Best of the Web
A handful of sites want to take the sweat out of lining up your next big travel adventure. Can they deliver?
As CEO of San Diego-based TheGolfer.com, Eric Campbell specializes in leisure pursuits. His business, after all, lines up tee times for golfers on more than 8,000 courses around the world. But when Campbell toured a couple of the adventure-travel sites in this month's best-of-the-Web survey, he was wowed by packages that promise a wilder time than your typical day on the links.
At GORP.com, for instance, Campbell could choose from 4,000-plus thrill-packed trips -- for himself or for everyone at his start-up. "Imagine a strategy meeting at an authentic western dude ranch -- a team-building session while rafting the Colorado," a promotional blurb at GORP.com urged earlier this year. "What better way to build camaraderie than a real live cattle drive or a challenging rock climb?"
The copy may sound corny, but Campbell came away favorably impressed by the site's offerings. GORP.com, he says, "has everything someone would need to find the right kind of trip and then get the equipment and clothing necessary to go."
In the pre-Internet age, intrepid travelers had little choice other than to spend loads of time on myriad logistics. Now a handful of sites offer to take the sweat out of planning your next big adventure with your family or your company. They're tapping into the $29-billion-a-year adventure-travel industry by compiling information on outfitters, travel experiences, and destinations. They also act as brokers for the tour operators, who do the real grunt work.
In the view of analysts like Jupiter Communications' Melissa Shore, the predominant players in this emerging field are Adventureseek.com, Away.com, GORP.com, and iExplore.com. All those sites invite visitors to type in the kind of adventure they're after, and the service then matches requests with a lineup of daredevil options. In response to a request for a hiking trip of less than a week's duration, for instance, the "trip finder" at Away.com came up with 230 packages.
Each site has its own approach. San Francisco-based Adventureseek.com offers an information-intensive site stocked with detailed profiles of tour operators, for example, while Chicago-based iExplore.com peddles high-end, customized trips under the motto "Come back different."
That's a tantalizing offer. But do these sites deliver? For insight, we asked eight CEOs to size up the recognized leaders in the adventure-travel space, although we excluded outfits that actually lead adventure excursions. Then, for good measure, we threw into the mix Altrec.com, which earlier this year added adventure-travel services to its outdoor-gear site through an alliance with Virtuoso, a network of independent travel specialists.
What it's good for: In-depth profiles of tour operators; quick searches and easy price comparisons.
Don't waste your time if: You don't know how to gear up on your own. Although Adventureseek.com has partnered with major outdoor retailer REI, as of this writing that alliance primarily consists of a link to REI.com and a limited-time offer for a gift certificate for merchandise on the site.
What our CEOs had to say: "A well-designed, comprehensive, user-friendly travel site. Great to search for specific activities -- like horseback riding -- in specific parts of the world. It gives you many options to review."
What you ought to know: Adventureseek.com tries to set itself apart from the pack by stocking its site with unbiased reports on tour operators. That kind of information can be crucial for travelers who literally put their lives into the hands of complete strangers.
What it's good for: Real-time advice from travel experts; unusual travel ideas like fitness boot camps; mountains of adventure gear.
Don't waste your time if: You don't like being dogged by a long shopping list. Most of Altrec's pages are accompanied by a long -- and sometimes distracting -- rundown of products that are for sale, from backpacks to water bottles.
What our CEOs had to say: One described this site as engaging and particularly praised its "chat" feature, but another surfer felt that the site was "primarily selling gear."
What you ought to know: The analysts we spoke with had yet to detect Altrec.com on their radar screens, as the site had only recently reconfigured itself from an all-gear destination to one that also offers adventure-travel packages.
What it's good for: General information and planning; good deals on gear by using an auction feature that one CEO called "fun."
Don't waste your time if: You're a navigation novice. CEOs complained that there was "too much scrolling" required to cruise through this site and that once they were deep into it, it was hard to get back to the home page.
What our CEOs had to say: Two reviewers detected a hard-sell attitude from the site, which for them was a turnoff. "This site seems much more insistent on selling than on helping you plan a memorable time-out," one reported.
What you ought to know: Away.com was originally launched as GreenTravel.com and focused mainly on adventure travel. After merging with tour booker AdventureQuest.com, the company relaunched as Away.com and expanded its offerings to include "cultural" trips -- for example, wine-country tours.
What it's good for: Less experienced travelers who want help searching for and evaluating trips.
Don't waste your time if: You're looking for lots of testimonials from folks just like you. Although GORP.com has a "community" section and features some trip ratings from real-life travelers, one of our reviewers noted that he "wasn't able to find many reviews or input from past travelers."
What our CEOs had to say: While one CEO praised GORP.com for having the "terrific look and feel of a magazine," another (who said he wouldn't go back) grumbled that he had to wade through "overwhelming clutter on the home page" before accessing the site's admittedly "valuable information."
What you ought to know: Having been online since 1995, GORP.com is the oldest company in the adventure-travel Web pack and boasts an encyclopedic amount of content: more than 100,000 pages. In June the site touted data from Internet-measurement company Media Metrix Inc. that pointed to GORP.com as "the most trafficked Web site dedicated to outdoor recreation and adventure travel."
What it's good for: High-end, custom-tailored packages.
Don't waste your time if: You're on a tight budget. Although iExplore.com guarantees the best price for its trips, it's not a site for bargain hunters. With cross-promotion partners like upmarket TravelSmith Outfitters, iExplore.com has deliberately targeted the expensive end of the adventure market.
What our CEOs had to say: One reviewer applauded the search-and-sort options available here and also rated the caliber of travelers' testimonials as "great." Another meted out mostly middling marks, however, and complained that the home page was too busy.
What you ought to know: The site features a state-of-the-world newswire for intrepid travelers, sponsored by guidebook publisher Lonely Planet.
The Bottom Line
While none of the sites received either unqualified accolades or savage boos, Away.com was the least popular overall, suffering especially for its clunky navigation tools. Among the remaining four, adventure-travel newcomer Altrec.com made a surprisingly strong showing, with two CEOs championing its real-time advice section. Adventureseek.com garnered high marks for its price comparisons. The reviewers found iExplore.com easy to navigate with "generally clear design." But perhaps most interesting of all, even though our panelists gave the sites mostly strong marks for content and ease of use, their votes dropped a notch when they were asked if they would actually pay for the services offered by the sites.
Could it be that these sites are in danger of falling into that deadly Internet category of "a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to spend there"?
D.M. Osborne is a senior writer at Inc . Additional reporting for this story was provided by Kate O'Sullivan.
The Savvy Entrepreneur's Guide to Adventure Travel on the Web
|Would CEOs go back?||What is the site good for?||CEOs' quick take|
|Adventureseek.com||Yes||Quick, easy searching||"Comprehensive and easy to use"|
|Altrec.com||Maybe||Real-time advice||"Impressive offering of information and gear"|
|Away.com||Maybe||Its auction feature||"Hard to navigate"|
|GORP.com||Maybe||Beginners who want help categorizing trips||"Comprehensive but somewhat cluttered"|
|iExplore.com||Yes||Expert advice||"Clear design"|
|Ease of navigation||Ease of use||Product quality and range||Support/
|Something you'd pay for?|
Our CEO Panelists
Eric Campbell, president and CEO, TheGolfer.com, San Diego
W.R. "Max" Carey Jr., chairman and CEO, Corporate Resource Development Inc., Atlanta
Mitchell V. Massey, CEO, MuseumShop.com Inc., Arlington, Mass.
Susan L. Preston, CEO, Reality Based Learning Co., Redmond, Wash.
Pamela D.A. Reeve, president and CEO, Lightbridge Inc., Burlington, Mass.
Dov Seidman, chairman and CEO, Legal Research Network Inc., Los Angeles
Mike Skarzynski, CEO, Predictive Networks Inc., Cambridge, Mass.
Eileen Spitalny, president and CEO, Fairytale Brownies Inc., Chandler, Ariz.
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