Get to Know Guide Al Macdonald: Youth, Adventure & a bit of Bliss

Al Macdonald is a man of many talents. He’s a drummer extraordinaire, has played guitar in the Middle East for the US Army National Guard Band, and has worked as an adventure travel guide on and off since 2006. He’s also an entrepreneur who created his dream job as the owner and lead tour guide of Thrive Adventures. At the young age of 31, Al didn’t get this far by sitting on the couch; it’s taken a lot of hard work, risk and perseverance. We caught up with him between tours to find out how it all began and how this go-getter made it happen.

Hi Al, thanks for squeezing us into your hectic schedule. First of all, how did you first discover your passion for adventure travel?

I have always been into adventure sports like kayaking and hiking, but my love for travel started back in college. I was studying marketing and discovered that the college offered a recreation major with adventure tourism. I instantly knew that was what I wanted to do. I signed up and did a travel study program which took me to Australia and New Zealand in 2006, and I was hooked.

How did you manage to turn your passion for traveling into your career?

During the study program, I knew that being outside and traveling was what I wanted to be doing. After graduating from college I was conscripted for the army and deployed in the Army National Guard Band in 2009. I played guitar all over Iraq and hadn’t yet started a career. I was also newly married (my wife was in the army reserves) and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. We were both in Iraq trying to decide what our next move would be, so we started the company together.

Wow, that must have been a huge undertaking, especially at such a young age! How did you get the wheels rolling?

Making the transition from passion to business was quite a challenge. I consulted a local company who helped me put together a business plan and I got some advice from other business owners, and I was off. I started everything from scratch. My wife and I had some disposable income from Iraq, so we put our savings on the line to start the company. We came home from Iraq in 2010 and spent 12 months planning and developing before running our first tour in 2011.

It’s really quite remarkable that you managed to create your dream business in your 20s! How  hard was it?

It was tough, for sure! It was really hard to get interest for those first tours, and it still is. That’s part of the challenge. But I’ve always been mindful to expand my reach. As a small business owner, you have to do whatever you can to make ends meet, and I’ve been very mindful of thinking on my feet and developing itineraries, custom tours, and leadership development tours. You have to follow every new angle and lead, and being flexible is crucial. It’s so easy to get stuck and lose drive.

Hiking in Peru is up there on Al's favorites list
Hiking in Peru is up there on Al's favorites list
What was the biggest hurdle establishing your company?

There are definitely days where it’s hard to keep the drive to push forward, and it can be tough not to get overwhelmed by larger issues. But you’ve just gotta keep at it and remember why you’re doing it – and for me, it’s because I love being outdoors and teaching people how to get the most out of their life.

What does a day in the life of Al Macdonald look like?

Well, that’s changed a lot in the past four months, as we just had our first baby boy. But generally, I try to practice what I preach and get outside, whether that’s hiking, surfing or just going for a walk around the block. When I’m operating a tour, I really try to focus on teaching people to be healthy.

Have you got a certain style of guiding, or do you just go with the flow?

I have taught surfing and drum lessons for 10 years, so I am able to read people quite well. I really try to connect with people and help them push beyond their limits. That’s what learning is all about! The moments when you venture out of your comfort zone are the ones you’ll remember in life.

I once had a client who was 65 years old and she couldn’t swim. But she really wanted to go swimming with dolphins so we put her in a wetsuit and gave her a pool noodle. I’m not sure how many dolphins she saw, but the fact that she got into the water was awesome!

What is the best part of your job?

A client of mine returned home from a tour and bought a mountain bike because she loved the experience so much. That’s what makes my job worthwhile. I also love being in exotic locations and seeing the look on people’s faces when they reach the top of Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail, for example – they’re completely beat up and can’t believe they made it.

Best tour experience you’ve ever led?

I once had a client who was 65 years old and she couldn’t swim. But she really wanted to go swimming with dolphins so we put her in a wetsuit and gave her a pool noodle. I’m not sure how many dolphins she saw, but the fact that she got into the water was awesome!

Most bizarre experience you’ve had on a guided tour?

On our first tour in 2011 we went to New Zealand. After the tour, my wife and I had gone to Australia while one of the guides we were working with stayed on in NZ. We were talking to a deep sea outfitter on our travels and he mentioned the fact a huge earthquake had just happened in New Zealand. We were worried that our friend was in trouble, so the deep sea outfitter took us back to his home and put on the news. Oddly enough, we saw our friend on TV helping people clean up the rubble.

New Zealand: All in a day's work for Al
New Zealand: All in a day's work for Al
Every job has its downfalls. Are there any aspects of your job that you’re not that keen on?

When I have to sell travel on its own, I feel like a travel agent. That’s just not my bag – I want to be out there with people. I suppose everyone has to do something to make ends meet, and that’s mine for sure. Paperwork isn’t really that exciting either.

Do you have a vision for where you want to take Thrive Adventures in the future?

I have 1, 2, 5 and 10 year goals, but my main goal is to keep it going so that it never ends. For me, that means adding locations and itineraries so I can keep expanding or hand it on to someone else. I also want the company to expand beyond just adventure tours. I want it to be about fulfillment, lifelong goals and work/life balance.

As a professional guide yourself, what do you think it takes to be a good tour guide?

Being a good guide is much different than being a good entrepreneur, so having a bit of both skills is good. Being a good tour guide takes patience and the ability to read people and determine what they want and need. It’s important to give them space when they need it and calm their anxieties. Being a good entrepreneur takes an eternal drive and sense of creativity to solve your own problems. You need to have mentors and a network and be able to ask for help and support.

Finally, if you could take a vacation anywhere on the planet, where would it be?

That’s a tough one, but I would probably say the Northern Minnesota Boundary Waters. There are so many lakes and you can just take your canoe & camping gear and paddle on your own time, exploring in the wilderness. It’s bliss really.

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