Adventure with a dash of comfort

The numbers don't lie. More and more people of all ages are showing an eagerness to get off the beaten track for an 'out there' experience.

Before you think "adventure travel is not for me" and turn the page, bear with me for a few paragraphs. Adventure travel is booming, but it doesn't necessarily mean travellers are getting more adventurous.

The sector might be better named 'experiential'.

The sector is expanding through growth of definition as much as anything, with "adventure travel" now including everything from climbing volcanoes to sailing on luxury yachts.

The range of products and price points under the adventure travel banner is now so broad the sector might be better named "experiential travel". It is certainly no longer the domain of the hard or young, with operators reporting strong growth in "comfort" trips and increasing demand from older travellers.

Major player G Adventures says it is seeing record bookings out of Australasia, with sales up about 60 per cent from last year.

"That's way above any of our expectations for the year," the head of G Adventure's Australian and New Zealand arm, Peter Rawley, says.

While there have been many factors in the growth, a broadening of the company's offerings has been very important.

With a range of "comfort" trips and softer products such as sailing, the company is seeing a jump in bookings from older travellers and those not previously associated with adventure travel.

"There's no longer the physical test and 'roughing it' aspect, which is where adventure travel has come from," Rawley says.

"It's not that we're getting more adventurous as travellers.

"It's a very different experience now. It's really about the destination.

"We allow people to go to an adventurous destination but with the edges softened."

Rawley says the market has also expanded as destinations become more accessible to travellers.

South America and Antarctica specialist Chimu Adventures says it has experienced 70 per cent growth in sales in the past year and most of this has been from the over-60s market.

Director Chad Carey believes many older travellers who are booking adventure trips are reliving the backpacking adventures of their youth, although they are doing it in more comfort.

Carey says there is also a secondary group of travellers who have crossed off some of the "safer" options such as Europe, North America and parts of Asia, and are looking for something different.

Chimu was previously not targeting older travellers but Carey says the company quickly realised the potential and, earlier this year, made the decision to rebrand its business, moving away from its younger backpacker image.

Carey says the majority of older travellers are opting for comfortable, mid-range accommodation such as small, independent hotels.

"They're not necessarily afraid to spend money but they want to spend it on the experiences rather than the accommodation," he says.

But there are some customers seeking to combine their adventure travel with 4½- to five-star hotels.

This is a market that has been recognised by adventure travel veteran Peregrine Adventures, which recently launched a luxury brand, Peregrine Reserve.

"Peregrine Reserve was launched for customers out there who want that sense of adventure but are prepared to pay for a more boutique and quality experience," the operations manager for Peregrine, Steve Wroe, says.

The new brand so far comprises 21 trips, ranging from four to 12 days in length.

The packages include luxury boutique accommodation and destinations range from Laos and Morocco to the Tuscan vineyards.

Peregrine surveyed more than 1000 of its customers last year and found their confidence to spend on luxuries had increased by 48 per cent in the past four years.

More than two-thirds of Peregrine's customers are now aged over 50 and the company says people are opting for less "tough" trips than they were a decade ago.

G Adventures's Rawley says the adventures travel sector is much more diverse and competitive than he has ever seen it and that companies need to recruit expertise in very specific product areas to stay at the forefront.

"The one-stop-shop doesn't work for today's consumer," he says.

Working in adventure travel was once about educating travellers but it has changed and is now about "ticking the boxes of what they need from their trip".

"They know exactly what they want, they have done a lot of research before they even speak to us," Rawley says.

Sometimes you get lucky

G Adventures says it has enjoyed an unexpected boon from a forced name change last year.

The company, which was known as GAP Adventures before it was taken to court by the Gap clothing brand, says consumers had associated the brand with gap year or youth travel; removing the word "gap" dramatically expanded its customer base.

"I think we should be going and thanking Gap clothing," the head of G Adventures's Australian operation, Peter Rawley, says. "It turned out to be a blessing in disguise."

jane@janeefraser.com.au

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