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Every year, an estimated $28 billion is spent in Colorado on activities like camping, hiking, skiing, rafting, climbing, and hunting. But the people who work in adventure industries often have no formal education specific to their job, which can make it challenging to rise up the corporate ranks after a certain point. Thanks to a new program at Colorado State University focused on the business behind adventure, that’s about to change.
The Graduate Certificate in Adventure Tourism is a 12-credit online program starting this month that focuses on topics like how to build an adventure tourism business, how to plan and lead adventures, how to brand, sell, and distribute outdoor gear, and how to market it all.
“[Tourism] is an economic powerhouse to the state,” says Mark Gasta, program coordinator and associate professor in CSU’s Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources.
As the former executive vice president, chief people officer, and chief sustainability officer for Vail Resorts Management Company, Gasta saw a need for specialized training among staff members who grew into advanced roles without any formal education on the business side.
“[Adventure travel] is really a passion-based industry,” Gasta says. “Most individuals have gotten into it as a result of their love for the activities. As the industry grows and as the businesses grow, there’s a real need for greater levels of sophistication.”
CSU already offers a masters of tourism management program in its Warner College of Natural Resources, which made it a natural fit for a certificate focused on the intricacies of adventure travel. Other adventure-focused degree programs do exist—for example, Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia offers a bachelor’s degree in tourism management with an adventure travel focus—but none are graduate programs and many of them are focused on guiding. CSU’s program differentiates itself with its concentration on entrepreneurship and inclusion of topics like advocacy for the environment and lobbying for changes in public policy.
“It’s not just going to Disneyland,” says Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and a former leader of talent management for Vail. He worked with Gasta to develop the new program. “If you’re talking about tourism in Colorado, you’re talking about the outdoor industry. Adventure travel tourism is a very specific niche that deals with policy, access to federal lands, preservation, and stewardship issues.” According to Benitez, running these businesses “requires a skill set that hasn’t been seen yet” in higher education.
The adventure travel market appears to be growing, as people seem to care more about spending their money on experiences. Last year, three quarters of Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) members—which encompasses tour companies, destination marketing organizations, outdoor gear brands, and other relevant businesses all over the world—surveyed said their profit outlook for 2017 was up from 2016. Because it’s online, CSU’s certificate program is available for tour operators and prospective business owners worldwide.
That could have far-reaching implications for the industry as a whole, says ATTA president Shannon Stowell. He agreed with Gasta’s assessment that this “passion-based” industry has been in need of additional educational opportunities. “More and more, we need to professionalize [the industry] and need people to be as well-rounded as possible so their skillset is relevant for the market,” he says. A course like CSU’s could “put a whole new wave of smart, fresh young people in a business that needs an injection of talent.”
For a long time, these jobs have been seen as fun, seasonal gigs, Benitez says. But finally, there’s “serious leadership to lead a serious economy,” he says. The outdoor industry has traditionally been led by people who stumbled into business because the products they needed didn’t exist, or they didn’t have an easy or affordable way to access them except to buy in bulk and sell to friends. Many legacy brands started out this way. Now, Colorado has a chance to train and create those future leaders, rather than wait for happy accidents.
“Who’s the next [Patagonia founder] Yvon Chouinard?” Benitez asks. Who will shape the future of the outdoor and adventure travel industries? “We’ve celebrated—and should continue to celebrate—those pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps stories. But having an opportunity in academia to make sure we have the right person at the right place at the right time will be vital.”
Interested? The deadline to apply for the fall semester is July 15. You must have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution and two letters of recommendation.