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The world is their oyster

SMALL BUSINESS:
How a former couple’s dreams of adventure survived extreme personal and economic turbulence

 

It’s a fantasy come true: A handsome young couple opens a small business together, a travel company that allows them to see the world. But like a holiday that goes terribly wrong, fantasy rarely sustains reality.

During the first crucial years when a small company has to prove itself, when just keeping afloat is the business plan, Robert Sharp and Steven Larkin, co-owners of Toronto-based Out Adventures, broke up. Instead of watching their dream go up in smoke, however, they doubled down on the business, navigated the treacherous terrain of a break-up and successfully carved out a niche in the highly competitive and potentially lucrative world of gay travel.

In 2008, three years into their relationship, Larkin, a travel executive, and Sharp, a marketing manager, combined their passion for travel and professional expertise to launch Out Adventures (OA), a boutique adventure travel agency specializing in taking small groups of  gay men (and some lesbians and straights) to exotic locales not normally associated with gay travel. Led by local guides, many of whom are gay, OA clients hike to Machu Picchu in Peru or drive to remote historical sites in Muslim countries like Turkey and Lebanon. Sure, they still hit the occasional gay bar or shopping spree, where appropriate, but that’s never the focus.

“We aren’t that big gay trip, an Atlantis Event or an Olivia Cruise,” says Larkin. These aren’t groups of 300 muscle-bound gay men encased in a roving disco; they’re groups of no more than 12 people hoping to experience local cultures on trips of varying degrees of ruggedness and luxury. OA avoids large international chains, preferring locally-owned hotels and restaurants. It’s an ethical choice and one that fosters a different experience, multiplying the possibility of meaningful exchanges with real people. In addition to personally vetting the properties and services in any host destination, Sharp and Larkin also spend a great deal of time and effort finding the right tour guides and educating managers and staff in the hospitality industry around the world on what gay clients expect.

 “I know ‘experience’ is such a clichéd term,
but anyone can travel and visit a destination,
not everyone can have the experiences we offer.”

 

“We aren’t going to go where everyone else is going,” says Larkin. “We identify destinations that will resonate in the market. Then we dig in and find an operator who understands what our niche is,” says Larkin who, in addition to co-owning OA, is president and CEO of Adventure Center, an established North American-wide adventure travel company (with a mainly heterosexual clientele). His near 10-year executive experience in group travel has given Larkin invaluable access to and knowledge of tour operators and guides. “It’s difficult to get operators on the ground who get it,” he says. “Gay and lesbian travel in many places of the world is still not mainstream so they have to break out of their comfort zone. We really work with these operators, hold their hands throughout the process. And Rob or I will always go on the first trip. We would never start a new destination with a new ground operator and just send 12 people on a trip. We make sure a trip operates to our specs.”

OA’s current roster ranges from “active” trips through Nepal and Iceland and “comfort” trips through Brazil and Argentina to “in style” trips through Cambodia and Thailand.

“Our focus is on finding the right partners in each destination country whose values match our own,” says Sharp. “We like to use the term ‘gay-welcoming’ versus ‘gay-friendly.’ It communicates better the expected level of appreciation for our clients.”

While about 50 percent of the local guides hired by OA are gay, all the guides need winning personalities and wide-ranging knowledge of the local scene.

“I know ‘experience’ is such a clichéd term,” says Sharp, “but anyone can travel and visit a destination, not everyone can have the experiences we offer. That experience comes from who operates and leads the tour.” The guides have to be quick on their feet, dealing with everything from a new concierge who unilaterally converts bookings for couples to two single beds to wholesale changes to itineraries as needs arise.

Sharp recalls one of their first trips to Cuba. “Cuba is notorious for screwing up hotel reservations,” says Sharp. “They’ll often resell bookings and you have to be very adept at reworking itineraries. We had one trip that went over New Year’s Eve and we had planned a great night in Havana. But at the last minute we had no place to stay. Natalia, who’s our fantastic local guide, came up with an alternative. She told us that her family would look after us. So we headed off into the countryside to a dusty little town. After expecting a big party, everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, how depressing.’ But it turned out to be the highlight of the trip. The family had set out a dining table in a farm field. There was a roasting pig hanging from a tree. And we ate under the stars. Everyone loved it. Now it’s part of our regular Cuba trip. We get to see a side of Cuba that most tourists don’t and some locals get in on the travel business. It’s a win/win.

“This isn’t stuff you can Google.”

The desire to break through barriers that travel inevitably creates between people because of differences in wealth, culture or language is what brings clients to OA. “We are selling a dream,” says Larkin, “as wanky as that sounds. That’s why people travel. They want to get out of their ‘now’ so they can experience something different from their everyday life.

“The challenge for us is to create an experience that is truly authentic.”

“We put a lot of focus on our website,” says Sharp. “When I look at how most gay travel is marketed, so much of it is shoddy. I keep thinking, ‘Come on people: We’re gay. We supposed to be at the leading edge of trends.’”

But marketing is much more than pretty pictures. “Most of our revenue comes from clients who find us online,” says Larkin, “from people who have already done a lot of research. They know whether you are talking out of your ass or not; they know if there is an authenticity to your product and an authenticity to your message.”

When Craig Masson, a 46-year-old Londoner, happened upon  OA’s website, he immediately connected with the company’s unique approach. He’s since gone on trips to Peru, Cuba and Lebanon/Jordan.

“I work fairly hard,” says Masson, creative director of a giftware company. “And I don’t have a partner to share the fun of planning a trip. So I want someone else to do the work for me. That’s the value of the product they sell: Taking me somewhere I would never have gone on my own, like Lebanon and Jordan. That was good value for my money.

“I’m not one for sitting on a beach. And I couldn’t imagine sitting around a pool with a bunch of bitchy queens with whom I had nothing in common,” he says. “Most gay travel to me looks pretty brainless, I don’t mean to sound snobby. I want something more intelligent. The guys with OA are on the same wavelength.”

Any successful small business person needs to find the right balance between tenacity and agility — when to push through and when to change tack. That challenge came at Sharp and Larkin from all directions.

 “We started the business in 2008,” says Larkin. “And then the world economy fell out from beneath us. We found ourselves struggling with a very different plan than the one we prepared. We very quickly had to switch gears. I guess this is where having experience in the industry really helps. I instinctively knew where to pull back.

“With our experience and agility we refocused our marketing on the grassroots angle,” says Larkin. “With great word of mouth and great repeat business, we pulled through.”

“We’ve had steady growth over the last three and half years,” says Sharp. “Things really exploded this year.”

OA’s core business is small groups, with a quarter of their business being custom-built trips for those who can’t or don’t want to join up with a regular group. With small profit margins and competitors flooding in, Sharp and Larkin can’t rest on their modest success. They are looking to expand the brand next year, offering a more luxurious option for a slightly larger group — a yacht and land trip for 30 through Croatia.

 “I don’t know anyone who could have pulled off a global product range like ours with our limited resources,” says Larkin. “You are only going to be successful doing something you really love, right?

“Our relationship might not have worked out but our business did.
The business secured our relationship as friends and family.”

“Rob and I just hope to make a decent living off of Out Adventures,” he says. “We’re not greedy people. We just want a nice lifestyle. We’re never going to be rich because of our wonderful little travel company.”

If their professional experience and business acumen allowed Sharp and Larkin to be agile responding to changing economics and the vagaries of a new business, agility also marked their response to the demise of their six-year relationship.

“We invented Out Adventures to keep us strong and together,” says Sharp. “But then we realized we weren’t for each other on that level. We also realized that Out Adventures was still something that was really strong between us. It forced us to work through issues with each other and remain friends.

“Steven will always be a very important part of my life. And I hope the same goes for me.”

At the time of the break-up, OA’s two-man operation was based in an office shared by Intrepid Travel (with which OA was affiliated at the time). “We did a good job of maintaining our composure with each other,” says Sharp. “We were two people in an office of 12. It could have very easily had a negative effect on everyone in the office — that wouldn’t be fair. We took six months working through the break-up before going public to our colleagues. That way there was no drama. We could be clear with everyone, our colleagues and business partners, that nothing had really changed with respect to the business.

“Our relationship might not have worked out but our business did. The business secured our relationship as friends and family.”

“The break-up was the best thing for the business and, in hindsight, the best thing for our relationship as well,” says Larkin. “We’re still very good friends.

“I would never tell anyone not to do it,” he says. “It’s still possible to run a business with a partner, you just have to be prepared to be mature enough to handle it if it does break up.”

“We butt heads all the time,” adds Sharp. “But why would you want to think the same way? The friction makes for good collaboration.”

While they’re in the business of selling good times, Sharp and Larkin aren’t blind to the wider implications of the work they do. Taking small groups of LGBT travellers to all corners of the globe is a unique extension of that old maxim: The personal is political. “It makes a positive impact that we don’t necessarily see,” says Sharp. “We are small groups so we can travel under the radar — it’s not like a big cruise. So we are able to have a conversation with locals. It’s about one-on-one interaction. Sometimes you see the light go on. ‘Oh. Oh!’ People see we aren’t the monsters they’ve heard about from their religious leaders or the media.”

“And it allows the gay and lesbian traveller to break down their assumptions about a destination,” adds Larkin. “So it creates dialogue.”

Fun-seeking gays with entrepreneurial spirit, ethical business practices and respect for local communities — who could be better ambassadors for Canada in the 21st century?

Around the world in bits & bites

Most crucial advice for any trip?
“Email yourself a scan of your passport and credit cards,” says Steven Larkin, co-owner of Out Adventures (OA). “If you’re ever in an emergency you’ll have this info at your disposal.”

Something surprisingly useful?
“A smart phone or tablet,” says co-owner Rob Sharp.
“Lube,” says Larkin. “It’s hard to find and often expensive.”  

 

Biggest mistake most travellers make?
Packing too much, they both warn. “Our rule of thumb is to lay everything out and then cut it in half.”

Fave OA trip?
“My last trip is always my favour-ite,” says Larkin. “So Croatia.”
“‘Active’ Nepal and ‘comfort’ Turkey,” says Sharp.

Best thing you ever ate?
“A vegetarian lunch at a monastery in Vietnam,” says Sharp, “and I’m not vegetarian.”
“The food in Lebanon is superb,” says Larkin.

Worst thing?
“Silk worms in Thailand,” says Sharp.
“Guinea pig in Peru,” says Larkin. “I just couldn’t shake the image of the guinea pig I had growing up.”

 

Dream destination still to add to OA’s roster?  
“Antarctica,” says Larkin.  “I can’t wait for that one.”
“Kilimanjaro climbing trip,” says Sharp, “and an exclusive Serengeti lodge safari.”

 

Destination with an unexpectedly larger, more vibrant, LGBT scene?
Lebanon, agree Larkin and Sharp.


OUT ADVENTURES 579 Richmond St W, 4th floor. 1-866-360-1152. out-adventures.com.

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