A Seven Domains Exercise

What does a kayak tour involve? The goal of the tour is to provide the customer with a fun, educational, exciting and new experience while insuring (above all) the safety of everyone involved. What are the conditions in which this project develops? There are thirty-two beginning, unkown paddlers. There is an enormous amout of fairly technical equipment. There are innumerable environmental factors, like weather, tides and wildlife, about which the paddlers know almost nothing. In short, there are a tremendous number of factors--most of them uncontrollable--any one of which could spell disaster for the success of the tour, the safety (and lives) of the participants, and the viability of Outside Hilton Head (OHH) as a business.

How has OHH operated these tours for seven years without serious mishap? They have done so by managing domains (even if they were not conscious of their doing so). They are in a business that does not allow them to operate otherwise. An authoritarian approach to guiding would not work--weather does not cooperate, wildlife does not cooperate, and customers whose main interest is in having a pleasant experience will not cooperate. A different sort of management is necessary.

How is domain management handled by a kayak guide? First, there is project management. This is a collaborative effort on the part of numerous members of the OHH team, most of whom you have not met. The location had to be selected, the equipment assembled, the guides trained and chosen, the group divided, trained and put into boats. The group had to be led on a two hour tour, kept in sight, returned to shore and safely and efficiently unloaded. During the tour, the guides had to continuously assess the paddlers and the environment and make alterations to the tour ("three-catting"). The guides also had to clean the equipment and return it to storage, as well as handle the paperwork involved with the trip.

How did the guides facilitate the process? Each guide had to take precautions against all of the dangers of the environment and the weaknesses of the paddlers without the customer knowing it. The greatest threat to safety and success is nervousness on the part of the customer. A nervous kayaker will freeze up and roll over. Once in the water, there are many more opportunities for disaster and disappointment. From the moment they met you, the guides were assessing you, and they took their evaluation into account as they guided the trip. Their most important facilitation function was to make you comfortable by taking care of potential dangers while not allowing you to become aware of those dangers. By removing any hint of danger, the guides allowed you to relax, have fun, and enjoy the event. They also helped you individually. If you were having particular problems, a guide probably offered you a quiet word of advice. This was carefully done in such a way that you would not be embarrassed, hurt, offended or otherwise bothered--you had enough to worry about just going straight.

The question of environment has been touched on already, and there is an obvious double meaning in this context of a "nature tour". The environment was our environment. That very fact is the main attraction of kayaking. The environment is unpredictable and uncontrollable, beautiful and dangerous. It is a challenge, but it is that very challenge that makes the activity enjoyable and popular. And while this environment is uncontrollable, it is manageable. It can be worked with, if you know the dangers—hence the bug spray, the water and the sunscreen. The emotional environment can be managed to some degree as well. The guides try to create an atmosphere that is open, friendly, and helpful while conveying respect for the sport and for the nature around them. This environment allows for a successful tour.

What other domains played a part? The guides hold within them a huge body of knowledge. They are trained in the sport of sea kayaking, and they are familiar with the technical safety procedures necessary to rescue anyone who has fallen out of the kayak. They also must understand the workings of the salt marsh and the weather in general, both to provide for the safety of the tour as well as to educate thier customers. Lastly, the guides are a resource for the history and culture of the region, as well as for information about the island and the tourist industry. Most of this body of knowledge was irrelevant. Some of it was necessary. Some of it simply played a valuable role in the event.

The guides gave you the information you needed when you needed it--so there was the Education domain as well. Too little information could be dangerous. To much information would be boring. The secondary mission of the kayak tour is to make the customer appreciate the environment. This is not an awareness that can be forced. This is a realization that must be made on one's own. The guides must create an environment that would facilitate that kind of realization, that kind of education.

The technical systems were mostly obvious. The boats and paddles represented most of the technology, and they were remarkable tools. The unseen systems were the safety features, including tow ropes, first aid kits, bilge pumps, paddle floats, and cellular phones that would link the guide to an emergency network instantly should the need arise.

The kayak guides work with the domains continuously without even knowing it, and if they do it right, the customers will not recognize it, either. The business of kayak ecotourism presents unique challenges, for it is a sport, a recreation, an adventure, a classroom, a nature tour, a hazard and of course, a business. Its appeal is hard to pin down, for it is a pleasant activity, it is relaxing, it is challenging, it is exciting, it is different, it is all of these things, but these things do not capture its appeal. It is an experience, similar in some distant and some not-so-distant ways to our work here. It is an experience that cannot be forced. There are lessons to be learned that must be discovered. It is a delicate process that must be handled carefully, subtilely and quietly. It is, in fact, the successful management of the domains that allows the enterprise not only to succeed, but to thrive.


copyright © 1997, MG Taylor Corporation (except where noted)
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