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The Art of Trip DevelopmentOwner, Dan Austin, on what it takes to design the perfect Austin-Lehman Adventure.
It seems I get asked all the time: “so what’s it like to own an adventure travel company… all you do is travel the world right?” Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth. As it is with owning any business, keeping an adventure travel company afloat is work. There are weeks on end where I put in my 10-plus hours at my desk, not once seeing the light of day (or the beautiful Montana countryside we call home).
Now don’t going feeling sorry for me (not at all) because yes… yes, there are a lot of “benefits” that come along with owning an adventure travel company – and traveling to great locations around the globe is definitely high on the list. While I may not be out in the field 52 weeks a year, the times I do get out of the office certainly make the hours logged at my desk well worth it.
Over the last few months I’ve been lucky, as most of my time has been filled traveling with my family, building and resurrecting exciting new trips for our guests. In fact, I’ve spent much of the summer asking myself, does it get any better?
There are all kinds of different scenarios when it comes to selecting a destination and eventually developing a complete itinerary. I will share a few with you here and give you a little insight as to what can shake out.
I should start by saying that I think of trip development as an “art form.” A lot of chemistry goes into creating an Austin-Lehman adventure. We’ll often log hundreds of miles driving and re-driving routes to get the “flow” of the itinerary right, and there are also days upon days spent hiking the trails or biking the back roads to find just what our guests are looking for. We might even hike a dozen trails before we find the right one – or bike 100 miles for every 10 we end up using.
There is also of course there is the task of checking out the local hotels and lodges and making sure our guests have the right rooms in the best locations with the best views. We’ve been in the business for a long, long time, and over the years we’ve earned our right to pick the cream of the crop when it comes to lodging and cuisine for our travelers. You may have to twist my arm, but I’ll even try out a hotel masseuse (they have to be good, otherwise I’d be doing our guests a disservice!). And, of course, there’s the job of taste testing. I make a point of trying each of the local restaurants, sampling everything from appetizers to desserts… it all has to be perfect. I’ve even sacrificed a few times for our guests and ordered two, three or four deserts – just to make sure I have it right.
Let’s begin with a “New and Innovative” trip – our new program in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I’ve been to the Black Hills several times, always on a Harley and always going to or from Sturgis and the big motorcycle rally. Each and every time I go, I come home talking about what a great destination South Dakota would make for an adventure vacation. This year, I decided to make it happen.
The venture began back at my desk in Billings where I’ve learned that Google is my best friend! A trip to the local Barnes & Noble to pick up some resource books and maps and some more researching online, and pretty soon a rough itinerary began to form… host cities, routes, attractions, special events, themes… the more I researched, the more things started falling into place.
It became clear right away, for example, that Rapid City was the most logical Host City. It also became clear that to truly experience the area, we’d have to include visits to Sturgis (who could go the Black Hills without a stop in Sturgis?), Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Custer State Park (at least, that’s where I started – the list, as it always does, grows).
The next step was to start getting a bit more specific. As I poured over my maps, I began to think about routes, loops and towns that would make sense to “host” a night or two. Once those fell into place, it was back to Google to generate a list of hotels, lodges, restaurants and such to check out on my first scouting trip.
*A side note: there is a huge advantage to trip development today verse when I started many years ago, thanks to the proliferation of ratings sites – places like Trip Advisor, Wikitravel and Trails.com. There are no guarantees that these sites are 100% accurate, and they are of course subject to the opinions of their authors, but they all offer great insights on things like hotels and restaurants, and I always say – there’s no better judge of a place than someone whose been there.
Back to the Black Hills – once I’d spent more hours than I could count educating myself on the area, it was time to start asking around… who did I know that had been there and how could they help? Often my first stop is our guides, as typically when they’re not guiding, they’re out on their own adventures. Next I asked friends, and friends of friends, and so on.
Armed with every piece of information I could find, it was time to hit the road. I find it’s always best to travel with friends or family – this way I can share the experience, the driving, the meals, and best of all – I can get honest feedback from 3-4 people, often of different ages and athletic ability.
In general, when I leave home on a scouting trip, I always start (and rarely finish) with a rough idea of what I am going to do, where I am going to go and what I want to see. This list grows and changes daily with every stop, at every visitor center, at every encounter with a local, and simply from first hand experience. It’s a good thing I have such a great support staff back at the home office as they know when I’m scouting to expect calls… “soooo… I didn’t make it to Custer, I am near Deadwood… can you find a place for us to stay tonight? Oh, and can you tell me how to get there?” Sometimes I’ll even arrive at a designated hotel, and upon walking in the front door realize it simply isn’t going to cut it... at which point I walk out the door, scratch the hotel from my list and make my way to the next one. I hit a personal record when I visited 11 hotels to find the right one.
On scouting trips, my days begin before the sun comes up and typically end long after it goes down. I might drive the same stretch of road a half dozen times to “tweak” the flow in order for all the pieces to fall in place. And some of the longest (and best days) are developed by accident when I find myself totally lost and off my planned itinerary.
Back to the Black Hills. My wife Carol traveled with me, and as soon as we arrived, we found the Michelson Trail and realized this had to be the cornerstone of the trip. We also discovered that while we originally planned on biking through Badlands National Park, it was just too far of a shuttle and the only properties in the area weren’t our style. At that point we realized we had some redesigning to do! Our next stop was Custer State Park. It was, in one word, epic. The wildlife was incredible, the roads perfect for backcountry bike rides, and the lodging fabulous. With some strategic layover days and visits to Crazy Horse and Mt Rushmore, we began to solidify our itinerary.
As we ironed out the last of the wrinkles and sampled the last of the restaurants on our “must try” list, my wife and I agreed: there really is something to be said about spending enough time in an area to truly get to know it. It enhances the entire experience. Our trip reminded me once again why traveling with an expert is probably one of the single most important reasons to consider a guided adventure vacation. Without the hours of research and days of scouting, first time “solo” visitors would never be able to see and experience the absolute best of the Black Hills. On a guided trip, there’s no doubt you will get the most out of your time and you won’t waste a step.
When Carol and I returned to Billings, we quickly put pen to paper and worked with our staff to write up an “official” itinerary, which you can read about here [add link] and in our 2010 catalog. I must say, there’s hardly a more rewarding feeling than working to put a trip together from scratch… especially one that began with a vague idea, and culminated with what we believe will be an adventure vacation of a lifetime!
Another trip I recently had the blessing of working on was Glacier National Park, which required a totally different approach, this one to “Resurrect and Improve.” You see, we were one of the first commercial adventure companies in Glacier some 20+ years ago. We entertained thousands of guests in the park on hiking, biking and adventure programs. A few years back, we dropped Glacier as a destination, as the trip just wasn’t up to our standards. Not the park – the park is amazing – it was the trip that needed work. We could have kept it up the way it was, but at Austin-Lehman, we are constantly looking for ways to improve and perfect every trip we offer, and we’ll never include a trip on our roster simply because everyone else has it on theirs, or because we’ve been running it for years.
With the revival of the Glacier trip, I had a starting point and (as opposed to South Dakota) I had much more to work with. I had history. I had been there, we have guides that have guided there, we have guest comments and feedback. The first thing I did was pull out all of my old files… we have an amazing resource library archiving each and every trip, departure, guest comment, guide evaluation, etc. That alone took me several weeks to sift through. By the time I was done I had a stack of highlighted notes six inches tall.
With this type of research, my goal is to look for patterns. Immediately, I saw a few: our guests didn’t like this lodge, this shuttle was too far, this restaurant was great, this one not so… don’t miss this hike, skip this one, etc. I pulled out a map and began to see in my mind’s eye what the best redesigned flow might look like. I also started gathering a list of new properties to visit and what kinds of activities we might want to try each day of the itinerary, knowing full well that some of the lodges, trails and roads may not be in the same condition as when I last experienced them.
Finally, I packed up my Tahoe with all of my files, maps and books and headed to Glacier National Park with Carol and our daughter Kasey, who has seen more trail miles then anyone twice her age. The three of us made a great team – Carol the expert on our guests (what they typically want out of a trip and how we can exceed their expectations), and Kasey the expert on teen travel (and who also happens to know desserts better than anyone I know!).
We headed for Glacier for an amazing week of hiking, biking, rafting and yup, eating. While we didn’t have to make many global changes and the route was fairly intact, we did have to change the flow, and tighten things up a bit. We dropped a section of the park, for example, that was just too busy and that took too long to get to, and replaced it with an epic bike ride in Flathead Valley. We reconfirmed some iconic hikes and stumbled on few new ones. We extended our stay at Grouse Mountain Lodge, as it’s such a great place with amazing food, comfortable rooms and a bit away from the hustle and bustle of the park. When I say “try the Smoked Salmon Benedict,” trust me.
After a week in the park, we came home with a solid itinerary and we all felt confident that even the toughest critics will be thrilled with our “resurrected” Montana Adventure!
Finally, I don’t think I would be totally honest without sharing a short bit on a third type of trip I have the pleasure of joining, on what I call a “Tried and True” quality control mission. This summer, my son Andy and I were invited along a well-established program in the Galápagos by our good friends at Ecoventura. Now here I have to say, I had very little thinking to do. Andy and I had the luxury of simply joining the trip as guests. It was wonderful not to worry about an itinerary, to simply enjoy the islands. I still ended up with a dozen or so pages of notes, of course, and some suggestions for refinement and improvement. But all and all this trip simply reaffirmed what I tell our friends and prospective guests all the time: that the ALA experience is second to none!
There you have it… a little bit of background on three distinct types of product development and research:
• “New and Innovative” Black Hills Bike Vacation
• “Resurrected and Improved” Glacier National Park Multisport Adventure
• “Tried and True” Galápagos Adventure
…and a snapshot as to why I doubt I will ever venture out of this amazing industry.
For more information, follow the links above and click on “detailed itineraries,” or better yet – give me a call, it doesn’t take much to get me excited about sharing my passion for travel and great adventures.
Safe travels and see you on the trails!