Check out part 1 in the series: 7 Benefits of Local Collectives for Experience Providers
Have you ever thought about teaming up with other experience providers? Perhaps the idea has come up a few times, and you just can’t let it go. The benefits of a collaborative are clear; you know that as a group, you could move mountains, or at the very least, save on marketing costs. But you keep hitting a roadblock of questions.
How do you even go about starting a local collective, cooperative, coalition — something along those lines? How do you convince other business owners to give it a shot amidst their incredibly busy lives? And if you manage to generate enough interest, how do you make it work for everyone, and how can everyone make it work?
Here’s the good news. It really is possible to get a cooperative of tour and activity operators off the ground. Adventure HUB is a perfect example of that. Made up of approximately 20 experience providers in and around the Canadian Rockies, the team has done some amazing things together — including a $20,000 social media campaign.
And the idea came to life only a few years ago!
We were lucky enough to talk to one of the founders, Adam Walker, also the owner of Canmore Cave Tours, about why he decided to pursue a business collective, what the initial challenges were, and the structure he used to appeal most to members, as well as hotel partners. Here’s how he made it happen:
1. Hatch the idea
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably come up with the idea of a local business collective already, but let’s still take a look at what inspired Adam to make this new concept a reality. Just so we can get a better understanding of his thought process, and how it impacted his decisions going forward.
After working for and with several different tour operators over the years, Adam noticed there were many commonalities between companies — despite the fact they all provided unique experiences. One of which was an innate desire for a “working group, somewhere to bounce ideas off each other and share resources.”
At the time, their local DMO was also taking a sort of hiatus, and there were concerns they might lose representation. How would they get the word out to visitors about all of the exciting adventures available in Canmore? So, Adam realized, “we all have the same challenges, why don’t we see if we can solve them as a group?”
2. Solve a problem (or two)
Based on his own experience running Canmore Cave Tours, Adam identified two of the biggest frustrations he believed other experience providers in the area could relate to:
Not having any business connections
During peak season, Canmore Cave Tours would sometimes have to turn a customer away because they just didn’t have availability. He’d have to tell them to try another company for an exciting adventure, but couldn’t make a recommendation because he didn’t know anyone well enough.
“That really bugged me,” Adam says, “I wanted to give my customer a good experience, but I didn’t have the confidence nor the ability to connect with other businesses.”
By getting other experience providers on the same booking system, he figured out that they could easily make a reservation on behalf of each other, track where those bookings come from, and do a commission swap. Having that cross-booking functionality meant they could pass the business on, without missing out themselves.
“Instead of getting nothing from the customer, I could refer them to someone else, earn a commission, and then they could come back to me the very next day. And all of a sudden, I’d be helping a customer manage their visit, which is great for me, but also great for my business partners.”
Being overloaded with administrative work
“One of the biggest challenges that small businesses face is pure admin. For example, we have about 58 different hotels between Canmore and Banff, and every small business is trying to work directly with them. If you can imagine, we had 26 business partners at one point, so 26 businesses x 58 hotels = a lot of administration.”
If Adventure HUB could centralize some of this administrative work and streamline processes, then maybe they could convince more business owners to get on board. “Small businesses are so busy and overwhelmed with their day to day; I figured if I could help them with that, then maybe they’d have more time to help with the collective.”
So, that’s exactly what they did. “Now for Canmore Cave Tours, I never have to send an invoice to a hotel, especially since booking commissions can be dollars. It’s really inefficient. Adventure HUB will invoice partners for the commissions and then remit all of those to the hotels. Each partner gets one invoice, and each hotel gets a lump sum back.”
Doing this also makes everything much easier on the hotel’s end. With all of them having access to Adventure HUB — as one, giant easy button — whenever another operator approaches a hotel for a partnership, the first thing they ask is, “are you on the HUB?” It’s a referral born from an optimized referral process.
3. Find a core group
“You really need your advocates. We found that lots of people are excited about the idea, nobody thinks it’s a terrible idea, but there are only a handful of people who are willing and have the energy to drive it. And you have to identify those people first.”
Adam started Adventure HUB with two other tour business owners. After having various discussions over time, they decided on a direction to take with the collective, as well as a membership model that would be the best fit. Talking about it made it seem more real, like something they could put into action together.
Since Canmore only has a small community of experience providers, Adam already knew about a half dozen companies, and of course, the other founders had their network of connections as well. At first, there were many coffee conversations, sometimes around three hours long, just trying to explain the concept.
But Adam found that if he made everything as easy as possible and broke down how he could help them solve the two problems above, they’d be more likely to hop on board. From there, they could have their own coffee chats to spread the word.
“If one person takes it on, they’re going to burn out really quickly. So, find a core group that will keep up the momentum,” Adam says, “We find that with Adventure HUB, our outside group kind of comes and goes, but the core group is steady, and that’s allowed us to sustain this.”
4. Choose a membership model
In the early stages, choosing a membership model was an important discussion between the founders. “The way we wanted Adventure HUB to work is — what you put into it, you get out of it,” Adam says, “And we couldn’t achieve that with a membership fee, because usually when someone pays into something, they expect something in return.”
That wasn’t the teamwork mindset they were going for. Instead, they wanted those who join to feel more like partners than members. That way, everyone could take ownership of the brand, have a say in group initiatives, and be confident knowing they wouldn’t pay anything unless they got something out of it.
By registering the collective as a for-profit organization, they could tackle the two problems they initially sought to solve — referrals and administration. But also, do things they wouldn’t be able to do as a society, like hire staff. So, HUBS Worldwide became the legal entity with Adventure HUB being the loose brand.
And with a commission-based model, partners would likely feel more motivated to make bookings for each other because they take a percentage, which is tracked automatically through the Adventure HUB website. And HUBS Worldwide could handle the administration — like invoicing hotels — and earn a 2% commission to cover admin costs.
That said, a fee structure did come later. There’s still no net income; the fees strictly go towards specifics like marketing objectives. But the core value remains. “You’re not a member; you’re a partner. What you put into it, you get out of it.”
5. House everyone under one roof
Collectives usually fail due to a lack of communication. That’s why the first thing they did was put everyone on Slack. “We said, we aren’t talking by email, don’t call me, everything’s on Slack so we can talk about it as a group. That was a massive win for us. Somebody could throw out a question or an idea and get a response back immediately.”
They still hosted monthly meetings, but it almost wasn’t necessary with the digital connection they had. Conversations were already happening daily. So, the in-person meetings turned more into a social get-together, where people could meet new members and chat face to face, without feeling obligated to show up all the time.
The other side of it was getting everyone onto Checkfront for centralization and cross-booking functionality. However, with so many booking system options out there, this proved to be a difficult discussion with new partners mostly because they were overwhelmed with choice and feared losing control over their product.
“Luckily, we had a network of businesses being like, ‘hey, we’re using this booking platform, we know how to use it, we have a great connection with the company, and we can support you in that process.” Adam says, “That’s also why we didn’t go with a membership fee. Everybody has a Checkfront account. New partners can start a free trial, and if it works for them, great, if not, no harm done, they can carry on.”
Plus, Checkfront plugs right into Slack, so everyone can see new bookings notifications for Adventure HUB, and ask questions about the booking system using a common language. That wouldn’t be possible if everyone were on a different platform. “It really helps to solidify the group. Everything meshes. And now, it feels like we’re on the same team.”
6. Take applications
Adventure HUB is intentionally an exclusive group. They couldn’t do an all-inclusive membership, because the primary purpose of the collective is referrals. “If I’m not confident that a company will give the same level of experience I’d give my customers; then I’m not willing to send my customers to them.”
So, to become an Adventure HUB member, someone must apply. Then, everybody in the group can vet the application, share their thoughts, and participate in a democratic vote of ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ based on the quality of experience, business practices, safety records, etc.
The idea is to leverage the group’s knowledge and personal experience of whether a business will align with their values, and play nicely in the sandbox. “Willingness to collaborate is essential. If we have 100 members and everyone is waiting for somebody else to do something, then we won’t go anywhere.” Adam points out.
7. Experiment with marketing
On the outside, Adventure HUB looks more like a marketing collective, but that wasn’t the original intention. “Our focus has been on the inter-business resource sharing with a side of marketing and promotion.” Not to mention, it’s a challenge trying to find marketing that works for everyone, especially if they’re paying into it.
However, they have started dabbling in digital marketing to keep costs low, and social media plays a big part in that. Individually, a company might have 4,000 followers, but altogether, they have 60-70,000. So, it’s just a matter of getting everyone to stay on top of sharing each other’s posts to get some real reach.
But they’ve also gone in together on trade shows, such as the Calgary Outdoor Show, where they were a huge hit with attendees after giving away $10,000 in prizes, thanks to donations from members. “People were telling me we had the best booth, which is a big deal, considering we’re just a bunch of micro-businesses. That blew me away.”
And just last year, they invited a group of local influencers out for Adventure 360 — a creative idea that involved putting together a full day of experiences, none of which participants knew about in advance. They just had to show up and follow everything on the itinerary, which gave them a chance to try new things and meet new businesses.
“We coordinated it down to a five-minute window. Again, it’s critical to have that connectivity. I couldn’t do that without Checkfront. I couldn’t do that without knowing what member had inventory available.” Adam continues, “We have a close-knit community, and you can achieve some powerful things once you gain momentum.”
Adventure HUB continuously evolves as they take on new members, including breweries, distilleries, and now, a museum. But their core structure and principles remain the same. Going forward, they plan to expand into other communities, add marketing and events committees, and continue delivering outstanding experiences for their customers.
So, if you want to start a local collective like Adventure HUB, or partner with tour operators in other ways, Adam says there are three things to remember:
- Make it easy
- Focus on communication
- Build a core group