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Adventuring women claim niche in travel market

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2000

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Dori Passmann says the party on the beach was in full-swing when a couple of young studs from a neighboring camp showed up unannounced.

It was late October, on a women-only trip to the Sea of Cortez for snorkeling among the sea lions, kayaking and relaxing under the Mexico sun. The trip was organized by AdventureWomen, a Bozeman-based company that specializes in soft adventure travel for the over-30 female set.

The fellows may have meant well, says Passmann, 42, a Livingston, Mont., archaeologist, but they weren't exactly the mixer the women wanted to spice up their vacation cocktail.

''The joking stopped,'' she says. ''There was more reticence in the things people were talking about.''

Some of the women in the 16-member group had turned in early that evening, but the sudden disruption in dynamic was instantly palpable -- even from inside the canvas tents.

''They said, 'As soon as the guys showed up, there was an immediate change in atmosphere,'' Passmann says. ''When they left, things sort of resumed.''

Her story illustrates what AdventureWomen's owner Susan Eckert says she realized 18 years ago when she started her company: Women are not only different from men, but sometimes, they want to vacation differently, too. Which means, of course, by themselves.

Perhaps it's because they're not as driven to extremes as men are, Eckert says. That mountain over there? It doesn't matter to a gal if she's the first one to the top. That bumped-out ski run with the black diamond sign? She doesn't have to be the first one to the bottom.

Just getting to the top or the bottom, and what happens along the way, is enough.

Livingston businesswoman Elizabeth Baum, 30, a pal of Passmann's who also was on the Baja trip, puts it like this: ''My experience with guys is, they mess things up. They're competitive. They want to take things over.''

Eckert, who is careful to point out that men have their place, too, says many women turn to female-only adventure vacations simply because they want a change of pace, some culture, perhaps a great meal among friends and companionship, not competition.

In decades past, Eckert says, ''it was always the guy who sat at the back of the canoe.''

With AdventureWomen, she's hoping to change that.

In the early 1970s, Eckert was a 20-something newlywed fresh from a two-year Peace Corps stint in Sierra Leone with her husband. Back in the United States, she worked as a research biologist for a pharmaceutical company near Chicago, doing sleep-dream studies. Time slipped by. She divorced, then returned to graduate school.

During those years, Eckert says, she began leading short canoe expeditions into places like northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters. On one of those trips, she got the idea that there might be a market for adventure travel -- but for women only. ''I had $25,000 saved. I hired a lawyer, a public relations firm and a CPA,'' she says. That was 1982. ''I did all the trips myself the first year.''

From just five trips that season, AdventureWomen's full color catalog for 2001 now includes 27, ranging from a gorilla trek through the Ugandan highlands to a leisurely barge tour of France's Burgundy wine country. Last year, more than 400 women signed up.

These high-end trips -- costing between $1,500 and $7,000 -- have come a long way from primitive canoe trips in Minnesota.

Then again, admits Eckert, 54, so has she.

''Now, (my clients) don't want to carry a backpack. They don't want to portage a canoe. And they want to have a great meal and a comfortable bed to sleep in at the end of the day,'' she says.

Passage of Title IX a quarter-century ago helped clear the way for women to participate in sport, but had other effects, too, says Jerry Mallett, president of Adventure Travel Society in Salida, Colo.

The new law was a stone tossed in the pond of American culture, and one of the resulting ripples, Mallett believes, was a change in adventure travel demographics.

If women could play ball, they reasoned, why not trek through an African jungle, too?

These days, Mallett says, the typical ''adventure tourist'' is a 47-year-old woman.

''Women have a good amount of discretionary income,'' he adds.

Not all of them go on all-women trips, but a lot of them do -- a phenomenon reflected in the appearance of companies such as Earth Wise Journeys in Oregon, Wild Women Expeditions in Ontario, or Call of the Wild in California -- and of course, AdventureWomen in Bozeman.

''In the early days, people would say, 'What's wrong with your wife?''' she says. ''But today, people think it's healthy to take separate vacations.''

Adventure travel for women, of course, is really nothing new.

Pioneer women did as much as any man in settling the American West. Anybody who knows anything about Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham or Sally Ride is amply aware the term ''gentle sex'' just may be history's most flagrant misnomer.

Still, the common image of the adventurer remains firmly entrenched in the whiskers-and-whiskey domain of masculinity.

As representation of women in business and government grows more pronounced, however, it provides role models for regular gals who never again will accept being denied their turn at seeing the world, says Andrea Schulz, project director at the Adventure Travel Society.

But they don't go ''purely for the adventure,'' Schulz says.

''That might be 60 percent of it,'' she said, calling the rest a desire to immerse themselves in a foreign culture, to stretch themselves beyond their everyday limits without focusing on a specific objective.

Eckert says this year, her clients ranged from singles to divorcees experiencing a second childhood. In many instances, husbands had given their wives the trips as presents.

The average age of an ''AdventureWoman'' is 50. Their kids are grown, and they don't have the responsibility of taking care of a young family, Eckert says.

''I think what they're doing is re-inventing adventure on their own terms,'' she says. ''Men have always gone golfing together, fishing together, hunting together. Women, from the time I started this business, have always said, 'Why can't we do these things together, too?'

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On the Net:

AdventureWomen: http://www.rainbowadventures.com/

Earth Wise Journeys: http://www.teleport.com/(tilde)earthwyz/

Wild Women Expeditions: http://www.wildwomenexp.com/

Call of the Wild: http://www.callwild.com/



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