Vaibhav Kala, Aquaterra: Adventure travel in the Himalayas & across the world

By Team YS|21st Jul 2011
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YourStory in conversation with entrepreneur Vaibhav Kala about the business idea behind Aquaterra, the only Indian company to feature in the “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth” list (2008 -2009) by National Geographic SocietyVaibhav, introduce us to Aquaterra.

Offering adventure travel in the Himalaya since 1995, Aquaterra Adventures is what discerning customers use for a wide repertoire that fits the first-time adventurer and the full-blooded adrenaline chaser. From 4-day hikes to 20000 feet plus mountain climbs, from weekend rafting to raging expedition-style river running, Aquaterra has something for everyone in India and on 4 continents. From tailored travel and group travel, to customizing adventure, Aquaterra is on the forefront of opening new adventures each year.

How is Aquaterra different from other adventure trip providers? What are your flagship offerings?

Aqua_terra

We are different in terms of sheer range of trips, the consistency with which they are run, and the quality and safety of each trip. Our trips are less flash-in-the-pan and more consistent departures, into more and more remote regions, valleys and trails.  This is possibly what has kept us away from an industry, which has literally zero entry barriers. Our flagship trips are our Arunachal departures on the Brahmaputra recognized as one of the premier trips on the planet, the Tons river that we opened up 19 years after it was run in its entirety and trekking routes and climbs like Auden's Col, Stok Kangri, Sahasratal and Satopanth climbing trips.How did the business idea for Aquaterra about? How much capital was required to implement the idea?

Aquaterra was an idea formed on a mountain climb in Ladakh. Solil Paul (my co-founder) and I were guiding for over 3-4 years then and we saw a clear gap in adventure travel on the sheer size of offerings. Tunnel vision, or just simple opportunity, companies were not willing to move away from what was tried and tested ground. Appetite for risk, and promoting new products was non-existent. Those were the days of the telex, fax and shell accounts were barely getting through.

Aquaterra represented our strengths on both land and water based trips and was easy to connect with for a largely Western clientele at the time. We began with a pool of Rs. 30000/- which was used for visiting cards and brochures that never got used, the biggest waste of seed capital ever! We were lucky to represent a principal agent on the ground and got off to a steady start right away.

Tell us about your background.

My father was in the Army. So, I was schooled across India. I graduated from St.Stephen’s College, Delhi in 1992. I was a very active member of the St.Stephen’s Hiking Club and that was where I honed my interest in adventure sports. I’ve been a professional river guide since 1992 and have trekked and traveled extensively in the Indian Himalaya since 1985 (in Garhwal and Kumaon, Zanskar, Nubra, Ladakh, Changthang, Lahaul and Spiti, Kinnaur and Arunachal Pradesh). I’ve also been involved in a number of high-altitude exploratory mountain trips and major raft descents and expeditions.

Let us know about the tie-ups that you have. Is there acceptance for your concept?

We have tie-ups in all the regions we work, with local representation to ensure as much local participation is offered as specialized travel allows for it. Most of our trips are largely conceptualized, promoted and executed by us. Our overseas trips into Nepal, Bhutan, Africa, USA and South America are with local companies that we back-end in India for their trips. So, that works very well, quid pro quo.

There is growing acceptance amongst domestic guests to holiday differently. A growing segment, that has been there and done that, wants to collect experiences that are different. Most of our new adventures get filled up quickly and are inspired by our guests. We opened up the Brahmaputra, Tons, Africa trips (Kilimanjaro and Zambezi-Mara), USA (Colorado) and Chile and they ran full the year we launched them. People are looking for challenging themselves in different environments and adventure travel is a great way to do so.

Where do you see the adventure holiday space and Aquaterra five years from now?

The adventure space will continue to grow, with more and more players coming in each year. Regulation and tightening up of entry barriers should come in and more quality operations shall hopefully emerge. Our domestic audience will grow exponentially and the space for quality adventure travel will grow, amidst all durations of trips. Hopefully, Aquaterra will continue to be dominant in the adventure travel space and the niche we have built in the industry.

What are the challenges that you faced while developing your brand? How did you overcome those challenges?

Lack of awareness of our products and the perception that such travel 'may' not be safe has been the two big ones on the marketing front. Logistics like import of equipment, restrictions that only lifted in the last decade and training of capable staff were the rest. Reaching out constantly and consistently, making sure the media was involved, trips were written about, the best hands in the industry were with us and ensuring our range of trips continued to grow, kept us ahead of the game.

How big is the team behind Aquaterra? Give us some info on team composition.

The Aquaterra team has 40 persons, comprising of staff and guides. Half of them are guides, trip leaders and the rest are ground staff and the men behind the scenes. Over 97% belong to the Himalaya and that has been a conscious decision. Since our work keeps us there, the benefits must accrue to its people. We are looking at hiring for the new ‘activotel.’

You mean activotel as in ‘active + hotel’? Is that part of the expansion plan for Aquaterra?

Yes, we are moving into the 'activotel' space with our flagship activotel launching in November 2011. Be it an eskimo rolling a kayak, climbing up a steep wall face, camping out with your kids, identifying different birds of the tropical Indian forests, stretching a bit with some early morning yoga, mountain biking through a jungle, hiking in the Lower Himalaya and rafting down India's sin-cleansing holy corridor of exciting white water, Latitude 30*N is one-of-a-kind 'activotel'.

In-house climbing walls for adults & kids, a challenging high ropes course on the property, swimming pool, two-cuisine dinners, kids camping grounds and indoor play room, conference facilities and easy lounging areas add to the options available. 20 AC single and duplex family cottages spread amidst over 250 trees, overlooking the Ganges, offers India's premier active getaway. More such ventures will possibly follow soon.

How has the journey been so far? How are young Indians taking to adventure travel?

We host about 2000 guests out of our adventure camps and about 600 on treks, climbs, river expeditions, kayak clinics and overseas trips. Besides inbound guests, maximum response is from cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, Gurgaon-Delhi and some emerging ones like Pune and even Aurangabad. On the domestic scene, the trend seems to be the younger 20-35 age group tends to do the weekend warrior getaways, while the late 30's-40's are doing the long adventures, challenging climbs and rivers, and the overseas trips. An increasing number of couples are holidaying together as well.

Most popular trips are Ganga rafting weekend getaways, short treks, longer expeditions like Stok Kangri, Zanskar and Brahmaputra, Subansari, Tons and Kali. Overseas trips are getting very popular. Our Africa Kilimanjaro and Zambezi trips, the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, and the Patagonia Futaleufu adventures are all running full.

We at YourStory wish Vaibhav and the entire team at Aquaterra much success. To experience the adrenaline rush of adventure travel, check out http://www.aquaterra.in. Also, do let us know what you think of this story by writing to us at feedback@yourstory.in.

Sriram Mohan | YourStory | 21st July 2011 | Bangalore

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