Austin Adventures, the Billings, Montana-based adventure tour operator, acquired Wildland Adventures, a 36-year old company based in Seattle. To ensure a smooth transition, Wildland Adventures CEO Kurt Kutay will stay with the combined company for “the foreseeable future,” working on quality control and product development.
The happy ending of this story is that the acquisition will keep Wildland Adventures going after hitting a rough patch in 2020 that threatened to bring the company down for the count. And, in addition to that, this move also keeps the prime mover of Wildland involved in the company’s operations as it evolves through what can only be called a catastrophe for the travel industry. That’s as close to stability as can be hoped for in the Age of COVID. No company is going to come out of 2020 the same as it went in.
In the year of COVID, when most travel companies are doing well just to hold on till the time when travel and business can flow again, it’s encouraging to see a tour operator that is in a position to make acquisitions. Somehow Austin Adventures has come through the last nine months sufficiently intact to be expanding.
The acquisition is a statement. According to Dan Austin, founder and CEO of Austin Adventures: “We’re here to stay.”
Through 35 years in business, in challenging times Austin Adventures always manages to come through stronger. It’s a test case for how to thrive through tough times by being highly creative and adaptable and forging strong bonds of trust with customers and partners.
With a combination of good luck, good karma and nimble feet, Austin Adventures has navigated through the COVID crisis with agility, without laying off any employees – and even taking on some new ones laid off by other companies. It looks like the company is going to come out of this stronger.
“One thing that helped us was having domestic product,” he said.
After it was understood that open air environments are the safest in terms of COVID, it became clear that hiking with a few friends can be safe. Though most overseas travel was cut off, Austin Adventures could pull back to domestic programs, where it originated in the western USA.
Last January and February, like many tour operators, Austin was looking at what could have been a record year. Then in mid-February, when COVID exploded from a blip on the horizon to a major in-your-face threat, tour operators saw their options rapidly dwindling to practically nothing.
“We just made the decision,” said Austin. “I saw that there were going to be two different breeds of cat out there, those that go out of business and those that stay in business. I was determined to be in the latter category.”
In the first week of March he called his team together. “I said, ‘We can either let this crater us, or we can let it define us.’ We immediately went to work on what it would take to make 2020 as successful as possible We adopted a policy of ABCs that we live by today.” Anticipate; Be honest; Communicate.
We immediately started reaching out, talking to guests,” said Austin. “We said, ‘Hey we don’t know what next month’s going to look like, or the month after. But we’re in it together.’ We found that by taking an honest, communicative approach with our guests we could work through it.”
The reaction of the customers was almost surprising.
“They all get it,” he said, “Everybody knew we were in tough times. They were in tough times with their restaurant or whatever it was they owned. They totally got it. The fact that we took those extra steps to communicate really paid off in the long run.”
The pro-active approach to communicating created a bond of trust from the outset and laid a strong foundation for dealing with the challenges to come. About a third went ahead with their plans, another third postponed, and the final third canceled.
“We had no chargebacks,” said Austin. “We worked hard to live in a constant state of communication with them.” The company also firmed up its bonds with the retail trade.
“We realized that Travel Agents were actually getting hit harder than we were,” said Austin. “They don’t get their commissions till the guest travels. So, we implemented a policy of paying 50 percent of the commission at the time of booking. That was super well received.”
As the company moved through events, it tried to respond creatively and proactively to whatever happened.
“We realized kids were being home schooled, so we launched Virtual Adventures for kids,” said Austin. “My daughter Kasey [president of Austin Adventures] is an elementary ed major, so she put together these amazing virtual adventures; and by the end, we were getting 1500 kids at each one.”
The company replaced its flashy promotional emails with personal messages from Dan Austin to customers, travel agents and prospects.
“It was The Saturday Muse,” he said. “We sent one every week at first, then every other week. I said, ‘Here’s what we see, what we know… Here’s what’s good, here’s what’s bad, here’s the reality of it.’ They were incredibly well received.”
The company did a major overhaul of its product line, looking at each program individually to decide what could be operated safely.
“We ended up dropping a lot of tours, even domestically,” said Austin. “But we also added destinations. We did a lot of custom tours. We developed a program called Home Stays, in which you would rent a home and we provide a chef, guides and drivers, or whatever you need. We avoided the big hotels, and that was really well received. We went to a second van, so had 12 guests in two 15-passenger vans.”
Previously operating on six continents, the company drew back to its home base out West.
“We found ourselves staying close to home, went to a lot of Yellowstone, Montana and the Tetons, places where we felt comfortable, in our backyard. We knew were going to have to run a lot of extra support. Restaurants were closed so we were doing more barbecues, having to send extra guides to help support it.”
Having established a positioning that could be sustainable through the crisis, the company discovered a pent-up demand for travel, and provided a channel for its release. “People really wanted to get out,” he said. “And there’s no better place to social distance than four miles into the backcountry hiking.”
Austin took hundreds of clients on adventures and had no COVID incidents. But, in order to accomplish that record, safety protocols had to be set and complied with.
“A significant percentage of the population still thinks it’s a hoax,” said Austin. “Some just wanted to travel and weren’t aware of it. We set the policy that if you travel with us, you’ll do it our way. This is not a hoax. We had them sign a code of ethics.”
For Dan Austin, the year of COVID proved again the value of travel professionals and tour operators.
“As people got used to it, and everybody wanted to get an RV and get out and explore, the national parks got crowded,” said Austin. “And they were not fully open.
“That, to me, was the value of tour operators. We dealt with hotels closing on the day of arrival, restaurants that were scheduled to be open that were closed. All the sudden, the raft company we were set to go rafting with had an outbreak and closed. Our guides and our team consistently had plans A, B, C, and D. This was the year that we really proved the value of both a travel agent and the tour operator. Every single day we were dealing with problems. We called it whack-a-mole.”
The guests appreciated it.
“We heard over and over from our guests that they saw that, and that it was so cool in these challenging times to go on adventure and not have to worry because someone else was working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure they got the vacation they were looking forward to.”
The year 2020 proved that working through a crisis can strengthen a company. And large size does not insure survival in times of crisis.
“I heard a great quote,” he said. “Remember that back in the ice age mice survived, and dinosaurs died. It seems that small, nimble companies have been able to adapt.”
“All of us get complacent in good times,” he said. “Then in challenging times it’s an opportunity to look at your best practices, look at what you’re doing and try and figure out how to do it better. We cut a lot of fat out of our budget that I hope to never put back in it.
“I do think we’ll come out of this stronger, for a lot of reasons. Part of it is the fact that it was a wake-up call. What are you doing? What’s your core product? What are your core values? All those basic, fundamental business 101 things. It forces you to take a hard look, to slow down and figure out what’s going to keep you in business for the long run.”
It’s all about adaptability.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.