Article by David Beach
When I was approached by Southwest Adventure Tours (SWAT), I was apprehensive to start guiding for them. Having been in the tour industry for 13 years, I was accustomed to my big shiny motorcoaches with 50+ people. That's what I knew and that's what I loved.
My first tour in one of SWAT’s small vans had me grinning from ear to ear. Not only was it a sense of adventure, but a sense of freedom and flexibility. "David, is there somewhere we can grab a cup of coffee?", someone asked. "No- Wait. Yes, yes we can!", I happily replied. A group of 10 people won’t overwhelm the local coffee hut. That very moment changed my focus. Traveling with a small group gives us the flexibility, to make impromptu choices, and tailor the travel adventure to individual guests.
As a guide, only having 5-12 people allows me to become better acquainted with my guests and have the chance to find out what they want out of their vacation. On day number one, I get to ask, "what are you looking forward to the most?" For example, on last week’s tour, I found out that three of my guests had never seen a moose before. By golly, I wanted to change that.
As we were headed north on the Chena Highway outside Fairbanks, I happened to see something out of the corner of my eye. I pulled the van over. Sure enough, there was a moose in the trees. I could see there was a cross street cutting back behind the trees where he was standing, so we turned off the main highway. There he was in full grandeur: our first moose sighting of the tour! That little moment was only possible because we were in a small group with a smaller vehicle. Had we been in a big shiny coach, chances are I wouldn't have seen it out of the corner of my eye, and definitely not able to stop and turn off on the side street.
Another thing that sold me on using smaller vans on a tour, is the ability to "support local." I want locally-crafted, unique goods. I've been to the Alaskan Bowl Company 1.25 million times with a motorcoach. The guests always "ooh and ahh" as they walk themselves around the bowls and ulus. It's a lovely local experience.
This year, when I gave Alaskan Bowl Company
the heads up advance notice that I was coming with 6 people, she said, "if you come at 11 o’clock, we'll be carving bowls". So, I tweaked my schedule and showed up at 11. She gave my guests a walkthrough of the shop, explained the process to them and they watched these bowls get carved out. As the carver set a bowl down, a guest asked if she could buy that one because she had watched it being made. The worker went and got it and oiled it up for her.
There are so many things that I love about this new style of touring with the smaller vans and smaller groups. I definitely am sold on the freedom and flexibility it affords. I adore all of the activities we do on each tour. I am continually inspired by the breathtaking scenery that is almost inconceivable. However, my favorite part is the relationships I get to build with my guests. There is a larger-than-life power in Alaska that can intimidate people. There is no better end of a tour than seeing a smile on the guest’s faces as they conquer Alaska!
…David Beach, converted tour guide!