Has it ever seemed like the day job is not quite enough ? For years I’d had a nagging feeling that there ought to be more to life than the 9-5 office job staring at computer screen. In some ways I was one of the lucky ones; I’d always had work in the field of environmental management and conservation which at least I felt was a worthwhile thing to be doing. However, as life had gone on, I’d become increasingly office-bound. It was time for something to change; I decided I would start an adventure tourism business !
Summit “Bagging” Culture:
Scotland’s mountains and wild landscapes are a fantastic natural resource and can provide a lifetime of opportunities for exploration. In recent years there has been a huge growth in the cult of “Munro Bagging” which involves ticking off all the summits over 3000ft (914m). When all the Munros are finished, there are the lesser summits of the “Corbetts” (summits over 2,500ft) and the “Marilyns” (whatever they are) to tick off; but, hey, that’s really getting into “anorak” territory which is not where I want to go.
With all this “bagging” going on, its sometimes remarkable how little the average Scottish hillwalker actually knows about the natural history, the landscape and the cultural heritage of the places that they are visiting; the mountains being simply reduced to the status of an outdoor gym with all sense of the “spirit of place” being lost somewhere in the race to tick off the next summit . This was never the case for some of Scotland’s most celebrated naturalists and mountain men such as W. H. Murray, Frank Fraser Darling and John Muir. I decided it was time to change things…
I had years of hillwalking and outdoor experience behind me, including time spent living amongst some of the World’s great mountains. However I was no Rheinhold Messner; most of my recent mountain walking having been spent with Aberdeen’s “Granite City Hillwalkers”; a fine body of folk, but a group who generally prefered mountains that you can walk up, rather than climb up.
So where to start ? I decided the best approach was to focus on the landscape, wildlife and history rather than focusing on technical challenges of getting to the summits. The idea was to bring the landscape alive to people who’d never really stopped to think about it too much. All great in principle but there were a few hurdles in the way;
The first of these challenges was to get a Mountain Leadership (ML)Qualification. The UK probably has one of the most regulated outdoor activity industries in the world following on from a spate of tragic accidents in the 70s and 80s where inexperienced leaders made poor judgements. Rightly so, getting an ML qualification is no mean feat in itself.
Firstly you have to present a logbook detailing your experience. This meant trawling through years of past mountain walking activities and writing these up. You then have to attend at training course with a series of uninviting challenges which include; a 2 day backpacking expedition, wading through ice-cold mountain rivers and the dreaded “Night Nav” which involves escorting a group of fellow sado-masochists around the summits in the pitch black of night.
If you’re lucky, then a year or so later you can apply for the ML Assessment which is the final straw in terms of Rambo-style macho adventures. In addition to physical and intellectual challenges, you are put under a high degree of emotional and psychological pressure as you are assessed over a series of tough challenges and a gruelling mountain expedition.
The aim is to give you the minimum of feedback and let you take responsibility for your own actions. Everyone takes turns to lead the group and navigate, though you can never switch off as the assessor can turn around at any minute and ask you to verify the location; there is strictly no conferring and the whole process can feel quite isolating. It’s all very tense when the results of the assessment are announced; “Ian Whitehead -You are the weakest link”; Fortunately this was not the case and I passed with flying colours.
With an ML finally in the bag there then followed a whole series of other challenges including public liability insurance, health and safety risk assessment, tax liability, business planning and promotion and marketing. Also central to the whole plan was to offer an interesting and diverse itinerary which provided insights into some of the best wild landscapes and cultural heritage of Highland Perthshire.
The Real Work Begins:
I spent months undertaking research into every aspect of the Perthshire countryside including wildlife, plants, land use, landscape history, archeology, legends; the list seemed endless. I also recced a whole series of potential routes which seemed to offer the greatest diversity and interest and which also took in the best mountain landscapes (as well as cultural features such as abandoned settlements, sheilings, battle sites and ruined castles). Many of the routes were recced in the middle of winter which meant wading through knee-deep snow.
Despite the difficulties, I really enjoyed the research; it was pretty much what I did for a hobby anyway and I found the whole thing gave me a sense of purpose. On later trips I was joined by my partner, Martina, who would come over on weekend trips from Germany and then get roped into the process. It was also good to have a suitable “guinea pig” to test out some of the routes on and to get some idea of what was feasible. Sometimes I was out of popularity when it turned out, for example, that walking an old military road involved climbing over several barbed wire fences in rapid succession; now why wasn’t that on the map ?
Another major concern was the publicly machine; there needed to be leaflets, a website and suitable advertising throughout the area. I designed the leaflets myself on MS Publisher (which all printers hate) and a friend of a friend helped with getting the website designed and set up for a minimal cost. I then (somewhat optimistically) approached the “Tourist Board” to see if they would help me to promote the business concept.
Being somewhat naive at that time, I didn’t realise that Visit Scotland (Scotland’s Tourism Agency) operated more on the lines of a commercial agency; basically the more money you pay them, the greater the profile you’ll get in terms of advertising. The problem was that I had no money; it had all been spent on the other aspects of trying to get the project up and running. Reluctantly I accepted one of the lower budget promotion packages available and negotiated to use the Tourist Information Centres (TICs) as meeting points.
“Keep Calm and Carry On”:
It was December 2007. Then a bolt of lightning out of the blue ! My partner was pregnant and the baby would be due next summer ! Delighted but shocked at the same time, I realised there was only a narrow window of opportunity to get the business concept up and running (as well as attending to my day job !). How on earth would this work out ?
And so for want of a better plan, I decided to soldier on with the idea and test out the concept, if only for six months. After that it would be likely to be all hands on deck. The walks were due to start at Easter; the publicity machine meant that people were supposed to book up to come along in advance through the Tourist Information Centres. Easter came and the weather was still cold with snow on the ground. There were no bookings but I decided to turn up at the right time and wait outside the Tourist Information Centre in Aberfeldy anyway. No takers and so I went for coffee and a hearty breakfast instead.
Over the following weeks, this was to become a reoccurring theme. Time after time, I stood outside Tourist Information Centres on cold Sunday mornings, in the vain hope that somebody might turn up. The publicity machine simply wasn’t working. Quite often the staff in the TIC wouldn’t even know about the walks and the poster would end up covered by other promotional flyers advertising a host of activities ranging from holistic health retreats to model railway exhibitions.
Winds of Change:
As spring finally came and the days warmed up, I was joined on one or 2 of the trips by friends and familiar sympathetic faces, willing to act as further human guinea pigs. The feedback was unanimous; the product was good but the promotion was letting me down seriously.
Towards the end of the six months, I completely gave up on the organised programme as it was clear things weren’t working. Then just as I’d abandoned all hope, a strange thing happened; people began to phone up wanting me to organise special “one-off” walks and events for them. It was never a flood but a steady trickle was developing. At last something was happening… but time had run out !
The very last entry in my mountain leader log book was dated 21st June 2008 and read;
“Glen Tilt car park to Marble Lodge along main access route. Spent time looking at and identifying plants by the riverside. From Balaneasie struck due NE up the Faire Clach Ghlais Ridge. At about 500m managed to get a mobile phone signal and a text that my pregnant partner had been admitted to hospital in Germany. Headed back down and managed to get a 4×4 lift from a helpful estate worker. An eventful wee trip !”
Three days later, I was in Germany for the birth of my daughter Zoe Elaine, who was born three weeks prematurely. Life was never quite the same again…
For the next few years I lived between Edinburgh and Aachen before finally opting to move to Germany following the arrival of my son, 18 months later. Since then, I’ve become a bit more of a “haus man” than an adventurer but hopefully that just a temporary state of affairs.
Would the business idea have worked or was it just a case of time and money down the drain ? Given enough effort, persistence and a bigger promotional budget, I’m sure it would have eventually been successful (I’m an optimist). With hindsight though, perhaps the organised itinerary was a mistake and it would have been more sensible just to offer the guiding service “on demand” initially. Also it’s not such a good idea to start a business when your partner, living in another country, gets pregnant ! In the words of John Lennon, “Life is something that happens to you when you’re busy making other plans…”