Tuscany was the surprising venue for last week's Adventure Travel World Summit, the annual gathering of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). Past hosts such as Namibia, Chile, Alaska and Switzerland didn't raise a critical eyebrow, but among the 800 delegates who gathered in Montecatini Terme last week, some were surprised by (and a bit dubious about) the selection of a province better known for producing olive oil than adrenaline.
But before I launch into the debate around the definition of "adventure travel," permit me a word or two about Montecatini Terme. It's a town I hadn't heard of before being invited to moderate a panel at the Summit, but I found it fascinating. Its spa waters and palace hotels once attracted the cream of Hollywood, but today it's one part "A Room With a View," one part "Sunset Boulevard," one part "From Russia, With Love."
Faded, peeling spa facades sit within splashing distance of lushly decorated, well-maintained art nouveau temples where receptionists still require an examination by resident doctors in order to understand which local waters will effect a "cure."
And "From Russia, With Love"? All I can say is that visitors on packaged tours that originated in Moscow have an outsize presence in Montecatini Terme.
All in all, a surprising choice within a surprising location for this conference.
Concerns about whether Tuscany is a serious adventure travel destination dissipated greatly in the days leading up to the conference. The Summit neatly integrated experience and content; the organizer -- a for-profit association -- understands that community is at the heart of its enterprise, and attendees were urged to participate in a pre-Summit "adventure." They were also required to participate in a "Day of Adventure" immediately before the conference began.
ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell acknowledges that adventure is a "squishy" word; the preconference activities ranged from whitewater rafting to truffle hunting.
Just as water finds its own level, attendees tended to gravitate to doable challenges. I joined a group who, starting in front of the cathedral in Lucca, traversed the Pisani mountains and ended at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a two-day, 15-mile trek crossing a 1,700-foot pass. Challenging at points, but doable.
And indeed, community was established among our group, which included a Swede, a Portuguese, a Mongolian, a Croatian, a Colombian and an Italian guide.
Across all delegates, the preconference activities gave attendees a mostly common experience and context for the three days of programming that followed.
I say "mostly common" because even though the experiences of whitewater rafters and truffle hunters were vastly different, both the emotional charge and sense of satisfaction appeared to be at similar levels.
Given the spectrum of activities his members offer, Stowell said the ATTA staff "talks about putting guardrails around" the word adventure.
Nature, culture and activity are at the core, they concluded.
"It can't be a surface experience," he said. "It requires some sort of immersion. No drive-bys."
But Stowell admitted that the guardrails are wide apart.
"An adventure for my parents will lean toward culture," he said." One for my insane younger brother will lean toward activity."
The association commissioned a study exploring motivations that drove respondents to book what they considered an adventure travel experience. The study discovered most were looking for transformation, education, impact, wellness and uniqueness.
Could any destination that contains the raw materials to produce those outcomes be described as an adventure destination?
"I hesitate to say 'any,'" Stowell replied. "Not giant urban centers, divorced from nature."
Perhaps the elastic nature of adventure travel contributes to stats indicating an explosive interest in the category. Adventure tourism is growing at nearly 20% annually vs. about 5% for tourism as a whole, said ATTA president Casey Hanisko. But new technology, such as e-bikes, and activities such as stand-up paddleboarding, have softened adventure to the point that multigeneration adventure vacations are being booked.
Susan Kelly, a travel adviser with Luxury Adventure Trips in Seattle, said she considers herself "a gentle adventure traveler" who loves nature and seeks a cultural component. She participated in a five-night, pre-Summit hike, walking six to eight miles a day and stopping to visit women winemakers and local artisans.
"Adventure doesn't have to be hard core," she said. "My clientele is over 50, retired or retiring soon and wants to see the world, learn and be active. They don't want to vegetate on a beach."
I finally put the question Why Tuscany? directly to Stowell.
"Moab [Utah] would be an easy decision, from an adventure point of view," he said. "But we felt good about Tuscany. Yes, it aligned with our funding budget [needs], but we pay attention to things like the variety of offerings, readiness of operators [conducting Summit activities] and how professional the guides are.
"I'll also tell you that one destination I won't name wants to do the Summit and every year says, 'What do you need? We'll give it to you.' But they never attend our events, and relationships are important to us."
That seems abundantly evident from the time and effort the group puts into community building. I believe the core values and sense of purpose shared between ATTA and its membership is a good sign for the entire adventure category.
However that may be defined.