Travel Alberta

Canmore Cave Tours Explores New Markets

Strapping on knee pads and headlamps and squeezing through the dark passages of a “wild” cave might seem like a niche tourism experience with limited potential for growth.

But in the three years since he took over ownership of Canmore Cave Tours, Adam Walker has increased visitation by almost 70 per cent and revenue by 60 per cent.

His secret? Incorporating storytelling into the visitor experience, adding products to diversify the target audience and upgrading basic business practices.

“I’m always aiming to add meaning for our guests by helping them connect with the area’s history, the wonders of caving and the stunning beauty of the geological formations,” says Walker.

A Natural Progression

An avid cave explorer and guide since 2003, Walker joined Canmore Cave Tours in 2006 when it was owned by Charles Yonge. The operation had been offering tours of Rat’s Nest Cave in Grotto Mountain since 1992.

Yonge was instrumental in having the cave protected as a provincial historic resource, and it continues to operate through an agreement with the Province of Alberta and the land owner.

When Yonge retired in 2013, Adam jumped at the chance to buy the business he had grown to love.

With university education in geosciences, outdoor pursuits and eco-tourism, and after several years helping to develop the tour operation, the timing was right.

“It felt like a good fit,” Walker says. “I’m passionate about caves and I’d had my fingers in a number of tourism ventures over the years.”

Exploring from the Inside

Canmore Cave Tours offers caving courses and three main tours: a six-hour Adventure Tour; a 4.5-hour Explorer Tour; and the family-focused Discovery Tour, an interpretive hike with fossil hunting, stories and creek exploration.

“Our main market is Albertans aged 20 to 40 years, but we’ve had visitors as young as 10 years and as old 87 years,” says Walker.

Visitors suit up with coveralls, helmets and gear before twisting their way along deep, sculpted passages etched by glacial waters. Adjusting to the profound darkness, they follow the steady voice of their guide as they work their way to an underground pool grotto.

“This isn’t a theme park with walkways and handrails,” says Walker. “These are wild cave tours and we want people to get a real sense of exploration and the raw beauty of the cave.”

Emphasizing Quality Over Quantity

Walker’s core objective is to provide the best possible visitor experience while protecting and advocating for Rats Nest Cave. That means limiting tours to 48 people at a time.

A key strategy has been incorporating storytelling into the experience, by hiring guides who are passionate about caves and able to create customized experiences for visitors. “We never script the tours and our TripAdvisor reviewers will often mention their guide by name, which is a powerful feedback tool and source of pride,” says Walker.

Despite the self-imposed limitation in tour size, growth has been significant.

In the last three years, visitation has increased from 3,500 visitors a year to almost 6,000. Staff has doubled and revenues have increased 20 per cent year over year.

Canmore Cave Tours has been approved by Travel Alberta and Destination Canada as part of the Canadian Signature Experience program and is currently ranked the top “thing to do” in Canmore and sixth in Alberta.

System Upgrades and New Products

Walker credits the growth to a number of factors, including new product development and upgrading his business systems.

“It started out as kind of a mom-and-pop operation. I added a bit more polish.”

The operation relocated to a commercial location, revamped its website and social media presence, and introduced online booking. “The year we introduced online booking our visitation instantly increased 20 to 30 per cent,” says Walker.

He has introduced a range of new products, including the Spirit in the Mountain Christmas tour which features choirs performing in the cave.

Travel Alberta has been amazingly supportive, says Walker. “I take advantage of every program I can, including SHiFT, the Canada’s West Marketplace Scholarship Program, Webinar Wednesdays, Global Ready China, the annual industry conference – it's all great.”

“Adam was among the first graduates of our experiential travel training program,” says Marty Eberth, Travel Alberta Director, Industry Development & Education. “We knew SHiFT sparked some innovative ideas and showed Adam new ways to think about developing experiences that were targeted to the markets he wanted to grow. He’s since developed new partnerships and new experiences that are thriving because he’s focused on the visitor experience.”

Secrets to Success

Walker feels his best business quality is his open-mindedness and flexibility. 

“Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn't mean it is the best way. The world changes whether we want it to or not, so you have to adapt or get left behind.

“I also put a lot of effort into finding the right team and putting my faith in them. Ultimately our success lies in the ability of my staff to give my customers an amazing experience.”

Collaboration with like-minded businesses is essential. “As a small business, it is impossible to do everything perfectly, but there is always someone out there who has a skill you need and a need for a skill that you have.”

Developing Need Periods

Moving forward, Walker’s primary goal is to develop the winter and shoulder seasons by creating experiences that are more accessible and connect with a wider demographic. That includes a new series of products branded as unEarthed, which take place outside of the cave.

On March 11, 2017, Canmore Cave Tours is introducing a speakers series with the Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre. In its first offering, a Calgary zoo expert on bats will provide a lecture followed by a cave tour.

There’s a photo contest planned for the fall, a summer camp program, family events and packages with other Canmore adventure businesses.

“I want people to know you don’t have to be some extreme athlete to tour the cave, but I also want to offer amazing experiences both inside and outside the cave,” says Walker.

Travel Alberta