Experiential tourism takes hold in the Inland Northwest
Travel culture shift benefits many adventure businessesMarch 28th, 2019
Experiential travel is a growing trend as more people place a priority on experiences, and Spokane-area adventure company operators say they’re reaping the rewards.
Experiential travel is a form of tourism in which people are focused on experiencing a county, city, or place by connecting to its people, history, and culture.
Spokane County has received accolades for its outdoor offerings from several websites, including Livability.com, Niche, and Realtor.com, and its culture is rich with art, history, and a burgeoning food scene, going far beyond the cookie-cutter tourist destination and positioning it for significant growth.
Rik Stewart, owner of Liberty Lake-based Mica Moon Treetop Adventures, a zip line tour and aerial park company, says he believes that the trend is driven by a desire for people to build relationships and to create memories.
“I think that people have accumulated things and find that they wear out, especially with the digital stuff, six months and it’s outdated, it’s no longer the newest and coolest,” he says. “They’re looking for things that last.”
Stewart says he’s seen a 20 percent growth year-over-year since he launched Mica Moon five years ago. He expects to serve 6,000 to 7,000 guests on the zip line tours and 12,000 to 14,000 at the aerial park this year.
A zip line tour is a pulley suspended on a cable that uses gravity to transport a person from the top to the bottom of the inclined cable. An aerial park is an obstacle course suspended in the air.
Stewart says he raised his prices in hopes of slowing down traffic to the park, but still saw an increase in attendees. He attributes this success to having what he claims is the longest zip line in the U.S., as well as a higher-than-average return rate of customers for his industry.
Normally, zip lines see a 10 percent return rate to the park, but Mica Moon averages about 25 percent, he asserts.
Kate Hudson, public relations manager with Visit Spokane, says the organization tracks the interests of people subscribing to its e-newsletters, and that outdoor adventures is always the No. 1 interest people have in the Spokane area, followed closely by arts and culture.
“People are definitely coming to Spokane to experience life,” Hudson says. “The idea that you have time to go and experience things is a huge selling point for Spokane.”
Spokane’s location makes it easy to take day trips to different experiences, as most are less than a half an hour away, she says.
The United Nations World Travel Organization data show four out of five travelers travel within their own region and estimates 1.8 billion international tourist arrivals globally by 2030.
Paul Knowles, special projects manager with Spokane County Parks, Recreation & Golf, says the county has seen a steady increase in public use of trails over the past four to five years. He estimates a roughly 10 percent increase at most trail systems during that period.
It’s hard to give exact numbers, he says, as the system the county uses to capture data at trails runs on batteries and isn’t the most reliable.
However, he says, the Liberty Lake Regional Park has seen an 83 percent increase between 2013 and 2018 and the Liberty Lake Loop Trail is one of the most popular in the area.
“I know for me, when I travel, this is the way that I travel,” he says. “Before I visit an area, I look online at the parks and the trails. I think it’s a really good thing to see people traveling to places, going on foot and taking in the flow.”
Knowles contends that Spokane is the perfect spot for this trend, with over 671 miles of trail between Spokane County, Washington state Parks and Recreation, and the Washington state Department of Natural Resources.
Spokane County Parks and Recreation manages roughly 15 different trail systems, he says.
Justin Flanagan, owner of Wiley E. Waters, a Spokane-based whitewater rafting company, says he saw a 35 percent increase in customers in 2018, and a 30 percent increase in 2017, which led him to explore other river options.
The Wiley E. Waters team will undergo training on the Grande Ronde River, a tributary of the Snake River located in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, this month, and will begin offering tours this spring. Currently, the company offers trips on the Spokane and Clark Fork rivers. The Spokane season is set to open in April.
The rising interest in trips offered by his company is partially driven by the organization’s close partnerships with Visit Spokane and between 10 to 15 local hotels, Flanagan asserts.
People coming into town for conferences are expressing more of a desire to partake in the experiential offerings of Spokane and are pointed to organizations like his, he says, so there has been a shift in the type of people participating in river tours.
He’s also seen more parents bringing their children on these trips, with the desire to get their children outside and off digital devices he says.
The technology boom in the industry is something that led Rachael Jean, owner of Medical Lake-based Willow Creek Retreat, to launch her own trail ride company through Airbnb, an online hospitality service company based in San Francisco which began allowing hosts to offer experiences through its mobile app in 2014.
Jean says she tailors her horseback trail rides to the customer, which sets her operation apart from traditional ‘nose-to-tail’ trail rides, and says this customization was a hit with her customers.
Her experience allows no more than two riders at a time, she says, and offers tours along the Spokane River through Riverside State Park.
She’s currently not making a large profit off the trips, but says she just wants to make enough to pay for her horses’ feed.
Jean also participates in the agritourism trend, a subsect of experiential travel tourism, which allows people to experience farm living. Her property is listed on San Francisco-based Hipcamp, an online platform that allows guests to find private land to camp on. She says she was booked every weekend last summer and expects to see the same demand this year.
“People are spending more money on quality experiences more so than buying and accumulating stuff,” Jean says. “I don’t know if it’s because of platforms like Airbnb making it easier for people to go, but seeing the world seems to be gaining momentum.”
Stewart agrees, stating he believes part of the popularity of the trend comes from a desire to participate in activities and visit places seen on Instagram. He also attributes the popularity of experiential travel to the baby boomer generation retiring and wanting to check things off a bucket list.
“Really the only thing that outlasts life are your experiences,” he says. “Your memories, your relationships, your friendships, and experiences … taking you out of your comfort zone, and making memories that last.”