Installment 1 of 3
Who doesn’t want to travel the world, seeking out amazing hikes along pristine trails, discovering hidden gems like gourmet restaurants nestled in mountain towns, or top-notch art galleries in small Mexican villages? Today I am interviewing Dan Austin, Co-Founder and Director of Austin-Lehman Adventures – the man behind many exciting vacations here at ALA.
Dan, your job sounds so exciting! You own and run an adventure travel company. Has this always been your dream job?
I was destined to be involved in adventure travel as long as I can remember. I grew up in California and organized trips to the mountains as soon as I could drive. Shortly after graduation I headed north and ended up not getting too far, stopping in Oregon, which led to my first official involvement in Adventure Travel where I ran a small rafting company to feed my thirst for adventure. From there I moved to Alaska (with a few other stops along the way). Anyone who’s ever lived in Alaska knows that you instantly become that friend in Alaska that helps everyone with their incoming travel plans.” That was just the case for me. I spent years creating the perfect Alaska Adventure for all my relatives and visiting friends. It only made sense that my first new trip some 15 years ago with Backcountry Tours was Alaska. So I guess it is safe to say this is truly my dream job and what I was destined for.
What got you started in the business?
That one is pretty simple, as I said I loved setting up trips for others and after some 25 years in construction was looking for a change. An opportunity presented itself to become a partner in an established company, Backcountry Tours, and I jumped in with both feet.
Do you get the opportunity to go on many ALA vacations in a year?
I think that is a bit of an understatement. My role has evolved over the years to focus more on trip development, quality control and strategic planning. So yes, I do get to see a lot of country. Just last year I was in Panama, Costa Rica, South Africa, Germany, Holland, Alaska and Washington to name a few. But there are some trips I just cannot get enough of. I try to get on our Yellowstone Adventure at least a few times a year.
What’s your favorite thing about adventure travel?
Honestly, it has to be the people – those I have met and will get to meet. From our great guides and staff to seeing a youngster light up at the sight of their first bear or whale on one of our adventures, I never tire of sharing the experiences of adventure travel with others. I have been blessed with quality travel opportunities and try and share it with as many people as I can.
Let’s talk about trip planning. I’ve always wondered what goes into developing a new adventure. When you’re building a new vacation, what do you look for?
That is a tough one. It varies from destination to destination. I mean, I wouldn’t look for the same thing in a South Africa Adventure as I would in a new bike trip in Germany. Typically I start with some level of insight or a suggestion from someone that has been there or wants to go. In other words, we might have a past guest that says something like, “Hey Dan, why don’t you build a new adventure in Peru? We have always wanted to see Lake Titicaca and I hear it’s fabulous.” Another time you might have a guide just come back from a personal adventure from someplace like Havasupai in the Grand Canyon and say something like, “Geez, why don’t we have a Havasupai Adventure?” It’s incredible with all the pristine waterfalls and beautiful trails and camp spots. Both of these examples have led to new trips.
What kind of research do you do when you decide on new destinations?
Once I get a “tip” I just start looking further into it. Researching on the web has made trip development a lot easier, but I also use great resources like the magazine National Geographic Adventure. I can honestly say the one thing we do not do is just knock off other tour operators. We want each trip to be an Austin-Lehman original. Once I have a better understanding of an area, that’s when the fun starts and a trip to the area is scheduled. If I can bring along a guide or someone that has been there, great. If not, I just start knocking on doors and checking out trails and rides and such. It often takes several visits, endless hours of research, and several dry runs to get a trip where we want it.
Do you personally scout out all the new trips and destinations?
Paul and I agreed many years ago that we do not want to put guests on a trip unless one of us has run the program start to finish. That too has evolved over the years. Sometimes we invite our Alumni to join us the first time we run a trip with guests; we call these “First Ascents.” Typically on a First Ascent either Paul or I (or both) will have developed the trip and run it through at least once without guests, tweaking along the way. Once we run the trip with Alumni, we look to them for good constructive feedback. We recently ran a new program, our Washington Cascades Adventure, and got some great feedback from 9 of our Alumni. We have improved the trip to the point it’s now one of my all time favorites.
Read the third installment of my interview with Dan about adventure trips and tips.