The Story of AdventureWomen: “Lions On the Runway”

“Lions on the Runway” is a chapter in the book by Sherry Sexton, “The T-Shirt to Prove it! The Successful Journey of 25 Passionate Women Entrepreneurs”

A Samburu Dancer (jokingly) plunges his dagger into Susan's heart in Kenya

A Samburu Dancer (jokingly) plunges his dagger into Susan’s heart in Kenya

I saw them before we even got off the plane. Seventeen of us were on a prop plane, about to land in Kenya for my first African safari adventure and as we approached the tiny airstrip, a voice on the radio yelled, “Lions on the Runway, Lions on the Runway!” The pilot laughed and pulled the plane up. While he flew in a wide circle, he told us that the lions love to come out of the bush to lie on the warm, brown sand of the runway. Through the window, I watched, fascinated, as our guides shooed the lions away with brooms so our plane could land.

I’ve always felt a special bond with the continent of Africa. Maybe it started when I was a little girl with an enormous passion for animals and a desire to see them running wild and free. So, when President Kennedy formed the Peace Corps, I knew that was my ticket to Africa. I was only a freshman in high school, but it was all very clear to me.

At the end of my senior year at Ursinus College in 1968, my sweetheart asked me to marry him. I had only one requirement: we would join the Peace Corps and go to Africa. He agreed. We filled out all the Peace Corps forms and got married. Six months later we were off to Sierra Leone for our African honeymoon.

We both loved our Peace Corps service and stayed in West Africa for about three years. During that time, I did medical work in tetanus prevention while Kevin did agricultural work. And, when we found out that the top priority of the people living there was a source of clean water, we also supervised the building of a drinking water system in our village.

After the Peace Corps, and a four-month motorcycle trip through Europe, we both decided to go to graduate school in Chicago, Illinois. Our plan was that my husband would get his PhD while I earned our living and then I would get my PhD while he brought in the money. Afterward, we planned to work for organizations around the world.

However, things did not go as planned, at least not for me. In 1978, when I was just starting graduate school, we divorced and I was on my own. In spite of that, I received my MPH and an MSPH and started on my doctoral degree in Public Health. During that time, I began to think that there must be a better way, other than Public Health, to stay involved with developing countries and to do something good for people. Plus, the thought of working in developing countries by myself did not appeal to me.

In 1981, I made the difficult decision to drop out of my doctoral program and launch my own adventure travel company for women. The idea for AdventureWomen came to me while I was in graduate school and started leading weekend cross-country skiing, canoeing, and hiking trips for my women friends. After several bankers laughed at my idea, and turned me down for financing, I used my life savings of $25,000 to develop the business. And I’ve never looked back.

I hired a CPA, an attorney, and a Public Relations firm. My CPA advised me to develop a relationship with a banker by borrowing a small amount of money and paying it back before it was due. I did that several times until I had established a $10,000 line of credit and the trust of a banker named Frank West. I attended meetings offered by the National Association of Women Business Owners in Chicago and learned from other women.

My first brochure, printed in 1982, offered weekend ski trips and weekend canoeing trips in Wisconsin, and week-long canoeing trips in Utah and Minnesota. Taking these trips helped women develop their confidence and learn new outdoor skills. Because no one else was offering this type of service for women, I became somewhat of a celebrity in the Midwest and received lots of media coverage. That really helped grow my business. But, it still took me seven years to actually make a profit and to start believing that my business was a success. Profits were increasing by about twenty percent a year, slow and steady, the best way to grow.

Back in the early years, I was unable to pay the airfare, so I flew as a courier, delivering packages to countries I was scouting for a new trip. Or, sometimes, I would decide on a country and negotiate with an airline. They would agree to fly me for free to a country (India, Indonesia, Australia… ) and put me in touch with outfitters or travel agencies. In return, I would use that airline for my group’s flights.

The first international trip I set up was, of course, to Africa, a camel safari in Kenya. I was in heaven! To me, traveling the world, and getting paid to do it, was the pinnacle of success.

But something else was calling to me: the wide open spaces of Big Sky country in Montana. During trips out west, I saw cattle, horses, and antelope grazing in the valleys of Western Montana, reminding me of the wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle on the Serengeti Plain of East Africa. In 1991, I bought twenty acres of land in the mountains north of Bozeman and built a log house, which I moved into in 1994. My house has been AdventureWomen’s headquarters since then. I love working from home.

The most challenging time in my business came right after the 9/11 attacks. For months afterward, people, especially women, were afraid to fly. Some of my clients cancelled their trips and wanted their money back. But the majority of women who take my trips are loyal and brave. More than seventy percent of my business comes from repeat clients, women who have formed life-time friendships with each other and with me.

Prior to 9/11, I was organizing more than thirty trips a year and leading six or seven of them myself, which was too stressful. I was working non-stop, losing touch with the reasons I had moved to Montana. Although I loved my horses, dogs and cat, I worked so much that I rarely got to spend time with them. So after 9/11 I took the opportunity to cut back to about eighteen trips a year. Now I have more time to enjoy my life.

The adventure travel business has changed a lot during the past three decades. Back in 1981, I owned a niche business with no competition. Now, there are hundreds of adventure travel companies, and women-only travel is no longer unique. So-called “soft adventure travel” has also become more popular. The majority of travelers don’t want to carry a backpack, canoe, or camping equipment. They don’t want to go days without hot showers and gourmet meals. It is also the era of the “Girlfriend Getaways,” where you can do any activity or go anywhere with an all-women group. So I’ve had to find new ways to make my company unique.

In 1995, we were the first adventure travel company to go non-smoking and, a few years ago, we added a humanitarian focus to many of our trips. My clients love to “give back” to the people of another culture who welcome us into their homes and hearts.

After 30 years, AdventureWomen is now called “The Grande Dame of Women’s Adventure Travel” and the “First and Still the Best.” I owe thanks to a lot of people for my success. Our media coverage and accolades have been outstanding. The banker, Frank West, who gave me my first line of credit, deserves a lot of gratitude, as does my original CPA, whose encouragement and advice were critical. And I salute President John F. Kennedy, whose vision started the Peace Corps and gave me a vehicle through which to follow my dream to travel Africa.

Since that first African safari, I’ve always thought of “lions on the runway” as a metaphor for my business. Sometime the runway has been clear and sometimes there have been obstacles to a smooth landing. But, I’ve learned to have patience, to circle back around and, with the help of my associates and guides, get the lions off the runway so we can land and set off for another spectacular adventure.

Susan L. Eckert
Adventurer Extraordinaire and Founder of AdventureWomen