Archive for category Business Communications

How to Keep Your Trip on Track: Communication is Key

When you travel in the back country, do you eat breakfast? If you do, is it instant oatmeal or eggs benedict? What time do you hit the trail? Right after sunrise? Or after a leisurely morning stroll and a second cup of coffee?

Simple questions. And the answers aren’t really important. Except to your traveling companions. Those could be the people glaring at you while you drive away just as their breakfast burrito comes off the griddle. Or shaking you awake at dawn, while they are ready to roll.

My traveling companions lead the way out of a remote camp in Baja

Misunderstandings like these can ruin a trip. But they are avoidable with good communication. It can be very easy to assume that everyone else operates with the same sense of time, the same scheduling style, that you do. Especially if you are used to traveling alone. But bring in a new companion, or another couple, or create a small group, and differences in styles and perceptions of urgency or leisure will quickly surface. Mix in a little bad luck and things can deteriorate rapidly.

You can easily avert a lot of unpleasantness just by talking about timing before the trip starts. You might start the conversation by mentioning that you like to grab a quick cup of instant coffee and a granola bar and be rolling 30 minutes after sunrise. Or, that you really enjoy cooking up a big breakfast for the entire group, taking your time to pack up, and rarely leave camp before ten o’clock. Again the answers themselves are not so important. But the resulting conversation can be.

You might be pleasantly surprised to learn that everyone else on the trip shares your sense of timing. So it will be easy to manage expectations and keep the group smiling. If that’s the case, you can all just agree to be ready to roll at 6:30. Or at 10 AM. Or whatever time the group decides on.

And don’t panic should you find that your camp mates have a very different sense of timing from you. No need to cancel your trip. Just compromise. You might plan a combination of long days with early starts as well as shorter days with more leisure time. As long as you all talk about it before you leave, it will most likely work out.

And if you only have time for a quick weekend getaway, consider making it a general rendezvous rather than a trek. Just pick a scenic spot a couple of hours from home and have everyone meet there. Some will arrive right after work on Friday night, some Saturday morning in time for breakfast, and others later in the day. If you aren’t planning to actually travel together, it won’t matter when people arrive. You can have breakfast whenever you like and still enjoy a pleasant evening around the fire with nice people and good conversation. And that might include talk about when to have dessert.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter for AT Overland Equipment. A great company that builds fantastic products. That’s one of their “Built for Off-Road” trailers in the photo above.

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Success in a Tough Economy: Launch a Luxury Product in a Niche Market

Ready for some good news? How about a startup launched in 2009 selling something that no one can honestly say they need, manufactured in Southern California, based on a design from more than 50 years ago? Suggested retail on the product starts at about $5,000. Most buyers spend more than that by adding a lot of custom bling. And the company sells them as fast as they can make them, is looking to expand the model line, and is pursuing export opportunities.

Meet the California Scooter Company. They build a little motorcycle that is big fun, very cool, not cheap, and is extremely popular. The California Scooter is powered by a Honda-designed 150cc four-stroke, single-cylinder engine that can deliver 98 miles to a gallon of gas. It sports a lot of machined aluminum, stainless steel, and chrome. The brakes and electrical system are modern and efficient. It’s got an electric starter for reliability and a kick starter for some extra fun and panache.

Think of it as a sort of retro 1950s-style chopper that anyone can ride, is easy to maintain, and doesn’t cost as much as a decent car. The bikes are inspired by the Mustang, a small motorcycle built in Glendale, California from 1947 until 1963. That bike had the classic long and low chopper look and was so fast on the race track that it was banned from competition.

The founder of the California Scooter Company, Steve Seidner, bought an old Mustang intending to restore it and give it to his father as a gift. Instead he ended up creating a new American motorcycle company. The bikes and the company have been well received, are getting great media coverage, and are enjoying tremendous success.

Joe Berk rides his California Scooter

Joe Berk rides his California Scooter in the hills above Los Angeles

Some of that success is due to engaging their prospective customers with a robust social media marketing campaign. The company is very active and accessible in a lot of online motorcycle enthusiast communities. If you’ve spent any time in the forums, you know they can be brutal. Opinionated and uninformed haters can quickly bring the signal-to-noise ratio to near zero. You can get assaulted with charges that your product is overpriced offshore junk from people who have never seen it. And it can be tough to jump in and contribute without sounding like you are just trying to sell your stuff.

The California Scooter Company has managed to avoid all of that danger, rise above the chaos, and actually tell their story well. They make good use of Facebook and Twitter and the company blog has new, engaging content several times a week. The guy behind all of this social media success is Joe Berk, a business management consultant, author, and motorcycle enthusiast. Joe is a good friend of mine and that’s how I became such a big fan of the California Scooter Company.

So the bikes are cool, Steve’s got an awesome business, and Joe is fun to hang out with. He also likes adventure travel, especially in Baja, Mexico. In about a week, we plan to throw all of that together into a big mashup involving fish tacos, cactus, and cold beer. Joe has put together a little group ride to the tip of Baja and back, on 150cc California Scooters. And I’ve managed to get myself invited along. I’ll be driving a big, comfortable pickup truck with a really good air conditioner. And a fridge in the back seat for cold drinks.

We figure we’ll get some good pictures and have a lot of fun. We’ve got some interesting characters along on the ride and I think we’ll come home with a few good stories. I hope to share them with you when I get back.

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Your Own Public/Private Partnerships

The relationship is everything. You can have a fantastic product, offer a tremendous service, with prices that are beyond fair. But ultimately, the strength of your brand will come down to how well you play with others. This is especially true now that anyone, anywhere, can type a few words and have it ricochet around the halls of the interweb for all eternity.

You can create and leverage partnership opportunities that help build your brand and introduce you to people and organizations that would be tough to reach with a cold call. These opportunities are all around, you just have to be creative to find them.

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from a friend I had met in a Tread Lightly Master Trainer class. He was organizing a weekend event for his Toyota FJ Cruiser four-wheel drive group and needed help staffing a booth to share the good word about outdoor ethics and responsible off-pavement recreation. A fun gig, a chance to get out into the backcountry, meet some new friends, and maybe drive a trail or two. I volunteered and we started planning.

The Tread Lighlty exhibit anchored by the XP Camper, with the Cobb grill in the forground.

The Tread Lightly exhibit, complete with a Cobb grill and anchored by the XP Camper.

My first challenge was dealing with the weather. The event meant two full days staffing a table in the middle of a dirt parking lot. If I didn’t want to end up with heatstroke I would need to find some sort of shade structure. I contacted my friends at XP Camper to find out if they might be interested in donating the use of their demonstration vehicle to be the base camp for my Tread Lightly exhibit. Not only would the camper and its attached awning provide shade, we would have a cool place to come indoors and a refrigerator for cold drinks, right in the booth. And XP Camper would get a chance to show off its new design to a whole new group of potential buyers. One quick conversation and I had an awesome plan to avoid sunstroke.

Next problem was how to stand out and draw foot traffic to the booth. There would be lots of cool stuff to see and a lot of activities over the weekend. If I wanted any of the attendees to come to my exhibit, I was going to have to get creative.

Enter the scent of grilled meat. A most powerful attractant for outdoor-folk.

I planned to set up a small portable grill and cook up some tidbits of something tasty. With luck, the wind would spread the scent around and draw folks in. I’d offer them a bite to eat then deliver my pitch. For some time now, I’ve carried a Cobb portable grill on my trips and used it to cook up some fantastic meals. It’s a great product and would be perfect for this event. And, coincidentally, at this year’s Overland Expo, I happened to meet the folks who import the Cobb grill into the US. So I contacted them to say I’d be showing off their product and ask if they wanted to donate something toward the event’s big Saturday night raffle. That conversation went extremely well and I had managed to not only score a cool prize for my friend’s car club meet, I had also gotten Cobb named as one of the sponsors.

The event was a huge success for all concerned. We spread the Tread Lightly message to a very receptive audience, we showed off a cool new camper design, we gave away a very nice prize, and we all had a great time. Moreover, this was a chance to build on some new relationships and set the stage for future collaborations.

It’s a sort of connect-the-dots kinda thing. And it’s all good.

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A Teachable Moment

A few days ago, I came upon a small softroader of some kind attempting a pretty challenging hillclimb on a dirt two-track just off the paved highway. No forward progress, lots of wheelspin. The car would occasionally get a bit sideways. I stopped to watch, knowing that a failed hillclimb can easily lead to a rollover. Didn’t know exactly what I was going to do but figured I might be able to lend some sort of assistance.

After a bit, I began walking up the hill toward the stuck car. The driver put her head out the window and very politely asked me if I was wanting to drive up the road she was currently blocking. I said I was there to see if I could help her out in any way.

We talked a bit and I suggested she try gently backing down the hill while I spotted her. We got the car down without much more trouble than a bit of wheel slip.

Turns out she works for an engineering firm that is doing an environmental assessment of a proposed cell tower site. Her goal was to drive to the site on the other side of the hill a couple of miles away and about 500 feet higher.

I confirmed with her that she had permission to drive on what I believe is private property. And I suggested that perhaps her car was not the best choice for that particular challenge. Then I offered to drive her to the site in my truck. She accepted.

Heading up the hill, I mentioned the benefits of low range gearing, bigger tires, and locking differentials. Also experience and training. I talked about how a more capable vehicle can tackle a tougher obstacle while minimizing impact on the land. I said that the reason I stopped in the first place was concern for her safety and possible damage to the landscape. I told her about Tread Lightly and responsible back country travel.

We found the cell site, she took a few pictures, we had a nice chat, and I drove her back down the hill to her car. I gained a couple new pinstripes but we never spun a tire.

All in all a nice experience and completely unexpected.

Would you have done anything differently?

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Put on the Uniform

How do you get ready for a presentation? A meeting with a prospective customer? A day exhibiting at a trade show? You probably double-check your materials, make sure you have plenty of business cards, and confirm the time and place. Do you put on a uniform?

Uniforms are a powerful tool, common to most cultures. Think about the person who delivers your mail, or packages, or a speeding ticket. They all wear a uniform. It gives them authority. Without the uniform, would you take a cop seriously? How about an airline pilot?

What’s the uniform in your field?

When I worked as a back country guide, our summer uniform was a green company polo shirt, desert or woodland camouflage BDU trousers, a company baseball cap, and a handheld two-way radio. In winter we wore black snow pants and a red and black snowmobile jacket. None of our guests dressed like that and it was obvious who was running the show.

Asked to speak at a presentation to visitors I thought I might dress up a bit better than my “work” clothes. So I pulled out a new polo shirt and some fresh khaki trousers. So did everyone else who presented that day. I looked just like every other talking head trying to sell something to tourists. I didn’t give much of a presentation and I doubt if anyone paid any attention to me at all.

The next week I went back wearing my field uniform, including a big knife and my radio in a pouch on my belt. All the other presenters still wore their khakis and polos, since that was their uniform. I stood out from the crowd and my audience listened to me.

More importantly, I was wearing my uniform rather than someone else’s. I felt comfortable and relaxed.

I had been afraid of speaking in public and it affected my performance. Now, in my comfortable everyday uniform, I could easily play the role that I was supposed to. I wasn’t a pitchman selling something. I was an experienced back country guide telling visitors about the beautiful scenery all around them. About the place where I got to spend 200 days a year. About the adventures I had enjoyed and wanted to share with them.

I felt like the hit of the party. It doesn’t matter whether that was true or not; I felt like it. My audience not only listened carefully and asked great questions, they wanted to hear more. To share in my adventures. To buy what I was selling.

As the last presenter finished speaking the audience broke up. Many of them came to ask me more questions; several wanted to book an adventure with my outfit. I pulled out my cell phone, called the home office, and made their reservations. Our company had been speaking at these events for years and had never before booked a trip right on the spot. I felt like the king of the world.

So the uniform worked for me. More importantly, it worked for my company and my customers. It helped them to decide to buy what I had to sell. Pretty powerful tool, no?

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the uniform was in helping me get over my fear of speaking in public. Before, I had been a guy doing something I didn’t want to do and knew I wasn’t very good at. After, I realized that I was actually playing a role. Out on the trail, where I wore my uniform every day, my guests expected me to be an expert guide, confident to lead a trip, and experienced in handling whatever the back country threw at us. And I was that person. I did that job every day and I was good at it. When I wore my adventure travel guide uniform, I was in character. I was ready to play the role I had signed up for.

So what’s your uniform? Is it the right one for what you need to do? Does it send the right message to others?

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