We started this interview series as a way to find unique perspectives on what it takes to create lasting, memorable experiences. And... if you're looking for unique, it honestly doesn't get any more more so then our next interview with Dan Wedgwood at The Adventurists. Literally... some of the shit they do is mind blowing.
One of the things I love about The Adventurists (outside of their crazy, yet amazing events), is that they more than anyone, know exactly who their target audience is. And as a result, they have created a series of events that most would say are for lunatics. But for the right few... well... these events are built just for them.
Quick Prediction: We're definitely going to see there events on TV at some point.
Photo Cred: The Adventurists
LET'S SET THE SCENE
A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about this event he and a couple college buddies were doing in India called the Rickshaw Run. For a few guys in their mid to late twenties, racing 3500 Miles through India in a glorified lawnmower is the epitome of adventure. And when you have to raise a few thousand dollars for your favorite charity, even your confused parents can get behind this. The crazy thing is that this is just one adventure in a number of incredible experiences.
As such, I was so excited to find out more:
- FIRST: Was this just organized chaos or was their a bigger point.
- SECOND: What truly goes into a production like this.
- THIRD: How they think about branding and messaging (because it is spot on for their audience).
- FOURTH: What their biggest challenges are as they try and grow the business.
- FIFTH: What kind of career advice, they'd offer up and more.
Dan - I'm sure you just got back from Siberia or something, so I appreciate you doing this.
Hah. No problem Mate. Happy to.
Where did you grow up?
Bournemouth, south coast of England.
If your friends were a little tipsy now, how would they describe you?
Fuck, that's a good question actually. They would say I'm short and I talk too much. They'd probably also say I get bored easily.
If you were a piece of event equipment, what would you be and why?
Wow. That's probably the most random question I've ever been asked.
I will take that as a compliment, brother :)
In The Adventurists world, I'd probably say I'm a Monkey Bike.
They're a funny, little version of a motorbike. They're not showy. They look like they should be used for putting around town, but actually we use them for driving over mountains.
Photo Cred: The Adventurists - Engine: 48cc of 4 stroke genius Power: 2.6 BHP Weight: 75kg Brakes: Disc front, drum rear
If you could produce any event in the world that isn't yours, what would it be, and what would you change about it?
I think off the top of my head, it would have to be something like G20 Summit. What I would change about it is every one of those bastards would be injected with truth serum for the duration of the conference.
That might be the best answer I've heard from these things.
So how did the Adventurists get started?
The Mongol Rally was the one that started it. A guy called Tom Morgan and his mate Jules were in the Czech Republic on a student exchange and they drunkenly decided, to buy a car on the side of the street. The next morning they thought, "Oh shit, we just bought a car. Let's drive it to the most stupid place we can think of." So they decided Mongolia was a pretty stupid place to drive it (with a hangover). They pretty much had nothing with them whatsoever, apart from two cigars and a knife. They got as far as the Iranian border, at which point the Iranians told them to fuck off, because they had no paperwork.
So technically, it was a huge failure but that sowed the seeds.
Tom ran the Mongol Rally as a bit of a hobby then decided to form The Adventurists and set up a bunch of other adventures. I jumped on board along with his now wife Jenny when the company launched back in 2006 so we've just hit the decade mark!
So, can you describe the different events that you do?
The Mongol Rally is the original. It’s something like driving a rolling turd a third of the way across the planet.
The Rickshaw Run was the second event. It's essentially thundering across India in a glorified lawnmower and the least sensible thing to do with two weeks.
The Mongol Derby, is the world's longest and toughest horse race, 1,000 kilometers across Mongolia on semi-wild horses.
Then we've got the Icarus Trophy, which is the world's first long distance para motor race.
The Ngalawa Cup is a log, a hanky, and the Indian Ocean.
The Ice Run is driving ancient Ural motorbikes with sidecars across a frozen Siberian lake in mid-winter.
The new one is The Monkey Run, which is essentially driving across Morocco on a poorly made, 48cc motorbike designed for a child.
and it's not all driving off into the sunset.
So what is the most dangerous event that you have?
The Ngalawa Cup. The design of the boat hasn't changed in about 500 years, and it’s supposed to be used for short fishing trips. We take you 500 kilometers off the coast of Tanzania.
Photo Cred: The Adventurists
Let's just say, it's not always smooth sailing.
Even though you have a very serious warning on your site, do people take it seriously when they sign up?
We do a lot to let people know that we really mean it. That's not marketing bullshit, that's a real warning.
So when does it really sink it for most of the participants?
There are some people that turn up and go a bit pale because they don't quite get it until they arrive. On launch day, there are always a couple participants who are big talkers, very full of themselves, and later you’ll find them quietly shitting their pants when they realize they're actually about to head off and do something quite silly.
There are some that start asking the “what if” questions and we just tell them to go home. It's better for everyone. If you're not excited by the unknown then you probably won't enjoy it.
How do you prep your teams that are about to go out?
Every single adventure there is a pre-adventure briefing or training of some kind. On the Mongol Derby, for example, you've got classroom sessions on the systems and horse welfare and then you've got various riding exercises you've got to do. Horse welfare is the top priority.
Even for the Rickshaw Run, we do two days of test driving and sessions with the mechanics to show people what to do when things go wrong.
Photo Cred: The Adventurists
Is there any support crew?
We've got two different models. One, is completely no backup whatsoever, you're on your own.
Then we have the events that have help, but we always try to design our backup as invisible as possible. It’s backup upon request, so you can put yourself in a situation that you never would on your own with the knowledge that when you press the "I'm fucked" button, people actually turn up. We use personal satellite trackers with SOS buttons, and that sort of stuff.
Ideally they never request any assistance.
So what traits make for a successful team that are participating in one of the events?
Trust, definitely. Most of the time you're having a lot of fun, but when you get into a slightly spicy situation, you need to know that your teammate has your back. If something were to happen you're in the middle of nowhere, and when I say the middle of nowhere, you might be two or three days from medical help or in a part of a country where there's no mobile phone signal and someone's just got arrested. You need to know that even though it's really difficult, your mate is going to go and work out how to sort you out.
Absolutely dogged belligerent almost obsessive determination, would be the other one.
So what are the biggest logistical challenges you typically face?
The biggest logistical challenge is probably the environments we work in. For instance, Lake Baikal, The Mongolian Steppe, etc. We prepare for that by finding the best possible people to work with. We can talk about our knowledge of how to operate in harsh, dangerous conditions but ultimately the most important thing is having really good people on the ground. The locals understand the areas. There are some things as an outsider you'll never quite know unless you've been there for 10 years.
Photo Cred: The Adventurists
Has the production side of things evolved in the last 10 years?
It's a completely different set up now. When we started out, the finish line would've been me sitting in a bar with Tom, probably quite drunk, collecting keys in a backpack. Now, we put months of preparation into it and most importantly we have the right people in the right places. But we try to hide the organization as much as possible, so people don't see it.
The annoying thing is that some of the coolest tech in the world is unfortunately very expensive. We use satellite communication to send photos back from the middle of the Mongolian Steppe. We use personal satellite trackers for some of the teams so they can have basic text messaging, but you're connected to a satellite, so you're not relying on a phone signal.
When you're creating a new event, do you have any specific criteria that you need to check off, or what are you looking for?
A combination of chaos and stupidity but in just the right amounts. We're looking for organized chaos. For a group of 150 people to have a very strong chance of experiencing proper adventuring mayhem, there needs to be some sort of organization behind it.
What do you get for finishing?
For the ones that are races we always say the adventure comes first, race second. There is a trophy for the winner but we always have a Legend of Adventure award and that’s the best one to get.
But about half of what we do, there's no race element whatsoever. For the non-race ones, if you arrive first we're just going to call you boring and tell you to turn around. If you have an amazing adventure, and it all goes absolutely tits up for four days before the finish, and you end up with your bike on the back of a truck and you're pushing the thing across the line in two pieces, then bravo. Who gives a shit whether you've finished.
It takes a village. Producing the modern day adventure race takes a lot of help from the locals. Photo Cred: The Adventurists
Is it hard to find sponsors? I only ask that because you are so different. It would be interesting to think about the approach to sponsorship, because you don't really fit in a particular bucket.
We've had a few sponsors, over the years. We did go out a few years ago and seek sponsorship, but it didn't work, because what we do is too unpredictable. The people really liked the concept, but for the same reason that people like signing up, there's no real telling what's going to happen. We can't make any sort of cast iron guarantees that everyone's going to finish and everyone's going to be happy and it'll all be okay.
If you could have any sponsor, who would it be?
We are hoping, in the not too distant future that the adventures will be on TV. Watching the story play out and showing the good bits, the horrendous bits, and the amazing bits.
That's what we do, like it or hate it.
Producing the modern day adventure race isn't just fun for the participants. Photo Cred: The Adventurists
I understand a big part of what you guys do is about raising money for charity. How does that fit into your overall model of your business?
From the very beginning the concept has always been, “If you're privileged enough to be able to go on a massive adventure, then you're privileged enough to get off your ass and make some sort of positive contribution to the planet.”
Over the years we've had plenty of people telling us that if you want to run a serious business you should get rid of that charity fund raising bollocks. And to that, we typically respond in two ways:
FIRST: we say, "well... NO", because part of our mission is helping save the world.
The SECOND answer is, "we don't intend to run a serious business. So... no thanks".
If you're hiring somebody for your production team, what traits are you looking for?
A lot of what we do is problem solving, but I would say on the ninja end of the problem solving scale. I think personality is massively important. We're not just about logistics, and it's not just about giving people an itinerary and pointing them towards a start line. A lot of the reason why people come on these adventures is because they know they'll find like-minded people. We're gradually growing as a team, always supporting that everyone who works at Adventurist is an adventurist. Enjoying the unknown is pretty key.
What's the best piece of career advice you've ever been given, and from whom?
It's not really career advice but my older brother taught me early on that most people have several careers. People talk about their career in the singular, where in reality, it's more likely plural. He taught me that as long as you’re doing your best, you never know where it's going to lead. These days, people tend to have several careers, so don't worry about trying to define a path when you're 21. It's guaranteed that the path is going to change.
In your work life, are you insecure about anything?
I wouldn't say I was insecure but, one of the things that comes with this job is an ongoing awareness of the stakes. We're in a high stakes business. We're always concerned about how we educate people on what these adventures are. It's definitely something that's a bit unusual in terms of what people would have concerns about in their work life, because there aren’t many industries where people are actually putting their lives at risk when signing up for your event.
Do you have any personal mantras that you live by?
It's not really a mantra, because I think it was Tom that came up with it in the early days of the Adventurists, but we go by a very simple saying, "There's always a way." Which is vague, but true. Even when it looks completely impossible.
Do you tend to apply that also to your personal life?
Not as much as I'd like to, I'm a bit of a lazy bastard in my personal life.
If you could give a state of union address to the event world, what would you cover?
FIRST: Responsibility, in the sense that I think there are a lot of events or certainly areas of tourism that don't take responsibility for what they're organizing and the impact that it can have.
SECOND: I would also do a section on “Would you pay to go to your event?” If you wouldn't pay your own wages to go to your event, cancel it.
What is one feeling you hope each of your participants walk away with after the event? After a race, after an adventure.
It's a bit cheesy, but essentially being proud of themselves. Because our events push people to do stuff they wouldn't normally do, they get to the end and have a “Holy shit, I just did that” moment. Then three months later, you tend to have another version of it when you're in the office or falling asleep one night and you go, “Christ, I really did drive across Kazakhstan in a one liter car.”
After 10 years, some of the most successful events that we've run, lots of people told us that they were irresponsible, too dangerous, and impossible. Clearly, a lot of people are full of shit. I think that boils down to, certainly in events, trusting your own ideas.
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