If you look up Inverness, Scotland on a map, it looks like it’s in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Or better yet, for a sense of true scale, grab a globe. On a tip of land jutting out into the ocean, located farther north than over 99% of the population of Canada, Inverness isn’t centrally-located in relation to anything. Well, it is close to one thing–it’s only 628 miles from the Arctic Circle. Yeah, that’s right: Inverness is closer to the Arctic Circle than it is the southernmost point of the UK (Penzance, located 710 miles away by car, technically 512mi by airplane… but still).
Oh, Inverness has at least one more thing going for it, in addition to incredible mountain biking and jaw-dropping scenery: it’s home to H+I Adventures, one of the most influential and far-reaching mountain bike guiding companies in the world.
How did H+I Adventures, which boasts trips on every continent on the planet except Antarctica, arise in this remote town in the middle of absolutely nowhere? To find the answer to this question, I hopped the train from Aviemore to Inverness on the last day of my stay in Scotland, to see the headquarters of MountainBikeWorldwide.com myself.
One of the many things to love about Scotland are the street addresses. The street address for H+I Adventures is simply “The Stables” at the Bunchrew House, in the outskirts of Inverness. No numbers. Just, “The Stables.”
H+I HQ is located in a converted stable house that used to serve as lodging for the stable hands of an ancient, grandiose manor. While I didn’t get a chance to check out the Bunchrew House itself, based on the scale of the stable house, I could extrapolate from there.
The inside has been beautifully renovated to provide a well-lit open office space in the upstairs, with a conference room table, fleet of rental bikes, and maintenance shop downstairs. While the floor plan is open and airy, the few accents and decorations are all properly mountain bike-themed.
After getting the grand tour, I sat down with Catherine Shearer, co-founder of H+I Adventures, to get the scoop on how they figured out how to live the mountain bike dream.
Greg Heil, Singletracks.com: Can you tell me a little bit about when H+I was founded?
Catherine Shearer, H+I Adventures: Euan and I met in Glasgow in 2005.
[Context: Euan Wilson is the co-founder and Head Guide/sort-of-CEO for H+I Adventures. During my visit to Scotland, he was on a two-week trip in Chile–living the dream!]
We worked together in a company that manufactured hi-fi and audio equipment. Euan has an engineering background, I have a marketing background. We both rode mountain bikes, and that was kinda the connection. We discovered quite quickly that we were leaving Glasgow every single weekend to go and ride bikes, and we came to Aviemore–in fact, we spent New Year in Aviemore, and it was all snowy and beautiful.
We thought, “why are we leaving Glasgow every single weekend to ride bikes?” We didn’t particularly like our jobs. Really that visit to the Cairngorms on a snowy New Year made us realize that we shouldn’t be living in Glasgow anymore. By the beginning of May, we had moved to Inverness. The decision was made.
Euan got a job, which allowed us to move to Inverness. And then from there we did a whole lot of exploring, because Inverness is a fabulous place to go north, south, east, and west and ride bikes, and explore all the trails we have here.
From there there was really just a seed. I had worked on the 7stanes project, which was the project in the south of Scotland that you’ve probably heard of. It’s been very successful at creating trail centres in the south of Scotland, and I had worked there, which got me into mountain biking previously. So I had a little bit of knowledge of the industry and had had ideas previously about. . .mountain biking tourism. That was quite a long time ago.
So we moved to Inverness. We then decided that there was the opportunity to do something, to bring people here, to create tourism. . . .And that’s what we did.
In 2007 we just decided that we would do it. We didn’t have any great plan I have to say, it was quite organic. It just happened, really. We started offering guided adventures in Scotland, some of which we still have, although, in quite different forms.
We did that from about 2007 and grew quite organically and we found that, quite quickly, our customers had a really great time in Scotland, but they were saying, “we’re not going to come back to Scotland every single year, so where else are you going to take us?”
And we thought, “Hmm, okay.” We do love to travel, and we had traveled with our bikes to Italy, places like that.
A few years after that we decided that we [didn’t want to] expand the breadth of our offerings. We weren’t interested in kayaking or road biking or touring or ANY other activity, this is what we do–JUST mountain biking. So we decided, “OK, that’s it: there are other companies that do more multi-activity [trips] in Scotland and elsewhere. We are going to be mountain bike specialists. That’s ALL we’re going to do–guided mountain bike tours. We’re going to expand geographically, and offer mountain bike trips internationally.”
So we did that, from 2012 on. We’ve been offering tours in Nepal, the Yukon, Mexico, New Zealand, and all these sorts of places. We decided to focus, we decided to specialize, and that’s worked for us.
ST: How many different tours do you offer at this point?
H+I: We have, I believe, 15 tours in 11 countries, but four in Scotland, which is our home and still where we have a lot of clients, to ride the Coast-to-Coast, Torridon and Skye, etc., and then the Cairngorms.
ST: 15 tours, 11 countries, four here in Scotland, so one other country has two tours?
H+I: Yes, Canada: BC and the Yukon.
ST: Obviously we’re here riding your local trails with the local guides, and it sounds like they’re here running tours all summer long. What’s the frequency on some of the other international tours–is it like once a year?
H+I: Yeah it varies, it’s at least twice a year, probably averaging four if you take all of the different destinations. We probably have about four trips a year in each of the other destinations.
[In some of the destinations the] seasons are split. So Nepal for example: you’ve got February, March, April, and then October, November–that’s their peak times. And then again for some of the southern hemisphere countries as well. So we actually have people traveling every month of the year to somewhere, which is good.
ST: How does that frequency compare to these Scottish trips? Are the trips here in Scotland still much more frequent?
H+I: Yes, I would say so. For the Coast-to-Coast… we’ll run 6 or 7 Coast-to-Coasts a year. Torridon and Skye you’re looking at 4 maybe 5, similarly for the Cairngorms. And then for base level, which we call “novice plus,” so it’s not beginner–we don’t cater for beginners. If you’ve never been on a bike before, especially in Scotland, it’s quite difficult to find interesting trails.
ST: How do you define “novice plus”?
H+I: It’s someone who has some cycling experience and also has done a bit of off-roading wherever they live, and they’re interested in doing more off-roading. It’s quite a lot of skills progression in it. It’s mostly doubletrack, but we do say, “you will be riding some singletrack. We’ll introduce you to singletrack,” and try and progress people a little bit. If you’ve never been on a bike before, that’s not really what we do.
And that trip is probably one or two a year. But I think because we do specialize in mountain biking, we are known for proper mountain biking. And that’s why a lot of our customers do come to us, because they know they’re going to get people who are actually mountain bikers and who love mountain biking, and it’s being developed by people who mountain bike, as opposed to [being] road bikers and they’re just going to mountain bike for a particular trip.
ST: How big is your staff? I was speaking with Chris a little bit about this last night. Can you fill me in the number of full time staff versus guides?
H+I: We have four full-time staff here in our office. This is our base, this is our HQ, this is where everything happens, the organization happens. The four members of our full-time staff are myself and Euan, Donald, and another chap who does all of our logistics in Scotland–all of our accommodations, meals, transport, and all that sort of stuff. Plus he also helps me a lot with the social media side of things.
So four permanent staff here. During the summer we’ve got two guide mechanics in Scotland: Chris and John. They are contracted for the full summer, and they are pretty well flat out between guiding and mechanic-ing.
All of our trips in Scotland are week-long, sort of back-to-back-to-back, some of them running concurrently, but we don’t have guides working more than a week in a row, because it’s pretty intense. It’s tough. It’s a really intense week of work. Whilst they love it, they still get really tired. Euan might, but we try not to have them work more than a week at a time–it’s mentally draining and physically draining.
So we’ve got those two, we might have another one next year who’ll be contracted for the full summer season to maintain the fleet of rental bikes and to guide.
And then around the world we’ve got upwards of 2-5 guides in each destination. So I don’t know what that adds up to, my math’s terrible, but… at least two, in some places more like a team of 4 or 5 in each destination.
ST: Donald was telling me that you try to always have a local guide leading your trip. How do you find those guides in each destination?
H+I: In different ways. This is sort of expanding the question slightly but in terms of finding a new destination, that happens in different ways.
For example, with New Zealand, that was very client-driven. We were asking them, “OK, where do you want to go, what are your dream destinations?” And New Zealand came up a lot.
So we’re like, “OK, let’s focus on finding something in New Zealand, creating something in New Zealand.” So then from there we would look to reach out to find a partner in that particular country.
We’re part of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. . .which is a global organization. . . .You get to meet loads of different people through that network, and there’s a level of quality I guess, at least a base level of quality, because people have signed up for ATTA and what they stand for, and that sort of thing. So we quite often find our partners through there, and we’ll make contact with them.
Actually, New Zealand was pretty difficult. It took a while to find guides and logistics. Because of course we NEED local guides, and they might be able to do everything for you, or [they might only be able to provide a] combination of logistics, transport, and guides, and that kind of thing. It has to be the full package. It’s making sure that everything runs smoothly from A to B.
So we’ll find a partner and we’ll talk to them for a while. We’ll talk to them about how we do it and what we’re looking for, and they’ll put forward their idea of what an itinerary might look like, and we’ll go back and forth quite a number of times. We might say, “oh actually, that’s not the kind of accommodation that we want, we’d like something a bit more authentic, not this commercial or chain motel,” if you’d like.
That will go back and forth for a while. It takes between a year to two years to actually get it out into the market from first contact to local partners. Then Euan will generally go out–he does this product development process, and he’ll go out and he will meet partners if he hasn’t done so already. Then run through the itinerary, stay in all the accommodations and eat in the restaurants etc., tweak things along the way, come back, and talk about it. We’ll put the itinerary down on paper proper, and then we’ll go out again, probably with a photographer, videographer, maybe a journalist, to bring together all the marketing materials to then get it out live to the public.
So that’s one way, when it comes from customers. Another way is where we see a destination like Norway and think, “That would be amazing! Can you imagine being in the fjords and riding from the fjords! That would be amazing, and no one else is doing it.” And then we’ll set about finding people who can put that together for us.
Then occasionally what will happen–this is probably the least usual, but has happened, in the case of Slovenia, for example–Euan will be out at the Adventure Travel World Summit, which is the ATTA gathering, and he will meet someone that really impresses him and he’ll think, “yeah, we can really work with these people.” And they’ll talk about their country and the mountain biking possibilities, and so from there we’ll start the whole process again.
But ultimately it’s really about your in-country team. They have to be amazing, they have to be able to deliver the H+I Adventures experience no matter where they are. Whether people come to Scotland, or they go to Spain, or they go to Nepal, they can be confidant that they’re going to get a really, really good experience. One that they had before and one that they can have again. And we do have a lot of customers coming back, 3, 4, 5, 6 times to do different trips. So that’s how it all comes together.
ST: I think we touched on this a little bit already, but what sets H+I Adventures and the tours that you offer apart from other operations? It seems like it’s a quickly-growing industry, too.
H+I: Yeah it is, there’s a lot of people coming into the industry. I think we are good at finding great local partners. . . .That’s one of the key things, finding that amazing local team–people we can rely on and who have the same philosophy that you do for the experience that they’re going to offer in their country. So that’s one thing.
I think one of the other things is that we do handcraft every one of our itineraries. We don’t ever buy off the shelf and even if someone comes to us and says, for example, the first iteration from a partner is “this, this, and this.” It’s probably going to change quite a bit–to be what we want it to be, to ensure that it flows properly. We feel like the flow of an itinerary, of an adventure, is kind of like a movie soundtrack. You know [when] you watch you’re sort of not aware that the soundtrack is there, but the experience of the film would be thoroughly diminished if it wasn’t there, so this kind of flow of the itinerary is really, really important for us.
For example, people have traveled a long way generally to come to wherever it is they’re going to ride, so Day 1 is not going to throw people right into the raddest trail available because they’re probably going to really hurt themselves. The first day is all about guides assessing, and just checking where people are at [with] their skills. Throughout the week or the two weeks that the trip is running for, it will build up to kind of crescendo, and then towards the end of the week. . .the final day of riding is not going to be, usually, totally mad, epic, technical. Because people are tired at that point as well, so you’re going to want to bring it down again. And equally for something like New Zealand where you have two weeks, nobody’s going to ride every day for two weeks–that’s quite a big ask. So interspersed with the riding days, some shorter some longer, you’ve got some other activities like whale watching and hiking, that kind of thing. So the day flows, but also the day within the week flows. And that’s something that we pay a lot of attention to.
I think in terms of customer service, we like to think that we give very personal service and listen to what people are asking, what they want, and really try to fit that to whatever tour is best suited to them. So they might come to us and say, “I want to do the Coast-to-Coast.”
And then through further probing, asking questions about the experience, and where they normally ride, etc. etc., I’ll maybe say, “I don’t think the Coast-to-Coast is the right one for you this year. Why don’t you take a look at the Cairngorms or Nepal, do that, and then you can build up to the Coast-to-Coast and do that.” Because we don’t ever want someone to be on a trip that is just completely out of their league. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for everyone else in their group. It’s not an exact science, but we do try very hard to really tease out what someone’s experiences are and how that matches to their expectations of what the trip’s going to be.
ST: How big are the groups generally?
H+I: About 8 I’d say, average 8.
ST: Is it often that a group of 8 people will come to you and say, “we want to book a trip just for us”? Or are you combining…
H+I: No more usually you’re bringing together solos, couples, three, four friends, something like that. We really do find on most trips that whatever they may be, it’s a very international group. New Zealand in January, for example, you’ve got Luxemburg, Australia, Holland, and the US all coming together. That’s normal for us, to have a very international group coming together. And that’s one thing that’s different as well, I guess, because we’re not US-based and tapping into a US market specifically, we do get people from all over–Switzerland, Germany, Australia, and they all come together and have a [terrific] experience!
ST: What does the future hold for H+I? I’ve been following along as you open new tours in different places. Is that trend going to continue, or at what point do you have enough tours?
H+I: Good question. I don’t know that we’ve specifically identified at what point we’ll have enough tours but I think that is a good point. What we try to do is we do try to elevate and create a new trip each year if we can, but at the same time still ensuring that we’re maintaining the quality of all trips. And there’s very much a review process, and I think tours have a life cycle, if you like. So there will be discontinuing of trips [as well as addition] of trips, so that customers who come to us and are really loyal and they want to go somewhere new each year, they’ve got their spectrum of tours and destinations that they can go to.
But at the same time, you’ll probably find that some trips will drop off. Either because they’ve decreased in popularity or something’s happened within the destination and it’s just not working for us anymore. So there will be continuing addition, but there will also be this continual review process to ensure that quality is always there. And I guess that the point at which the quality isn’t there, then we need to step back and say, “OK, we’re consolidating this year perhaps, and we’re not going to add a new trip, we’re going to make sure that everything we’re doing is still up to standard.” And so far it has been, and we do do a lot of reviews. Rather than simply lose a destination, we might tweak an itinerary to make sure it’s fresh and that it’s still what people want.
So yeah, I think we will continue to add new tours. It won’t necessarily be unique, like Norway every single year. You can’t be unique and extraordinary. . .every single year. And also Norway isn’t for everyone–it’s very advanced.
We want to make sure that we’re still adding destinations and tours that can speak to and resonate with people–not just at the very top peak of mountain biking experience, but through the whole spectrum of novice plus through intermediate, and intermediate plus. I think there will still be this desire to add new places. Some of them will be really exciting and new and different, like Norway. Others will be places that people really, really desire to ride and are maybe a bit more accessible, maybe if people have less time. You’re not going to have to go to New Zealand every time or Nepal, but places–probably a few more European places as well, which are a bit closer to home, for most people.
ST: I was looking through the different tours you offer and I noticed there weren’t any in the US, since that’s where I’m from. Are you focusing on places where the logistics are more difficult?
H+I: No not necessarily, I think what we want to do is create something that is–maybe there’s an element of that… that’s not easy to do yourself, because if its easy to do yourself you sort of don’t need to come to us. But to create experiences that people desire and they’re going to remember, even if it’s Scotland or Slovenia. It doesn’t have to be Nepal. Nepal is an amazing, amazing experience and might be once in a lifetime, but… there’s that spectrum I guess of once in a lifetime experiences, like Patagonia, like Nepal–and other experiences, like you might come back to Scotland. We do have people that come back here maybe on a three year cycle, that kind of thing.
ST: Is there anything else that I should know?
H+I: . . .People ask us if they can have GPS and that sort of thing, which we don’t give out because, we don’t want people to come and do it on their own. We don’t offer self-guided, and there are a number of reasons for that. One of them being the safety aspect. Particularly in Scotland, where the weather can change incredibly quickly. You’re in a really remote place and there’s absolutely no cell phone reception, and these sorts of things, which would keep us awake at night I think.
But for us that’s a different experience. [If] you want to do self guided, absolutely, knock yourself out, do the research, have that experience–do bikepacking, that’s brilliant, you do that. That’s not the experience that we offer, because we firmly believe in terms of the full holistic experience in a destination, and maximizing the time that you have on vacation.
Using a local guide and using us as having done all the research for you and eaten in this place and stayed in that place and ridden these trails and put all this package together, with that and with a local guide who can see that and how the day’s progressing and can potentially go, “right, we said we’re going to get there by 5 o’clock, but we think that, [based on] the weather and whatever, that’s not going to happen. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to cut down here. That means that everyone’s going to get home. We can see this big, black cloud looming ahead of us, and if we cut down here we’re going to get back to our accommodation, and we’re going to be dry,” and all that sort of thing. So they can deal with unforeseen circumstances, they can deal with changing weather conditions, and they know exactly how long it’s going to take this particular group, which is different from the group that was here last week or the week before. They know exactly how long it’s going to take this particular group to get to the end destination, and make decisions based on that process.
So there isn’t sort of an experimental nature. Maybe coming on vacation you’ve only got a week or two weeks in the year to have vacation, and you spend your time not finding the trail you’re looking for, eating in maybe not the best places–which can happen in Scotland and some other places. And not having the most amazing time that you could have in that week that you’ve got. So that’s what we like to think that we do, is to give you the best experience, value for money, value for your time on vacation.
ST: That makes sense.
H+I: It kinda does make sense. There are people who want to do it themselves, and that is absolutely fine. They are not our customers.
There are a lot of people who work really hard and they don’t have time to sit on the internet, and maybe they don’t have a desire to sit on the internet and wade through the accommodation sites and look at all the GPS routes and all the ones that exist, and trying to put all that together, then try to figure out the logistics of getting from here to here, whether that be riding or whether that be with a vehicle. And then trying to figure out how to get their luggage from here to here… particularly in Scotland the maps are not fabulous.
We do find sometimes, particularly over on the west of Scotland, which is the most exposed and dangerous area I’d say–the most technical area, certainly–you do find people out there with this kind of soggy map, going the wrong way up the trail–although there isn’t a wrong way, there’s a better way, and I think that’s the main thing. This is the BETTER way to ride this route. And you see people. . .starting the ride at three in the afternoon and they think they’re going to get to the end before it gets dark, and they’re very definitely NOT even though we’ve got LOADS of daylight in Scotland in summer.
If that’s what you want to do then you do that, that’s great, but that’s not the experience that we sell.
While on the surface it may seem like Catherine, Euan, and the rest of the crew have found a way to live a carefree life filled with endless singletrack, when you dig deeper it becomes obvious that the amount of time and effort required to build this incredible organization has been monumental. Yet after talking and riding with these folks, it’s obvious that they wouldn’t choose to live life any other way!
Thanks to H+I Adventures and Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland for making my trip to Scotland possible.