticity means in travel.
In general marketing terms we describe it this way: ‘Since our founding we seek the real world without artifice, that craves our understanding and compassion rather than our judgment; to facilitate the interaction with people and cultures that seek to welcome us rather than entertain us.'”
Kurt went on to thoughtfully express a sentiment espoused at great length by Chuck Thompson.
Kutay: “Of course, it can be argued that authenticity is an unattainable goal in travel. Our presence will forever change the place and the people with whom we come in contact. But if authenticity is characterized, according to its definitions, by ‘freedom from hypocrisy and pretense,’ then Wildland Adventures can proceed into the future with the confidence that our trips not only will strengthen our own humanity, but they have helped build the kind of inter-cultural, interpersonal and environmental bonds that enhance rather than exploit the people and places where we travel.
First, we create our own flagship itineraries, many of them personalized custom trips. Working with hand-picked local guides, specialized outfitters and boutique accommodations, in local communities we come to know over the years, Wildland Adventures creates the ‘space’ in which our travelers can feel secure and comfortable in an unfamiliar and sometimes wild world, where they can be themselves, open to new experiences, challenges and discoveries, and especially to make new friends among fellow travelers and local people they meet along the journey. So, we are now far beyond marketing jive by fostering excitement and word of mouth using the feedback of guest experiences oriented around the core themes we developed in branding. Therefore, all our marketing communications are based on real-world experiences in language expressed by our guests, such as a recent post entitled: It All Starts With Hello, simply making the point that it’s all about local connections.”
Greathouse: Yes, I agree that your team has done a great job of speaking with a consistent and genuine voice on your site and blog entries. Given crowded nature of your space, what are your thoughts on your competition?
“There are always negative comparisons we could make about our competition especially among the bigger adventure companies like Overseas Adventure Travel, REI Adventures, Abercrombie and Kent, Mountain Travel Sobek, etc., but we don’t. We pay attention to how we do things less packaged and much more personal and authentic. We emphasize our strengths of knowledge and attention to details, always reminding our staff that for us at Wildland Adventures it’s a matter of selling the personal experience over price, because there is always a cheaper trip. Selling adventure travel, I live by this credo from Ben Franklin:
“The bitterness of low quality remains long after the sweetness of low cost is forgotten.”
There are many great adventure travel companies, and over the years several of our staff have moved on to start their own company. And, like any business, much of the differentiation comes down to personal service and expertise of our staff and developing one-on-one relationships with our guests rather than one person making a sale and another division handling the arrangements. We never take for granted that our guests are putting their precious, and for Americans, very limited, vacation time in our hands and we want them to know that we don’t take this lightly.”
Greathouse: You run WA with your wife Anne and have successfully done so for nearly three decades. There are clearly advantages and downsides to working with your spouse. How have you made it work? Do you have any specific advice for entrepreneurs who might be considering starting a venture with a loved one?
Kutay: “It’s been 27 years working together. Maybe it’s a bit of a miracle, because by definition one doesn’t know how miracles happen. We share a passion for travel, and we love creating amazing and life-changing experiences for people. As a couple, I think we respect each other, and our respective talents and abilities. We probably have too many conversations at home over dinner about work related matters, but we certainly never lack for conversation! Running a business together is a challenge but it reinforces the strength of our relationship to have accomplished this together over the years. And not just Wildland, but the balance of our family and business life. Anne was able to take time off and work part-time when our son was a teen. Early on we actually ran the business in our home with our young child just upstairs with a care provider. So, I was there when he took his first steps, and subsequently we have traveled as a family all over the world leading adventures together.”
Kurt then went on to list four pieces of advice for making spousal working relationships successful:
Kutay: “One: Establish clear roles for each other and make them known in the company. Two: Keep personal and professional lives apart. Three: Consider separate office quarters – for many years we sat side by side but as the company grew it was better for staff (and) for us to have my own office. And four: Involve others in management, strategic planning, and decision-making.”
Greathouse: WA offers a large variety of trips, which I assume compounds the complexity of your business. How do you go about selecting new itineraries and are there any destinations that you would like to offer, but they just aren’t feasible because of the local infrastructure, political climate or other factors outside of your control?
Kutay: “Over the years we’ve always been limited in destinations we offer by the on-the-ground familiarity and corresponding local connections necessary to offer the kinds of personal travel experiences we create. At the same time, we have to add new regions to offer our repeat travelers and take advantage of new customer interests and new regions opening up.
To a great extent, we develop trips to new destinations based on our own personal interest and the experience of our evolving staff. We are often approached by local communities to design trips and bring our guests, but we often have to turn them down because of a lack of infrastructure (necessary) for the safety and comfort of our travelers. By offering a multitude of world-wide destinations, we not only have a variety of trips to offer to repeat travelers, we can maintain an active year-round business and more easily absorb downturns in one country or another due to political developments, natural disasters, or other reasons beyond our control.”
Even busy entrepreneurs need to take a break and recharge. The next time you want to get away, consider an adventure somewhere with no Internet or cell service. That way, you won’t have to feel guilty about totally unplugging and focusing on the business at hand: rejuvenation.
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Image: Kurt Kutay on the Zambezi river, courtesy, Wildland Adventures