Published in Women's Adventure Magazine - Winter Issue 2014 - 2015
Interview by Jennifer C. Olson
Stomping Ground: Bozeman, Montana
Job: Founder and Owner of AdventureWomen, Inc.
In 1982, when the adventure travel industry was still in its infancy, Susan Eckert took her life savings and launched AdventureWomen (www.adventurewomen.com), targeting women over 30. She believes travel is one of the greatest tools we have for promoting world peace and understanding among cultures. Besides, Susan thought it was high time women benefit from the same travel opportunities as men, who she perceived as having all the fun hunting, fishing, and golfing with their buddies.
In the beginning, Susan functioned as AdventureWomen's program director, cook, guide, dishwasher, driver, and financier on a few trips a year, taking women on almost twenty adventures that spanned the globe. Now, Susan coordinates with teams of people and outfitters to offer women adventure vacations, ultimately converting them to passionate travelers for life. Based out of Susan's log house in Montana's Bridger Mountains, AdventureWomen promotes a healthy lifestyle, encouraging women to stay active and open to learning, both spiritually and culturally, during their travels.
When did you first become interested in travel?
During my childhood, I dreamed of going to Africa and traveling the world. The first part of my dream came true after I graduated from Ursinus College in 1968 with a Biology degree: I married my college sweetheart and we joined the Peace Corps, serving in Sierra Leone, West Africa, for three years where I pursued village public health work. This experience changed my perspective and life forever, propelling me toward a life dedicated to exploring the world.
What's your background in the outdoors?
I've loved being in the outdoors since I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout as a little girl. Serving in the Peace Corps was probably the longest "outdoor experience" I had; we were living in a mud house in a village 280 miles upcountry from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. All of my outdoor background has been extremely experiential.
Describe your company and the idea behind it for us.
AdventureWomen designs and organizes vacations all over the world for women who want to experience an active, out-of-the-ordinary adventure vacation, and meet new friends. We carefully research our cultural and adventurous odysseys and believe that a vacation should be an experience that remains a treasure long after your snapshots are pasted into a photo album. Most of all, we want our AdventureWomen trips to be fun!
AdventureWomen is the oldest adventure travel company for women over 30, and 70 percent of our guests are repeat customers because they're more confident, productive, and adventurous after returning home. We now offer nearly 20 adventures that span the globe. For 2015, I've added five new adventure vacations (Costa Rica, Namibia, Brazil, CA Gold, and Lewis & Clark Canoeing & Glamping), reintroduced Hiking & Rafting SE Utah, created a new route for Cruise France by Barge, and put together a new itinerary for Hiking Italy's Lake District.
How did you get the idea and guts to being AdventureWomen Inc?
After my Peace Corps experience, I worked as a biologist for a pharmaceutical company in Chicago and was accepted into a doctoral program. While pursuing my doctorate in Public Health at the University of Illinois Medical Center, I began leading weekend cross-country skiing, canoeing, and hiking trips for fellow female students at the university. Experiencing the laughter, friendship, and excitement of these weekend trips, I began to think about creating my own company specializing in women's adventure travel.
In 1982, divorced and with my M.P.H. and M.S.P.H. in Public Health, I made the difficult decision to drop out of my doctoral program and launch my own adventure travel company. I was 35 years old, living in a loft in Evanston, Illinois. When I approached several bankers with my idea for a women's adventure travel company, they laughed and told me it was too risky a proposal to grant me any money to start my business. Refusing to be put off by this apparent setback - and holding firm to the credo "if you want something badly enough, you will find a way to do it" - I decided to take my life savings of $25,000 and start my new company. From the back of my Datsun pickup truck, I began guiding rugged adventure travel trips - a field dominated at that time almost exclusively by men.
And I never looked back. Since the early 1980s I have carefully researched travel opportunities and taken my clients on active adventure trips all over the globe. I have gone from cooking, guiding, and packing for trips entirely by myself to working with a team of professional guides, outfitters, ground operators, and associates all over the world. My current trips are a far cry from the backpacking and canoe trips of the past, where everything was hauled in backpacks, and canoes and gear were laboriously portaged.
What is a typical day on the job?
When I started AdventureWomen, I was most often out in the field, either running a trip or traveling to set one up. That's what I love. These days, I am usually in the office at the computer - not what I was anticipating when I began this business 32 years ago! At the computer, however, I can communicate, dream about, and set up new trips with all of my travel contacts easier than I could with only a fax machine. There's something to be said for that.
What challenges you at work?
The adventure travel business has changed a lot during the past three decades. Back in 1981, I owned a niche business with no competition. Now, there are hundreds of adventure travel companies, and women-only travel is no longer unique. So-called soft adventure travel has also become more popular. The majority of travelers don't want to carry a backpack, canoe, or camping equipment. They don't want to go days without hot showers and gourmet meals. It is also the era of Girlfriend Getaways, where you can do any activity or go anywhere with an all-women group. So I've had to find new ways to make my company unique.
In 1995, we were the first adventure travel company to go non-smoking, and a few years ago, we added a humanitarian focus to many of our trips since my clients love to give back to the people of another culture who welcome us into their homes and hearts.
What inspires you on the job?
Women in any culture relish the freedom to experience new things away from limiting societal expectations. We have a unique sense of discovery, an unabashed curiosity, the easy ability to laugh at ourselves, and the capacity to create a non-competitive environment of support and encouragement for each other. Under these circumstances, women feel free to challenge themselves with a trek up a mountain, by learning to snorkel or scuba dive, or through immersion in an unfamiliar culture. Women tell us that on all-women's trips, they can be totally and unequivocally themselves.
I've witnessed much change and upheaval in many parts of the world, and our world has certainly transformed dramatically in just a few short years. Now, more than ever, we all need enriching experiences to restore and energize our spirits. Group travel for women offers you a myriad of opportunities to do just that.