By George Wendt '63
Shortly before graduation, George Wendt rafted through Glen Canyon on the Colorado River with the Bruin Mountaineers. The history major became a public school teacher after receiving his degree, but that trip inspired him to start O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists) in 1969 to share his passion for whitewater rafting. O.A.R.S. is now the largest river-based adventure travel company in North America. He shares his insights on how to turn doing what you love into a successful business — on and off the water.
Our regional operations managers are given a great deal of autonomy, and it is in large part through their success at fostering good communication and support for their employees that we’re able to succeed as an organization. We also maintain a guide blog where we post daily news and information that we think will be of interest, including policy documents, guest feedback, regional interpretive resources, photos and videos. We distribute business cards that guides can pass out to their guests, encouraging them to evaluate their trips, and we reward guides who get good feedbacks from their passengers. Many of our employees also feel positively connected to our commitment to run the most eco-friendly trips possible. And we provide special benefits to them in the form of complimentary or greatly reduced-priced outdoor gear.
It is easy to maintain a passion for rafting when I get out on the river periodically. There are still lots of great rivers to explore and the beauty of our western rivers captivates me. Of course, each trip also has its own human dynamic, with different passengers who make each trip special. I just got back from a trip to southeastern Utah, where I floated on the Escalante River that I had never previously rafted. I hope to do many more exploratory trips that I can then share with our clients.
O.A.R.S. did see a drop in business in 2009 and 2010, but the outdoor experiences that we offer are still sought out by many people during economic contractions. In fact, during all of the earlier recessions that we experienced during our first 30 years in business, our passenger numbers actually increased. During this recent big economic downturn, we have made major efforts to figure out the most efficient, cost-saving methods of operating our business. For example, we have shifted more to online reservations and we have transitioned from paper trip confirmations to electronic communications for most of our trips. We also have focused a much greater effort toward organic search engine optimization and online marketing so that potential customers can easily find us when they start planning their rafting vacation.
The biggest thing that UCLA did for me was to introduce me to a new activity that I probably never otherwise would have experienced. For me, the Bruin Mountaineers trips on the Colorado River that was organized by one of its members turned out to be a life-changing event. I also met a number of wonderful people at UCLA, including one great engineering professor who taught me a lot about organizing activities. In my senior year, I was elected president of the Bruin Mountaineers, and this job put me in contact with university administrators who helped me learn about working efficiently within a big organization.
I would recommend seeking out and talking with a number of other people who are already doing something similar to what you are interested in pursuing. Entrepreneurs are normally very happy to share details about their experiences with others. Networking can be a valuable way of getting information regarding market trends, and many communities or chambers of commerce provide valuable mixer opportunities. I also recommend talking with several bankers to find out how receptive they might be to loaning start-up funds.
For many people, the best thing about being an entrepreneur is the freedom to be one’s own boss and make one’s own decisions. The downside, of course, is that this freedom also provides a tremendous amount of opportunity to fail. For example, if a bank will loan money to a small business, the owner generally has to personally guarantee the loan’s repayment. Another downside is that most small business owners work long hours to get their business established. For me, however, the benefits of running our own family company have far exceeded the drawbacks.