October 10, 2011

Adventures in Green Business: Colorado Rafting Company mixes Fun and Sustainability


Wilderness Aware brings deep shades of Green to the whitewater industry.

I have a penchant for stories about entrepreneurs who are not only doing what they love to do, but are also doing it green. This year, I met Joe Greiner of Wilderness Aware Rafting, a white water rafting company in Buena Vista, Colorado. Together, Joe and his wife Sue have maintained their close relationship to nature while offering experiences of Colorado in new, exciting and life-changing ways by introducing rafters young and old to wilderness adventures. Meanwhile, they’ve twice been named Colorado Company of the Year. I was impressed by not only what he and his wife have built around the ever-changing flow of white water, but also how they chose to build a very seasonal Colorado rafting operation sustainably. I had a chance to talk to them about their passion, sustainable business choices and how they make it work.

1. You’ve been doing this for 25 years, what made you decide to start doing this?

My wife and I graduated from college in 1983. Her degree is Wildlife Biology and mine is Environmental Interpretation. At the time, Ronald Regan and his Secretary of Interior were cutting programs that hired graduates with those types of degrees. I took a job as a raft guide and my wife tried several outdoor oriented entry-level jobs. After 3 years of doing seasonal jobs with no career job in sight, the opportunity came up to buy the raft company with no money down of our own. The rafting industry was in its infancy. If it meant we could still work outdoors, we were up for the challenge of learning about business. We successfully have built the business up over time and especially, enjoy picking great people to work with. We love balancing office work with outdoor work and quality family time.

2. You and your wife have backgrounds in Wildlife Biology, how did that influence your choice to implement green practices into Wilderness Aware?

We studied evolution, man’s place in the natural world and the impacts of man on our environment. The impacts of our massive consumption of energy and consumer goods has always bothered us and guided our actions. We try to limit our consumption and have always practiced minimum impact camping. Through careful planning we have now been able to invest in renewable energy.

3. You present yourself as a green rafting company, what do you do differently than other rafting companies that make you green?

I think most raft companies do what they can to protect the river where we work and live. We are the first company in Colorado to install a wind generator and solar panels on our office facility. These units generate about 30% of our needs. We have installed underground wiring that is capable of handling 100% of our needs. We hope to soon connect more solar power to this network to make us 100% self-sufficient.

4. Does it set you apart as a rafting company? Do clients appreciate it, or choose their adventures based on your green-awareness?

In this economy, I believe that people notice our efforts and appreciate them, but most don’t make purchasing decisions based on green efforts. Rafting has become a bit of a commodity and consumers have to make a serious effort to look past the glitzy marketing materials.

5. In what ways have you built your Riverside facility to integrate all levels of green practices – from the building, maintenance and waste management practices?

We live in a dry climate her in Buena Vista. We get only about 12 inches of moisture per year. Most of our landscaping requires no water. We have only a tiny patch of grass that requires water, which adds color to the building. Our efficient drip irrigation keeps flowerbeds and trees alive.

Recently a new trash service has simplified our recycling efforts. Instead of our staff taking trip to the recycling center, all of our cardboard packaging and glass and plastic are finally being picked up on site.

Also, our building is built in zones. During the winter, we close down almost all of the building and heat only our small office spaces. Motion sensitive lighting helps limit electric consumption year round.

6. Tell us more about the solar and wind power that you use to power the facility?

We have a Skystream 3.7 wind generator. It begins producing power in an 8 mph breeze with full output at 20 mph. It is mounted on a 33 ½ foot pole. It is rated at 2.4 kW and is a down-wind (wind hits the blades on the downwind side of the tower) direct drive (gearless or no transmission) permanent magnet wind generator. The 12 ft diameter rotor can pro¬duce approximately 400 kWh per month in a steady 12 mph wind.

Our Sunpower 210 solar units are mounted on two poles. Each pole has a total maximum output of 2100 watts. Each pole holds ten SunPower 210 modules. Each of the ten modules generates 210 watts and contain 72 SunPower solar cells. We installed the second solar array on March 13, 2009. We also have buried enough wire during initial construction to transmit 100% of our power needs to our building when we are ready to expand.

7. What are the benefits to you and the company by your ongoing green practice?

We hope to set an example that will eventually minimize the need for new power plants that contribute to global warming. Minimizing our impact to the earth helps keep our rivers flowing free and our canyons free of unsightly development. If we each do our part it begins to add up. We hope that our guests will place more importance on our efforts over time and choose us over the competition. We know that their experience with us is the most important factor however, and we feel that we easily have the best guides and equipment and that has that part of the equation covered.

8. What are the unique challenges of a green business owner? Are there challenges to doing things differently?

Making investments for the long term good of the company sometimes impacts our ability to spend as heavily on marketing as our competition. We hope that over the long term, our guest loyalty will make up for the lack of spending in marketing.

9. The 2011 season was slow for many rafting companies. As a business owner, how did you keep things afloat, swimmingly, this year?

High water impacted the early season as we turned away small children that did not belong on the river at the high flows. Arizona, where we raft the Salt River, has no water at all, and we could not even open for the season.

Our commitment to quality makes it difficult to cut back on staff or equipment replacement. We have instead chosen to stay the course and make very few changes. We hope that some improved marketing will lead to a better season next year. We are also looking for new projects to increase revenue. It is too early to reveal our plans…we will have to surprise you next year!

10. What keeps you exited about coming back to this work day after day?

For me personally, I find challenge in always making things better. When I was on the river a lot, the joy was in discovering new trips and making our trips better. When I moved to the office for more of my day, the joy was in problem solving and eliminating mistakes and inefficiencies. Now that I have managers, I find joy in making their jobs and skills better and giving them better tools that they need to improve our guest experience. I have the best job in the world because it never stays the same and everything I do makes my guests or my employees happier. I also always get to look forward to the changes in the seasons when my job changes to match the opportunities the weather brings me. Life is nothing but new opportunities!

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