I’ve always known that at some point in the process of reviewing outdoor adventures I’d run into a bad experience. What I didn’t expect was that I’d end up feeling so conflicted about writing something negative, though entirely honest. Yesterday’s adventure has left me in a bit of a furious wind of “What do I do?”. Do I write a horrible review for every possible customer to find? Do I go nuts on Yelp and TripAdvisor? Or do I just ignore the entire thing and hope it was a one of a kind bad experience?
Update: After thinking on it, I decided to e-mail the owner of the company and let them known about our experience and what went wrong. I was relieved to receive a prompt and professional e-mail the next morning that was appreciative of my feedback and showed a serious intent to improve. So, no angry reviews will be coming from Tenders & Trails. I’m sure this business will make some big changes and be awesome.
As I try to figure out how to handle the bad experience, it got me thinking about what makes a great guide and what makes a terrible one. I know it isn’t an easy job at all, and it’s certainly not for everyone. So, how do you make sure you’re a horrible guide?
1) Ignore safety and assume everyone in your group knows what to do.
Good guide: For the past few years, Rob and I have gone whitewater rafting with US Rafting out of West Forks, Maine. Whitewater rafting can be entirely terrifying while out of your mind awesome at the exact same time. It’s a careful balance for guides to achieve, but first and foremost they do it by ensuring that all participants are safe and have the knowledge they need. Every rafting adventure starts with a very in depth safety lecture (that is incredibly entertaining as well) that goes over what to do in case you fall out of the raft, get stuck under it, get separated, or get hurt (we’ve done all of these and way more). The lecture ends with the guides yanking each of us around by our life jacket to ensure a great fit, checking our helmets, double checking for first aid kits and medical issues, and lots of RAHHHHHHH! (get excited). I’m terrified of water, but have now gone rafting six times.
Bad guide: Yesterday’s adventure (sea kayaking) started with… well… checking in and standing around. There was absolutely no checking of proper attire, supplies, or asking if anyone had any medical issues to take into consideration. After a long and silent bus ride to the put in point, we got a brief lesson on how to hold our paddle and how to paddle forward. There was no discussion of what to do if we happened to roll our kayaks, other than “don’t let go of your paddle and kayak”. Pretty quickly (literally – a few hundred feet out), one of our group members who had never kayaked before rolled. He looked terrified and utterly discouraged. And then it happened again. Had the poor guy just been given a bit of Kayak 101, it never would have happened and he might have been hooked for life. Regardless, we were soon off and paddling with a very petrified and wobbly kayaker. The real kicker? Our guide never checked our life jackets. The guy who fell out almost slipped out of his jacket. Rob was the one to tighten it up for him after the roll!
2) Focus on your own experience and don’t give a darn about the group.
Good Guide: A few years ago a group of friends and I gave river kayaking a try with Outback Kayak in Lincoln, NH. Though some of the group had never kayaked before, we were pretty excited to try our hand at some pretty sweet rapids. Our guides were obviously well experienced kayakers who told us tales of some sweet and super difficult rapids all over the country, but in the end they made sure we had a blast (so much in fact, I’m madly in love with river kayaking). Sure we fell out, got bruised, and even briefly lost a kayak – but in the end we made it. We finished up with a rapid so gnarly that only one of us didn’t fall out or fill our kayak with water. Our guides constantly checked to see how we were doing, how the pace was, and even skipped a few items on the river out of concern that someone might not be comfortable enough with it all. I know our guides much rather have been out doing challenging stuff, but they made sure that we enjoyed the experience – and their guiding.
Bad Guide: I feel horrible slamming an individual guide here, but our guide yesterday was far more interested in spending the afternoon on the water at his own pace than what his paying customers needed. In our group, we had Rob and I (experienced recreational kayakers), another married couple looking to buy sea kayaks (and this outfitter sold kayaks, so sales opportunity), and a guy who wanted to see if kayaking was for him since he had just moved to the area. It was easy to tell from the start that maybe only 2 of the 5 group were powerful kayakers (Rob being one of them). The rest of us were getting our bearings or desired a slower pace. Well, the pace was nuts, the waves ended up being huge (for first timers), and we had no idea what the route or distance was, so there was no way to conserve energy intelligently. We moronically paddled with the wind to our back to start and finished up the trip with a super long headwind paddle that produced intimidating waves and exhausted paddlers. Despite the guide casually asking us all a few times how were doing with non-enthusiastic replies of “alright”, “fine”, and “really sore” we were barely provided breaks or had any changes to the trip to accommodate our feedback.
3) Make sure that your guests feel defeated, unaccomplished, and SO glad the experience is done.
Good Guide: I’ve been rock climbing at Vertical Dreams in Nashua and Manchester, NH for years now and I even worked there for awhile. I’ve seen first hand the power of making sure your customers accomplish their goal, no matter how trivial or monumental it might be. The staff at Vertical Dreams always make sure their customers are safe and at least get to the top of the wall, even if it means some cheating by rock climber standards or taking the easiest route up. That little bit of accomplishment and winning goes a long way to making a newbie feel like they can handle more – and that’s how you get people hooked for life.
Bad Guide: If you know Rob and I at all, you know we have a lot of outdoor gear and will say “yes” to almost everything. It doesn’t take much of an experience for us to decide to go get our own gear and make the activity part of what we love and what defines us. Not long into yesterday’s adventure, we mutually agreed we had no interest in purchasing sea kayaks or even sea kayaking ever again. Now, if we were getting turned off that quickly, how do you think other kayakers in that group felt? Eek. So how did we get to that point? Well, first off we were frustrated with everything mentioned above. We were exhausted, sore, and felt totally ignored. Second, at the end we felt like we had accomplished absolutely nothing but poorly paddling around a huge windy bay. We didn’t feel more educated about sea kayaking (in fact, I think I’ve regressed) and we were far from hooked. And finally, there was literally cheering when we reach the take out point. I’ve never cheered about the end of an experience – even when I’ve been battered during whitewater rafting (heck, Rob made it to the end of a whitewater rafting trip with a broken ankle and still had a blast).