Matt Smith of Primal Adventures discusses how his military past has allowed him to create a product that excels and what it takes to make it in the luxury adventure market.

In this episode, we have the pleasure of speaking with Matt Smith of Primal Adventures, and he will be discussing how he has successfully grown his luxury adventure brand here in Scotland. Welcome to episode 225 of The Digital Tourism Show...

Chris:

Before we start discussing Primal Adventures... you served in the military for over 22 years, I believe.

Matt:

22 years, mate, yeah.

Chris:

So, how has that helped you set up Primal Adventures and grow the business?

Matt:

I am... I didn't think I was ever going to join the military, you know? I actually wanted to go to the art college and be an artist. And I grew up in Ardrossan, a wee boy from the West Coast. And, growing up, there's a castle here, Ardrossan Castle. I don't know if any of you've ever seen it. So I always had these fantasies of medieval knights, and people going away on adventures. And, being down on the West Coast, you've got Isle of Arran, of course. You've got all the islands, and you've got the coast, and the hills. And that was... just amazing. But I kind of just took it for granted, you know what I mean? Because you kind of grow up there...

And then I went to school, and then Top Gun came out, and I realized I wanted to be a pilot. And then I went to Buchanan Street, and there was the RAF, the army and the navy recruitment center, on the same street. And I went into the RAF, and they looked at my grades, and they went, "Ah. Go next door, wee man. We're not recruiting this year." And I went to the navy, and they were like, "Go next door to the army, mate. I think they might be accepting." And they were like... And I was like... And 22 years later, here I am. I have no regrets. I loved it. And it's a real leveler. They give you loads of opportunities.

But, no, I loved it. A wee boy from Ardrossan, growing up, I'd pick tatties and fry chips, and made ice cream, and wash windows, and the army gave me so many opportunities. That was amazing. From stepping out of my comfort zone and and getting in front of people, and meeting cultures, and going out in the world, and... And that, in itself, is a bit of an eye-opener. Because, growing up, if you didn't have it going for you, you didn't have an apprenticeship, it was either like... There were only a couple of options you could really go. It was kind of making the most of that.

So that's what I done. I got into... It was really either technical trades in the military, or kind of the more kicking in doors and kind of infantry stuff. So that kind of niched myself around teh middle, as well as passion about the outdoors. So I started taking expeditions and going around the world, and leading expeditions. So, from the organization to planning to actually taking it. And then I really loved the kind of winter outside, and I pushed myself into ski touring, and kind of Alpine and Nordic skiing. And that opened a lot more doors for me. And, yes. So that was awesome, because it gave me the skills and the confidence and the self-discipline to do what I'm doing today.

Chris:

Cool. So how did... Obviously, with that background, Matt, and from what was in the video, Primal Adventures is not your typical adventure tour company that you would normally see. So how has your background shaped the type of products that you bring into the business? Because, obviously, shooting and carving up...

Matt:

Yeah. I just kind of organically do it. Because, if I'm being honest, we always... I was actually in Afghanistan in 2014, and I knew... Sorry, 2012... And I knew that I was getting out of the army in 2016. And I didn't want to be that guy who was like, "Oh, get out the army. Don't know what I want to do. I can't get a job." I always knew I wanted to watch myself and do something. Because I had all these skills, and I was really passionate about doing what I do.

And then, so, I started... Obviously, I was in Afghanistan. I was like, "Oh, yeah. I want to do..." And there was something inherent, and there's always the basic needs of survival. When you strip everything back, it's the basic needs to have food, have protection, have water, and warmth, and all that good stuff. And so I started thinking about that. When people are kind of shooting at you and blowing you up and stuff, and trying... It kind of really hones those senses. And, really, it says, "There's something here, and this is something I want to really deliver when I get outside."

So, I started thinking about that. And then it just... Initially, we started in 2014 doing Primal Bushcraft and Survival, and that company's still going now. And we don't do courses, but we run skills days, teaching people about our primal ancestors and their food, fire, water, shelter, safety, survival skills. And then it was like, "Okay, well, what's on our doorstep?" And it was the whole West Coast of Scotland and all the islands. And then we started doing sailing trips, and doing island survival and castaway trips. And then, through the whole authentic wilderness experience, it was like... What Scotland's really got.

And then it was kind of really going back to how our ancestors lived, and kind of what a Highland we kind of niched ourselves into a Highlander theme. And the whole kind of Jacobites, and how they... Not just the Jacobites, but just the Highlanders in that kind of whole area as a time period. And then we kind of... It was like Outlander was like, "Okay, that's a little bit cheesy." But we're not kind of going by area, but it's more about how they lived. So, it's about what they ate, foraging off the land. The training, the weapons they used. How they stalked their prey.

So, as it became a whole course, so that was another area that worked. And it's took us like five years now to actually work out what has worked and what doesn't work. And that's... Any business, as you're going through a journey, you find that out, what works and doesn't work. You kind of get rid of the chaff, and use the stuff that works. So, yeah, so we've got a really good product now.

Chris:

Oh, okay. Excellent. Excellent. So, what... Now, you class yourselves as sort of a luxury product. So what makes what you guys do a luxury? I know a lot of people wouldn't think shooting or carving up animals is a luxury.

Matt:

No, no. I know. Well, so, a luxury...

Chris:

So, what's the luxury element of it?

Matt:

Well, I don't know... Well, again, we're always doing it.

Chris:

Yeah.

Matt:

And then, what I've always learned is, people like... You have your hardcore people who want to do it. And you'll have those who like the idea of doing it, but they only want to do it for a wee while, you know? And you have those who are like, "I'm never doing that, ever." But, throughout the journey, we realized that people wanted to experience it, but then go on to stay in a nice five-star hotel, or go and have a spa, or a couple of drinks afterwards. And then you had those who were hardcore, and just, you know, "I want to get in amongst it." And then you had those who are like, "I want to go hardcore, but then I also want to do the five-star." You know, it was a bit of a mixed bag.

And we didn't actually realize we were doing it, because people are... Private clients and bespoke stuff. Because we were doing bespoke stuff. They were like, "Can we pick a luxury yacht, and... But we want to do a bit of wilderness survival, and time in the wildlife." And, "Yeah, sure." And that didn't happen until about the third year. And it's only really in the past two years that we've went, "We've got something here. No one else is really doing this. So, let's kind of do a bit of a pivot, and switch fire to dealing with that market."

And then, so, in the past two years, we've had clients who want to... Who are ultra marathon runners, and they want to do a four-day expedition up the West Coast of Scotland, go out in luxury yachts and speedboats, and, okay, hammocks and bell tents. That's not luxury but... it depends on what they want to do. And it's like, peaks and trofts so they're out of their comfort zone, and then they're back into... well, their comfort zone.

And that's also a big part of it. Because we're very much... Not quite insular and safe into these environment and technology, and there just is a cultural... Like we've got everything. You know? We've got your TV, and the car, and a nice house and that. There was actually a power cut in my house a couple nights ago. And I was like, "All right, this is it. I'm getting the boat. Where's the boat? I don't know-" And the missus comes upstairs with the tot, and she's like, "Oh, there's a power cut." She's looking out the window, and all the other houses have... There's a power cut, you know? It was like...

And straightaway, she's on Facebook, and she's like, "Oh, everyone else's power cut." I was like, "Oh, this is it. This is the start of the apocalypse." You know, maybe you don't preach the fear and doom and gloom, because there's enough of that out there. So it's about getting people outside, getting back to basics, and learning about authentic wilderness living skills, and actually having really good experiences. Because, at the end of the day, they only check in if they're wanting to form some nice memories. So whether it's good or bad, and then good experiences. So, that's what we want to give people. So that's basically what we're all about.

Chris:

It's always tha tway with a power cut, where did I pack the candles. But one of our last speakers here is very much in the sort of adventure market was Neil Lapping. He spoke about how he grew his business through lots of Google ads and things like that. So, that was a predominant sort of angle that he took, and the marketing channel that he took. So, what channels have been successful in terms of growing up Primal Adventures? What's sort of worked for you, and what hasn't worked for you, that you feel?

Matt:

It's been a real minefield Chris I'm being honest mate. When we first started... The army doesn't teach you about entrepreneurship and going into business. Certainly there's courses that they'll give you money to go in, you know? But I'm still learning. It's a tough learning curve. So, actually, before I went to Afghanistan, I made a website. I made it myself. And I went to Afghanistan for a seven-month tour. And I came back, I was like, "Oh, I'm going to have loads of bitcoins," because I just said, "The business, I'm set. I'm set for life." And it was like, "No hits, no nothing." It was like Whats going on". And so I had to learn a lot.

And then through trial and error, through Facebook... Facebook is good. You've got to know your target audience. You've got to know all your keywords. And, initially when we started, it was like, "Put some money down. I have seven million people I'm going to target. Great." And then it was like, you don't... You've only got a couple of hundred hits. So then I would just niche that right down, and things would start to work. Google ads work, but again, you obviously need funding for that. So, what's... Because we have had time served, what we found really works is word-of-mouth. People come on the course, and they go, "That was awesome," and then they... And it just kind of naturally grows.

I've also made that video. The other guy just out of interest is Mark Canalannonfrom We Make Good Video Happen, if you want to check that out. But he's a really cool guy. He used to work for BBC, and he does some awesome videos. So when we do big stuff, I get him on board. And just through videos and that... And all our videos that are made... of course, they work at the back end of that. But the wife, now, she's all like, "Stop making videos. All right? Just start getting us a bit of money." Because all of my videos, right? So, but word-of-mouth, I'd say, is basically the big one. And then, obviously-

Chris:

Just for the marketing?

Matt:

Yeah. I mean, also, through the military, I haven't really tapped into the old kind of veterans network. But just a couple of weeks back, a good friend of mine has been invited to... Because the survival is part of it, part of what we do... to go to Antarctica, to deliver Arctic survival training-

Chris:

Nice.

Matt:

To some people, some research scientists who are flying out to Antarctica. So I'm like, "That's pretty cool, you know. Three trips to Antarctica. Yes, please. I'll do that."

Chris:

So, when it comes to your trips in Antarctica and the things that you do, do you find it has to be people who are generally fit and it's not just anyone who decides to come along...

Matt:

No, so, that's a separate trip. That's nothing. Now, I've been invited to go along to that. But that's more of a kind of consultancy thing, which we do as well.

Chris:

Right. Cool.

Matt:

But that whole... Having those opportunities through that network to go and do things like that is some really good leverage, too. That should maybe start...

Chris:

That may open up more doors for you, for-

Matt:

Makes sense, yeah.

Chris:

So, for the people here, and anyone watching thinking about starting up an adventure-based company, what's the sort of one piece of advice that you would give them, then? Obviously not everyone has 22 years' worth of training in the army, so.

Matt:

No, no, no. It's the... They used to call me... I finished up to Sergeant Major, they used to call me the Zen Sergeant Major. I don't know why, because I was quite chill, though. Maybe that was why. But, and obviously people would, you know, "What does he want to do? What is he good at that?" And, well, I don't know. Because nobody's ever asked. It's not... Nobody's ever asked me that question. You know, "What do you enjoy there?" And so it sounds really basic, but that's at the crux of it, isn't it? Whatever you're passionate about and what you're good at, just start off doing that. And then just slowly start building up social media, your following.

And start before you're ready. That was 2014, when I made that website, thinking that I wasn't ready. And there's actually a really good story when I was in the military, waiting on the P company, which is the airborne training to jump out of planes in the paras. And it was a really arduous course. And we got there, and we were in the auditorium, and there was a big Sergeant Major on the stage. And he goes, "Okay, guys, congratulations. You've done the hardest thing so far, and that's completing the form, the actual form, to come on this course. Because now the real work, the training, begins."

And I was like, "Awesome. Isn't this really..." It's a bit like in life, as well. If there's something you really want to do, then just go and do it. You're either going to have success, or you're going to have failure. But you're always going to learn from your failures, to then not immediately go and do it again. And on that course, it was mega arduous. There was a lot of guys that fell away. But it was like, "We haven't started this course, and this guy's saying, 'Good effort, because you actually stepped out of your comfort zone.'" And you probably know people, for your own kind of walks of life, who're like, "Oh, he's gonna do that, I'll bet..." To go, "No, I got married. No." Whatever. But I always... You know? I mean, it's like, "Stop making excuses. Just go and do it."

Chris:

Yeah.

Matt:

So find out what you're good at, follow your passion, and just do it. Just go for it. And start... I think it was Tony Robinson. "Start before you're ready." I think, yeah.

Chris:

Yeah.

Matt:

And it's

Chris:

It's a bit like that. But we were saying that it's coming from the heart, what you're doing.

Matt:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chris:

It's that passion, and stuff like that. And of course you've got your joy in that.

Matt:

Of course, man. 100%.

Chris:

So, I'm going to open up questions to the floor. If anyone's got any questions for Matt, you can put your hands up... Is that a question at the back?

Matt:

All right.

Chris:

Jess, could you pass that over to Amanda, please?

Amanda:

Thank you for that. That was really interesting. I have a question about your video, actually. Are your tours only open to men?

Matt:

Whoa, no, of course not! No, no, no... No, there's a couple of female in there. There's usually a couple of female.

No, actually, some of them Visit Scotland phoned me up, "Matt, those videos are great. There's a real niche for women to go on these." And I was like, "Of course." I was like, "You want to send me..." So, that's something I'm actually going to make, a specific video for women. Of course, men or not, it's open to anyone. Anyone can come and do it. It's just, being a guy, being in the military, coming out, I don't have... That sounds really sad. No, I don't have loads of women, "Hey, come on the course." You know? So that was just guys that I worked with in my environment. So, yeah. Yeah, of course it was. Yeah.

Amanda:

Well, just FYI, there are loads of female content creators that are based in Scotland.

Matt:

Oh, okay, good, yeah.

Amanda:

Who are super outdoorsy. Wayfaring Kiwi, Yvette Morrissey, she was the first woman to solo hike the West Highland Way. She did it with no training. She did it to raise money. And there are numerous people around that would be really interested in that, I'm sure, so.

Matt:

It's interesting you say that, actually. One of our instructors, female instructor, she's part of... was an ambassador for Women Gone Wild. And she's obviously one of the ambassadors. So we're doing more with her to actually... Because, obviously, you take this... And this is her kind of leading. She's going to go on with exactly what you were saying, bringing more women into... Women are doing it anyway. And I've got a lot of female instructors that... It's quite hard. I mean, for me, as a guy, it's quite hard for me to find them. Do you know what I mean? But I know they're out there. Because maybe I'm not just looking at the proper areas. So if you can give me some help me, that would be great.

Amanda:

Yeah. Happy to connect you.

Speaker 5:

Thank you very... Oh, sorry. How you run your business. And we spoke briefly earlier on. I'm just stepping into this kind of world. I work in the outdoors. I mentioned that. I'm just looking at adventure tourism as a business, my background was electronics but now into outdoor instructing. Do you... I was strongly advised, by people in the tourist industry, not to get involved in booking hotels and accommodation for clients. Do you book on behalf of, or do you book the whole package?

Matt:

So, there're a couple questions in there. When we first started, it was just me and a couple of guys, just really passionate about it, doing what we do. And then things started to happen, and it was this is getting serious. So then we started to actually build the proper business, whereby I had to get a proper assistant. Now I've got someone who actually deals with the day-to-day emails and administration and a little bit of HR, which allows me... It frees me up to, now, come away and do stuff like this. And then I've got an ops manager who can facilitate training and take the guys. Then I've got a lot of freelancers, because a lot of the stuff we do is bespoke, and we can't just be sitting out there waiting for someone to give us a call. So that was kind of the growth part of the business. And then, so, what was the last part?

Speaker 5:

This question was just, I was advised not to get involved in that-

Matt:

Oh, yeah, so-

Speaker 5:

The booking accommodation. But you recommend-

Matt:

I think, ideally, it is certainly not. No, I wouldn't, no. I mean, there is platforms out there, and there's people you can go to, and that's solely what they do, and they'll take commission. But I think just get yourself out there, get the ball rolling, and then you go out and actually meet people who will niche with you and kind of your product, and you'll be like, "Yeah, you're a good fit. Can you just deal with that?" And a lot of the time, it works easier for them to do that, because they know that business. And it's about just playing up your strengths. When it comes to... I'm not a ones-and-zeroes guy. I'm out meeting people and juking about, and ducking and diving. But when it comes to management, I'm like, "Somebody else deal with that."

Speaker 5:

Yeah.

Matt:

So, you're spending so many places, especially in the early stages. And to try and do it all, you just end up burning yourself out.

Speaker 5:

Yeah. Thank you.

Chris:

Yeah. I think when it comes to the hotel side of things, a lot of businesses do it, where they provide that service, where they book up all the hotels for you and everything else. But I think you have to build up that raport first, dont do it straight off the bat. Make sure that they're right for your business.

Speaker 5:

Yeah. But, as soon as you open up service out there, you're actually a connected operator-

Matt:

Yeah. Yeah, it's out there. Yeah.

Frank:

Really interesting business. And, from a point of view of how you set about the actual itineraries that you do for guests, do you strictly do it bespoke to what people want? Or do you give them an idea... Do you have some sort of a template that people can come and say, "I've got a group of six, and-"

Matt:

Yes, but... Yeah.

Frank:

"This is the kind of..." The sort of the high, medium, and low. "We're good, we're not so good, and..."

Matt:

Yeah.

Frank:

You know, "We're not so fit," maybe.

Matt:

So, you've got products that work, and people who go, "I want bespoke." But you're still kind of spoon-feeding them ideas, because they don't know what they want. And so it's kind of... You're giving them the ideas. So we have stuff that we know really works, and that is good. But then if people are like, "No, I want to do this, this, this, and this," then we make it happen. And we're kind of a niche that finds ourselves to be the folk who are the go-to guys for, say, the destination management companies, if they get a request, and they're like, "We can't do this." They'll come to us, and then we'll make it happen. And it's normally to do with...

And what we're finding is, more people are switching to... I keep saying switching barracks, an old army term. Sorry, folks. But when I started doing this, I just spoke talking about military terminology, and all my instructors had to go in Google what I was actually talking about... So, yeah, sorry. So, I'm sorry, I digress there. I forgot what your question was.

Frank:

Oh, it was about the diversity of...

Matt:

Yeah, the bespoke-ness.

Frank:

that you actually do, and...

Matt:

So, yes. So what we're finding is, more people are disconnecting from technology to reconnect with nature. And the way we explain it to them, there's only so many ways you're going to reconnect. And I'll probably get it for you guys as you're connecting through people. You're connecting through nature. You're connecting through experiences, and the outdoors. And then when you've done all that, then you jump on technology, and you go, "Oh, yeah!"

Chris:

Just looking at everything, do you know what I mean?

Matt:

Yeah, honestly. Just cut all that out, and just go back to grassroots, and then give them... So, it's a bit of a mix-and-match of, "We can do this, this, and this." And they're like... "No, we want to do this, this, and this." So then we make it happen. So, yeah. Anyway, we've got packages, of course, that work. Yeah.

Chris:

Could you put the phones in a safe...

Matt:

We can do sometimes, yeah. It depends how hardcore they want to go, do you know what I mean? Like I said from the start, some people will just like the idea of it, but it... Psychologically, and that's what it's down to at the end of the day, "Great, guys, we're all gonna head out for a week, and we're going to go into Wales and survive." For some of yous, that'd be your worst nightmare. For some of you, it's like, "Yeah, it's great."

But if I say, "We're just going to do a couple of days, and then we're going to go to a five-star hotel," you'll go, "Ah, pff, yeah, count me in." Because you know there's an end state. But it's when you don't know there's an end state, that's when... And it's quite good, in seeing people change and come out of their comfort zones, and then, at the end of it, they look back and go, "Wow, that was awesome." And actually, if you look back in your own personal lives, the most vivid times you remember is when you were probably uncomfortable. And you go, "They were actually the best times." You don't think it at the time. Somebody's going to go, "No, that's not true." You know what I mean? But for a lot of people that is. It just depends how you look at it.

Chris:

Oh, that's good, because do you know what? I remember when I... I think it was halfway up Mount Fuji, and I was going, "What the hell am I doing?" And then, when you get to the top, you're like, "Okay. This makes it worth while."

Matt:

Yeah, of course. yeah...

Chris:

Any last questions for Matt? Jessica's got one.

Matt:

Okay.

Jessica:

So, for most tour companies, they're obviously, especially in Scotland, going into their kind of low season. What do you do as a company to prepare for that, and the reduction in sales? Or, actually, when you plan out your diary, do you actually have that, if everyone's kind of a little bit more extreme?

Matt:

Of course. Yeah, yeah. So, a few years back, we... Obviously, we plan it like a year in advance. And we started... Well, what have we got in Scotland when it's cold? We've got snow, and we've got the mountains. So we're doing winter survival. We're going ski touring. We actually took bell tents up the top of the Cairngorms, and the Scottish ski tour will go at the top, and they will come off, and they will go home. And they will come back, and they'll do the same thing again on a weekend, when there's a few...

We've got halfway house, with a wood burning stove there, then that's something different. And it's just thinking out of the box, and doing different things. So, yeah. Through trial and error. And then we've got packages where we can go to Norway and do a ski tour, and stuff like that. So... Yeah, of course. But, so, you just kind of keep the ball rolling, and keep yourself alive and active.

Chris:

Yeah, there's plenty of those different sort of products and services, depending on the seasonality and stuff. A lot businesses just shut off, and that's it.

Matt:

Yeah.

Chris:

And at the end of the season, you're thinking of what other sort of opportunity you could be looking at, and making more money stuff. So, yeah, completely agree. Well, I can't thank you enough for your time. I appreciate you coming on. And-

Matt:

All right. Thank you. Thank you, guys. Of course.

Chris:

Before you leave, could I ask, what is your favorite place in the world? Is it Scotland?

Matt:

Scotland, mate, yeah! Obviously, when I got out of the army, because I was still passionate about traveling and doing expeditions, I was going to Bulgaria, doing horse archery. I was going to Norway, and I was going here, and I was going there. And the wife was, "Why did you quit the army?" And I was like, "Because I wanted to spend time with you and the kids." And she was like, "Well, you're not doing that." I was like, "Oh, nether am I." She goes, "Everything's in Scotland." And I was like, "Do you know what? You're right. Everything is in Scotland." And I've been here ever since. I've been here all my days, and I always come back. Even when I was in the army, and I'd go away, I missed the greenery, and I missed the hills. So, yeah. Scotland, mate. Through and through.

Chris:

Thanks again. Could everyone give Matt a massive thank you? Goodbye.

Matt:

Thanks. Cheers.

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