Meet George Wendt, OARS Founder And Adventure Travel Pioneer
After a career as a middle school match teacher, George Wendt left Los Angeles, California, with his wife, Pam, and found a home in Angels Camp.
He wanted to focus more intimately on the whitewater rafting business he started in 1969, which was intended to be a weekend-only business but soon became a full time gig. As the founder and president of OARS and recent recipient of the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, George is a true pioneer in the adventure travel industry. His passion for running rivers was born in the 60s before the inception of his company, when he became one of the first 1,100 people to descend the seldom-traveled Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
In the decades since, OARS has set the industry standard for first-class rafting as well as environmentally and culturally responsible travel on over 35 rivers and coastlines worldwide. To date they’ve positively affected the lives of over 500,000 travelers and in 2008 and 2009 the company was recognized by National Geographic Adventure as “The Best River & Sea Outfitter on Earth” based on education, sustainability, quality of service, spirit of adventure and references.
Over the last four decades, George has testified before the Senate Subcommittee on River Preservation on behalf of American Outfitters, helped found an eco-tourism operation in Fiji and donated countless hours and numerous trips to support youth and community organizations around the county. George is a founding member of the Adventure Collection and a regular speaker at the annual International Ecotourism Society conference. In 2006 George joined producer/director Greg MacGillivray in the Grand Canyon with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Anthropologist Wade Davis for the filming of the IMAX movie, Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk, a story about the global disappearing act of fresh, clean water and wild rivers.
Many consider you a pioneer in adventure travel. How did you go from teaching middle school math to running rivers?
It was actually a fairly easy transition because as a middle school teacher I had summer vacations free. So that meant that after the last class in mid-June, I could take off for a summer of doing river trips. We did the Grand Canyon, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Cataract Canyon, [etc.] and it was something that really allowed me to recharge my batteries for the next school year.
How has OARS evolved to meet the needs of your travelers over the last 40 years?
As our clients have gotten older, can you believe our client at one time was about 29 years years old? And they were very active as a camper. Over the years, we’ve found the typical client has gotten older and older, and today our typical client is 47 or 48 and these people in general are less willing to rough it. Therefore, we’ve had to create more creature comforts, we now supply real nice foam pads for people, we have more quality meals and we’ve actually added chairs to most of our trips. In the olden days – 35 years ago – people would sit on the ammunition case that we supplied and that was their seat for the evening. Not nearly as comfortable as the nice chairs we have now; we have better quality tents, of course the whole outdoor equipment field has evolved considerably the last 35 – 40 years.
What are the fundamental components of a good river trip?
Quality guides is number one. Great guides that are not only skilled in taking people through the rapids, but also in sharing their love for the outdoors, which ties in to telling them about the natural geology and the history of the area. It involves having good quality equipment and a very dedicated reservation staff that makes the pre-trip planning effortless.
Generally, what kinds of people take the trips you offer? What are the benefits of a guided trip?
As a professional outfitter we’ve gained the support of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, so we have dedicated trips that are available so that people can plan in advance for a trip. We take care of pretty much all the logistical details so there aren’t car shuttles that have to be done before or after the trip. Guided trips offer a tremendous number of advantages and the biggest one probably is the nice people who come on our trips, who are [typically] not all from one group. We may get a couple from Seattle, or a single attorney from Chicago, or we could get a professional accountant who travels west for her first trip all the way from Atlanta. So it’s a diverse group of people and that’s the fun [typically] on a trip with about 16 people, to get to know a lot of different professionals from different parts of the country.
What would you say to someone who is apprehensive about camping?
Actually, there is no need to be apprehensive about going off on one of our trips because we specialize in catered camping. We make it real easy since the guides take care of the camp set-up, they take care of the food detail, they set up the portable toilet and the chairs for people every evening. They’ll get out the horseshoes and it’s just a relaxed experience. The guides – both male and female – are happy to take any novice camper aside, without embarrassing them, and give them some coaching about how they can take care of their feet or anything else they might be especially concerned about.
What is the most common question that people ask you?
Where do we go to the bathroom? [Laughs]. And so this year we added a special page in the back of our 2011 OARS catalog that shows the nice, portable toilet that we take along on the river because, as we’re trying to be good stewards of the resource, and to make it easy for our clients, this portable toilet containerizes human waste. We then take it to an approved sanitary facility after the trip.
You must have “a few” stories to share, what is one of your favorite tales to tell?
A long time ago, I got this phone call from an advertising agency in Chicago asking if I had a stamp collection. I thought that was a little bit of an unusual question, but I confirmed that I did collect stamps, and they decided that they would do a major print ad and video ad that actually ran as a 30-second commercial promoting the sale of postage stamps to collectors. This ad ran on Super Bowl Sunday, it showed at least twice during the game (maybe three times) and it was seen by millions of people all over the country. My son at the time who also was in the ad was only 3 years old, but today he is 35 and is one of the managers in the company.
What have you enjoyed most about the last 40 years?
The thing that charges me up more than anything else is hearing from clients after the trip. We get letters, phone calls and emails from people who I think very sincerely tell us that this was the best adventure vacation, or sometimes even the best vacation, they’ve ever had. And that’s especially true because families have an opportunity to dialogue together without the intrusion from various electronic devices which impact most families at home.