In the field
Frontiers North Adventures prides itself on making polar bear viewing accessible. The Winnipeg, Manitoba-based company's travel levels have more to do with access to window seats and a photo specialist than with the bears themselves. But all participants need to climb stairs to board the Tundra Buggy, a vehicle that looks like a Humvee on steroids, with tires 5.5 feet off the ground.
Last year, though, an intrepid 105-year-old successfully made the trip. "Our driver let her drive the buggy," communications and marketing coordinator Brandi Hayberg recalled. "She was a pretty active lady."
A roster of on-location best practices can support a successful mature travel experience:
Good guidance: A welcoming meeting affords another opportunity to assess competence. G Adventures' chief experience officers, or CEOs for short, live or travel extensively in their regions. "They are really well trained to qualify the passengers when we meet them," G Adventures' Garrity said.
Post-kickoff, group leaders create chemistry and ensure that everybody can maximize adventure travel at their level of competence and (in)dependence.
"The guide is the first line of defense," Dan Austin said. "He has to make the judgment calls ... to protect both the guest and the group."
Since adventures often vary daily, evening recaps and discussions of forthcoming activities and expectations can be reassuring, while leaving room for positive surprises.
Generational specificity: "I've become an expert on mobile CPAP [sleep apnea] machines," Alan Feldstein of Infinite Safari Adventures said. "Many places turn the generators off at night. I now know how to handle an issue that five years ago I didn't have to handle."
Conservation and sustainability: This market can reward suppliers that avoid parks that drug animals and offset carbon emissions from transportation.
Customized activity levels: HE Travel specializes in gay adventure tours, and company CEO Philip Sheldon observed that clients who were doing them in their 40s and 50s are continuing to do them in their 60s and 70s -- at their pace. "We encourage people to test their own limits within the soft adventure world," he said from his Key West office.
During an HE weeklong Colors of Burgundy bike trip, 12 riders broke into three groups with guides moving among them. "We said goodbye to two guys in the morning, and they took it upon themselves to serve wine to the group at the end of the day," Sheldon recalled. "I wasn't holding them back; they weren't pushing me beyond my capacity. I was one of the weaker cyclists, but it was a great experience.
"The most important thing is to bring people out of their activity closet so people know exactly what they are signing up for. The biggest risk is someone who is totally inappropriate for a trip."
Which can happen.
One operator recalled how, during a very active cruise, a passenger came to the captain and said, "My husband has grand mal seizures triggered by rocking." Apparently, this condition had not been disclosed on either the travel information or release of liability forms. The captain brought the husband in and decided that his condition could put himself and the other passengers at risk. A more relaxed itinerary was put together that included a land package with use of day boats.
"Obviously it became a little sticky," the operator said. "But we were able to salvage the trip."
Besides de rigueur surveys and thank-yous, transcendent trips can create loyalty. Lindblad's memorabilia includes a daily experience report, a wildlife list, photos, maps, experience reports and staff/guest contact information to continue the bonding beyond the travel.
"It's a great way for agents to see what the daily activities are, and guests can relive their voyage," Lindblad's McEvoy said.
In the end, it's about the mature road warrior.
On a personal note, Clint Blandford was my roommate on a G Adventures trip to Tibet that I took in 2012 for Travel Weekly. Now 69, the retired teacher has been to 120 countries by the Century Club's count.
"When you say 'adventure,' it often has the connotation of rock climbing," he said. "For me, it's kind of a romantic thing. After you read "The Great Game," you have to see Uzbekistan and Tajikistan." He has seen both, and with an extension to Iran.
Blandford was in Yellowstone when I first reached him just before a trip to Greece and Bulgaria.
"I do a lot of hiking," he said when home in St. Louis. "I do have a bit of concern about what happens if I'm someplace and I have a heart attack. But I can't think of a better way to go."