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Guides Get With the Times


This is what customer satisfaction looks like. Guide Billy Haas’ client descends Utah’s Mount Superior. Photo by Billy Haas

Backcountry.com adds independent guide service to online retail just as the mountain guide profession comes of age in the U.S.

Choose your adventure: Rock climb in California. Scale ice in New York’s Adirondacks. Tour Colorado’s San Juans by mountain bike. Add a ski tour of Mount Superior to a Utah trip. Now, choose your guide. At Detour, a new online marketplace from outdoor retail behemoth Backcountry.com, local guides post outdoor adventure itineraries for Northern California, the Northeast, Colorado, and Utah. The new service lets you communicate directly with trip leaders and book an outing—all in just a few clicks.

But the site can make you wonder: Who and what classifies a guide? Detour’s vendors represent a mix of fully accredited mountain guides; aspiring guides with varying levels of mountain experience, medical training, and outdoor certifications; and skilled local experts. But they all fall under the catchall tagline: adventure guide. “It’s hard to define a guide because we have such a variety in the U.S., from hunting guides to tour guides,” says Henry Beyer, the program director for the American Mountain Guides Association. “And in the U.S. we have a much more frontiersman attitude. Why hire a guide if I can do it myself?”

In Europe, it’s less complicated. A working mountain guide has earned the badge of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, a certification that denotes rigorous, standardized training in rock, ski, and alpine disciplines. And it’s common practice to hire a guide. Say an IFMGA mountain guide from Chamonix, France travels to the Italian Dolomites. Who do they hire to show them around? Another IFMGA guide. The business model works in Europe; many American guides head there in order to make a living. But the model is slowly changing. The American Mountain Guides Association joined the IFMGA in 1997. Last year, the organization trained 285 guides; now, there’s a wait list for every course they offer. It’s become a more accepted occupation in the U.S., and consumers are getting the message. “A guide is there to create an experience based on what you’re looking for,” says Beyer. “You get local knowledge and a skill level that can increase your learning curve.”

So what’s the difference between the guides, instructors, and local experts on Detour? A lot. To become a certified AMGA single pitch instructor (SPI) requires five days of training and assessment. But an AMGA accredited rock guide completes 26 days of coursework, with exams. And think of an IFMGA badge as the equivalent of a doctorate. Those with the pin notch more than 90 class days, plus medical and avalanche training. Then hundreds of days in the field honing required skills.

Naturally, clients seek out IFMGA guides. The result is that Detour represents a potentially small piece of incremental business for professional IFMGA guides like Jesse Williams, a 20-year veteran of the trade who books trips a year in advance with a regular roster of clients and offers trips with his Adirondack outfit Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides on Detour. “For a high-end, service-based business like private guiding, sustainability comes from a client base that can take 10 years to build,” he says. “I’m not sure how that reconciles with a click-and-buy model, but kudos to Backcountry.com for seeing the opportunity and investing in it.”

Detour, however, does represent an opportunity to gain exposure and build a business for young guides like Billy Haas, a 26-year-old who’s been a ski guide with Utah Mountain Adventures for two years and is currently training as an AMGA guide. “It’s an easy channel for people to find the unique tours they want,” he says. “For a younger guide like me, the biggest challenge is establishing street cred. Backcountry.com has that.”

The Detour site facilitates client-guide relationships without relying on proximity or word of mouth. While buying outdoor adventures online is nothing new, Backcountry.com made human connection the priority. “Rather than sell packaged trips, we opened it up to let the consumers have a direct link with local guides,” says Backcountry.com CMO Scott Ballantyne. “It’s about adventure and discovery. That’s what our consumers are looking for.” Featured trip leaders complete an application process and must have insurance to participate. Detour went live at the end of 2013; it’s now growing as spring and summer trip offerings go live. In the future, the site will offer trips in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho from a varied network of outdoor professionals.

Our advice? Whenever substantial risk is involved, look for AMGA and IFMGA guides.  —Olivia Dwyer

For more information, please visit detour.backcountry.com. Learn more about the guiding associations at their websites: American Mountain Guides Association, Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, and the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations.

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