Learning from Soccer












August 24, 2018

2 Lessons From the History of Soccer for the Adventure Travel Trade

I’m sitting on a plane flying from San Francisco to Seattle for a friend’s birthday, reading an article by Leo Robson, in the June 25, 2018 issue of the New Yorker magazine. The title of the article is “Goal Oriented” and in it Mr. Robson recounts key moments in the history of soccer. He writes of the early days of the sport: 1880s and 1900s Britain and how soccer spread through the travels of “merchants, engineers, travel agents and seamen” who took the game abroad and founded soccer clubs in Germany, Spain, France, Argentina and Russia. Eventually Robson’s narrative finds its way to this moment in time that as I read it felt surprisingly familiar: the moment that Britain’s soccer children – the clubs from other countries of the world – started to overtake their parent. 

The world governing body for soccer, FIFA, was founded in 1904 with seven members with the English Football Association (est. 1863) not among them. When Uruguay’s team won in the 1924 at the Olympics (where Britain had refused to participate), a French player remarked that watching them was “like comparing Arab thoroughbreds to farm horses.” 

What does all this have to do with commercial adventure travel? 

This history reminds me of commercial adventure travel because right now many companies in the established trade are like Britain, watching on the sidelines as the global experiences market lifts off. Longtime adventure travel companies (think of established international operators with gorgeous catalogs, Ph.D. level naturalist guides and extensive global partner networks) have polished and honed and perfected their trade over many decades. They rightfully take pride in the service they have developed and the ethos of the community they have fostered. 

Enter online platforms for travel experiences such Airbnb, to a name one biggie among the multitude. The online experience platforms have made it easy for anyone with an activity to share to reach a customer and earn a review and over time build a business. 

Like Britain, “comparing Arab thoroughbreds to farm horses” the travel trade is incensed. Established adventure tour operators complain that platforms encourage and allow random people to market themselves as a guide, whether qualified or not to sell a service that adventure travel companies have spent years refining; that the platform owners themselves take too high of a commission for the sales they offer; that they’re rapidly disassembling appreciation for carefully sculpted itineraries; that they’re reducing the power of an immersive experience into a short burst of adrenaline. 

As Robson observes in his story about soccer: Britain’s “chauvinism came at a cost: an independent scene was developing, and isolation bred stasis.”

What happened in soccer is, the global clubs improved and exceled and by 1930, Jimmy Hogan, “an English former player who had spent his coaching career abroad, complained, ‘We are hopelessly out of date.’ Soccer, as played in its mother country, remained primitive in technique and tactically complacent, with an emphasis on moral fibre that had begun to look increasingly quixotic.”

So here is lesson 1 from soccer for the entrenched travel tradeHave an open attitude; refusal to play could backfire.

Contemplating this got me thinking about the one very significant way that adventure travel in many cases is very unlike soccer, however, and that has to do with safety. Adventure travel guides – think of these wonderful men and women who take you out on their sailboat, or lead you into the mountains, paddle the raft with all your gear and photographic equipment through the rapids or brash ice, manage to shepherd your inexperienced self through a maze of interconnected canyons – these people have your life in their hands in many cases, whether they appreciate this fully or not. So while Britain was haughty and proud and refusing to play based on a sense of pride and tradition, the stakes were certainly lower in the soccer context. The global soccer rabble wasn’t in a position of causing harm (unless you blame them for the disastrous problems of crowd control) through their play. In contrast, with lower barriers to entry enabling anyone to become an adventure guide, there is a real opportunity for serious harm in the event of an accident with an inexperienced guide.

In the soccer context, Britain’s soccer culture simply over time “loosened up”, in Robson’s words. The European Cup was established in 1956 and Manchester United, ignoring a ban to enter, did so anyway and particated. Television brought global soccer to English fans, and gradually Britain joined the global community, even managing to win the World Cup in 1966. 

Which brings me to lesson 2 from soccer for the entrenched travel trade: Make your move quickly.

For adventure travel companies, going slow and loosening up over time may not be an available luxury. Travel is turbo charged these days thanks to apps like Instagram that tantalize millions with visions of incredible global experiences of a lifetime. Rising middle class populations in countries in Asia and Latin America are enabling legions of new travelers to follow their curiosity to see the world. The entrenched travel trade might need to act proactively and quickly to be part of this shift in how travel is sold and delivered and help shape its trajectory.

What the new entrants on the various platforms might not know that could hurt them and their guests, the commercial trade has been confronting and solving for many years. Open sourced, competence-based safety standards (e.g. not standards based on moving through a particular curriculum or school) have been defined, and best practices for calculating risk and consequence when leading guests are well known by the adventure travel trade community.  

Established companies and the adventure trade in general need to seek out ways to share what they’ve learned, to be a leader in the new world order. 

Christina Beckmann