At 28, Tove Sørenson discovered her passion for dog sledding. She quit her job as a lumberjack and started working at a dog shelter. Two years later in 1988, she purchased the shelter. In 1990, she gave her first dog sled tour to a small group of Japanese tourists. After she saw their rosy, smiling faces she knew there was an incredible opportunity.
Today, the Tromsø Wilderness Centre, located in Northern Norway, is one of the largest dog sled operators in the world, with over 300 Alaskan Huskies and 35,000 annual visitors.
Tove compares dog sledding to running a business, “building a dog team is like building a business team. Each dog is suited for different roles… all doing the jobs they’re best at.”
The lead dogs are in the front positions and are very intelligent, listening for instructions and guiding the team. The motivators are next and are full of energy and a bit crazy, always urging the rest of the team to keep running. The muscle dogs are in the back position closest to the sled and responsible for heading the heaviest load. Between the motivators and muscle dogs are positions for training new dogs, resting dogs and increasing the “dog power” of the sled. Positions to especially consider for competitive races.
Tove also loves competing in dogsled races, competing 19 times in the Finnmarksløpet, a 1,000 km dogsled race with 14 dogs over 5-6 days. In 2006 she participated in the World’s longest dog sled race in Alaska, The Iditarod. Over 1,600 km from Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast. She finished 2nd in rookie competitors and 28th overall. Click here to watch her journey competing in the gruelling race, the Iditarod.
Tove’s passion has crossed over into building a world class business with her sons Alex and Torkil, who have helped grow the Wilderness Centre into an international winter destination.
Becoming an International Destination
In 2010, Alex Sørenson returned home to help with the family business after completing his degree and starting a career in journalism. “I asked Tove to see the bookings and she pulled out this black book from beside her bed. There were different colours of ink for different guests, times, guides, pickup locations and payment statuses. I said “we can’t do this anymore.”
“At first, I thought it would be extremely easy to find a software that could run the business… but there were few that actually met our needs.” Alex ended up signing with Visbook. It was a step in the right direction but not a great fit.
“See these?” Alex asks, while pointing at his head. “All of my grey hairs came from testing different booking systems before I found Zaui” he jokes. In 2012, he came across Discover Banff Tours in a Google search and was intrigued with their booking engine. He noticed at the bottom of the booking panel “Powered by Zaui” and he found his answer.
Mush! Onward and Upward
This year, about 60% of the Tromsø Wilderness Centre’s bookings are made online. “As soon as we switched to Zaui, we saw an enormous increase in online bookings.” says Alex.
When comparing the Zaui platform, Tromsø’s Booking Manager, Øystein, says “We now wake up and can see 40 new bookings from the night before that are automatically scheduled and paid for.” This number is growing every year. “There was an increase of 100% in fall bookings in 2016 compared to 2015 and we are already accepting bookings into 2019.” he adds.
The year-over-year growth in online bookings that Tromsø Wilderness Centre is experiencing has been facilitated by the distribution of their product via the Zaui reseller network. An enormous amount of bookings are now received through Viator and Veltra and they are just getting started with Get Your Guide.
“The Zaui Channel Manager lets us set thresholds for the number of bookings that are accepted through online reseller channels. It is a great tool to leverage when negotiating commissions with Online Travel Agencies,” Øystein explains.
“Without Zaui, we would not have been able to grow like this” says Alex.
Eating Like a Big Dog
Growth has been fast and furious in recent years. From 2009 to 2010, the Wilderness Centre had approximately 5,000 guests. From 2012 to 2013, annual visits grew to 12,000. After partnering with Zaui in early 2013, visitors have climbed to nearly 35,000 in 2016/17.
Up to 70% of the company’s revenues are generated during the peak winter season (December to March). As Alex says, “When we see the snow start falling, to us, it’s like it’s raining money.” Up to 300 guests will visit and go dogsledding at the Wilderness Centre in a single winter’s day.
Being highly seasonal also brings its share of operational challenges. In winter, they operate with 84 guides but scale down to 42 in summer. “The goal is to be open for tours 365 days a year,” says Alex. “But people want to see northern lights and dogs that can run… the best time for this is the winter.” In the summer, the company switches to hiking with huskies, puppy training sessions and midnight sun sea kayaking.
Planning Cash Flow and Booking Guests Anywhere
The cash flow from pre-paid internet bookings, helps finance operations in the slower months of August and September. This has traditionally been more challenging for a seasonal operation. “This year we should be able to finance everything through the cash flow of the business.”
The Zaui POS allows staff to sell merchandise in the Wilderness Centre gift shop, accept bookings at the front office (located 25 mins away from the wilderness centre in town) and check in guests on the buses when making pickups from hotels. Info from the POS is centralized to the Zaui Core and can be monitored from anywhere. “There was no other system we could find that took all of these elements to run the business efficiently,” says Alex.
A good portion of Tromsø Wilderness Centre’s bookings also come from the local Destination Marketing Organization (DMO), the Northern Norway Tourist Board as well as direct email bookings and local affiliates. While the average Norway tourism supplier is not as tech forward as the ambitious team at the Wilderness Centre. Alex believes there is a huge opportunity for the Tromsø tourist economy to grow as a whole by collaborating and connecting with the cross-selling features of Zaui Connect.
Northern Lights Shining on New Tourist Markets
The Norway northern lights were almost a well-kept secret until famous UK actress, Joanna Lumley came along. She experienced the northern lights in Tromsø and broadcasted her travels on BBC, exploding the popularity in the UK.
Since then, the UK has been the glowing market for winter tours in Norway. However, this is changing. “We have seen 300% growth over the last few years in China, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore. We expect tourists from China to account for the highest percentage of guests within the next 3 years.” Says Øystein. An opportunity Alex and Øystein are more than ready to take on.
“Everyone is welcome. From little babies to people with disabilities, to people that don’t speak our language. There is an activity for everyone.” Alex says. The Tromsø Wilderness Centre seems to have the innate ability to connect with all cultures and walks of life through the spirit of the dogs.
Sledding into the Horizon
In August, the Tromsø Wilderness Centre will premiere their new film “Villmark”; the story of the Sørenson family undertaking the most recent and brutal outdoor race in Europe (the Finnmarkslopet). This was Tove’s 19th and latest appearance, along with Alex’s brother Torkil, who grew up with the dogs and race with them every year. Tove’s vision is to have 3 generations of Sørensons compete in the Finnmarkslopet.
The future looks bright for the local tourism community in Tromsø. Building a network of local tourism suppliers is sure to maximize local cross-selling opportunities while there is no sign of a slowing appetite from international visitors. The demand continues to grow for travellers seeking authentic winter adventures like stepping into the boots of an Alaskan Husky Musher and witnessing the magnificent beauty of the Norwegian Northern Lights.
However beautiful, Øystein warns never to wave to the northern lights. “Growing up my father told me that. If you wave, the lights will come and take you away,” he smiles in a fun-loving spirit. We might just have to visit and put that one to the test.