When Triad River Tours started operations in 2012 one of the key principles that we decided were going to drive the company and its mission was that we were going to pay guides well, and not hire anyone who came along. This became a huge challenge when we started competing in a market where other companies were offering guide trainings, primarily seeking to attract college age customers, and charging around $500 for them to learn how to become raft guides. The premise of this makes perfect sense; the 50 hour required minimum set forth in the Washington State legislature outlines that the course have certain aspects related to public safety. These courses are going to cost money, and it’s natural that these costs be shared with the guides and not be the sole responsibility of the company. The issue arises when these guides are given preference before the veterans. Let me explain.
While managing another rafting company in Washington, one of our river managers got an angry call from a veteran river guide of 20 years. This man explained that he wasn’t going to pay to go to a guide training “put on by some college kid that has less experience than I did when I was a teenager”. The point was well received. The issue in Washington was one of supply an demand. It makes more sense economically for a rafting company to rely on the younger guides for several reasons. First, they are making money on them. If you keep your veteran guides, you have to be honest with the new recruits and let them know that the most prestigious positions at your rafting company are already taken. Second, the new “rookie” guides will absolutely work for less money; they are “bright eyed and bushy tailed” and are ready and willing to sacrifice their labor to the brink of exploitation in order to make it as a first year river guide. And who wouldn’t? Maybe a person has no intention of making the outdoor industry their career. Wouldn’t it make sense for them to apply to a company where they will get more work, and then later in life they can tell their grandchildren about “back in the day when I was a river guide”… well that’s the narrative, anyway. Third, and perhaps most devastating, is the fact that by the time a guide moves beyond that initial phase of being enthralled in just being able to be called a river guide, they’re more valuable, not just to a rafting company, but to the world… at this point they are going to want to be paid more, and that’s where the conflicts will start with their rafting company. The end result is that the veterans are disposed of in order to make way for the younger, less experienced, more willing, cheaper labor of the rookie guides, and as a result the quality and professionalism of the industry is lessened as the best river guides are sent to pasture while the less knowledgeable take the reins not only of the safety of the public, but the image and legacy of river rafting on the rivers that they run. A lot of times, some really useful knowledge that was gained through the experience of these older river guides is lost, because the companies don’t keep good enough research. For example; a raft accident occurs and through the experience the guide learns a great lesson… this is an opportunity to protect public safety and pass this information and learning to future generations of river guides, but it simply doesn’t always happen.
In a lot of rafting industries and markets, there is a lower than average (across multiple service industries) profit margin. Couple that with pressures related to ever arching liability insurance costs, government user fees, and fuel costs, and it’s pretty difficult to run a business in the rafting industry where your employees are paid fairly. This isn’t even to mention the likelihood that the person operating a rafting company probably got into the industry because they like the lifestyle; not necessarily because they were the sharpest businessperson. And thus, the saga continues where experienced river guides find it hard to sustain their lifestyle as river guides, even though they have a great deal of experience to ad.
So what did we do? We bit the bullet. We took the average profit margin in the rafting industry (around 30%) and accepted a lower one (20%). We also did something really strange… we decidedly made the trips cheaper, further lowering the margin, but guaranteeing more work (full boats mean guides are working more often). The result was a system that was sustainable for “career guides,” even though it may not have been the most profitable. Thus, Triad could be considered 50% for profit and 50% river guide co-operative. Everyone pitches in ideas and shares what they know, and they are compensated for every minute that they work. We also eliminated after trip work hours, where most companies have their guides working into the evening washing wetsuits, patching boats, and vacuuming out vans; we decided to pay an hourly wage to anyone doing work after hours. We also hire out our guides to other companies on days where we don’t have enough work for them (as long as the other raft trip outfitter does business in an ethical way). The result is that the guides are supported by the company and the company by the guides, and in the long run we have very low turnover, which creates less stress on management, and a smoother operation, with (in theory) happier guests who can tell the difference between our way, and the way of our competitors. The theory is that in the long run this will benefit the company by having a higher rate of return clientele, resulting in a higher customer lifetime value, as people will be wise to our system and realize that we go the extra mile.
We are currently working on a curriculum for guide training, in partnership with the Swiftwater Safety Institute, where rookie guides are required to not only pass a legitimate and well rounded guide training curriculum which meets or exceeds the Washington RCW, but also requires them to get advanced medical certifications and a Swiftwater Rescue Training certificate before they’re paid on the higher tiers. The result is that there is a little bit of hierarchy; we do realize that some college age guides don’t have the time and money for these things, so we have also added tuition waivers and work/trade internships that are part of a learning portfolio for these rookie river guides, so that we can ultimately get the finest applicants with the most presence and drive, and not simply the ones who have the disposable cash to do all of the trainings. It can be a bit of a tight fit to make it all happen, but we keep communicating with the guides to make sure that they can meet these requirements while also not just giving up to work for Joe Blow rafting company across the street who will put them to work the day after finishing their guide training. We hope that in the long run our theories hold true, and that we continue to have a stunningly professional and competent guide staff. We believe that the only ethical commitment our company should have that is more important than that of our employees security and fair treatment, is that of public safety. At the end of the day public safety has to be the driving force of any legitimate whitewater river rafting company. We realize this, and also realize that once in a while we just have to move on from a river guide that doesn’t have the drive, passion, or even the raw physical ability. It’s not a fun job to have, as a river manager, but if we keep our ideals and mission close at hand and in our minds eye, we believe that in the long run things will work out, and those who have the true desire to be great river guides will make the sacrifices and endure the long days of training, the cold, the fear, and the exhausting research required of them to also have the ability to keep the safety of the public as not only a priority, but as a daily and primary accomplishment.