Both travel companies were founded in the 1970s by young adventurers with little business experience — and both are thriving a generation later.
January 10, 2024
BERKELEYSIDE – In the early years at Berkeley’s Wilderness Travel, Bill Abbott led folks through remote areas, without so much as an accurate map, directional trail posts or even a structurally sound bridge.
“The early trips were long and expeditionary,” said Abbott, who founded the company in 1978. “All our trips were based on trying to get off the map.” Indeed they included a “live-off-the-jungle” expedition traversing the Upper Amazon; exploring the remote western fjords of Tierra del Fuego by sea kayak; and a Patagonian trek in areas recently designated as national parks that still had “no signs, no rangers, not even bridges across the rivers.”
While most of the more rugged and pioneering elements of Wilderness Travel’s trips have softened over the years — they now offer over 200 trips across more than 80 countries and guests can refresh themselves in yurts, cabins and even the occasional boutique hotel — the fundamental spirit endures.
“When we go to Patagonia now, there are beautiful lodges and well-marked trails and bridges over the rivers,” Abbott said. “But it’s still remote, it still feels off the beaten path. And it’s still absolutely beautiful.”
The same holds true for Berkeley’s other internationally acclaimed adventure travel company: Backroads, founded in 1979. Initially geared for cyclists, the West Berkeley-headquartered travel company now offers hiking trips, culinary trips, combo trips and even their slower-paced “Dolce Tempo” trips.
“Many of our guests seem to want to slow down a bit,” said Avery Hale, Backroads’ executive vice president and daughter of founder Tom Hale. “At the same time, they still want something authentic, and active, something that connects them to a place beyond tour buses and gift shops.”
As evidence, 2024 is shaping up to be Backroads’ busiest year ever, Hale said. “In a world of remote working and artificial experiences people are looking for deep, authentic, meaningful connections and outdoorsy, active trips.”
Connections that Abbott, from Wilderness Travel, believes are forged through humans’ fundamentally itinerant nature.
“It feels natural to be on the road,” he said. “Genetically and historically, humans have been nomadic and adventure-seeking. There now seems to be a general reawakening of people’s adventurous side.”
How the journey began
Bill Abbott was in his twenties when he started Wilderness Travel. He had gone to South America until he could figure out what he wanted to do for work. “I was hitchhiking, spending as little as I could, exploring Peru, Bolivia, Patagonia, even hitching down the length of the Amazon river and sleeping in a hammock for several months.” While pursuing travel photography on these trips, he thought of the idea of running tours that would allow him to take photos. It turns out, he “made a mistake; I actually had to stay here and run the trips.”
Similarly, Tom Hale worked very briefly in environmental planning after completing degrees at UC Berkeley and UCLA. “Then, in 1979, I woke up with the idea that I wanted to take people on bike trips,” Hale said. “I hadn’t done much biking (just commuted to work by bike), had no business experience, and spent limited time traveling (three months in Europe between degrees). And I didn’t have enough capital to throw a stick at.”
“But I put all my energy into it, ” Hale said. “I even took off on a 5,000-mile bike trip around the western U.S. before diving in to start the company.”
Change is to be expected with adventure travel. On any given day, the most meticulously arranged trip can be upended by weather, war, strikes or, as recent experience showed, a virus. “There’s nothing that’s a headline that’s good for our business,” said Abbott.
Avery Hale agreed. “Not a week goes by that something doesn’t happen. In the past few years, we’ve had to work around flooding in New Zealand, flooding in Yellowstone, wildfires in Europe . . . Or the snow doesn’t melt in the Rockies and the roads are closed. These things happen all the time.
“You have to be nimble,” she continued. “You have to be continually ready to adapt.” Case in point: Backroads and Wilderness have suspended trips to Israel for the time being.
Abbott’s son Scott, who now works as the company’s marketing director, credits Wilderness Travel’s ability to swiftly shift gears to its close connections, forged over decades, with local guides, hoteliers, restaurateurs and residents. “Our local connections aren’t just our business partners. They are our eyes and ears on the ground. Having these relationships keeps us informed. And being informed helps us keep everyone safe.”
Sometimes, however, last-minute adaptations can add a quirky charm to an upended itinerary. Last summer, for example, the electricity went out on a Backroads trip in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. “The whole region was blacked out,” Avery Hale said. “The hotels couldn’t serve dinner. So our leaders went out and bought groceries and made a picnic for everyone. Not just for our guests but for everyone at the hotel. It’s the kind of thing our trip leaders get used to doing on the fly.”
Passing the baton
There’s another change pending, one closer to home for both companies but no less seismic: the stepping away of the founders. The next generation is taking the reins. Bill Abbott is planning ahead for retirement. And Tom Hale is looking forward to “focusing on what is most important to grow the business” – and “taking a weekend off.” And all three of the next-geners — Avery Hale, Scott Abbott and his sister Nicole Abbott — are already involved in the day-to-day operations.
And who better, really, to lead the companies into the future than the three who grew up in them. Indeed, Scott Abbott was 10 months old when he first did the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. And Avery Hale “can’t remember” a time when she wasn’t being whisked along on family trips in a Piccolo bike trailer or other contraption.
All three are looking forward to carrying on the tradition. “I wouldn’t have taken over (just) any family business,” said Nicole Abbott, vice president at Wilderness Travel. “It’s something I’m very passionate about. It’s very tangible — you can see people going out and coming back connected to so many cultures and parts of the world.”
“Owning a business can be a ton of work,” agreed Scott. “But the privilege comes from working with so many people around the world. I feel like I’ve been given this worldwide family.”
And if their dads continue to do some armchair quarterbacking, fine. “Sure, my dad will be giving me advice, that’s who he is,” Avery Hale said. “But I really respect and look up to him. I love having him to lean on.”
At home in Berkeley
If there’s one other business decision that all family members agree on, it’s that Berkeley will remain their launching pad and base camp. Bill Abbott originally opened his business on Solano Avenue and later moved to the Gilman District. “The Bay Area was, and still is, a hotbed for adventure travel,” Abbott said. “It’s an international hub from which you can get pretty much anywhere.”
There’s also the people factor. “Berkeley attracts people who love the outdoors, who are involved in their community and the world at large,” Avery Hale said. “We have an educated, active population that can and does support an active travel company.”
If there’s a bottom line, for Abbott it’s more philosophical than financial. “What I’ve learned over the years is that no matter what you see or hear about ‘this place is bad, or this group is bad’ is that pretty much everyone in the world has a kind heart and is just fascinating. We just provide ways to meet them.”