Last month I had the pleasure of joining other travel marketing professionals at the ABTA Adventure Travel conference in London. With a few clients in this field, and as a solo female traveller who has enjoyed a few group adventure trips, I was hoping to return to the “office” with a mind full of ideas, insights and general reassurance that our practices are aligned to others in the industry. The day didn’t disappoint!

There were a number of speakers from travel agent and tour operator businesses like Intrepid and GAdventures, as well as insights shared from UN Tourism.

Here’s a summary of the key themes and insights:

What is adventure travel?

This might have been the toughest topic of the day, as a few speakers struggled to distil this fast growing sector of the travel industry into a succinct definition. Previously a category used to identify holidays that were all about wild destinations, it was widely agreed that the distinctions are blurring, as the sector teeters on becoming mass market.

UN Tourism’s definition was probably the most helpful of the day:

Adventure travel usually takes place in destinations with specific geo features and tends to be associated with a physical activity, cultural exchange, interaction and/or engagement with may also require significant physical and/or mental effort.

Patricia Carmona Redondo

UN Tourism, Department Officer, Market Intelligence, Policy and Competitiveness Department

There was also some thought put towards whether travel agents and tour operators should use the word ‘tours’ or ‘holidays’ to sell their adventures, as there might be perceptions of tours being ‘dull’ and more like an over 60s coach trip where it’s about things you see, rather than things you do. The Adventure People CEO, Chris Roche, openly admitted that they are stuck on the definition of what they’re selling on their website and within their marketing collateral as result.

He also shared that they are exploring avenues around centre-based experiences to expand their offering, rather than just tour-based itineraries where customers usually stay in multiple places and travel between places. Another reason why the sector’s definition is becoming harder to define.

Why is adventure travel becoming more popular?

Undeniably, COVID-19 has fuelled many of the trends that are shaping the rise of adventure travel. As reported by UN Tourism, during 2020 there was a 72% decline in international tourism. Thankfully, by 2023, 88% has since recovered, with 2024 forecasts predicted to surpass pre-COVID levels by 2%.

The following are key trends that are benefiting the travel industry as a whole, but more specifically adventure travel specialists:.

Craving social connection

With a ¼ of the world’s population experiencing isolation (the percentage is even higher amongst younger people) states Intrepid’s Managing Director, Zina Bencheikh, which was accelerated by the pandemic, the opportunities of adventure (group) travel has become more and more appealing.

The chances to make friends, connect with society and share experiences with like minded travellers has a strong allure.

Solo female travellers on the rise

Many of the brands on stage shared similar female-skew statistics amongst their consumer base. Intrepid claimed 65% of its customers are female solo travellers, whilst The Adventure People quoted 60%.

The rising appeal to get out of a comfort zone, travel with peace of mind that safety and security have been well taken care of, and with the independence, time and income to see the world, solo female travellers are definitely fueling a large part of the growth of this sector.

With some tour operators also going that extra mile to create female only tours (including to Saudi Arabia), and unique experiences where women-only trips have been sensitively researched and crafted, it’s unsurprising that the interest has been overwhelming and new demand has been created.

Intrepid’s MD, Zina Bencheikh, also introduced me to my favourite word of the day, “queenager” - mature women who have the time and money to explore the world! I strive to be a queenager one day.

Health and wellness in all aspects of life

The pandemic has encouraged us to be more active, and enjoy a healthy lifestyle. More and more people are wanting to be active on holiday, and extend the healthy routine they have established in their normal lifestyle.

There were also claims, made by Intrepid, about the trends towards drinking less, especially within the millennial and Gen Z generations, helped by the explosion of non-alcoholic drink alternatives and ‘clean’ spirit options.

Adventure travel epitomises the active travel ethos and combines physical and mental exertion with ways to experience local, healthy, wholesome foods.

Pioneering spirit, more willing to go alone

Whether male or female, our society appears to be more adventurous and willing to travel alone, seek something different in a holiday (or escape from the everyday), and are more aware of what’s possible.

Whilst safety for solo travellers remains a high priority, knowing that adventure travel holidays combine “immersive travel like a local” experience, with the peace of mind that safety and security has been thoroughly vetted, even the most challenging and hostile environments* can be packaged up into a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

*Intrepid mentioned that Morocco is its largest operating region, and September last year was its busiest month. September 2023 was when a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck!

Operators are getting better plus more product choice & availability

Testament to the number of different adventure travel businesses on stage, and within the room, it’s clear that more choice, more specialisms within the industry, and more availability in passenger numbers has also accelerated the rise in the sector.

One of the newer categories to be promoted was “expedition cruises”. These are not cruises per se, but trips to warm and cold water destinations which require a cruise ship to reach the shore or explore the destination. Think Antartica, Greenland and Svalbaard. Three of the most popular expedition cruise destinations according to The Expedition Cruise Network.

We also heard from MACS, a self-guided walking and cycling specialist. The talk was a case study about their mission to sustainability, but along the way discovering that there were niches like this and communities wanting these types of trips was refreshing and inspiring.

There aren’t enough holiday days in a year to take advantage of the abundance of different adventure holiday types!

More exposure is creating demand

Awareness can also help stimulate demand. With more players in the market, spending more money to promote their businesses (and the sector), the interest in adventure travel and bookings will naturally increase.

Movers and shakers in adventure travel

Here are some quick fire top facts, opinions and outtakes from the day’s presentations on popular destinations, growing audience groups and emerging markets:

Adventure travel destination popularity - where are people going?

Many gave titbits around destinations that were suffering, bouncing back and emerging as areas to watch and promote:

  • Jordan / Egypt suffering from Middle East conflict
  • Latin America is ‘back’
  • Thailand is doing really well
  • Big return of Africa
  • Emerging markets - Albania, Madeira, Philippines
  • For expedition cruises: Antarctica, Greenland, Svalbard popular destinations. Africa also in high demand.

Perhaps some of these trends are echoed in your own business performance and marketing activity?

Adventure travel audience insights - who is the typical customer?

Intrepid's insights showed that adventure travel has a broad appeal. As a small group and adventure travel operator catering for many different audience groups, it was surprising to see the high volume of over 50s travellers in their customer profile. This definitely wasn't my perception of the Intrepid brand, but perhaps the wider appeal of adventure travel has meant it has been able to expand it's offering.

Typical customer profile:

  • 22 - 51 year olds
  • Female-skew
  • Solo travel skew
  • Long(er) haul destinations
  • Open-minded and flexible travellers
  • Forgiving when the unexpected happens

Solo traveller likes and dislikes:

As a sector with such a dominant solo traveller appeal, Jules Verne’s Marketing Director, Richard Adams, stressed that solo travellers shouldn’t be serviced differently to other customer types. Instead he encouraged agents and operators to try and make discernible differences in product planning. He offered some highlights of research undertaken into solo traveller likes and dislikes when it comes to trip planning, product and costs.

Solo traveller likes:

  • Meal considerations (dining situations)
  • Safety and reassurance
  • Sociability
  • Opportunities to meet people
  • Expert guides
  • Freedom

Solo traveller dislikes:

  • Higher costs / supplements
  • Shoulder season only offers
  • Loneliness
  • Same gender groups (unless specifically chosen for this reason)
  • Photo challenges (e.g. selfies)
  • Decision fatigue (they have no-one to share decision making, so take some of this away from them)

Rising sectors

  • DINKS - Double Income, No Kids
  • TEDs - Teenagers Experience Demand
  • Private tours - larger families travelling together
  • Expedition cruises - age shifting from ‘grey market’ to 40 year olds on some ships
    • £8,000 pp average bookings
    • A move to larger ships (+200 pax) is now common
    • 101 expedition ships worldwide

GAdventures explained how they were venturing into new product development to cater to changing needs:

  • Deluxe collection: premium travellers, 40+, esp. appealing to females
  • Solo cabins in the Galapagos
  • Overland vehicles in Africa - “Lando” (bigger windows, charging pods, larger water tanks)

Sustainability and Certified B Corp status

As well as a portion of the day purely dedicated to the topic, the theme of sustainability, the mentions of B Corp status, and general acknowledgement of responsible travel were present through many of the presentations.

A few of the brands on stage had completed, or were going through the process of gaining B Corp certification - a commitment to measuring a company’s entire social and environmental impact.

With the biggest carbon emissions producer within the travel industry being air travel (88% of carbon footprint was a stat shared on the day), it’s not easy to just offset this. Nor can most tour operators and travel agents do anything about this directly (and rely on flights for getting travellers to far flung destinations (usually a big draw for adventure travel)) so it was interesting to hear the initiatives that have been adopted by companies in this sector.

With only 12% of a company’s carbon footprint within the trip itself, it’s actually very hard to improve from within, but there are many travel companies out there trying to do their bit.

One big point to note given the topic was widely discussed, it was stressed that promoting sustainability messaging shouldn’t be a marketing communications strategy. It should be left to the travel experience itself, to show travellers what sustainability looks and feels like rather than being told what it’s like and why it’s done pre-trip.

If you get people to experience it naturally, from the way trips are designed, then this will resonate more, and will have a greater lasting impact.

A travel operator’s role is to remove the negative causes and implement the initiatives that promote good sustainability without making a song and dance about it, and without giving people a choice.

Exodus Adventure Travels initiatives

Exodus Adventure Travels offers travellers the “opportunity to explore and discover the amazing planet we all live on.”

Developing a global, sustainable and authentic adventure travel offering

  • Usually small group trips (to keep environmental impact to a minimum)
  • Immersive cultural experiences (respecting local cultures and engaging with it)
  • Trips which connect travellers with nature and its surroundings
  • Nature first approach - rewilding, reducing plastic and carbon emissions
  • Visit at least one ecological / national park where possible to contribute to the conservation fees
  • Carbon management (where possible) by switching to train journeys, shared transfers and meat-free meals
  • Addressing extreme temperatures - promoting off season travel or cool summer destinations
  • Overcrowding avoidance through reduced group sizes, offering a different perspective or position at tourist hot spots

Macs Adventure responsible journey case study

Macs Adventure is all about self-guided walking and cycling holidays, where travellers can go at their own pace, with people they choose but without the worry of planning routes or arranging the logistics.

A journey to achieve carbon neutrality, engaging with local communities, supporting conservation and reducing waste

  • Rewrote mission statement to include ‘enriching environment’ within it
  • Path stewardship involvement & partnerships - donated £21,500 in 2023 and have a commitment to increase by 50% in 2024
    • Leave no trace (USA)
    • South West Coast path (UK)
    • West Highland Way (UK)
  • Community engagement
    • Volunteering and advocacy events
    • Supply chain code of conduct
    • Fundraising - match funding and/or directly support events
    • Health and wellbeing sponsorship
  • Carbon neutrality
    • Developed an action plan
    • Carbon audit of offices and business travel + product range impact
    • Assessed carbon footprint of customers travelling to/from trips
    • Actions included, reducing where possible, offsetting (where there is a meaningful connection to business, not just planting trees), carbon score rating on website and trip information
  • Waste reduction
    • Removing single use plastic
    • Digitising trip documentation
    • Huge take up of reusable water bottles
  • To become a B Corporation - plan to be assessed soon

Adventure travel awaits

The conference, hosted by ABTA at London's The Brewery, really was an insightful and informative day. It's clear the adventure travel sector is in the ascendancy, and really reassuring to hear that not only are travellers returning to international travel in abundance, but that there are some exciting emerging destinations, new specialist operators, and sustainably conscious companies out there, all offering a bright future!

I can't wait to book my next trip as a (solo) traveller, as well as discuss this conference experience with my clients.

If you're in adventure travel, exciting times ahead, and if you're a travel agent wondering whether to diversify or specialise, this is definitely an innovative, planet-conscious segment of the travel industry to get involved with!

*This was me on a Flash Pack (adventure travel) trip to South Africa last year.

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Meet the author ...

Kherrin Wade

Strategy Director

Kherrin works with clients to develop effective marketing strategies, whether that's introducing brands to digital for the first time or pushing the boundaries with more ...