CT Dialogue: Kirsten Gardner of Wildland Adventures
Spring Break Journey of a lifetime through Peru.
During this past spring break, my father and I embarked on a journey of a lifetime through Peru. Spanning from the Urubamba Valley, to Machu Picchu to the depths of the Amazon, my dad and I were able to see and experience things that many North Americans never get the chance to see. Although my dad and I had a general outline of what we wanted to see while abroad, we could not have had the amazing experience we had if it had not been for Kirsten Gardner at Wildland Adventures.
Kirsten Gardner is the Program Director for Latin America at Wildland Adventures, and specializes in planning tours in locations such as Peru, Patagonia, Argentina, and Brazil, as well as managing tours in Alaska and Antarctica. Her love for travel was sparked by her experiences at Semester at Sea while in college, and she soon began pursuing a career in tourism. Driven by a passion to plan interesting and active tours for her friends, working at Wildland Adventures was a simple next step. Kirsten was kind enough to allow me to interview her in order to get more information on her own travel experiences, suggestions for college students interested in pursuing a career in tourism as well as some information about what Wildland Adventures thinks is important for tourists. Below is a well of information which will provide you with a breadth of interesting information on how to get a job in tourism as well as what goes on behind the scenes at an adventure tourism company.
As the Program Director for many different countries, what do you do on an average day?
Every day is different. Since I am lucky enough to be the Program Director for many different countries, the majority of my time is spent in the office speaking to clients. This means I spend a lots of time on the phone, discussing specific travel locations as well as creating custom trips. I am also in charge of creating content for the website and our various social media accounts in order to inform potential clients of the sorts of tours we have as well as the services we provide. When I am not speaking to clients, I make sure that everything is running smoothly for the tours already in place as well as managing the bookings of upcoming tours.
Are you the one who goes out and finds the people / activities in the countries you are in charge of?
For the countries that I am in charge of, I am the one who plans the pre-scheduled tours as well as the custom tours, meaning that I have the pleasure of going to each country and experiencing all it has to offer. By traveling to these countries, I am able to then put together an itinerary which reflects the best of the country, which can be molded to specific interests if the client so wishes.
Since Wildland Adventures is always expanding their reach across the globe with new tours, if I want to make a new tour, I make the reservations to travel there and create an itinerary. I actually traveled to Colombia a year ago, and ever since have been creating an itinerary which will be making its appearance on the website soon.
Did you travel any before you applied for this job – if so, where?
In college, I had the opportunity to travel with Semester at Sea in fall 2005. The ship that I went on was the first Semester at Sea ship to go to Myanmar, which was an amazing and unique experience.
While we were stationed in Venezuela, I went on a planned excursion and quickly realized that these expeditions hd the potential to show the students much more. After that, I went to the ship’s the library between stops and read up about our next destination in order to create an itinerary for myself and my friends. This was the beginning of my love of travel planning.
I expanded upon that after college when I backpacked around the world, which eventually manifested itself into a job. Despite all of these “exotic” locations that I have been to, I still have never been to Italy!
How did you choose to be in charge of the countries that you are in charge of at Wildland Adventures?
The job I applied for at Wildland Adventures was to be in charge of South American countries that I had never been to; although I had been to a few countries in South America before, and had a working knowledge of Spanish, I had never been to locations I am now in charge of. Luckily, after I was hired, Wildland Adventures sent me to Peru for a month in order to get involved with the culture and see all there is to see.
Once you are involved with the company, there is room for growth, and you are encouraged to create new tours in new locations. Since Alaska is very special to me, I have taken over some of the Alaskan tours, and have spent some time in Brazil and Colombia since they are both places of interest to me.
Do you have any specific advice for someone in college looking to work in the tourism industry?
The first thing I would suggest is getting involved with your university’s study abroad office. Having an internship there will allow you to manage logistics of travel since it can be confusing handling the small details at first. At Wildland Adventures, I have between 200-300 clients a year going to 7 locations, so having the ability to multi-task and being detail oriented are key for this industry.
While I was living in Pittsburgh, I became involved with the World Affairs Council, which is another great opportunity to learn about current events happening in the world. In order to work in tourism, you need to understand world events, so joining this organization was one of the things that helped keep me updated before I came to Wildland Adventures.
Social media skills as well as having the ability to communicate, particularly in the written word, are key. Our Marketing Manager always wants more blog content for the site, but it is easy to get bogged down in the day to day and not write anything. Having a background in blogging is something that will help employers see how you communicate, and is a great way to make an entrance into the industry.
Lastly, the Adventure Travel Trade Association, of which Wildland Adventures is a part of, is a great resource to find out what tourism companies are located around you. Another place to look for internships is national and local tourism boards, since these are funded by the government and always are looking for new ways to have new people come to their country or region. Having an internship in tourism is the most important thing when looking for a job because it will prove that you are dedicated to the industry and have had relevant experience.
What tours from Wildland Adventures would you suggest to college students?
Many of the attendees for Wildland Adventure tours are parents and their children, but there are also a great deal of college students to spend their spring break in Central America. Costa Rica and Nicaragua as the top two places for students to travel to using Wildland Adventures because they are good “starters” for getting to know Latin America. The tours in these locations blend together a good combination of cultural elements with hanging out on beaches.
How can tourism help the country you’re going to, besides bringing in money?
It is very important to our company to give back to the communities in which we have tours. We have an overall fund called the Travelers Conservation Trust, which is an affiliate non-profit program which gives travelers the opportunity to support conservation and help indigenous communities at a local level worldwide.
For every destination we have listed, there is also a cause or two that is supported by donations of the clients who use Wildland Tours. For example, in Peru, we have two charities which we give back to: Andean Bear Conservation Fund, which donates money to research and habitat conservation for the Andean Bear, and the Parpacalle Project, which helps fund education in the Urubamba Valley.
Small things are what make the most impact; by identifying one or two things that needs help, it is much easier to be successful and acutely help those in need. By having one or two charities for each location, Wildland Adventures hopes that we will be able to help these communities thrive by doing more than just helping with their local tourism.
What sets Wildland apart from other tour companies?
Wildland Adventures’ speciality is having destinations where people have some nervousness about going to alone and without a plan. Our locations range from Egypt to Myanmar to Peru, and these countries do not necessarily have the developed infrastructure, such as trains and buses. Therefore, many clients are unsure of booking their own way through the country because they are not familiar with the type of transportation or even perhaps the language. Since all of our Program Directors have traveled to these locations and scoped out all of the places we send our clients, we have the ability to work with the client and create an experience that they are comfortable with and where they will be safe throughout the journey.
What Wildland Adventures is great at is illustrated in moments when tourists get spontaneous experiences. Wildland Adventures seeks to not be super structured and encourage tour guides to play upon what specific travelers enjoy doing. [Writer’s Note: An example of this is when our tour guide in Peru took me and my dad into a chicharia on the side of the road – we had heard about the small, local bars but had not been in one. This was one of the best parts of the trip!] By giving travelers a real experience rather than just showing them a monument and spouting facts, the traveler will be more engaged and will overall have a better time.
I love working with local people who love what they are doing, and love their country so much that they are inspired to show it to clients. This relationship we have with our local tour guides lends to genuine itineraries which add to the authenticity of our tours. Authenticity is not something that can be identified easily, but it is this mindset that allows clients to be happy.