The evolving adventure traveler

By Marc Mancini
Marc ManciniSmile Magazine? No, I don't think so. Healthy Gums? Pass. The Journal of Teeth? Are you serious?

I'm in my dentist's waiting room, totally bored, sifting through a mountain of magazines, hoping to discover something halfway interesting to read.

Ah, what's this? The Red Bulletin, published by Red Bull. Nothing better to prepare yourself for a dental exam than a magazine published by the world's best-known energy drink. Very trendy. Very "now."

As I flip through its pages, I'm struck by the topics it covers: chasing sharks; climbing vertical cliffs; kayaking down waterfalls (that's right: not just whitewater rivers but those with waterfalls.) There's an unnerving photo of a "slackliner" balancing her way across a steep, deep canyon in Utah and a photo of spelunkers wending their way through a crystal-sharded cave that looks like Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

Red Bulletin makes extreme activities seem oh-so normal. Doesn't everybody want to co-pilot an old Russian MiG jet fighter? Take trapeze lessons from Cirque du Soleil? Ride a rocket into space?

That's not to say the average traveler is, wants or even ought to be fearless. These are rather extreme examples.

One thing is for sure, though: We've come a long way from the time, not all that long ago, when an ASTA survey asked travel agents what they thought the No. 1 adventure destination in America was. Their answer: Yellowstone.

It's clearly time to recalibrate our notions of adventure travel. But first, let's go off-road. Let's investigate one of the most useful tools ever devised to gauge how adventurous the majority of travelers (and your clients) are: the Plog Continuum.

Years ago, the late Stanley Plog, the foremost travel researcher of his time, created what came to be known as the Plog Continuum. It swiftly became our industry's equivalent of E=mc2 because it explains almost everything about where and why people travel.

Plog said leisure travelers could be categorized along a bell curve. On the curve's left slope are what he termed "psychocentrics." Those on the right side he labeled "allocentrics." Most travelers are somewhere in the middle and represent a blend of the more moderate traits of both types.

Psychocentrics, he said, are conservative, relatively timid travelers. To them, risk is a disturbing word. They prefer to visit nearby, familiar places, often take family drive vacations and stay with relatives when they get to their destination. They're attracted to escorted tours, especially those that feature full-day schedules all plotted out for them. Not surprisingly, they were among the first to discover cruising, when it was still neatly packaged and, by today's standards, bland.

When psychocentrics decide to travel overseas, they favor places like England, Bermuda, Canada and Hawaii, where they understand the language, feel relatively comfortable with the culture and, when hungry in a foreign country, might be quite happy to dine at Denny's or McDonald's.

On the continuum's opposite slope, allocentrics are risk takers -- at least among the travelers who were around when Plog first formulated his theory. They favor exotic, often distant destinations, prefer FITs or "independent" tour packages, love flexibility and spontaneity and want an experience that's interactive and involving. They don't want to sightsee, they want to "sightdo."

So what does Red Bull's magazine have to do with this? I think it shows that many of today's consumers are attracted to travel that features at least some adventure and at least a bit of risk. So, in effect, the Plog Continuum curve has dramatically shifted toward the right, toward greateradventure-fueled behavior.

Examples are everywhere. Here's one: Been to a theme park lately? A roller coaster with a 100-foot drop is the one for wimps. But the 200-foot-high coaster that twists and turns and makes you practically black out? Now that is cool!

It's time to fully realize that a significant and growing sector of our clientele, perhaps a majority, craves adventure. They want travel to challenge them, stimulate them, make them more alert and alive than they are in their everyday lives. Ziplining through a forest, climbing a wall riveted onto a cruise ship funnel, camping on the Kalahari with all sorts of beasts nearby -- these would have been almost unthinkable vacations for all but the most daring when Plog formulated his continuum.

Today's allocentrics are more bold, its psychocentrics less timid. And even those in the middle, the majority of your clients, expect at least a few elements of adventure as part of their vacations.

If you haven't yet, it's time to rethink how much drama your clients might want, how extreme they're willing to be. Sure, there are still psychocentrics who think that all you need to do to see the Eiffel Tower or the canals of Venice is to go to Las Vegas. But their numbers are dwindling.

So how should you respond to this significant shift? Here are a few ideas:

• Start paying closer attention to suppliers who specialize in adventure travel. Once at the fringes of our industry's attention, they've become more central to our sales and marketing than ever before.

• Keep close track of how major tour operators, cruise lines and resorts have reformulated their products toward adventure, flexibility and involving experiences.

• Make a commitment to learn more about exotic destinations. Some of the most significant growth in tourism is occurring in Africa, Asia and South America. That trend is expected to accelerate for some time to come.

• Don't assume that this trend toward more adventurous travel is limited to Gen Xers and millennials. Adventure resonates with some of your older clients, too. Remember: The baby boomers who now dominate the travel marketplace took all kinds of risks when they were young, perhaps more than any previous generation had. Despite those early excesses, they're generally more healthy, active and fit than their parents' generation was -- and far more comfortable with adventure, too.

• Keep learning. Last year, I helped design CLIA's Travel for All course, which explores the travel needs of those of our clients with disabilities. After all the research I did, I thought I knew all about the activities they enjoy. Then a CLIA trainer sent me an article on deep sea diving for the physically challenged. It was eye-opening. I should have known that such products exist. Clearly, no segment of the travel market is immune to the desire for adventure.

• Perhaps most important, when qualifying your client, make it a priority to discover how adventurous they are. Ask yourself, "Where would I place this client on the Plog Continuum?" Let's go back to Yosemite. Would your clients simply want to see it, or would they want to hike its trails, climb its cliffs, do handstands on an overhang? Or maybe they'd prefer to do these things not in Yosemite but in the Himalayas?

The answer to that question should help you craft a vacation that fits your client perfectly, one that appeals to more people than ever in these Red Bull times.

Marc Mancini is a travel expert, speaker, writer, consultant and a leading designer of industry training programs. 
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