Adventures in travel, business

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 19, 2011 - 11:01 AM

Bungee jumper Al Macdonald took the plunge as an entrepreneur, building an adventure travel firm with advice from SCORE.

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Al Macdonald, owner and guide at Thrive Adventures, runs his adventure travel business from the kitchen in his Coon Rapids home.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Starting a business might feel like bungee jumping to some business folks. But for Al Macdonald of start-up travel company Thrive Adventures, it actually is bungee jumping. Or sky diving or snowboarding, for that matter.

Macdonald organizes and leads custom adventure travel trips to New Zealand and elsewhere. A big part of his work involves offering -- and encouraging travelers to try -- new experiences, from sea kayaking, luge rides and swimming with wild dolphins to the aforementioned bungee jumping and sky diving.

The thrills and risks of such pursuits are old hat to Macdonald, who has a degree in recreation and adventure tourism from Winona State University. He learned hiking, biking, skiing and snowboarding in the mountains of Colorado, where his family lived for several years before moving to Minnesota during his high school years.

As a college junior, in 2006, he spent three months working and studying with an adventure travel company in Australia and New Zealand. The experience ended with him leading a travel group, which gave him the idea for his business. Macdonald devoted much of his senior year to organizing and then guiding an adventure trip to New Zealand on his own for the same company, and did so again in 2009.

Launching a new venture, especially one overseas, was uncharted territory for Macdonald. That led him to the Minneapolis chapter of SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives (www.score-minneapolis.org). The nonprofit organization, in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), provides free online and face-to-face business counseling to small-business owners starting and building their companies.

Macdonald, referred to SCORE by a client, quickly connected with a group of retired executives who have experience working internationally. They've helped him address such issues as getting a long-term work visa for New Zealand, whether to open a branch of his business there and whether to hire New Zealanders to guide his clients on his company's trips to that country.

"I'm an adventure travel guy," Macdonald said. "Starting this business, I didn't know the first thing about being a businessman. Having that resource has been really helpful. There are all of these international issues, so it is great to have a panel that is specific to my business."

Thrive Adventures' first two-week New Zealand trip took place last February and March -- during summer there -- after Macdonald and co-founder and fellow guide Sam Kurachek spent the last quarter of 2010 planning the itinerary and booking travelers.

Revenue from trips booked last year was $45,000, a total Macdonald projects will grow to $150,000 to $250,000 next year. While New Zealand is the company's primary destination, plans are in the works for trips to Australia, Peru and Costa Rica, and "domestic adventures" to such destinations as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness also are available.

Macdonald decided to to go into business during a very different sort of adventure -- while he and his wife, Jen, were deployed in Iraq with the Army National Guard band. He and Jen, a medical student, discussed his plan when they weren't performing with their MSTs (music support teams). He used money they had saved during their yearlong deployment, which ended in January 2010, to start Thrive Adventures.

One of Macdonald's SCORE counselors, retired Coca-Cola executive Mike Tsakistos, said he sees a promising future for the young travel guide.

"He is committed, he has perseverance, he is comfortable working outside the U.S.," said Tsakistos. "Most of the time the people we see, they have the idea, they have the passion but they are lost. They're not structured in their thoughts. But this young man knew exactly what he wanted to do."

Carol Anderson, who works with baby boomers dealing with midlife issues as founder and facilitator of Twin Cities-based Finding Your Way in the Second Half of Life, had Macdonald guide a group of her clients on an adventure trip to New Zealand this year.

"He is fun and informative and knows what he's doing," said Anderson, the former dean of the College of Education at Winona State. She had met Macdonald when he was a student guide in New Zealand. "He has created some wonderful experience and is always a supportive and knowledgeable guide. He's an easygoing guy who gets along with everyone."

The expert says: Tsakistos, the SCORE counselor, said one issue he and others have discussed with Macdonald is managing costs to improve profits.

"The challenge is how to establish his business in New Zealand, because he has been operating from here and going back and forth," Tsakistos said. "He has a good business mind and business model; it's just a question of how to get organized."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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  • Thrive Adventures

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    Business: Adventure travel company specializes in organizing and guiding trips to New Zealand and other international and domestic locations, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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