Tour Insights: Austin's Long Road to Virtuoso
photo courtesy Austin Adventures
For Dan Austin it’s been a long time coming. When Austin Adventures was recently accepted into the fold of the high-end travel agent consortium Virtuoso, it was a great triumph for the company, but it was not the company’s first attempt to get into the elite league.
“We took a run at it about 11 years ago and were turned down,” Austin told Travel Pulse. “Then we took another run at it six months ago.” And bingo. This time Virtuoso decided to add Austin Adventures to its prestigious list of partners.
Virtuoso is widely recognized as the most elite travel agent consortium in the business. Being a preferred supplier for the network of more than 11,400 travel agents in 30 countries is an enviable position among travel suppliers of all kinds.
So what changed in 11 years?
Short answer: practically everything, both within Austin Adventures and in the travel industry at large. As a memory refresher of how fast things evolve now, the iPhone was introduced in 2007. At this point anything previous to that is the Dark Ages.
“I think the real reason we didn’t succeed the first time is that we were too unestablished at that point,” said Austin. “We have much more depth and much more of a track record now.”
With Austin’s addition last year of Asia to its tour product line, the Billings, Montana-based company now offers programs on seven continents. It’s come a long way since its beginning as a small tour operator offering adventures in the American West.
Dan Austin forged his career as the owner and operator of a highly successful international construction company based in Portland, Ore., and working primarily in Alaska on large commercial projects such as schools, hospitals and military buildings.
In construction in remote parts of Alaska Austin learned everything about logistics, how to get things he needed to where they were needed.
“We did remote, crazy stuff around the world, a school in a remote village with no roads in Alaska,” said Austin. “We honed our skills on challenging logistics.”
The construction industry was a good educational foundation for adventure tour operating.
“I look at our 10-day adventure in South Africa as a mini-construction project,” said Austin. “It still has all the same elements. What do I need? How am I going to get it there?”
But though his success in construction was financially rewarding, Austin longed to be involved in adventure travel. He had briefly operated a river rafting company in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and he found himself longing to return to that business. He started poking around with ideas of getting into the adventure travel industry.
In the early 1990s Austin and a partner went on a tour with Backcountry Tours, a Bozeman, Montana-based adventure tour operator founded a decade prior.
“I went on a Backcountry trip as a guest, looking into how I was going to get back into the business,” said Austin. “We ended up approaching the owners after that and saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to buy you guys.’”
The deal was closed in 1994. After three years operating the company, Austin and his partner sold it. But, he said, it took only three days to realize he wanted to be back in the adventure travel industry.
“I sold it thinking I was going to get out of the business, but frankly, I just missed it,” said Austin.
So he founded a new company called Adventures Plus.
In 2000 Austin was contacted by Paul Lehman, the former owner of Fel-Pro, a $500 million company Lehman’s grandfather and great grandfather had founded in 1918 to manufacturer felt gaskets for Model T Fords. Lehman also had a hankering to invest in the adventure travel industry, so Austin and Lehman teamed up.
The partners formed Austin-Lehman Adventures, then went back and repurchased Backcountry Tours. The new company focused on a multi-sport niche, offering programs that combined various kinds of activities, such as hiking, mountain biking, sea kayaking, horseback riding and rafting.
“It really took off,” said Austin. “It’s easier to think of spending a week, one day hiking, one day biking. There’s something for everyone. Sometimes someone loves biking, but the spouse doesn’t. It helps make everyone happy.”
The company has maintained a solid growth trajectory through all the twists and turns of the travel industry of the 2000s. In 2009 it purchased Holland-based EuroBike Tours and brought its former owner Ron van Dijk into the company.
In 2010 Austin-Lehman expanded by acquisition again, purchasing CBT Tour, an operator that ran running tours in Croatia, Slovenia and Eastern Europe since 1989. The company also brought CBT’s founder, Desmond Gibbens, into the business to operate the tours and develop new ones.
In 2012 Paul Lehman moved on to explore other opportunities. After an investment into the company by Xanterra Parks and Resorts in 2013, the company became Austin Adventures, a family-operated company, with Dan’s wife Carol and daughter Kasey actively involved in the business.
Kasey Austin, who grew up in the business and is now vice president of operations, was selected by Outside magazine as its 2014 Family Guide of the Year.
Now in 2016, Austin Adventures has the cherry on top, its new partnership with Virtuoso.
“For us it’s recognition that we are now hanging out with the likes of A&K, Backroads and Butterfield and Robinson,” said Austin. “So it definitely distinguishes us that way. But then it gives us access to 11,000 of the highest quality travel agents. We are really looking to build our travel agent business. That puts us in front of agents that really know our niche.”
To Austin, Virtuoso is “the cream of the crop, both from supplier side and from the agent side, better product and the better sellers of that product, more professional and more engaging.”
So after hitting such a pinnacle in its history, what is next for Austin Adventures?
“The real question is to continue to evolve to take advantage of this and improve product line even further,” said Austin. “We’re sure not stopping at this point.”
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