CTC’s program has helped this Yukon wilderness operator pique fresh interest in markets from Japan to Germany.
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Awesome is a hugely overused word, but in the case of Canada’s North, it does the landscape and its people justice. Neil Hartling, owner of Canadian River Expeditions / Nahanni River Adventures, YK, fell in love with the Nahanni River back in 1984 and has worked in the region ever since to nurture the dreams of visitors from Canada, the US and around the world.
Canadian River Expeditions / Nahanni River Adventures is a worthy member of the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC)’s Signature Experiences Collection® (SEC) program. Now into its second year, its 160-plus members are starting to reap the rewards of inclusion.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your enterprise today?
The toughest challenge we face is adapting to market changes. We have to try to determine what consumers are looking for and then package the products to be as attractive as possible. In particular, those packages need to yield good margins. We also have to work within the resources we have at hand, such as licences to operate in national parks for certain activities, and within the constraints of those licences. One of our biggest assets is my client database from 25 years of work—we currently have a 45% return rate—so we have to package products to get the best possible results from these clients and their evolving desires.
Tell us more about the experience you have that is featured in the Collection…
We run river expeditions on some of the highest profile rivers in the world in terms of wilderness travel. “Rafting down glacier alley” is a multi-activity trip, where the biggest part is played by rafting or canoeing from camp to camp. There’s also hiking, time for photography and we accommodate artists on these trips. All along the way our guests can view the abundant wildlife, wild flowers and birds—all the classic elements of wilderness travel.
When we started 27 years ago, we were dealing with boomers who were then in their early 30s who had some money and were looking for excitement. We’re now largely dealing with the same cohort. But now they are in their late 50s, with far more disposable income. These people are highly experienced travellers, who know what they want and know what to expect. Relatively speaking, they’re quite demanding! Their tastes are now quite refined; our visitors still stay in tents, but the mattresses are more comfortable. We have a lower ratio of guides to guests so they get more attention. And the menu is much more upscale: we have a greater selection of wine for them to choose from. Thirty years ago, they’d have been excited if we produced a wine box!
How are you promoting your membership?
We’re in a niche market, so 90% of our sales are direct to consumers through the Internet. The other 10% come from specialized travel-trade sales, not through huge catalogues. One of the best things about SEC for us is how it has enhanced our profile through the CTC and boosted our recognition among the travel trade. It also enhances consumer confidence in us as a business—that we are up with the times and can match the discerning tastes of the adventure traveller.
Are you getting visitors from any new international markets or are you seeing a greater numbers from existing ones?
We’re definitely piquing interest in our existing markets among travellers who might not have considered us before. We’re now more on the radar in Japan and Germany.
Has your media exposure changed domestically or internationally?
We’ve had a small uptick both domestically and internationally, but it’s hard to quantify exactly.
Do you have any new tourism products in the pipeline?
There is an increased demand for customized trips. Typically, a custom group trip costs around $65,000. Next year, however, we have one planned that will cost around $330,000. The itinerary is relatively unchanged; it’s the level of services that we will be providing that is far greater. There will be helicopters standing by, for instance, in case they’re needed for a spur-of-the-moment trip. That shows the scale of the opportunities out there. There is a lot more work to do, but the rewards are greater, too. We can now offer these kinds of trips and capture high-end customers.
Have you considered exploring business relationships or cross-promotions with other SEC members?
Yes, I always look at each one on a project-by-project basis. If there was an opportunity to do one with a fellow SEC member that made sense, I’d certainly be open to it.
What’s been your biggest lesson this year as a tourism operator?
I must always look beyond my preconceptions and the past limitations of our products to what is possible within this affluent and discerning market. People have ideas and expectations that we can meet.
What are some of the challenges facing Canada’s tourism industry?
Access to capital to finance growth has always been troublesome. For those of us in rural areas, we need to envision new products and get past the colloquial view of what we are limited to. It’s a bit like chicken and eggs: if we build it, will they come?