The Importance of Authenticity in Intentional Adventures

Authenticity: being true to one’s own character.

The first step to planning an adventure is to take a step back to define what will make it authentic. We know, that sounds tedious when we could get right to the exciting part of putting the itinerary together and dreaming up amazing things to share with our guests.

That’s probably why it’s the step that gets missed the most often. We like to jump right in, forgetting to spend a few minutes to ask ourselves why we should be the ones offering it and why it should be offered here.

This is a mistake we’ve made a few times at Nordegg Adventures and something we’ve learned the hard way. A few years ago, when we started to expand beyond the ski bus, it was suggested that we should offer golf tours since we have some great courses in the region (we were based in Red Deer at the time) and it would certainly appeal to our guests. We talked with a few golf courses, found a few willing partners and put together some great itineraries. To this day we have yet to sell a golf tour.

What we realized afterward is that nobody on our team was passionate about golfing and the tours we had put together were focused on golfing rather than sharing what we love about the region.

We could have offered a good guest experience, taking care of the details and making sure that every guest had a great day on the course. What we couldn’t do was get excited about the adventure because it never felt authentic, it never felt like us.

The suggestions that there are opportunities for golf tours in Central Alberta weren’t wrong, it just didn’t line up with who we are. Interestingly, our guests weren’t the ones suggesting golf tours.

So, what makes an adventure authentic? Authenticity happens when we are being true to ourselves. Unlike the experience, which as we will discuss later comes from within the guest, authenticity comes from the operator, the destination, the guides and the partners involved in the delivery of the experience.

Authenticity is a fairly simple concept when you look at it this way. It means that the things we say and the things we do are what we actually believe.

Sadly, most companies think they are being authentic when they repeat to customers what the customer believes instead of telling the customer what the company believes. Authenticity doesn’t mean listening to people and parroting back what we hear. It means telling people what we believe and then waiting to see who is attracted by what we espouse and who isn’t. This is why we are drawn to an authentic brand over a non-authentic brand. – Simon Sinek

Guests know when something is not authentic but defining what is actually authentic is much harder. We need to look within to identify why we exist as an organization and to identify what gives our destination its sense of place. Once we know this, we need to find guests whose travel motivations are compatible with what we have to offer. Authentic adventures happen when the three align with each other.

We’ve found that the easiest way to identify whether a new adventure would be authentic is by asking “why us?” and “why here?”. Doing this forces us to have a clear picture of our purpose and a good understanding of our destination.

Asking ourselves why we should be the ones offering a tour forces us to think about whether it aligns with our own purpose and whether we have guides available to lead the adventure. Looking back at the golf tours, our guests probably had a better understanding of who we were than we did at the time.

The reason we offered a ski bus wasn’t about the actual skiing. It was about sharing the excitement of making it down a challenging run, the flowing sensation you get cruising down a groomer, the calm of standing on top of a mountain and the camaraderie of the après-ski.

We didn’t have that connection to golf. Instead of focusing on the emotions created by the activity, we built tours focused on doing things instead. Those itineraries didn’t build connections with the people, food and places that make our region special.

To make things worse, none of our guides were passionate about golfing. We don’t always ski with the guests when driving the ski bus, on many days it is only a shuttle service. Even on those days, the shared interest in skiing allowed for connections to quickly form between the guide and guests, sharing about the day over a hot chocolate while loading the bus for the way home.

It took us a few more years to truly understand that lesson.

Asking ourselves why should this tour be offered here forces us to think about whether it aligns with our destination and whether we have partners available to facilitate the delivery. Identifying our destination’s sense of place isn’t always easy. Most destination organizations focus on the physical infrastructure or municipal boundaries, not the identity that connects the people and places together.

To get a sense of what makes your region special, take a look at the pictures you take and the stories you share with friends and guests. These will give you a good starting point to build from and an opportunity to look at your own backyard with fresh eyes.

In the case of the golf tours, Central Alberta could be a great place to offer the tours with many partners available but this is irrelevant if it doesn’t align with our own purpose. When the answer to either question is negative, the adventure won’t be authentic. It’s better to move on to another project at this point, letting somebody else or another destination bring this adventure to life. One caveat, while your purpose or the destination’s sense of place must align, you can sometimes overcome guides or partners not being aligned, either through training or working with different people.

We’ll take a look in the next sections on how to identify what makes an adventure authentic, looking at our purpose as an organization, the guide’s motivations, the stakeholders involved and our destination’s sense of place.

Authenticity has multiple definitions. We prefer to use true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character since it works well for adventures, connecting us to our purpose. In the current tourism paradigm, we see two of the other definitions used on a regular basis: “made or done the same way as an original” and “not false”.

This is a similar approach to the one used for goods: are they real or fake? While this works when trying to determine whether a physical product is genuine, it is nearly impossible to use when we’re crafting moments, creating connections and instilling emotions in our guests.

This leads to authenticity being considered from the perspective of the visitor, looking at whether the adventure or destination meets the expectations the visitor has of what it should be. In other words, the question becomes whether it appears to be real. This leads us to look for ways to use local people, music and traditions to provide a sense of authenticity, or to attempt to “render authenticity” as Pine & Gilmore phrase it in their book on the subject.

It is possible to make adventures appear authentic, at least in the short term and in destinations where repeat visits are not likely. The challenge with this approach is that it doesn’t lead to loyalty and it’s less sustainable since we have to be constantly chasing the next big thing.