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Choose an Adventure Travel Specialist

“Qualifications for a traveller: if you have health, a great craving for adventure, at least a moderate fortune, and can set your heart on a definite object, which old travellers do not think impracticable, then travel by all means. If, in addition to these qualifications, you have scientific taste and knowledge, I believe that no career, in time of peace, can offer you more advantages than that of a traveller.”

Francis Galeton from the Art of Travel, 1855

Choices

The choice of how to go about arranging and preparing for your adventures gets wider by the day. Besides the more recent tantalizing options for direct booking provided on the internet, in the last 30 years the number of companies, organisations and operators worldwide has grown from a handful of enthusiasts, and small specialist lifestyle businesses to large corporations who take thousands of bookings each year. Where do you begin? or as they would say in Sikkim …Kay Gurnay? – ” What to do?”

The Gamble

It has been said that arranging your adventures is akin to buying “futures” in the commodities market. You think you know what you have bought, you certainly won’t have seen it, you have committed funds in advance, and you have made an assessment that the risk will pay off and you will be satisfied with the rewards. You have made an educated gamble, for which you have had the privilege of committing your irrevocable credit or paying up front.

Arranging an adventure really involves you seeing your preparations in a similar fashion. You are certainly going to be committing funds in advance for an experience that you hope will be all that you expect it to be, and you are putting yourself (a very important commodity) in the middle of it. So your own care towards yourself and your plans needs to be very good! It is vital that you make the right decision, that suits your adventure and it’s success. If you are not taking sole charge of all the arrangements yourself, you need to pick the right tour operator or agency to suit what you want to achieve. You will be deciding on the delegation of much of what is described in these pages, and paying someone else to address each of these topics for you.

What do you want?

Before you decide what kind of company or organisation to approach, or even if you are not going to approach one at all, there are a few questions you will need to ask yourself. Try to have some idea of the time of year you want to travel, the amount of time you have to do so, and the adventure itself. In fact start with what sort of adventure you want.

Is it a new quite straightforward experience? – visiting somewhere you have only ever dreamt about before? A physical challenge requiring stamina, and “true grit” with an element of risk or facing specific dangers, where you will have to negotiate unforeseen hazards, perhaps plunging yourself into situations where the commitment is total and the chance of success quite unknown? A personal feat of endurance that takes you right to the edge of your “comfort zone”, or perhaps a “yardstick adventure” where you can measure various aspects of yourself against other people. Something inspired by others who have set out before you to achieve an amazing personal “best or first”? A quest for knowledge? An insight into differing cultures? Or a spiritual journey even searching out fabled legends and religious myths? A journey back in time to discover family history? An enterprise or escapade to find “something lost”? – Buried artefacts, hidden treasures or something “rumoured to be”, but as yet unfound – like Jimmy Angel’s gold secreted on the vast rock plug tepuis and mountain tops of the Venezuelan forests.

If you are still unable to decide, then the adventure travel company will be happy to make suggestions for you to consider, based on your interests, and what you tell them about yourself, and your ambitions.

Available Preparation Time?

Next, look at your time available. Today this is the most vital of ingredients in the pre-departure stage. How much time do you have to devote to arranging your adventure?… Plenty? Great, plan it yourself, if you want to…..Limited to weekends? Perhaps you could do with some professional help?…. No time at all? You can make the airport, if someone gives you the right flight number and departure gate. Do you even want to make the time available for planning? Would you prefer to allocate your free time to something else? Why not? You may feel that you do not have the confidence at this stage to plan on your own. Fine, make this adventure an “off the shelf” escapade or one with “bought in” services.

Who can help?

Time to look at the type of companies that can help you. Many of them are noted by name in the reference section.

National Chains of Travel Agents

Wandering down the high street, just about anywhere it would be impossible to miss the national branded travel agents. The core of their business comes from conventional holidays and travel. The shop will be full of racks of seasonal brochures and the staff will have been taught how to sell off the page. Some of the more senior staff will have likely visited some summer and winter resorts on familiarization trips (called FAM trips) with the intention of giving them the ability to sell from “first hand” experience. The commitment to bespoke planning for F.I.T.s (free independent travellers) was seen some years ago as not being a viable profit centre to the mainstream business of the nationals, and most of them have stopped giving this type of service. Basically with the national chains, if it is on the shelf, and you can buy it subject to availability.

Independent Travel Agents

Independent travel agents are also on the high street, but more often than not, not in such a prime location, and they may need a little “scouting out”. These are very often partnership or family businesses and very often the owners learnt their trade in travel with one of the national chains. A good many of them are more versatile than the national chains and give good customer service. Some have not discarded the old skills of independent planning and for some adventures that do not go “beyond the road head” or involve skilled activities or specialist knowledge (wildlife or culture?). They are very good at providing the “in country” travel facilities, accommodation, and other straightforward logistics. Some of them hold agencies for adventure tour operators, but do not have the in house knowledge to support any but superficial questions. For example, it is unlikely that they could provide an answer to the various problems a trekker might encounter at altitude. They would have to “make a call” and while they would be happy to take a booking, they would be nothing more than an interface between you and the tour operator.

Adventure Travel Agents

Adventure travel agents are a new breed to the trade. Usually a sole trader, or partnership with no interest in conventional aspects of package travel. They only hold agencies for adventure tour operators and they are a very good starting point for the first time adventurer. They should offer impartial advice on the different tour operator’ products. Some of the staff may have first hand experience of packaged adventure travel, and may have even worked as a group leader in Africa, South America or parts of Asia. The general knowledge will be good solid stuff, and advice and tips, practical and down to earth. Remember that they will be passing you to a tour operator to manage your day to day itinerary, and will not be acting or making arrangements directly on you behalf.

Tour Operators based in UK

Tour operators based in UK, plan and operate their own programmes aboard. They are usually privately owned and the principals have many years experience of the countries in which they operate, and first class contact at all levels of commerce and local government pertinent to travel, general trading and society. They generally fall into two categories. Those that promote and sell a more general formalised adventure providing insights into a wide aspect of cultures and landscapes, but keep to a very well trodden and established path and routine with very formalised and structured itineraries. There is usually little or no flexibility in what they provide. Let there be no mistake however, these companies have some really great programmes with well trained managers, and they are well handled and organised in the main. Often they cater for sizeable groups of all abilities and ages and the structure of the daily plan is tailored to suit the widest range of needs or limitations. Such operator’s programmes are ideal for those “putting a toe in to test the water” on their route to more individual adventures in the future. They provide a great starting point for a first experience and a not too steep learning curve.

The second category often provide experienced leaders for their groups who also know the country well, and have an in-depth knowledge of unusual topics (the Ornithology of Central Ethiopia, Marsh lilies of Dhal Lake, the salt trading route of Nepal and Sikkim etc).

Their programmes are invariably imaginative, off the beaten track, can sometimes be physically more demanding, and require clients to be flexible in attitude as well as having an easy going out look. Quite often their clients have had some previous travel experience of a similar, but milder form with the first type of operator and will be looking for a particular, specific adventure that takes them deeper into the aspects of a country that is their real interest. Operators of this type also might have fixed departures, usually for no more than six or eight people, perhaps a maximum of ten, but very occasionally they do not “fill” to the required minimum level to cover the costs and viability, and they will consolidate people onto other programmes or departure dates in an attempt not to disappoint them, and to keep the departure a commercial proposition as well. This is not always their “fault”, bookings get cancelled, and very often for very understandable reasons – ill health, a change in working circumstances and unforeseen family matters are the most common. Sometimes operators do not make the decision to cancel or consolidate until ten weeks or so before the departure date. If it happens at all, and it is not very often, it should not happen at less than eight weeks before departure as by then all the clients will have paid for their adventure in full. Just so you know – A cancellation at this point, should this happen to you for medical reasons, should be covered by your travel insurance, so you should not be badly out of pocket, if at all.

To ensure that you are not exposed to such vagaries of your potential fellow travellers bear in mind that these specialist operators excel at individual planning and bespoke itineraries, which contrary to most people’s belief, seldom costs more than a “fixed departure” and in this category there are those operators that only plan individual itineraries to your request. These operators are also the core of the UK adventure industry in terms of real involvement, concern, and sensible understanding and commitment to ecological and sustainable tourism issues.

Operators Overseas

Operators based abroad usually began as “in country” ground agents and they probably still are providing such services for some of the tour operators in UK, and elsewhere. To day, they effectively have dual roles. They facilitate group needs for the clients of western adventure travel companies under a contract and fixed price. This will include all the logistics, client support, and staffing. They also promote their own “parallel adventures” via the Internet under the same or a different trading name.

It is advisable to remember that they use the best facilities and staff for their contracts, which are their main income first, their own programmes next, and casual F.I.Ts, Internet bookings, and “walk ins” get what ever is left over. Or what can be hired at short notice or is available – and that is usually only sub standard facilities or unskilled staff.

Websites

There are some very good referral only websites that set criteria for the companies they list in their sites to meet ranging from the operators involvement with responsible tourism, ecological projects and they way that they interact with their clients. They carry out regular audits on the companies, and actively ask for feed back from those who have used the site to select an adventure or a bespoke planning service. These site are financed by a fixed annual fee, or by a commission being paid to them if clients bock through the website introduction.

Internet Only Operators

Getting speedy and regular replies to your email does not mean that you are dealing with anything more than some one connected to the net who has a website. Only make your enquires and bookings if you are completely convinced that the company you are making your arrangements with exists, or that you actually know the people. A telephone call does not count. Have you met them, seen their offices, do you know other people who have successfully dealt with them? Phantom Services are out there. People have booked all sorts of non-existent car hire, hotels, and other services and paid in advance. Do not leave yourself open to joining the list.

Charitable/Adventure Organisations

When it comes to planning or selecting the type of fund raising adventure that you might like to be involved with, contact with some of the charity/adventure organisations can be very confusing for you. Some organisations have their enquiries and even bookings managed by their fund raising departments, some of whom have volunteer staff that each week are giving their time to a different aspect of the charity. Often these people, while trying to be helpful, can only repeat to you what you already know i.e. the description of the charitable adventure that you have enquired about -so that won’t help you much. As this market has mushroomed, a few of the charity adventure programmes appear to be poorly thought out, and not well managed. These fund raising adventures are designed to appeal to your good nature, and seem to want to provide a type of ” righteous purpose” for your efforts. Do not be bamboozled. Look for those charities that have a three way integrity for their fundraising adventures – a great adventure for you, sensible fund raising targets for you personally, and well established and respectful working relationships in the countries in which the adventure will be based.

There is also a very good book called “Green Volunteers” that will help you see what you can do in various parts of the world that will be of very real benefit in this type of work, and provide you with great adventures as well.

Value for Money and the Profit Myth.

There are some real misunderstandings as to the profits made through adventure by the majority of adventure travel companies. Practically every one of these providers, no matter what aspect they do provide for you, are in this market place because they love it – and believe in it. Yes, they need to pay the staff, the rent, and the overheads just like any other business, but the real reward is seeing people return from their adventures who are spellbound by the experiences that have been provided for them. Very often these are the experiences of a lifetime.

The average three week long haul adventure costs about 2500.00 to 3000.00 per person. Some of the more elite adventures will cost more and take more time, obviously; climbing Mt. Everest is currently 26,000 per person and you should allow two and a half months. Perhaps it will surprise you that the average retained profit per person will be about 15%. When you think of all the various aspects and commitments that are put into being on your behalf, the safeguards, administrative back up here in UK and in the locations of your adventures as well as the hard won specialist knowledge that you will have been able to draw upon (and rely upon) before departure, and through out the adventure, this has to be good value. You may also have a leader who is travelling with you, who will be with you to answer your questions, deal with your need, problems, worries and any concerns for the whole duration of your adventure. You have a knowledgeable expert for 24hrs a day for the whole of your adventure! There are very few other trades or professions that are prepared to provide such services at costs like these.

The Mindset

What ever you decide, it is important that you start with the mindset that you want to build a good professional working relationship with the individuals in the company you eventually pick. You want the relationship to be one that is financially fair to both parties, and you especially want their knowledge to be pertinent to your plan, up to date and based, if possible, on personal experience of the country and terrain

Your choice?

Adventure travel planners and providers will react to you in a generous spirited, open, informative manner.

Some of you may be already thinking that organising your own adventure to is not what you had in mind even from the outset. Your available time to undertake the preparations and planning may be limited, or you may have already thought it advantageous to “buy in” the skills.

Today (at the very simplest level) it is possible for you to make a telephone call, make a booking, pay in advance for all services, and when you arrive in country everything is there for you. Your only need has been to turn up on time at the correct airport, with the right clothing and equipment. For those people with limited time for preparation due to busy lives and work schedules using the services of full time specialists is a very sound option. There are even companies to get you to the summit of Mt Everest, to the depths of the caves of Mulu and to both the North and South Poles, and hundreds more of such “extreme” adventures.

Using a tour operator leaves you free to maximise all your time prior to departure, to perhaps spend time with family, friends, or organising extended time off with your employer. The services of operators that offer bespoke planning and preparation might also give you a better chance of completing your adventure in good style with a higher chance of success. Many have a great understanding of local customs, situations, and an infra structure in place to gather local news that will be of great value to you.