Yesterday I sent an email letter to all alumni who have traveled with us over the years. I wanted to provide an honest, personal account of how the recession has affected us, our recent diversion into blogger conferences, and our plans for the future of Zephyr Adventures.
Wow. What a chord I apparently struck with our tour participants. I received many, many emails in reply (about ten times more than our normal emails to alumni) from people who appreciated the communication, empathized with the effects of the recession, and wished us well for the future.
I personally think Zephyr Adventures is an example – an example of how the recession can really hammer small businesses, an example of how American entrepreneurship will always see our country through, and how the economy is most likely on the mend.
Here is that latter I sent to our traveling alumni:
Dear Zephyr Alumna / Alumnus,
I wanted to write and tell you and all our Zephyr Adventures alumni a little about the current state of Zephyr Adventures. As you know, the economy has been rough these past few years. As you probably guess, a down economy has an especially hard effect on a small company like ours in the adventure travel industry. Simply put, organized and not inexpensive vacations are sometimes the first to go when people are on a budget.
In fact, I believe we at Zephyr are what economists call a “leading indicator of the economy”, in that our growth or decline each year fairly accurately predicts what will happen in the general economy a year from now. In 2008, before the recession was really announced, we were down 15% in tour reservations. In 2009, during the heart of the recession, we were down another 15%. This year we are essentially flat, which actually is a good sign in that I believe the economy has bottomed out and is due for a recovery, even if it is a slow one.
A 30% decline is very serious for a small business like ours. At one point two years ago, the four of us in Zephyr’s virtual “office” (Kris, Reno, Sonya, and me) met at our annual meeting and decided to mutually cut our hours and pay to save each others’ jobs. Some of us went on 3/4 time and pay. Others took unpaid leaves of absence. While those are easy decisions for me, since I only get paid if Zephyr makes money, I thought it was courageous of the other three and is a model for how many businesses should have survived the recession.
While in the darkest days, we hit upon something that turned things around: the world’s first Wine Bloggers Conference. I created this idea to help market our active wine tours to bloggers, people who work at home writing about wine. We organized a conference, established some excellent content, got a few sponsors, and before you know it ran our first conference with 180 attendees in Sonoma, California. We thought if we could break even it would be a marketing campaign well worth our time.
Two and a half years after the initial idea, we have now run three Wine Bloggers Conferences, co-produced a Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle, and are about to organize the world’s first Beer Bloggers Conference here in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Why? Because we realized after that first conference the idea was much bigger than a marketing platform and now those conferences are a significant part of Zephyr’s business while we are working to recover from the recession.
I make no apologies for riding the wave of this unique niche we created – heck, that is what being an entrepreneur is all about. However, and unfortunately, the conferences also drew our attention away from our tours.
This is why I am writing to you today. I want to let you know we just had our annual Zephyr meeting, in our base in Red Lodge, Montana where Kris lives, and have re-dedicated ourselves to communicating better with you, marketing our offerings more so we can give you more options each year, and running tours at the same high standard we have done since 1997. If you have felt at all left out of the “Zephyr family” circle, I want to make sure you know we consider you, as a tour participant, part of our successes.
Our Zephyr Adventures website is updated for 2011 and as an alumnus/alumna, you are eligible for a 10% Early Booking Discount if you register for a 2011 tour by October 31st of this year. Sonya will continue to send you our bimonthly alumni newsletter (one will be sent later this week) and I promise to write to you myself when we have significant news to share. We will continue to focus on our inline skating tours as the only skate tour company in the hemisphere; will continue to offer hiking, biking, and multisport tours; and will expand our focus on active food, wine, and (new in 2011) beer tours given our growing expertise in these areas. We will rededicate ourselves to creating frequent High Roller Surveys, that very useful tool that allows us to survey our frequent travelers, who give us real advice on how we should be shaping our future.
I appreciate if you found this interesting enough to read this to the end. I understand that when we at Zephyr Adventures are down, that means you our travelers are down and you probably have your own hardship stories to tell. Please feel free to respond to me with your thoughts and your own update or to send this to anyone who you think might be interested in how a recession affects a small, but adaptive business. I believe our national economy has bottomed out and will start to rebound. I hope you can join us on one of our adventures in 2011.
President and Owner