How To Choose an Adventure Motorcycle Tour Guide / Organizer
There are a plethora of motorcycle adventure tour guides / organizers available around the world. It can be very challenging to pick a reliable and professional guide who will deliver a safe, well executed, well managed and rewarding motorcycle adventure.
Over the years, we have used motorcycle adventure tour guides and organizations on rides in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico (mainland and Baja), Africa, and Central and Eastern Asia. These experiences have taught us valuable lessons in picking a motorcycle adventure tour guide / organizer that is most likely to deliver a quality and enjoyable experience.
Picking an unqualified tour organizer can set you up for a long string of negative experiences. We've been rushed from place to place with no time to linger and investigate; been rousted out of bed to be on the road at 6 AM only to arrive at a destination at 11AM that wasn't ready for us until 3PM; been prevented from looking for things that have fallen off tour participant's bikes but turned back to look for lost items when it was the tour guide's possessions; were forced to pay the costs for the organizer's screw-ups; had the tour guide consistently take the best seat on planes, busses, etc.; been told when we could and couldn't take photographs while the tour guide shot away at will; had guides been too drunk to walk, much less share dinner; suffered countless broken promises and had tour organizers blatantly lie to us under direct questioning. We've suffered all of these indignities and many, many more at the hands of tour organizers.
Picking a professional, qualified and experienced tour organizer can be a direct route to a pleasurable, rewarding journey. We've had tour organizers who have went well above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that the tour participants have had a minimum of difficulties and a maximum of exploration, discovery and enjoyment. By seeking a qualified adventure tour organizer who offers a reasonable itinerary and a proven track record you will maximize your pleasure and minimize your troubles.
In selecting a guide / organizer, consider the following factors:
1. Suitability. Are you a good candidate for an organized tour? Do you prefer organized group travel? Are you unsure about the processes and procedures required for foreign countries or border crossings? Would you like to start with a group tour to learn the ropes of foreign adventure travel? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then you are a good candidate for an organized tour. If you prefer independent schedules; maximum freedom to wander, linger and explore; and chafe at rules, requirements and schedules, then you may do better as an independent traveler.
2. Focus. Is this the tour organizer's only business? Is it a sideline? Look for a tour organizer who is 100% committed to this business. You need a person leading you who is 100% focused on your trip, your logistics and your safety. You cannot afford to be subsidizing someone's primary career with your money. Not only is it a bad investment, our experience has shown that you will always be #2 to their primary career's needs and priorities. In many areas of the world, this will put you in direct mortal danger.
3. Professionalism. Is your tour organizer a professional? Unfortunately, there is no accreditation of tour organizers, so you can't look for a set of initials or a seal of approval from a national or international standards body. This lack of standards allows anyone to hang out a shingle and declare themselves a tour organizer. Your organizer may be attempting to supplement their income, increase their fame, or simply have you fund their exploration of a new area by running a "tour." Seek out people who have a proven track record of professional tour organization and management. Look for well organized marketing materials, complete and verbose route information, very detailed packing lists, well executed legal forms and mature business processes. A professional tour organizer will plan ahead, have customary spares and repair parts and be prepared for the normal and expected events of an adventure tour. Amateurs and non-professionals will espouse a "we'll figure it out as we go along" approach, often couching it in an expressed or implied macho "planning and preparation is for wimps" dogma. Avoid amateurs, even if you recognize their name. Having notoriety is no guarantee of competence. It is your life on the line out there, not theirs. I've seen more than one instance of a well known name turning out to be completely incompetent outside of their narrow field of achievement. You need to travel with a professional adventure group tour organizer, not someone who is famous for an unrelated or tangential aspect of motorcycling.
4. Business model. What is the business model of the organizer? There are two primary business models in adventure motorcycle tours: Personality Cult and Professional Business. The Personality Cult business model is built around a well known individual in the motorcycle world. This well known, and often worshipped, personality may or may not know a thing about running a business, organizing and executing a tour, international logistics, etc., but people recognize the name and will pay good money to say they rode with them. This a very, very dangerous business model. The dangers are twofold. First, participants often exceed their abilities trying to impress or match the organizer. I've watched guys ride their dirt bikes off cliffs trying to keep up with the tour organizer. Second, the "name" leading the tour may be an exceptional motorcycle rider, but know little to nothing about what it takes to efficiently, professionally, and most importantly, safely, execute the event. There have been more than a few instances of disabling injuries, critical injuries, permanent impairments and fatalities due to the incompetence and negligence of this class of tour operator. Be extremely careful about trading your health and safety for the chance to ride with a familiar, but incompetent, famous name. You are much better off to have the famous name autograph your helmet at a rally and use a professional tour operator for your travels. The Professional Business model is the preferred organization. It is marked by a staff of professionals whose only job is to successfully and efficiently organize and execute adventure motorcycle tours. Professional Business tour operators are marked by an absence of the fawning groupies and sycophants that cluster around the Personality Cult model. Professional Business adventure motorcycle tour companies focus their energies solely on safe and successful tours. A happy combination of these two models is rare, but possible, as exemplified by Malcolm Smith Adventures, a tour company that combines the notoriety of one of motorcycling's best known personalities with a very professional staff who specialize in outstanding execution of tour organization and management.
5. Style / format / orientation / culture. What is the culture of the tour organizer? Some tour organizers specialize in luxury tours, with five star accommodations at every stop. Other's have a deeply ingrained backpacker culture, where refilling toothpaste tubes from unsuspecting hosts is a highly prized skill. It is critical that you understand completely the orientation of your tour organizer. Otherwise, your understanding of the "pleasant accommodations" described in the tour advertising may not even remotely match your expectations. Some organizers consider a hole in the ground to fully meet the standard of "restroom," while others may be insulted if you arrive at dinner in anything less than a jacket and tie. It is very, very important to be extremely explicit in your communications with the tour organizer in this regard. Describe specifically what you mean by "nice hotel room." Be extremely detailed regarding your understanding of "meals." Is the tour all about making miles and ticking off cities/countries/attractions? Does the tour operator consider a day off a sign of pathetic weakness? Are people that suffer mechanical breakdowns left to their own devices? Leave nothing to chance in matching your understanding to the reality of your tour operator's culture.
6. Customer Focus. We were five weeks into a tour when one of the senior tour staff turned to us at dinner and asked "are there vegetarians on this ride?" This was after dozens of emails, conversations, etc. regarding vegetarian dietary requirements and three meals a day for five weeks in their presence. Unfortunately, some tour organizers rank customers well below their motorcycles on the scale of importance and interest. Often, you are merely a way for them to finance their own goals, i.e. the pursuit of their primary career, the exploration of a new country, etc. Look for organizers who are on the ride to facilitate your experience, not focus on theirs.
7. Adversity. How does the tour operator handle adversity? If there is one thing certain in adventure travel, it is that adversity will strike somewhere along the way. How your tour operator operates under stress and pressure is critically important. If there is a logistical problem, an accident or injury, you need to know with 100% certainty that your tour operator is solely concerned with your well being and safety. You want a tour operator who will be there for you when the chips are down and do whatever it takes to make things right. On two different tours with two different tour operators the shipment of the customers' motorcycles was delayed. In the first case, tour operator A forced the customers to rent motorcycles or vehicles, at their own expense, until the bikes arrived weeks late. In the second case, under identical circumstances, tour operator B rented bikes at his own expense and paid to have the customers' bikes delivered to the customers and the rental bikes returned once the customers' bikes arrived in the country. Which of those two organizers would you like to be with if you were involved in a major crash and/or suffered serious injury? Which do you think you could trust to be there for you in the event of a crisis, and which do you think would be off pursuing their own agenda? Anyone can seem competent and capable when all is sweetness and light. Adventure travel is never 100% sweetness and light. Choose well who you wish to be with you when adversity strikes.
8. Legacy. What does your tour operator leave behind? Look for organizations that actively seek out philanthropic opportunities in the countries you visit. Your tour itinerary will present countless opportunities to help local communities and charitable organizations. What has your tour operator done in the past in this regard? What are their plans for your trip? We've been on a tour where the organizer's lack of personal and professional integrity prevented us from visiting clinics and donating materials and cash to assist in local programs. We've also been on tours where the tour organizers efforts have dramatically positively affected the lives of entire communities. What kind of legacy do you wish to leave behind with the people and communities you visit? Choose a tour organizer who reflects your standards, values and commitments in this regard.
By carefully investigating potential tour companies, you can make an educated and informed decision. Forums and email lists can be good sources. References are almost always useless, as tour operators will only provide former customers who are guaranteed to provide the most glowing recommendations. It may be possible to glean some useful information from a reference, but it is important to carefully weigh their endorsements. Magazine and media reviews, sadly, are not the most trustworthy source, as behind the scenes deals and relationships are the rule of the day. As always, ask around among your friends, at rallies, and other events. Seek out multiple opinions, and always pay the most attention to what happened when things went wrong.
Recommended Adventure Motorcycle Tour Operators
The following adventure motorcycle tour organizers have proven levels of professionalism, integrity, honesty and customer focus. Each has proven they can overcome adversity and are worthy of you trusting your life to them.
Malcolm Smith Adventures (U.S., Mexico, New Zealand & various destinations)
Kiwi Dirt Bike Adventures (New Zealand)
Kazoom Moto Adventures (Turkey & the Middle East)