Can Birding Save the World? – A Review of “Birding Without Borders”

By Dan Moore, CEO of Pandion Consulting & Facilitation

I have always liked the concept of reading. Tons of emotion and information packed into a bunch of words, leading to images formed inside your head using your own imagination. It is incredible to put yourself in someone else’s adventure while making it your own. I still remember reading “Mr. Mysterious and Company” back in 5th grade.
 
The reality is because I spend so much time savoring all the words it takes me a while to read books and I often lose interest. I’ve tried speed reading, but I end up daydreaming when I am supposed to be comprehending what I’m reading. Stacks of unread books sit on my shelf and half-read books sit next to my bed. So when my in-laws gave me a book for Christmas this year, while the title intrigued me, I wasn’t too excited for yet another book I probably will never get to.
 
Not sure what motivated me back in February to pick up this book. Probably I was waiting for a friend to play a move in Words with Friends (another reason books remain unread). I started reading Birding Without Borders by Noah Strycker and three chapters in the switch had been flipped. I got up from bed (probably about midnight) and got online to sign up for e-bird and bought a new, more functional, pair of binoculars. When I went back to bed I started listing all the birds I already knew that could get me towards my (very) modest goal of seeing 100 bird species this year. I came up with 80 and then fell asleep.
 
I have been into wildlife my whole life, and thanks to learning from my incredible colleagues when I worked at Discovery Park, I have also been capable of knowing what many of the birds I am looking at. But I have almost never “gone birding” and certainly didn’t wake up early on a Saturday to go see what was migrating through.
 
Thanks to a book I have made the switch from “bird enthusiast” to “aspiring birder”. The difference being that I am not only interested in knowing what I’m looking at and appreciating nature, but now I actually seek out these animals and spend time trying to understand the subtleties between species. I am enjoying setting goals to find specific birds, and when you submit a checklist on e-bird your tally gets compiled to an international data base dedicated to bird knowledge and wildlife conservation.
 
As with all goals, I have now reassessed what is possible now that I have started working towards it. My 100th bird species (a Common Sandpiper) was seen in Italy over a month ago (thanks to the help of bird guide Marco Valtriani). My 100th bird species in the United States, 149th of the year, was fittingly just seen in my in-laws’ back yard (an Evening Grosbeak). Now I am going for 100 species in Washington State. 31 more to go. While the goals are fun to achieve, and quite small for most birders, what I am really loving is getting to know who lives in the places I visit – whether my backyard or a destination I’m traveling to. It is fun to look forward to waking up early on a weekend to go hang out in nature. And it is usually quite peaceful out in parks before most people get there.
 
Strycker’s insane goal of seeing 5000 species (about half the world’s known bird species) in one year might sound like just another tale about a man trying to add another notch to his belt – not the type of thing that typically interests me. Instead, it was a story about what can be accomplished when humans work together. The power of a global community’s love of nature and wildlife. What I appreciated about this book is the combination of travel story, wildlife watching log, and what is great about humanity. Even with the tally of birds counting in the background, the showcase of the story was the birds being described in incredible detail. And the heroes of the story were the dedicated and knowledgable birders that are now found in almost every corner of the globe. Their passion and knowledge is what helped Strycker surpass his goal by over 1000 species, and they are working hard to help in conservation of these creatures that face enormous pressures from human encroachment and climate change. Can birding save the world? I think it can at least help in conservation of wildlife. I think it also helps connect people around the globe, and better connect people to the places they travel. Most importantly, I think birding opens up our eyes to seeing the beauty and complexity of nature.
You don’t have to be a birder to like this book, but be careful you may want to become one after reading it.
 
Here is the book that got me interested in birding:
See Noah Strycker giving a Ted Talk in Salem Oregon earlier this year:
Get started with birding by visiting e-bird.

Starting an Adventure Travel Company: If I could go back in time, what would I do differently?

 

In 2008 I started full time helping to build and run the adventure company, Evergreen Escapes (www.evergreenescapes.com). For the prior year I had been flirting with the idea of quitting my day job, a park ranger at a nature park in Seattle, USA, to come on board full time at Evergreen. May of 2008 I finally jumped off the cliff and made it happen. I learned a ton over the next 6 and a half years, and I am very fortunate for the experience I had. While there are no doubts that this was a great move, there are a handful of items I would recommend doing differently if I were to do it all over again. There are three major areas to be aware of: profitability, risk management, and authenticity.

 

The number one thing I think everyone needs to know about running an adventure company is that it is difficult to make a profit on the outfitting / supplier side. There are lots of costs, and especially if you are in a seasonal destination, it will be difficult to manage cash flow. Many people look at the price tag for a quality adventure experience and they assume someone is making a ton of money. The reality is, running this type of business is not cheap. First, you are paying quite a bit for insurance – not something you want to skimp on. Second, for you to be able to charge a high enough price to make a living, you have to make sure that every experience Isn’t just good, but amazing. Who is primarily responsible for the success of your trip? The guide! He / she is on the front line representing your company, and quality guides are not cheap. Second to the guide are the amenities on your trip. Food may seem like an afterthought, but if you read reviews from top adventure companies, no doubt you will read reviews that talk about incredible food. This is a basic need identified by the researcher Maslow. It is no doubt that spending some extra money getting high quality, and hopefully sustainable, food options will be rewarded. This costs money and requires a bit more logistics. So, to increase profitability it is important to have a clear and conservative budget, price your experiences high enough that you will be able to make money to get through slow periods, and have a product that is quality enough to ask for high prices.

 

The next recommendation is to be very aware of the risks that go into running an adventure travel company. Yes, people are signing up for your trip because they are excited to be pushed slightly out of their comfort zone, but the irony is they expect everything to be 110% safe and all variables accounted for. This paradox requires you to have your emergency procedures locked in. Evaluate every activity on your trip to determine what risks exist. What is the likelihood that one of those risks will become a reality? If the probability is high and / or the severity is high, then you likely need to come up with a treatment to reduce either the severity or the probability. Once you know what risks exist, you can then build out an Emergency Response Plan to prepare for what you will do when the probability is not in your favor. It is not just enough to have a plan; you need to practice the plan. At least once a year, simulate an emergency and allow your whole staff to go through all the steps they would take to deal with an emergency.

 

Despite all the preparation you might take to make sure that you never have an emergency, there is enough out of your hands that you will need to have appropriate insurance to cover your operation. Make sure your insurance actually covers the activities you are offering. This is a key mistake that can become a very costly mistake. Be sure to read the policy carefully. Is every activity you provide listed in your policy? Are you confident that there are no exemptions that apply to your operation? The best is to have a broker that is an expert in adventure travel to make sure that you have a professional set of eyes reading your policy.

 

As stated previously, your number one asset in the field is your guide. It is crucial to provide solid training of your guides and staff both for safety AND quality. From the recently released Adventure Travel Guide Qualifications & Performance Standard: “An Adventure Travel Guide is a guide with a general knowledge of a variety of skill competencies (i.e. interpretive, medical and sustainability) required to facilitate a group of clients through a range of terrains, environments and locales in a safe, manageable and respectable manner.” Making sure your guides have the proper training, and fully understand your companies value proposition is essential to fully harnessing their potential.

 

Another item to be aware of is to make sure you have addressed specific government requirements, and obtained permission to access the land where your trips will operate on. In the US this is sometimes not thought about until it is too late, and businesses find they are unable to obtain permits for public land. Other parts of the world might have company licenses that are required before you work with the public. These regulations are not always welcomed by our industry, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to address them.

 

Finally, I want to encourage everyone involved in tourism to realize that we not only have an opportunity, we have a responsibility to do more than just create a “fun” experience for our guests. The impact of flying people around the globe and inserting them into our communities is not miniscule. What about traveling can change the world? How can we curate the experiences for our guests to create a net positive for our destinations? This is the question that we should face from the inception point of our companies.

 

I am confident that the adventure tourism industry will not shy away from these bigger picture issues. And I know there will be many passionate individuals that will want to dive in head first to start adventure companies. Let’s work together to make sure we create sustainable businesses that are benefitting the communities we live in, and the industry as a whole.

 

About Dan Moore:

Dan Moore has over 15 years experience as an entrepreneur, professional adventure guide, and educator. Dan is the CEO of Pandion Consulting & Facilitation, a travel industry consultancy and facilitation company based in Seattle, Washington (USA). Pandion’s mission is to raise the standards, quality, and sustainability of the travel industry. This is accomplished through facilitating community development workshops, designing and delivering industry training, and direct consulting with businesses and destinations. Pandion is respected worldwide for designing cutting edge tourism education products. The team’s vast operations knowledge, including guide training, permitting, sustainability, and staff management is what differentiates Pandion from other consultancies. Dan sits on several non-profit boards, and is a member of the faculty for Adventure EDU, the education and consulting arm of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. He also teaches Ecotourism, Adventure Travel, and Guide Training at Peninsula College in Washington State. Dan is the Chair of the International Adventure Travel Guide Standard.

Is Consolidation Good or Bad for the Travel Industry?

We are often told by merging businesses and corporations that consolidation will bring better services to more customers and will lower prices. Even regulators, whose job it is to protect the consumer, will often say this. This goes against both the capitalist theory of competition and my personal instinct. Why would a more powerful company with less competition want to lower its price if it doesn’t have to? Consolidation of essential positions (HR, finance, etc) might lead to increased profit for the fewer people that own the now larger company. And the now larger company might have more power in the marketplace to insist on lower prices from suppliers. But one should not assume that this cost savings will be passed on to consumers. In the travel industry, both mainstream and niches like Adventure Travel, the trend has been moving towards consolidation. I have personally seen very good ground operators lose significant amounts of business due to a tour operator upstream being bought and the now larger business unifying the entire business around a different supplier. This might seem good for the other ground operator, but this means greater homogenization of the products offered, and a company that might not have been ready for such an increase of growth now responsible for a much larger share of the market.

I haven’t seen a ton of attention given to the potential pitfalls for businesses and consumers with consolidation in the travel industry. There are two recently published articles, that, especially seen side by side, outlines some of the negative sides of consolidation. The first is in Adventure Travel News and outlines the separation of a young mega company: Peak Adventure Travel Group, a strategic venture between TUI Group and Intrepid Travel. This is the merger that saw ripples in the supply chain internationally. In addition to the possible impacts on businesses and consumers, it appears that mega mergers can sometimes be hard on the two merging businesses themselves. TUI and Intrepid are still huge, but I think this separation is ultimately good for the industry.

TUI-group and Intrepid Travel to Part Ways – Adventure Travel News

The second article was in the New York Times on July 1st. It initially caught my attention because the lead is about price collusion between the four major airlines. As a frequent flyer I get concerned with lack of competition amongst airlines, leading to poorer service and higher prices. The article digs into the fact that consolidation in the airline industry has made it easier for collusion to occur even though “[executives] actually hate each other, truth be told. But with so few of them left, there’s almost a natural oligopoly.” Airlines have gone from near bankruptcy to record profits. One reason is the extremely low fuel prices. Yet, ticket prices have not dropped as you would expect with lower costs. Says Senator Chuck Schumer: “It’s hard to understand, with jet fuel prices dropping by 40 percent since last year, why ticket prices haven’t followed. We know that when airlines merge, there’s less price competition.” Senator Schumer has called for a Justice Department investigation.

Airlines Under Justice Department Investigation – New York Times

To maintain a vibrant and sustainable travel industry it is important to be skeptical of the promises made by merging companies. We need to hold regulators accountable to do their jobs and make sure they apply scrutiny when approving such mergers.

 

Pandion to Conduct Two Adventure Travel Workshops in Oregon: Feb 24-25

If you are based in Oregon, please consider attending one or both of the upcoming workshops we are conducting in Portland Oregon February 24th and 25th:

WHEN: February 24 & 25, 2015 | 9:00AM – 5:00 PM both days

WHERE: Jupiter Hotel Portland | 800 East Burnside St. Portland, Oregon 97214

RSVP: Here! Registration closes Feb. 20, 2015 and is limited to first 50 registrants

COST: $10 for 2 day registration

DAY 1:  FEBRUARY 24
Connecting your business to the world: Understanding and attracting the international and high-value traveler

Key Takeaways:

  • Strategies to connect to global supply chain
  • Attracting media and PR
  • Product development for international travelers
  • High impact marketing methods

DAY 2:  FEBRUARY 25
Navigating Permitting, and Setting up Successful Operations

Key Takeaways:

  • How to understand and obtain required permits and licenses
  • Designing and implementing an Emergency Response Plan (ERP)
  • Creating risk management protocol
  • Properly insuring your operation
  • Vehicle/equipment certification and maintenance best practices

 

Food & Drink:

  • Morning pastries and a catered lunch will be provided daily
  • Coffee, tea and water will be available throughout the workshops
  • Basecamp Brewing reception following each day

More information HERE.