“It’s the Last Part of the Industry to Come Online”: The Evolution of Outdoor Activities

Outdoor activity operators often don’t see themselves as being part of travel, but that is changing, Philippe Bichet says
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Philippe Bichet’s top tips for operators:

Don’t be caught off guard — in the space of two weeks volume will suddenly return

Hire preemptively — make sure that you have the right staff to manage a sudden boom in bookings

Safety and sanitary measures — don’t state them on your website. The standard is that everyone is safe. It’s not the selling point, it’s the bare minimum

People will be traveling from Northern to Southern Europe — have people that speak English to welcome them

The outdoor segment is very similar to the rest of the tours and activities industry — it is often passion- rather than business-oriented, it is fragmented with many small, similar companies operating in the same location, and it is highly seasonal. Many of the staff are contractors who come on board just before the action starts to happen.

However, there is one major difference — many outdoor operators do not see themselves as working in travel. Instead, they think of themselves as being part of the sports ecosystem, despite the fact that many of their guests will be on vacation.

This means that many outdoor operators have not experienced the sudden surge of digitalization that has swept through the in-destination industry.

“A lot of operators are losing out on opportunities”

“It's the Last Part of the Industry to Come Online”: The Evolution of Outdoor Activities Arival Ben Finch Philippe Bichet
“The key building block for operators is reservation technology,” Bichet says — Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

“Outdoor activities is still very much an offline business,” Philippe Bichet says. “It’s really the last part of the industry to really come online and maximize the opportunities that online travel offers.”

Bichet is the co-founder and CEO of Manawa, a Paris, France-based OTA for the segment. Named after a surfing wave in Mauritius and meaning “the breath” in Māori, it currently has 6,500 bookable activities from almost 2,500 providers. The activities range from those you would expect, such as mountain biking and surfing, to some a little more challenging, such as survival training and heliskiing.

“It’s holding the industry back very much,” he says. “A lot of the visibility that you can gain online, you can get the visibility from other players in the travel space. If you look at the travel booking funnel you know you have first flights and accommodations then tours and activities.

“This is where you are as an operator. This is where your clients come from. You’re not tapping into that pool of demand by being invisible. I think a lot of operators are losing out on potential opportunities.”

“There is a ton of technology innovation going on in the travel space. If you want to tap into that, you need to connect yourself more to the travel angle, and I think the key building block here is obviously reservation technology.”

Outdoor activities are professionalizing fast

“It's the Last Part of the Industry to Come Online”: The Evolution of Outdoor Activities Arival Ben Finch Philippe Bichet
Ski resorts are the exception when it comes to outdoor activities — Robson Hatsukami Morgan / Unsplash

Bichet sees three stumbling blocks for outdoor operators: knowledge, scale and philosophy. The lack of a connection to the travel industry means they have missed the learnings and innovation. Justifying the cost and time of implementing reservation technology is also more difficult for small businesses.

On the philosophical side, running the activities is a passion project more than a business for most. Bichet says: “The old guard kind of looks at these tools and says: ‘But I’m satisfied with the 10 clients I get every day for my paragliding flights. I don’t need a tool to help me grow that number to 15 or 20.’”

This is changing fast. Operators are beginning to think like tours and see that the quality of their service must be high, that they need to be more efficient in their booking processes, and that they need to be visible with good reviews in order to attract travelers. Larger adventure operators in Europe and the U.S. that have grown have done so in large part through adopting reservations systems and investing in online booking, digital marketing and distribution. 

Bichet also contends that  Europe is behind when it comes to marketing their outdoor activities. Countries such as New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia are promoted as places to go on an adventure and bungee jump or skydive. However, no one knows that France has the most places to skydive in Europe.

He points to the one exception — ski resorts. In the 60s, many European countries made a concerted effort to develop these destinations into outdoor destinations. Now, these are highly marketed. There were 210 million skier days a year in Europe in more normal times.

Operators should concentrate on efficiency and scaling their operation

“It's the Last Part of the Industry to Come Online”: The Evolution of Outdoor Activities Arival Ben Finch Philippe Bichet
Outdoor operators should professionalize without losing their passion for the sport — Kay Liedl / Unsplash

Activity operators in Europe now have an opportunity to capture more domestic and regional travel, but they need to concentrate on operational efficiency and scaling their operations. 

“Even before Covid, I saw fewer and fewer independent instructors,” Bichet says. “I see them grouping themselves together and creating real businesses with proper digital marketing campaigns, and deals with the local DMOs.

“People that are the most efficient get the most bookings. They are more visible, they have better reviews, they have more supplies so they can accommodate groups, and, basically, they are taking up market share from the small guys. That’s across countries, across verticals, across destinations.”

Manawa wants to continue to help outdoor operators continue to professionalize without losing their passion for the activity. As well as selling the activities to a broader market, they are helping with digital tools, reservation technology and API connectivity.

“We do believe that you never remember your flight when you travel,” Bichet says. “But you will remember your paragliding flight for life. If you want to build memories and souvenirs that will last a lifetime. Some of the activities that we sell are incredible for that.

“We’re really here to accompany them in changing their business from an amateur one into a professional one, without losing that passion.”

Philippe Bichet spoke about The Great Outdoors: Adventure & Outdoor Experiences in 2021 at the Arival Spring Into Summer conference

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