Ice walk on Abraham Lake
Our first adventures were built intuitively, based on what felt right. It is only in recent years that we started to look deeper into why doing it this way works, in part out of a need to share our process with staff and partners.
As we started taking a deeper dive into how we’ve been crafting adventures we came to realize that the human-centred perspective of design thinking resonated with us.
Our development process follows the familiar empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test steps of design thinking, adapted to our situation. We particularly like the implementation approach of design sprints, developed by Google Ventures, and agile development to streamline the experience development process.
What makes these work great for tourism, even though they were developed for a different industry, is that they are built around a mindset and toolset rather than a strict step-by-step process.
We’ve found that using this process takes a lot more effort upfront, especially for the first experience, but the result is a process that simplifies developing new adventures in the long run. This method skips the process of transforming traditional products into experiences, building experiences from scratch instead.
In This Section
This is part of the guidelines we follow when developing new experiences, our way of making sure that they are uniquely ours. Find out more and view the full document here.
Mount William Booth
Reflections on the Kootenay Plains
Wildflowers along the trail
As we worked on defining our adventure development process there are a few principles that kept coming up. These are the things that matter to us and that we need to keep at the top of mind throughout the process. These are:
- The guests are the hero of their adventure. Everything we do starts with empathy and is centred around the needs of the visitors.
- Embrace collaboration and different perspectives. Work together as a team, engage others in the conversation.
- Define the problem before searching for solutions. It’s not worth finding the perfect solution if it solves the wrong problem.
- Be biased toward action. Tackle projects that are big thinking but small enough to be delivered. Prioritize testing and iterations over studies.
- Continue to improve. Regular reflection allows us to improve the process. Be responsive to change and be willing to change the process if it no longer works.
Applying The Process
We won’t go into the full details on how we plan our adventures here, the tools we use and the theories grounding our approach. This document is meant as an overview and a refresher for our staff that are immersed in our world of adventures. What we want to cover here is how the adventure framework is applied as we craft and facilitate adventures but there are a few things to note before we get there.
First a word of caution: this is not a linear process. It looks great in a chart but the actual process will have you go back and forth between steps as you test new ideas and challenge assumptions. Even the end result is not intended to be a final product but rather a starting point for continuous improvement.
At a high level, you’ll notice that this is similar to the event cycle from the Outdoor Council of Canada and Travel Alberta’s visitor experience development approach.
It can also be applied to the retail and the purposed-based approaches. The difference is in the lens that is applied when using a purpose-based approach and following our development principles. This is what creates a different end result.
This process works from a macro perspective, addressing the visitor experience at the destination or company level as well as the micro perspective looking at a specific adventure. You can also use it to focus on a narrow portion of an existing experience to improve specific elements like the marketing messages, the booking process or segments of the itinerary.
Workbook and Templates
You will find the workbook we use along with templates for the adventure blueprint and pricing sheet we’ll discuss here under the resources section.
Beyond a Trend
Purpose-based, experiential, transformational, design thinking… All of these can be powerful mindsets, the challenge is that they’re often used as shortcuts to take advantage of trends.
In those cases, they become a gimmick or just another manipulation that can be used for short-term gain.
Just applying the tools without adopting a purpose-based mindset doesn’t deliver the long-term results we discuss, it just means you’ve taken part in the latest flavour of the month.
Set the Stage
Before we get started on the adventure we need a clear plan. We need to define the challenge we’re trying to solve, set aside time to build the adventure and put together a team that can bring a diverse perspective.
Define the Challenge
It all starts with defining what we’re trying to do. It could be a location we would like to share with guests or a new activity we would like to feature. It might be a slower season or period we would like to make busier. It could also be to fill a gap in the destination experience, offering an adventure that would make it more appealing for guests to visit the region.
In many cases, we need to think big while aiming for something achievable. At this stage, we need something general enough to generate ideas without being prescriptive.
The new adventure matrix.
Where the challenge falls on the matrix will impact how we tackle the problem. If we’re looking at improving an existing adventure we start by looking through our existing adventure blueprint to identify friction points.
If we’re looking to attract a new market to our adventures, then we start with the adventure’s purpose and look for potential markets that share interests.
A new adventure for our current guests means reviewing our guest profiles to provide a solid footing for the rest of the process. Once this is done, we may start by looking at the adventure’s purpose or the settings as our starting point.
Finally, a new adventure for a new market can be highly rewarding but requires the most effort and carries the highest risk. Whether we start with the heroes, the adventure’s purpose or the location will depend on our inspiration to tackle this challenge.
Define the Timeline
It always takes longer than we would like to craft a new adventure. We’re impatient, we have an idea that we’re excited about and we can’t wait to share it with our guests. At the same time, once we start planning we keep dreaming up new things that could be added.
Timeboxing the process at the beginning helps solve both of these problems. It forces us to pause and consider different ideas while keeping us moving forward.
Here’s a typical timeline when crafting a new adventure:
Set the Stage
Identify the Constraints
Define the Adventure's Purpose, Setting and Hero
The Building Blocks and the Adventure Blueprint
8 - 12 hours
Test and Revise the Adventure
Bring the Adventure to Market
Keep in mind that adventures that are closely related to the ones we already offer can be brought to market relatively quickly. Adding a new trail in a hiking series may require a new guiding permit but most likely would not require additional equipment to be purchased. Expanding into a new activity on the other hand is likely to require investment in gear, guide training and certifications, permits, insurance, and more which will stretch the timeline.
Some changes may appear small at first, that is until you look further into the permit and insurance requirements. For example, adding food or alcohol on an adventure often results in having to make changes to your insurance and obtaining permits from Alberta Health Services or Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis. These can delay the launch of a new adventure by a few weeks to months.
Build the Team
Designing adventures work best when we explore conflicting ideas and look at solutions from different perspectives. A diverse team that represents the six segments of the stakeholder map discussed in the constraints helps to make this a reality.
This process requires collaboration, a focus on getting things done, a willingness to consider different solutions, and making every decision with empathy for the guests as the hero of their adventure.
In order to get the best results and to keep things moving forward, the team needs a decision-maker. This is the person who will consider the opinions of the team members but who will make the final decision at each step of the process.
In some cases, you may also want to include a facilitator to assist with the process.
The 5 Why’s
There’s a place to re-phrase why questions to what, but asking why directly also plays a critical role in getting a better understanding of our shared purpose.
One technique that works well is the five whys. This iterative approach helps us get to the root cause by following a simple process where the answer to the previous question is the basis for the next question. This allows us to dig deeper, going past the symptoms of the problems we are trying to solve.
Identify the Constraints
The start of the planning process is a good place to review the constraints and to make sure that we have all the information that will be needed throughout the development process.
That information will be used at each step of the process to validate the work that has been done and to ensure that the adventure developed is authentic, desirable, viable and feasible.
Understand the Shared Purpose
We’re now ready to start building the adventure. The first step is to understand the shared purpose between the adventure, the hero and the setting.
The decisions we make here will impact every aspect of the adventure, from the activities we include to how we market it and the facilitation style used by the guides.
The Hero & The Journey
The guests are the hero of their own adventures. Understanding their needs, motivations and interests helps us create an adventure that will appeal to them and provide the greatest value.
Our focus is generally to provide new adventures for our existing guests which we described on pages 8 to 11. These are the questions we ask ourselves in cases where we adapt an existing adventure or create a new one for a different market.
- What are the demographics, including where they live?
- What are their interests and which activities do they enjoy?
- What kind of tours and travel arrangements do they prefer?
- Why do they take part in adventures?
The Explorer Quotient research from Destination Canada and the Ultimate Travellers from Travel Alberta provide a great starting point.
Build for the Guest, Not the Industry
We think about adventures on a daily basis. We work closely with others in the tourism and outdoor industries. It’s easy to get trapped in the bubble, thinking that our guests have similar experiences to us.
We become indifferent to things we’ve seen before as we chase the high of finding a new adventure to offer. We chase novelty, showcasing the new shiny tour and trying to make sure we capitalize on the latest trends. We confuse novelty with innovation.
There’s a place for offering experiences designed for our industry and media partners. It helps to get the word out, it creates a buzz. Our guests don’t share our background however. We need to remember that what we’ve seen a thousand times is a new adventure for them.
The best example from our tours is fresh snow on evergreen trees. It’s easy to take it for granted, we see it on a regular basis. It’s easy to discount it, after all we’re heading to a gorgeous frozen waterfall down the trail. Most of our guests have never experienced this before. For them, this is the highlight of their adventure. It’s like walking in a Christmas greeting card.
We don’t control when it happens and we can’t promise they’ll get to experience it. What we can do is plan our tours with enough flexibility to allow them to slow down and enjoy the moment.
Remember to always build new products for our ideal guests, not for us in the bubble.
The adventure is much more than the time we spend together on a tour. We need to consider the guest’s experience at each step of their journey to ensure a consistent connection with our brands.
This starts with having empathy for the guest and their needs, considering how we can best help them experience their adventure rather than focusing on what we want them to do or feel along the way.
This is the approach we use for everything we do, including experience development, sales and marketing. That’s why we believe that crafting adventures must cover the entire journey, from our first interactions with the guests before they even begin to plan their adventure to reinforcing the memories afterward.
It also means taking into account other aspects of the journey, considering how the adventure fits within the overall destination experience and the travel required to get here.
A journey map is a tool we use to better understand the needs of our guests. It helps us identify areas we can improve upon, find opportunities for new experiences and tailor our messages at each step of the journey, from dreaming of adventure to the return home afterward.
It’s a versatile tool. We use them to look at the way things are now and to consider what a future state could be. We use them at the brand, destination and product level. It helps us get out of the “industry bubble” and look at things from the guest’s perspective. The important thing to remember is that the goal isn’t to have the perfect map; it is only a tool we use to create better experiences for our guests.
The steps we use closely follow the hero’s journey, a popular storytelling framework that is well suited for real-life adventures. As we craft and facilitate adventures the journey helps us keep a holistic approach to the guest’s experience. Let’s have a look at each of the steps.
The dreaming stage starts with the guest enjoying regular life in an ordinary world. The call to adventure comes in various forms, often related to seasonal changes or life events. They already have a dream list of places they’d like to visit or things they would like to do, built from media stories, social media content and recommendations from friends.
Travel is often complicated, however, even for a simple weekend getaway. The thought of finding the time and organizing the logistics can lead them to refuse the call to adventure, at least for the time being.
We all need help from time to time and going from dreaming of an adventure to making it happen is one of those times. It’s an exciting time but it can also be overwhelming and stressful. A mentor helps them through this stage, providing guidance, advice and the information they need to be confident they are embarking on the right adventure for them.
They are ready to cross the threshold and commit to the adventure. The plans are finalized, the dates are confirmed and bookings are made. This is an exciting time, dreams are becoming reality.
This is a time of excitement and trepidation for the guest. The commitment has been made and they are eagerly awaiting the start of the adventure. At the same time, they are now thinking about the small details. Questions like what to bring with them and what the weather will be like were overlooked earlier but are now at the top of their mind.
As they begin the physical journey to our destination, they’ll encounter their first positive experiences but also their first challenges. These will set the tone for their adventure with us, amplifying the excitement or trepidations already present.
It takes some time at the start of the experience for the guests to become comfortable. The excitement and trepidations built in anticipation are still there and now new questions arise: will I be able to do this, did I pick the right adventure, are my adventure partners going to like this?
This leads to the challenge part of the adventure. This involves doing things that are new and different for each guest, doing things that can be a little scary but that also makes them curious to explore further.
The reward for completing the challenges are those special moments, those times that give goosebumps or when everything suddenly makes sense. These are made even better by the challenge that was just completed and the connections made along the way.
The way back is a time to contemplate what was just accomplished, to enjoy the peacefulness that follows a goosebumps moment. It’s the beginning of the return journey. Taking the time to reflect on the adventure helps reinforce the memories and capture the emotions experienced throughout the journey.
The guest returns to a new ordinary world, filled with excitement at the new memories made. This is a time for sharing, telling tall tales and a little bragging.
The hero’s journey adapted for adventures.
Sales Funnel, Path to Purchase and Journey Maps
The differences between the three can be subtle and for our purpose are mostly irrelevant. The difference that matters to us is one of mindset and perspective. All three approaches are visitor-focused, centred around the experience of the guest throughout the journey. In sales funnels and path to purchase the focus is usually on what we want the guests to do at each step and what we need to do in order to get the guests to take those actions.
The journey map is built from the guest’s perspective, looking at what they need and want as well as the emotions they experience at each step of the journey. It starts with empathy.
The other difference is in the interactions considered. A sales funnel or path to purchase map typically focused, as their name implies, on the touchpoints that exist up until the booking is made. A journey map on the other hand considers the entire journey, including the adventure itself and the return to the ordinary world.
Our role, whether we are involved in marketing, sales, guiding a tour or preparing a meal is to provide guidance and assistance for our guests. The journey map helps us remember that the heroes are our guests and the star is our amazing destination.
The Adventure’s Purpose
This is different from the challenge we identified earlier. The challenge was about a business problem we’re trying to solve, this is about why the guests will choose to participate.
In some ways, it’s similar to the vision, theme or big idea that other frameworks use. The difference, as with everything else we’ve discussed, is one of perspective.
The first step is to define the key moment, the goosebumps or aha moment that that will be the peak of the tour. This is the reason why the guests are taking part in this adventure, whether on their own or with us as their guide.
Next up, we need to define the main problem faced by the guests. What’s keeping them from experiencing this adventure on their own? It may be that they don’t know about this experience, that the logistics are too complicated, a lack of knowledge about the area or a piece of equipment that is new to them. The problem they face can be varied, but an adventure that doesn’t address a problem is extremely difficult to sell.
Now that we know what the problem is, it’s time to ask ourselves how might we help them? Reframing the problems as how might we questions is a technique often used in design thinking that helps us look for opportunities and to consider various ways to solve the problem.
Finally, we need to consider why we’re excited to share this adventure with the guests? This will help in identifying the right guides and partners for the adventure. It also helps us ensure that this is something we will actually work on to make it successful. There is no shortage of opinions and advice on which new tours would be amazing for our region but if we’re not passionate about it the chances of it succeeding are low. This is something we’ve learned from experience…
The other overarching element is choosing the setting for the adventure. This includes the location, the season, the time of day and the type of product (e.g. rentals, full-day tour, package, etc) being offered.
Unlike attractions, we’re fortunate to have the freedom to choose the best location for the adventure. We look for locations that can be used in as natural a state as possible, avoiding the use of staging or props whenever feasible.
The best locations offer basic infrastructure, are suitable for the activities and increase both in challenge level and scenic value as we explore them.
As we consider where to offer the adventure we need to keep in mind that a location can be magical at a certain time of the day but fall flat at other times. The same applies to seasonal changes, for example catching the sunburst over Ex Coelis is a fantastic experience that only happens from mid-November to mid-January.
Timing also plays a role in minimizing our impacts on the location, avoiding times that are overcrowded whenever possible.
Finally, we need to consider the type of product that will offer the most value to the guest. This doesn’t mean adding elements to increase the price of the tour but rather finding the engagement level that best reflects the problem we are solving for the guests.
Let’s take a look at snowshoeing for example. If the problem is simply a lack of equipment and local knowledge about which trail to explore, then renting snowshoes and providing a trail guide is the best option. Having the guests join a fully guided experience would increase revenues in the short term, but the misalignment with the guest’s motivations creates little value for them. In turn, this leads to lower revenues in the long term for the operator.
Validating Our Progress
It’s time to validate the work we’ve done on our adventure so far, taking a look at the authenticity constraints we identified earlier to ensure that we’re on the right path.
PARADIGM SHIFT – Theatre or Drama?
“Thus, no two people can have the same experience, because each experience derives from the interaction between the staged event (like a theatrical play) and the individual’s state of mind.” – Pine and Gilmore
The theatre metaphor is used throughout Pine and Gilmore’s work and has become a common tool in experience development.
In the retail approach the guests participate in a series of scripted activities. The role of the guide is to direct the play, either directly as a sage on the stage or indirectly as a guide on the side.
As we move toward the transformation economy in Pine and Gilmore’s paradigm this means that we continue with the manipulative approach, applying changes from the outside rather than instilling them within the guest.
In this approach we shift within the paradigm of goods and services to experiences and transformation.
It seems fitting that James Carse also used theatre as a metaphor in his 1986 book, Finite and Infinite Games. In his view, finite games are theatrical. They require an audience and are performed according to a script. Infinite games, on the other hand, are like a living drama. They are enacted in the moment and involve the participants in the process.
In this scenario the guests are active participants, choosing to live their own adventure. The role of the guide is to be a trusted mentor, empowering the guests to answer the call to adventure by providing guidance, confidence, insights, advice or training.
In a dramatic approach, the transformation happens within the guest, the hero of our adventure. This requires a change of paradigm, a different way to look at the familiar.
Explore the Options
Remember, our role is not to be the heroes or stars in the stories we share. The heroes are our guests, the star is our amazing destination. Our role is to inspire our guests to play outside and help them experience their adventure so that they can discover the food, people and natural beauty of the region.
This is especially important to remember as we work through the building blocks of the adventure. As guides, these are the areas we are experts in. We need to resist the temptation of making the adventure about us.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t showcase team members or show off our skills from time to time. It just means that we need to frame it about how this helps our guests achieve their adventure.
The Adventure Sketch
This is a high-level representation of what the experience will look like. This is to help us play with ideas, consider various options and see how they fit together. This can be done as a map, a series of photos or post-it notes, or any other ways that work for you. The tool used isn’t the important part, it doesn’t need to be fancy, it’s just a way to focus on what matters.
The Building Blocks
This is the core of the adventure. The shared purpose defined why we are offering this adventure, the building blocks define how we do it.
The activities are one of the main differences between adventure tourism and other types of tourism. As we mentioned earlier, it’s one of the main reasons why guests choose to join us for an adventure.
We currently offer hiking, snowshoeing, ice walks, sightseeing and river float tours. We may offer other activities in the future, but for now, we find that these provide a good mix, allowing us to find the right activity for each adventure.
Adding a new activity needs to be done in a thoughtful manner, taking into consideration how it stands against the constraints and the larger investment usually associated with training, permits, equipment and insurance.
We also need to consider the barriers that each activity may create. Some activities, like mountain biking or cross country skiing, require a minimum level of technical skills to be enjoyable. In some cases, more than one activity can be offered as options to reach a broader market.
As we craft adventures we need to consider the main activities along with the smaller ones that will support the overall experience.
Moments are those shorter experiences within each adventure that are meaningful and memorable. There are four types of moments we want to include: goosebumps, aha (insights), pride and connections.
Goosebumps moments are the ones that rise above the everyday. They are the ones that surprise us, that leave us speechless and in awe.
Aha moments rewire our understanding of ourselves and our world. They are those special moments when everything makes sense and the answers become obvious. They are the moments that transform us.
Pride moments are about the satisfaction we get from achieving something, especially when it requires the courage to do something new or different than what we would usually do.
Connections are social moments when we share our experiences with others. The challenges that are naturally part of an adventure help create a stronger bond with others and our destination. Like pride moments, they amplify goosebumps and aha moments.
Fabricating moments is not an easy task. Our approach is to choose the right time and place, as discussed earlier and then putting in place the elements needed to allow the guests to create the moment.
Three elements that help create those special moments are boosting the sensory appeal, an element of challenge and embracing the unexpected.
Boosting sensory appeal is about turning up the volume on reality to experience something our guests do not get to do in their ordinary world. It doesn’t necessarily mean engaging all five senses at once but rather choosing a setting that naturally immerses them.
A viewpoint we have to hike to is usually better than the one we can simply drive to. The challenge of getting there leads to a greater appreciation of the moment. Our role as guides is to create situations with a controlled risk of failure while setting the expectations on the positive outcome the guests want.
Finding the right challenge level for the skills and interests of our guests allows us to create a positive experience. This refers to both the physical and psychological elements of the experience. Setting the bar too high results in the guests becoming discouraged or anxious, while making it too easy leads to disengaged or bored guests. In order to maintain enjoyment through an extended period of time, the challenge level needs to ebb and flow.
Surprises are cheap and easy, often gimmicky. Embracing the unexpected doesn’t mean that we script an element of surprise but rather that we leave room in our itineraries to take full advantage of the surprises that happen along the way.
As we craft the adventure we need to consider the smaller moments that will support the main moment we identified earlier. We need to consider the three elements we just discussed and how they will work together to create the moment.
The written stories, videos and photos we share as well as the in-person interactions between the guests, guides and our destination come from the moments we have experienced. It also helps create new moments for our guests.
Stories can take many shapes but their role in adventures is to help create an emotional connection with the facts. Early on in the journey this is done mostly through photos, trail guides and written content.
Vignettes, presentations and scripted stories can play a role on the tour but conversations are our preferred approach. It is less formal and more engaging for the guests while making it easier to personalize for each group. This is similar to the dialogic approach used in interpretation and our stories can be grouped in small talk, activity talk and deep talk as described in Inspired to Inspire by Dr. Jacquie Gilson.
This requires a deeper knowledge from the guides since, unlike in theme-based interpretation, the discussion is often lead by the guests and their interests.
As we craft the adventure we need to consider which stories will provide context for our destination and which stories will help create deeper connections. In our context, we find that sharing stories about the past, present and future creates the best connection between the guests, place and people.
A Safe Environment
An element of risk, real or perceived, is part of the adventure. The goal is to find the balance between risks and safety that the guests and us can tolerate. This changes based on a number of conditions, including the guests’ previous experience. We have a lower risk tolerance when guests have less experience and may increase the level of acceptable risks when working with experienced groups.
Emotional safety is just as important. We have to provide the information needed for guests to be comfortable while still keeping an element of surprise. We need to create a welcoming environment. This includes diversity and inclusion as well as knowing how far to push the guests as a guide.
As we craft the adventure we address safety through risk management plans for each of our tours, as mandated by OH&S legislation and industry standards.
There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to create a positive guest experience. These are the small details that make the adventure seamless.
It goes beyond the traditional concept of customer services used in the hospitality industry in large part due to the need to push guests outside of their comfort zone while managing risks and other factors.
It also means involving the guests in some of the tasks, like carrying equipment or helping with the setup for certain activities. These can be powerful tools in creating connections as a group and helping the guests become part of the story rather than an audience. At the same time, we need to make sure that these tasks are not distracting them from the reasons why they are on the adventure.
As we craft the adventure we need to identify key details that need to be planned for as well as those tasks that the guests can participate in.
Ask a kid what they learned in school today and the answer is almost always “nothing” or “I don’t remember”. Unfortunately, most participants will give a similarly generic answer if we don’t take the time to debrief at the end of the tour.
On a shorter, more superficial tour, this can be as simple as the guide mentioning the highlights as they wrap up the adventure.
On most tours, we go further by first providing some quiet time on the trail during the return to the trailhead. We don’t need to tell the guests to reflect, we only need to provide the setting.
At the trailhead, usually while enjoying a cup of hot chocolate, we ask the guests a series of questions to prompt the memories. Questions like “what surprised you the most?”, “what did you think of _________?” or “did you think _________?” work well. This is one of those cases where leading questions are desirable, we are after all trying to reinforce key moments from the adventure. It’s important to keep the conversation informal and flowing. Asking follow-up questions and using the five whys helps.
This is the peak-end principle in action, where the guests’ memories are based on the best moment and how the adventure wrapped up.
Sharing pictures after the tour also helps, but this can be challenging during the busy season given the time required. It’s often easier to help the guests take better pictures with their phones while on the tour. This achieves a few things. First, most guests appreciate bonus tips on composition and camera settings that help improve their adventure photos. Second, it leaves the pictures with the guest making them available to share immediately. Finally, most photo apps like Google Photos have a feature that will remind each year of the adventure they took.
As we plan the adventure we need to decide on the best option to wrap up, considering location options and the time needed.
A note on takeaways
Including a takeaway or a piece of swag can help reinforce memories. We all have many pieces we have accumulated over the years that we look back fondly upon. At the same time, we have all thrown out a large amount of swag collected at various events. That’s why we have mixed feelings about whether a takeaway should be included.
An argument can be made that including one can show an increased value to justify a higher price. This is true for cost-plus or value-added pricing strategies (both are popular with the retail approach). We use a value-based pricing strategy and unless the takeaway is a key part of the product we’ve found that it doesn’t factor significantly in the final price.
We dislike how often takeaways are quickly discarded by guests. Unless it is truly meaningful to the guest, even something that matters to us is most likely to end up as junk. In most cases it’s not the value or quality of the item that makes the difference but the emotional connection with the object. Unless that connection is truly there it’s hard to justify including a takeaway as doing the right thing from a sustainability perspective.
Finally, we’ve found that surprising a guest who was raving about our marshmallows with a bag to take home goes further than including it as a standard on the tour. Guests who have enjoyed the experience also prefer to purchase a mug, a water bottle or other souvenirs rather than having it included. In most cases they mentioned that they want to pay for it as a way to say thank you for a great experience.
It’s a delicate balance but unless there is a strong emotional connection, it’s better to forgo the takeaway.
The Adventure Blueprint
The journey map shows us what the guests need, want and feel throughout the adventure. The adventure blueprint shows what we’re doing to help them experience their adventure.
It brings together all aspects of our operations, centred around our guests, to make sure that we can focus on the big picture without missing the small details.
Like the journey map, it can be used for a number of scenarios. It’s not a set of rules to follow but rather a starting point we can use to personalize each of our interactions with our guests.
Crafting the Blueprint
At this stage we’ve collected most of the information we need to build the blueprint. Putting it all together into one document makes it easier to visualize how it all fits together, identify areas we can improve and spot issues before they arise.
At this stage we’re ready to price our adventure. Some prefer to leave this until after we’ve tested and refined the adventure but we find that doing this now helps us make sure that our plans are realistic. It’s easy to dream up amazing adventures but we also need to ground our expectations based on what we can expect the guests to pay.
One of the most common approaches to pricing we see for experiences is a combination of cost-plus pricing and value-added pricing. This is a simple strategy where we add all the expenses related to the tour before calculating our profit as a percentage of expenses.
Most experience development frameworks suggest adding partners, takeaway items and other features as a way to increase prices combined with increasing the percentage used to calculate profits given the value these add to the experience.
It’s a quick and easy approach that we use whenever we need to do a quick calculation for rough pricing on a new adventure.
It does lack the nuances we find necessary to make the adventure viable over the long term however. That’s why we use an approach, called value-based pricing, that looks at the value your guests put on the experience as the driving factor in deciding what the price for the new tour should be. This approach works best when we’re selling adventures based on the emotions they create. This accounts for the intangible value a purpose-based experience creates, which is much more than the sum of its parts.
We start by establishing a target price based on:
- Taking a look at what similar experiences are selling for in other destinations to give us a starting point.
- Local market conditions. Visitors are often willing to pay more for a similar experience in a well-known destination. In general, we found that experiences in Central Alberta needed to be 15-30% cheaper compared to Banff. Being based in Nordegg has reduced this discount to less than 10%.
- The guests’ context. Visitors on a once in a lifetime vacation are typically willing to pay more for a unique experience than locals. We price according to our ideal guest but keep in mind that we may need to offer promotions to certain segments to keep our pricing aligned with the value they place on the experience.
- The alignment with other experiences we offer. A signature experience should be priced differently than a supporting experience.
Once we have established a target price, we need to determine if we can offer the experience at that price. We do this by:
- Evaluating start-up costs. What is the minimum investment we need to make in order to bring this new adventure to the market? How many tours will it take to recoup this investment?
- Determining ongoing capital costs. Equipment like snowshoes that are used for the tour will need to be replaced over time. This can be accounted on a per tour basis or as part of the overhead.
- Establishing program delivery costs. What are the extra costs associated with each departure that are not fully accounted for in the direct expenses? These include setting up a venue, preparing meals, etc.
- Determining if we can generate the required margins. We find that this typically needs to be 35-55% or higher in order to cover overhead and generate a profit. This is similar to the wholesale rate on outdoor gear we purchase for resale on the retail side of our operations.
We use that information to determine if it is viable to offer the adventure at the target price based on the expenses and desired margin. If the target price is not feasible, can the costs be reduced or the price increased?
The more unique and differentiated an experience is, the easier it is to charge based on value, keeping in mind that prices are an imperfect representation of that value. Our goal is a fair price, both for us and the guests.
Validating Our Progress
It’s time to validate the work we’ve done on our adventure so far, taking a look at the constraints we identified earlier to ensure that we’re on the right path.
Adventure Series, Company-Wide and Destination Maps
We offer a number of products throughout the year and most of them can be grouped into adventure series like Abraham Lake Frozen Wonderland, Nordegg Hiking Adventures, Photo Tours and more.
Grouping them into related series like this makes crafting and facilitating them easier since the tours within each series have a lot in common. It also helps us make sure that we have a good variety of product types and to get better use of our resources.
Not every operator needs to group adventures but we find that it’s worthwhile to consider all the products at the company level for the same reasons we use series. Creating a high-level blueprint helps to visualize how each of the products we offer fits together.
Finally, there’s a lot of benefits in creating a similar map at the destination level. This helps us to see where our adventures fit, the potential for partnerships and to identify problem areas that are keeping the guests from joining our adventures.
Test and Refine the Adventure
This is the time to pilot the adventure, see what works and what doesn’t in real life. This will give us the information we need to revise the adventure blueprint and finally bring the new product to market.
This is a stage that may need to be run through multiple times until you feel that the adventure is ready. That doesn’t mean waiting for it to be perfect but making sure that it is up to our standards.
We find that running through the adventure as a tabletop exercise before running a full test tour helps to address last-minute issues. It also makes the in-person pilot more meaningful.
One of the key factors in a successful pilot is choosing the right participants. We find that the best option is to use people that are part of your target market, ideally returning guests.
Another option is to use industry professionals. The advantage here is that they can offer ideas to resolve issues and they can compare this experience with others they have been involved with in the past. The challenge is that it is difficult to get out of the industry bubble and their interactions with the adventure will be different from the ideal guests. We find that in most cases it’s better to include only one or two industry professionals as part of a group of real guests or to include them as experts as part of the review and validation process.
Review the Pilot
Testing the new adventure without taking the time to debrief doesn’t create a better product. We need to take the time to ask the participants for their feedback. We also need to debrief the adventure with the guides, reviewing what worked and what needs to be improved.
Bring to Market
Once we’re satisfied with the new adventure, it’s time to bring it to market. At this point we need to refine some of the elements we identified in the adventure blueprint, turning them into operational documents that we can use moving forward.
We have already identified the problems we’re helping the guests solve and the key messages in the adventure blueprint.
The marketing plan allows us to identify the timelines. When do we need to share inspiring posts? When do we start to focus on planning or booking promotions?
It’s also the time to identify the content that will be needed and arrange for guides to be written, photos and videos to be shot along with any other collateral that will be needed. Media, creators and influencers are also part of the plan at this stage.
This is a good time to include consideration of the needs of DMO partners and own this adventure fits within their own campaigns.
Similarly to the marketing plan, the information we need has already been identified. Now it’s time to put it together, mapping out the booking process, confirmation emails, pre-adventure communications and post tours emails.
This also includes developing the material and booking process for wholesale partners, like OTAs, RTOs and DMOs. Depending on the type of adventure created, a FAM trip or a product knowledge session may be worth adding to the sales plan.
It’s also time to refine the guide resources we used for the pilot. This includes developing the detailed itinerary, the trail maps, story outlines, risk management plan, equipment checklists and training plan.
We prefer to use a detailed itinerary with each step planned in short intervals. This can feel restrictive for the guides but it should be used as more of a guideline than a strict script to be followed. The advantage of this approach is that it makes it easier for new guides to stay on track while allowing more experienced guides to adapt it to the needs of the day.
Each itinerary should include the mise-en-place, that time before the guests arrive where the guides ensure that everything is ready for the tour. It’s also important to include time following the guests’ departure for the guides to put away the equipment used, reflect on the tour and provide feedback on any changes or improvements that could be done for future departures.
We also need to consider the guide training needs. Some adventures only require a review of the itinerary while others may require more extensive training on the activities, stories or risk management included in the plan. We also need to consider how often the adventure will be offered. In our experience, if more than six months have passed since an adventure was last offered then we need to do a refresher training with the guides.
Validating Our Progress
It’s time to validate the plan for our adventure, taking a look at the adventure blueprint, marketing plan, sales process and guiding plan to make sure that all of the constraints have been addressed.
Guiding Skills and Certifications
The Adventure Travel Trade Association has developed an Adventure Travel Guide Standard that companies like us can use to develop our guide training. Currently there are no adventure guide certifications in Alberta.
Technical certifications offered by organizations like Paddle Canada and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides are available for specific activities. Other groups, like the Interpretive Guides Association, offer a certification program that is specific to the interpretation context.
The Outdoor Council of Canada (OCC) offers a basic certification for lead-outdoor activities, including hiking. It is designed to apply to multiple guiding contexts based on the principle of high-quality low-risk programming. This is the certification we include in our guide training, in addition to technical certifications that may be required for specific activities or risk management purposes.
One of the advantages of the model used by the OCC is the understanding that a guide continues to develop their skills in a variety of ways, not reflected through certifications. As the guide further develops their skills they gain the ability to lead more complex adventures.
There are many skills development models out there. We use IACRCv, the model we’re most familiar with from our background in the ski industry.
This is how we approach guide training, assigning guides to tours and determining the resources needed for each adventure.
The steps are:
- Initiation: this is the first introduction to a skill. Guides at this stage can assist other guides but are not ready to lead on their own.
- Acquisition: the guiding is still mechanical and inconsistent but the key components are executed properly. Guides at this stage can guide simple tours on their own, following a detailed itinerary with scripted stories.
- Consolidation: the guiding starts to have a more natural rhythm and flow but is still inconsistent under pressure. Guides at this stage can guide more complex tours following a detailed itinerary or simpler tours with a more general itinerary.
- Refinement: the guiding is consistent, even under pressure and the guide can facilitate an established tour without relying on a detailed itinerary.
- Creative Variations: the guiding reflects a personal style that can be performed in a variety of conditions. Guides at this stage can adapt tours in unexpected situations in a way that feels seamless to the participants.
Keep in mind that a guide can be at various stages for different skills or activities.
Facilitate the Adventure
It’s time to make the adventure a reality. We’ve done the hard work of crafting something amazing, now it’s time to facilitate it.
We see the guests as the heroes choosing to embark on their adventure and our role being more akin to that of a mentor, coach or facilitator. That’s why we prefer to use the word facilitating instead of the often used terms staging, orchestrating or delivering when referring to an experience. The word guiding has a similar meaning for us but often creates a misconception that only those involved in the experiencing stage of the journey fulfil that role.
Throughout the Journey
Taking a holistic view of the adventure means that we need a higher level of consistency from all involved, including from marketing, sales and guiding. This section covers a few things we need to keep in mind throughout the entire journey and at specific steps along the way.
We need to adapt how we approach our role as facilitators depending on the needs of the guests and the situation. That means that sometimes we use a directive approach, telling them what to do. Other times we provide more gentle guidance, creating situations that allow them to discover the answers for themselves. The goal is to adapt our style as needed to create the best experience for the guests. Finding the right balance is more of an art than a science.
Our voice is conversational, inspired by our love of the region. We’re here to help guests with their adventure, providing guidance and assistance whenever needed. Our content reflects our approach: getting lost in the moment, simple is better, embracing the unexpected, doing the right thing and focusing on the long term.
Visually, we embrace the imperfect. We love bluebird days but we see the beauty in dynamic skies, moody and stormy weather. Vivid colours catch our eyes but grey, rainy and whiteout days offer a different kind of beauty worth sharing. We don’t cancel tours because the conditions aren’t perfect, we adapt the tour to the conditions.
We avoid fabricated moments and props in our photos but that doesn’t mean we don’t embrace posed and “classic” shots. We know that many of our guests prefer to pose for a photo than having a candid shot taken.
We need to find a balance between the aspirational and the attainable, helping our guests choose an enjoyable level of challenge for their adventure and setting realistic expectations.
Guest don’t average their experience. The peaks and transitions are what matters most. We need to elevate the positive and minimize the low points.
Transitions help trigger the pursuit of those moments. We need to embrace those, even when they are outside of our control.
We use multiple milestones to keep the engagement. This includes before the tour, and within the tour. Itineraries need to build up, celebrating as you go. This could be done through gamification but we prefer to celebrate naturally existing milestones like celebrating at the top of a hill.
More specifically, here are a few things we can do at each step of the journey.
Guests are living in their ordinary world, not yet dreaming of adventure until something happens. It can be a joyous life event, the slow realization that they need a change, the change of season or a tragic event. Regardless of the event, it triggers a need for change and the call to adventure.
We can help them answer the call through photos, videos and written stories we share on multiple channels.
At this point they want to say yes to an adventure but they need help to make it happen. This is where we can help them with their plans, having already established trust in the dreaming stage.
Our guests are curious and love to learn about the area before they join us on a tour. We can help them by embracing longer-form content and being informative but we still want to allow for discovery so that they can make it their own adventure.
They’re ready to commit. This needs to be the simplest step for them, regardless of how complicated it may be on our side.
Once the commitment has been made there’s a lot of excitement and some trepidations. We can help by providing the details they need to be comfortable, something that varies from one person to another.
We also need to build realistic expectations to set the stage for the next step.
This is where it all comes together, in person. The guests are ready for the challenge, yet there’s still some nervousness about what lies ahead at the beginning of the tour. This is a good time for the guides to establish themselves as the mentor. They are there to push and stretch the guests as they take on a new challenge. More importantly, they are there for the guests when they need help facing an obstacle.
Along the way the guide needs to use a variety of styles, at times being very directive while at other times demonstrating what to do or setting up a situation that allows the guests to discover for themselves.
Some indications of goosebumps moments or aha moments are people taking pictures without being prompted or going quiet to immerse themselves. Let them. It means the moment transcends the ordinary.
Personalization requires us to be responsive. It’s important to listen to the guest stories, learn more about them to understand their goal, validate their aspiration and care about their well-being. Taking turns asking questions and listening to the answers between guests and guides where both learn about each other is what matters most. It’s more important than the actual questions being asked.
Reinforcing memories at the end of the tour bridges the gap to the sharing stage of the journey.
Most of the time this step requires little on our side, the guests are already excited to share their adventure.
We can help them share those stories through pictures, having reinforced the memories and a few prompts in the weeks after the tour.
This completes the circle, helping other guests start their journey and returning guests embark on their next adventure with us.
Refining the Adventure
Adventures are continuously evolving. We’re always looking for ways to improve them and adapting to changing conditions.
Throughout the season we address smaller changes, testing new ideas as we go. Every once in a while we come up with an idea that transforms the adventure. These need more considerations and that’s when we go through the entire process once again.
Be not a sage on the stage,
be not a guide on the side,
be a facilitator and inspirator.
This quote from Inspired to Inspire by Dr. Jacquie Gilson is a great reminder of the role we play in our guests’ adventures.