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How to Create Your Own Adventure: Shannon Stowell, President of ATTA

Dream-crushing jobs were how (like most people) my work life began, which perhaps helped set the stage for a strong desire to find something in the future more fulfilling. I washed dishes, bussed tables, did grunt work at a concrete plant, cleaned bathrooms in college, landscaped, worked on the Bering Sea on fishing vessels and then took my first real job at an environmental lab, which turned out to be a good job but far from dreamy. In retrospect, though, every career move was one step closer. While the lab work was not motivational and produced that 'Sunday Night Dread,' an opportunity to take the business to Asia came out of nowhere and I seized it with gusto which gave me a taste of travel and culture. But it wasn't my dream job, though I put in 8 years.

When I had the opportunity to help a friend start an ecommerce company in the dot-com craze-zone in 1997, I jumped. To my knowledge we were the first internet pure play (Does anyone even use that term anymore? No.) selling outdoor gear online. We sold Patagonia online before Patagonia did. We were their first official online retailer and that caused a domino effect – within one year we were carrying 300+ outdoor gear brands and for many it was their first foray onto the web. We were the first to sell outdoor gear (officially) on and I even personally walked them around the industry conference to introduce them to brands like The North Face. We were pioneers, the days were heady, we raised lots of money, lost lots of money, survived the aftermath of the dot com bust in 2001… the future looked bright. But the dream faded. Ultimately it was about fine-tuning retail: How to buy more stuff at X and sell it for 2X. I lost interest.

I began to wonder and worry in my mid-30s if I had missed the boat to doing something where my work actually mattered much, made positive change in the world and was fulfilling.

Then my dream job arrived, quietly, with no fanfare. I found out about the Adventure Travel Trade Association and joined as a member, quickly realizing that not much was happening and the 100 or so members were dissatisfied, downright unhappy or unaware of their membership. I ended up leaving the ecommerce company (after 6 years) and acquired the nearly value-less assets of the org. With the help of a friend- Chris Doyle- and a handful of passionate industry vets, we rebuilt the ATTA into what it is today.

For 5 years we did classic startup work- long hours, little return, threat of extinction at every turn, and then everything changed. In 2009 we found momentum and have now become the largest association in the world for adventure travel professionals and organizations.

Today we put on events for the industry, including the Adventure Travel World Summit, which has been opened by the presidents of three different countries- Mexico, Namibia and most recently, Chile. In that time I've broken bread with the King of Norway, Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organization and many other world leaders to work on making tourism more responsible through the successful model of adventure travel.

We also do education, marketing, consulting, connecting and development and today I have the fortune of leading a team that works with nearly 1100 members in 90 countries. In essence, the ATTA has become a global nerve network of adventure travel thought leaders in private and public posts. We've had the honor of seeing our work help alleviate poverty in different destinations and have gotten to spend time working in some of the most interesting and beautiful places on the planet.

My dream job didn't come quickly or easily but ultimately I did pursue something that caught my attention and quickened my pulse. As any surviving entrepreneur will tell you- it's way harder and longer than it looks but for me it's been worth it. Now I know that my team and I look forward to work nearly every day and we know we're changing the world.

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