Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In


Adventure Travel

The Travel Bug: Trailblazing in the untapped market of adventure travel

Adventure travel is an oft-overlooked market with significant overlap in the outdoor industry. Here’s a look at the growing ranks of jet setting outdoorists and how to catch their attention.

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

Adventure travel
Photo by mil8 | Flickr

PUNCTURE-WOUNDED WALL MAPS are no longer suffering in vain: More Americans than ever are putting their money where their pins are. For this new breed of tourists, actualizing their wanderlust in plane tickets and scrolling odometers, the goal is more than just sightseeing. Trekking in Nepal, sea kayaking in Alaska, going on safari in Kenya? It all falls under one, increasingly overstuffed umbrella: Adventure travel.

The Venn diagram between the outdoor industry and the adventure travel industry sports a stout overlap that’s just gaining notice, especially in the face of adventure travel’s recent prosperity; the industry saw 65 percent year-over-year growth between 2009 and 2013, when it was last measured, and 70 percent of Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) members expect a positive revenue outlook for 2016.

Why the sudden popularity?

“The tourism industry is pretty mature now. People are tired of packaged trips – they’ve done the sun and beach, they’ve done Orlando and Vegas, and they’re looking for something more interesting,” said ATTA President Shannon Stowell.

That interest is drifting deeper into the jungle and farther overseas, to more remote locations and more authentic, immersive experiences.

“There’s a whole skillset in the adventure travel industry based around developing new itineraries, and those folks are busy all the time,” said Stowell. They’re finding new destinations as well as revamping the classics, offering things like a backcountry trek to attain a little-used back entrance to the ancient city of Petra or a Machu Picchu visit combined with cultural immersion in a local village.

Adventure travel in Iceland
With its lush hills and pristine waterfalls, Iceland has recently blown up as an adventure travel destination. Photo by Lenny K Photography, via Flickr

Travelers are looking to get off the beaten path. Fortunately, that’s the realm where outdoor gear and apparel shines.

Many of those travelers are already aware of outdoor brands and purchasing technical gear and apparel for their travels. However, there’s a marketing and educational disconnect that leaves much of the adventure traveler population in the dark about what’s available to them in terms of product variety, says Samantha Searles, the director of market and consumer insights at the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). That means the adventure travel niche still has plenty of room for the outdoor industry to grow into, following the lead of crossover companies like Eagle Creek and ExOfficio.

A portrait of the adventure traveler

According to a 2015 ATTA report entitled “Attracting and Serving the US Adventure Traveler,” over 50 percent of the US population falls into the adventure traveler category with another 24 percent aspiring to join.

The average adventure traveler is 48, and, according to the AARP, the resident expert on all things past middle-age, these folks are doing the bulk of their traveling in the warmer months and aren’t intent on leaving their sunhat at home; 27 percent planned to pack their bags for South America, and 36 percent were finalizing itineraries for European destinations. That means warm weather gear is a better use of floor space than parkas or splitboards.

It might come as a surprise that the average traveler’s age doesn’t skew younger. With their experience-driven yearning for authenticity, Millennials seem like the ideal target audience.

Stowell has seen research to back that up, showing increased interest in travel agents among Millennials, but, he says, interest and execution are two different things.

Rafting in Punakha, Bhutan. Photo courtesy of Zachary Collier, via Flickr

“There’s the reality that a lot of Millennials don’t have the budget to do the multiday, four-star safari lodge experience,” he said.

Boomers and Gen-X’ers do, and they’re a practical crowd. The AARP survey participants’ list of must-pack items included comfortable shoes, sunglasses, and durable pants – all categories that outdoor retailers have been perfecting for decades.

Adventure for the whole family 

Travelers between the ages of 40 and 60 are more likely to have families than Millennials, who are marrying later. Involving kids widens the market and gives outdoor retailers more opportunity to engage future customers.

Of the guests ATTA member operators have served, the percentage of families has hovered around 16 to 17 percent for the last three years, but 72 percent of ATTA members are adding more family-friendly itineraries, many of them in response to requests for such.

It’s no wonder; Searles says nearly 50 percent of outdoor consumers have kids at home, and bringing them along is a chief concern for outdoorist parents.

“One of the greatest barriers to people getting outdoors is that the activity they want to do isn’t kid-friendly,” Searles says. She suggests retailers and tour operators alike should focus on demonstrating how to modify different activities to accommodate the whole family.

“Adventure travel is a great opportunity for that. It’s a unique way to get kids outside,” said Searles.

Do it for the ‘gram
ATTA has also recorded an increase in solo female travelers, which Stowell says is at least partially attributable to the publicity that adventure stories like Wild and Eat, Pray, Love have garnered. Thanks to the proliferation of online information and reputable tour operators, travel now feels safer for groups that might have historically been hesitant to venture into unknown territory, including women and families.

Exploring Namche Bazar, Nepal. Photo: Kristin Hostetter

Customer connectivity, social media exposure, and increased availability of sophisticated travel information have been a huge piece of the industry’s growth, says Stowell.
Adventure travel also caters to the growing aspirational segment of the outdoor consumer population. Once thought to be members on the fringe of the outdoor community, OIA’s research reveals these dabblers actually make up a huge percentage of the customer base.

Like aspirational outdoorists, aspirational adventure travelers are drawn to photogenic sites, interested in gathering experiences that will become part of their identity (and their Instagram feed). Multisport travel itineraries appeal to this group, which is behind the rise in the rental market. Adventure travel is a magnet for potential outdoorists, and reaching out to those on their first excursions is a great way for outdoor retailers to hook new patrons.

Untapped potential
Thirty four percent of ATTA’s members say the biggest reason for positive projected net profits in 2016 is the influx of new customers, those people who are finally making the jump between aspiring and doing. The romance of adventure travel (as well as the comfort of having a tour group or guide organization to handle all the logistics) is enough to pull new users into the fold. That’s something the outdoor industry sometimes struggles with, given that hardcore athletic pursuits intimidate newcomers, says Searles.

Tourists represent an untapped well of zeal for new experiences, and the adventure travel market could very well be the gateway to lifelong passion for the outdoors that brands and retailers have been missing.

“Adventure travel is just another entry point for outdoor engagement,” says Searles.

Conservation education is usually anything but glamorous, but hiking, kayaking or climbing abroad puts stars in the eyes of potential environmental stewards. After all, it’s hard to go on a safari without some understanding of conservation challenges or return a pair of crampons without taking away an appreciation for climate change.

Outdoor retailers have a unique opportunity to push their brand message out to hundreds of newly minted outdoorists and at the same time draw them into the causes that will protect our wild spaces for future recreation.

If mother nature is ill for lack of attention, adventure travel could be a gateway drug to the cure.