Women Who Go the Distance

Meet Cynthia Dunbar, the Globetrotting GM Leading Ladies into the Great Outdoors

by Daniel Schwartz
Kayaking Kayaking in Washington's San Juan Islands. Photo courtesy of REI Adventures.

REI is a great place to shop for adventure gear — and also a great place to book an adventure trip. As part of our Great Women in Travel series, we talked with Cynthia Dunbar of REI Adventures about her career managing the most successful division of the socially conscious company.

Tell us about your work at REI Adventures.

I’m the general manager of REI Adventures, REI’s adventure tour outfit, which means I’m in charge of getting thousands of people into the great outdoors. Some for the first time; others for their tenth or hundredth time. I lead a group of about 49 trip designers and operators, program managers, customer service and sales reps, marketers, and digital experts from our offices in Kent, Washington, along with guides, scouts, and field teams all around the world. Even after 25 years, what comes across my desk is new every day. Working with different people, cultures, and outdoor activities around the world is a gift. It means I’m never bored.

Amazing. How did you get your start at the company?

My previous job was at Delta Airlines, and I was brought on for my expertise in working with travel agents. (And, I like to think, for my enthusiasm for the outdoors.) When I started in 1993, a big part of the business plan was growing our travel agency. Airlines payed roughly ten percent commission on bookings, and we booked a lot of airfare. But about a year into the plan, airlines stopped paying anything at all.

What!? Sorry, please continue.

Yeah, that really impacted our strategy. We had to take a step back, regroup, and realign our offerings. At that time, we were doing a lot of hardcore adventure travel: trekking through Turkistan, tracking snow leopards in Siberia, going to Kamchatka, Vladivostok, and Lake Baikal. It was very niche, and we weren’t serving a broad portion of our membership. We work in an office all day and have a passion for the outdoors, so we took that passion and broadened our horizons, adding programs — like bicycling in France, hiking in Tuscany, and island-hopping in Greece and the Galapagos — that had a high level of activity but remained accessible to the average REI member. That fundamental shift really changed the course of business. We’ve had double-digit growth virtually every year since.

Cynthia (left) on Mt. Rainier. Photo by Cynthia Dunbar.
Photo by Cynthia Dunbar.
Photo by Cynthia Dunbar.

Bravo! Do you get to go on any of these amazing trips?

I head out into the field at least once a year — to scout new itineraries, troubleshoot existing ones, or just to join our own guided trips for personal vacation. I just came back from auditing one of our new Japan trips, which starts in Osaka and traces the Kumano Kodō and Nakasendo trails through the central highlands before ending in Tokyo. The goal was to take the trip our regional program manager created from the ground up and make sure the pieces came together the way they were outlined.

What are your most popular trips?

Many of our classic, intrepid offerings are still our most popular — hiking the Inca trail, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, traversing the Everest region, trekking 100 miles around the base of Mount Blanc, excursions in Patagonia. But our new line of Easy Active trips are proving a hit as well. They’re geared toward folks who want to take their first adventure trip but have hesitated in the past for fear of holding up the group. They consist of full days of activity and are totally doable by anyone who is physically fit. We’ve also been expanding our North America offerings, particularly in National Parks, as well as our portfolio of trips geared specifically towards women.

When you show up to breakfast and everyone — doctors, lawyers, plumbers, teachers — is dressed in bike shorts, you're instantly comfortable. You build camaraderie and end up coming away with a friend group of like-minded ladies. That’s empowering.

Tell me more about the women's trips.

Over the last five to ten years, we’ve noticed an upward trend in female participation in our programs, so much so that right now women book our trips more than men do. We realized we weren’t doing a great job of helping women feel accepted and excited to be in the great outdoors, so, in line with REI’s robust philanthropic program, we started Force of Nature to do just that. As part of the multi-pronged campaign, we’ve rolled out a selection of women-only adventures run by all-female guides, which include backpacking the Superstition Mountains, hiking through remote parts of Peru, surfing in Baja, trekking across New Zealand, going on safari in South Africa, mountain biking in the Smoky Mountains, and sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands, one of my favorite places on Earth.

And how have they been faring?

So far, they’ve been really popular, and the stories we hear make me feel good about our work. I’ve been married a long time, but my husband isn’t much of an active outdoors guy, so for me to travel with a group of women who like doing the same things I do is really special. I’ve been on many bike trips, and when you show up to breakfast and everyone — doctors, lawyers, plumbers, teachers — is dressed in bike shorts, you're instantly comfortable. You build camaraderie and end up coming away with a friend group of like-minded ladies. That’s empowering. Plus, not having the pressure of being in a co-ed group gives you the confidence to try something new.

San Juan Islands. Photo courtesy of REI Adventures.
Cynthia on an REI Adventures service trip. Photo by Cynthia Dunbar.

What else does Force of Nature do?

Through the campaign, we’ve provided grants to organizations that facilitate access to nature and train female professionals in the outdoors industry, launched a product line designed by women for women, hosted thousands of events across the country to help teach ladies technical skills (like how to ride a bike or pack for a backpacking trip), worked extensively with HR to reimagine the path to succession for women who work at our company, and focused our storytelling (on our blog and through content partnerships) on female heroes who are mentors in their fields or who are breaking the boundaries many women feel when getting into the outdoors.

Who has inspired you in the adventure travel space?

Sally Jewell, one of our former CEOs and Secretary of the Interior under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, is epic in the outdoor industry. She's climbed Kilimanjaro and Mount Blanc. She tagged on a trip to Antarctica to scale Mount Vincent before an excursion in Patagonia and got stuck on the continent for two weeks because of a strike at the airport in southern Chile. It goes without saying, but she’s always up for a good adventure. Steve Barker, Board Chair of the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund, of which REI is a founding member, is amazing at leveraging all aspects of the adventure travel supply chain to take care of the natural resources that support our industry. He also co-founded Eagle Creek and is known for introducing his friends to his favorite natural places. Rue Mapp of Outdoor Afro is an amazing role model who has inspired people who have not had the opportunity growing up to get outside and try something different. She’s a self-made woman and is changing the face of the outdoors not just for African-American women but for the whole African-American population.

Everest's first-ever relief center at Namche Bazaar.
Reforestation work at Salcantay Mountain in Peru. Photo by Cynthia Dunbar.

Tell me about a high point in your career.

I’m really proud of the way we supported our teams in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake. We sent over as many supplies as we could, donated money to Mercy Corp, and asked our members to help out in the effort. In total, we donated more than one million dollars to the relief effort. Although we had to cancel many trips scheduled for months after the earthquake, we paid our guide and field staff the wages they would have earned, which made a huge difference in their ability to recover from the disaster. As a result, we were one of the first companies to run treks again after the earthquake. We also helped fund the construction and supply of Everest’s first-ever relief center in Namche Bazaar. I am also really proud of our grant work to benefit local nonprofits. Since it started, we’ve funded the installation of over 100 bio-gas units in rural Nepal. Several of these renewable energy resources were damaged during the earthquake, and we repaired or replaced them to full working order. We funded the construction of a greenhouse at the base of Salcantay Mountain in Peru, which has helped locals replant more than 30,000 indigenous species each year.

What about a low point?

September 11, 2001. We had folks traveling all over the world and a ton of travelers who were just getting ready to head out. We did everything we could to help each and every customer get home as quickly as possible. We had guests on the last flight that landed in the U.S. before the entire air travel system was shut down. They called our office to ask what was happening as they were being escorted to land by U.S. fighter jets. It was an unbelievably stressful time. We made the decision to allow our customers to cancel their trips with no penalties. Several people made the decision not to travel at that time and were very appreciative of the full refund.

Cycling in France's Loire Valley. Photo courtesy of REI Adventures.
Cynthia in China. Photos courtesy of REI Adventures and Cynthia Dunbar.

Describe your ideal outdoor adventure trip.

I love traveling by bike. It allows me to cover lots of distance while getting up close and personal with the sites, sounds, and smells of a place. I can stop and engage with locals and check out shops or food stands without getting off schedule. My most memorable biking trip was through a remote section of southern China fifteen years ago. We started in Hong Kong, took a boat up the Pearl River Estuary to a small town called Zhaoqing, biked 500 miles to Yangshuo, a charming town outside Guilin, and ended the trip by flying to Guangzhou. It was eye-opening to see how different this part of China (and the world) was, as was being in a remote place where we didn’t see any other Westerners for two weeks.

What advice would you give would-be women adventurers hesitant to take the plunge?

Choose a destination you are deeply interested in. Find an itinerary that inspires you. Choose an activity you are comfortable with. Take the time to train and prepare. Don’t hesitate to ask lots of questions. When you are on the trip, keep an open mind, remain flexible to schedule and itinerary adjustments, and embrace serendipity — this often makes for the most memorable moments of a trip.

A cycling trail in Tuscany. Photo courtesy of REI Adventures.

Speed Round! Fathom Questionnaire!

Favorite destinations: Baja, Italy, and San Juan islands.

Dying to visit: Jordan and Malawi.

Bizarre travel rituals: Pack a Snickers bar and a full bottle of water in my bag when flying. Never leave home without a small roll of duct tape and my silk long underwear.

In-flight relaxation regimen: Catch up on reading.

Always in carry-on: Everything. I rarely check a bag, except on the way home.

See it all or take it easy? I prefer to focus on specifics rather than try and take everything in. I do as much as possible during the daytime and enjoy relaxing in the evening, especially where locals folks hang out. I’m always in bed at a reasonable hour.

My favorite hotel is Kasbah du Toubkal in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains because of the importance it plays in the local community, as well as its amazing views and activities.

I dream about my meal at Ishii Miso in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan, which has been making miso using traditional methods since 1868.

Best hotel amenity: Local treats, wine, pastry, candy, etc.

Favorite childhood travel memory: Exploring the Olympic Peninsula.

I always bring home a piece of local jewelry.

I travel for the chance to explore something new or to return to a favorite spot.

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