Austin Adventures, based in Billings, Mont., specializes in small-group tours and customized trips for adults and families. The company was founded in 2000 and in 2013 became part of the Xanterra Parks & Resorts portfolio.
Destinations editor Eric Moya recently spoke with president Dan Austin about the company’s re-entry into Cuba travel and trends in the adventure travel sector.
Q: Could you talk about your decision to begin selling Cuba tours again?
A: We were one of the first to get the people-to-people license, five or six years ago. We ran half a dozen trips then pulled out, just because we didn’t feel that we could control the quality to the level that we like.
We’re back; we’ve partnered with a company that’s in Cuba, so we’re trying to see if we can fix the rough edges. The thing that I’m learning about Cuba from visiting it and selling it is that it really isn’t for everyone, and you really have to sell it properly. I would really encourage agents to do their homework. It’s not an easy, quick sell. There are so many nuances to working in Cuba. If you don’t manage the guests’ expectations properly, then you’re going to have unhappy guests.
Cuba continues to be a very solid emerging destination, but it clearly is still at that emerging stage.
Q: What are some trends you’re seeing in adventure travel?
A: We’re seeing more and more travelers — even experienced, worldly travelers — are looking closer to home and looking at our national parks and what we have in their own backyard.
So the national parks of the West are our bread and butter; we’re seeing more and more interest in that. And related to that, we’re seeing more and more interest in domestic travel, but they want it customized. About 35% of what we do is customized. Using Montana as an example, they want to see Yellowstone, but they want some of it at least [to be a] five-star experience. So we’ll go into the park for a few days and take them behind the scenes and show them things most visitors never get to see, and then we’ll also give them that five-star experience around the outskirts of the park.
I’ve heard the average person spends six hours in Yellowstone, 5 and a half in their car. So we’re always looking for an opportunity to get them away from that parking lot, get them in the backcountry, get them to see a different side of the park, without busloads of people.
Q: Was the National Park Service centennial last year good for business?
A: Our national park product definitely saw a double-digit uptick and [the centennial] just created awareness, which was really good to see.
It did create new challenges, because the parks were essentially sold out. So 2018 reservations are already made, and we’re looking at 2019.
The parks are at capacity. Then add to that, when people travel domestically they don’t feel the need to book a year out. So we’re getting “Hey, where can I go next week?” calls, which add a whole new element of challenges. We sure try to help them; some of our best trips have been last minute. We actually thrive on that challenge.
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