We've heard the story dozens of times now. A big event was cancelled. A virtual substitute was conceived. It either worked—or it didn't.
AdventureELEVATE, the annual networking and educational conference hosted by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), followed this familiar trajectory. This week, on September 15 and 16, the show was adapted to a virtual format for the first time.
Luckily for everyone involved, it seems to have fallen into the "worked" camp. More than 460 people registered for the event, and engagement across both days of programming was high, said ATTA president Casey Hanisko.
"This is an event that we hold to inspire our community to think differently," Hanisko told SNEWS. "Taking it online, we tried to mimic some of the items that people really love to see at the in-person event. I think our community, myself included, just couldn't wait to get back together, and a virtual event was good enough for now. We really felt that a lot of people were thrilled to talk to each other and find out what was going on."
The event featured two keynote addresses and one keynote workshop, all focused on topics relevant to the industry at the present moment.
To kick things off, Future iQ CEO David Beurle gave a lecture titled “Thriving in a Future World," which explored the shifting nature of travel habits, macro trends across the industry, and the "reinvention" of cities—in other words, what increasing urbanization means for travel industry consumers and the businesses that serve them.
"The opening lecture was great, because we're coming to a tipping point on a lot of these topics," said Hanisko. "We really need to start thinking about what that means for travel."
The beginning of day two opened with a keynote workshop called "Listening for the Future," presented by Lee Kitchen and Sura Al-Naimi.
Consultants who specialize in outside-the-box thinking, Kitchen and Al-Naimi worked with participants to teach active and emotional listening techniques—especially important skills right now, Hanisko said, as companies try to reconnect with their markets, audiences, and customers after this spring's upheaval.
To close things out, James Edward Mills spoke about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the adventure travel space and explained a few highlights from the ATTA's latest Diversity Report, which Hanisko said will become public in a few weeks.
In addition to the keynotes, the event's two days were packed with other relevant offerings, including trend discussions on topics like "the Covid-19 traveler," community roundtables, and virtual versions of the "networking adventures" that AdventureELEVATE has become known for.
This year, ATTA organizers found a way for attendees to experience a virtual Argentinian wine tasting, a recreation of Darwin’s voyages, and other activities meant to bring attendees together and foster conversation.
The most beneficial networking offering, though, was likely the "speed dating" chat function ATTA organizers built into the event's platform. Attendees were able to enter a chat room that randomly paired them with industry colleagues for four-minute discussions.
"At in-person events, you end up spending time with a lot of people you know," said Hanisko. "This networking feature allowed me to meet so many people that I might not have connected with otherwise."
The elephant in the room
Asked what she made of certain industry groups' grim predictions for the future of adventure travel, Hanisko responded with a note of optimism.
"I started off the whole event by talking about how hard it's been for the industry," she said. "But the good news is that there were a lot of positive people at the event. Certain trends—like travel picking up on a regional scale—are happening. People were eager to focus on that."
As presenters outlined in some of the breakout sessions, the overall picture for the travel industry isn't uniformly bleak. The old model may not work anymore, but that doesn't mean opportunity doesn't exist. Trends are shifting, and travel businesses will be required to take certain action—like reallocating marketing dollars to focus on local offerings, Hanisko said—to keep up. The idea of what travel itself means might, temporarily, have to change.
"I think the businesses that have diverse options, or are small enough to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset and shift their offerings, are doing all right," Hanisko said.
Looking to the future
ATTA plans to resume the live version of AdventureELEVATE in 2021. The next conference is scheduled for November 16-18.
In the meantime, Hanisko said this event worked so well, ATTA will probably keep the format and use it to host one-day "deep dives" into topics relevant to the industry.
"I think this has great potential to be incorporated into some niche-specific events," Hanisko said. "We're looking forward to that."