Photo by Jeff Silker
What began as a sportsman’s show on four small Midwest radio stations evolved into a full-blown business venture that now arranges high-impact fishing and hunting adventures for companies and corporations.
Don Kliewer (pronounced Klee-ver), now 47, was once the producer for “The Weekend Angler,” which began in the late ’80s as a syndicated daily radio show on four radio stations. (The radio show itself was an outgrowth of Kliewer’s extensive contacts from his other job, that of a sales representative for Woodward Broadcasting.) Later, after some professional pruning from a St. Cloud voice talent, John Nordstrom, the show’s name was changed to “Midwest Angling & Hunting” and eventually found a home at 36 radio stations scattered throughout Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, and Michigan. Audience acceptance grew. Kliewer began taping the show in a converted garage behind his Fairmont home, with soundproofing, a five-channel board, and a swivel mike used to help create a professional polish. It was a fun sideline for a radio sales representative that enjoyed travel, meeting the greats of his sport, and who had a deep love for fishing and the outdoors.
“I interviewed several people every month,” says Kliewer from his Fairmont office headquarters, a stone’s throw from nearby Budd Lake. “With the show I had to travel to tournaments and interview key professionals in the walleye and bass circuit. I had the opportunity to interview most everybody seen on TV and to fish with many of them.” He says any angling addict would instantly recognize the names of Gary Roach, Gary Parsons, Harry Stiles, Hank Parker and Jerry McGuiness – all men he had the opportunity to interview. “It was a fun show, but it began eating up too much of my time.”
Then AC Delco, an advertiser on his show, began a unique ad campaign for its Delco marine batteries. Salespeople from various distributors and dealers became part of a sales contest and the winners were to earn a free fishing trip to a lake in Manitoba. AC Delco asked Kliewer to help arrange the trip. “It dawned on me,” he says, “that what I was doing for them might be worth something to someone else, too.” Mix in his radio connections with outfitters and camps throughout the U.S. and Canada, and the idea for a new business began taking hold.
Along with a friend, Mark Craven, Kliewer then visited the Northwest Sports Show, in Minneapolis, where they asked an outfitter from Bull Shoals, Arkansas, if they could arrange company trips to Bull Shoals for a commission. The outfitter said yes. Realizing that opportunities certainly existed with other outfitters and camps, Craven and Kliewer decided to partner and form Angling & Hunting Adventures in 1996 as a spin-off of the radio show.
They wanted to do it right, which meant establishing relations with the most elite camps. One of their first contacts was with Plummers, “one of the highest quality, most unusual camps in Canada,” which had facilities on Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territory. Kliewer explains: “[Plummers] is a short-season camp, and one of the most costly to go to, but it offered great experiences. We told them we wanted to arrange trips only for companies and corporate groups.”
The new business grew quickly, so much so that within two years Kliewer felt he had to choose between keeping the radio show or the travel business. When it all became too much work for him, the last Midwest Angling & Hunting radio show aired in 1998. Several broadcasters told him they were sorry to see it end, but, as Kliewer has to reiterate, “it was very taxing to put out that many programs on an annual basis.”
Today, Kliewer continues to sell to national accounts for Woodward Broadcasting, which owns two radio stations in Fairmont, and through it he gains valuable contacts for his sideline business. Most of his radio sales clients – and by default his travel ones, too – are in the agricultural community. Angling & Hunting Adventures arranges over fifty company trips a year, varying in size from the simple two-man/three-day stay to groups of fifty for a week. By far their largest customer is Harvest Partners, a subsidiary of chemical giant American Cyanamid, which prints a premium catalog that features four of their angling adventures, mailing it to over 400,000 farmers.
To gain the Harvest Partners business, Kliewer and Craven had to host a sample four-day trip in Canada for four Harvest Partners people. Part of the trip involved flying into a remote lake area with a float plane. Kliewer knew they had the deal sealed when one of their guests netted a 50-inch muskie the last day. “You could hear him screaming in delight two miles away,” he smiles.
“The disadvantage of a company planning its own trip is that a person who may not know anything about such trips has to make all the arrangements,” Kliewer says. “It also takes them away from their regular job duties. Often a company puts a sales representative in charge of doing it when that person should be out selling.” Kliewer and Craven receive all their compensation from the sixty or so camps and outfitters they broker for – trips that range from a seven-day $275 walleye binge to a true $6,000 adventure – and because of that arrangement companies who use their services don’t receive any bills from them. Besides being in the Harvest Partners catalog, they gain business mainly through word-of-mouth, a fact that compels them to inspect most of their angling camps firsthand. To date, Kliewer says, “So far [we] haven’t had any complaints from any customers at any of the facilities. Knock on wood: hopefully it will stay that way.”
Their efforts have been aided by a computer techie who designs color digital presentations for them on CD. It gives the potential client the opportunity to “see what they would be getting” in the privacy of their own office.
Their sole focus is to help companies build successful incentive and premium programs. Incentive programs can be either internal, meaning within a company’s sales force, or external through outside brokers and distributors. Two types of incentive programs exist: closed-end, which limits the number of contest winners – and a company’s financial exposure; and open-end, which rewards not just the top performers, as with a closed-end program, but any salesperson that reaches a certain goal. “We’re a unique niche in the world of incentives,” says Kliewer. “In the world of travel there are all kinds of companies putting together packages for golf, cruises, Disney and Las Vegas. We’re a one-of-a-kind niche that offers adventure and asks people to live on the edge.”
Premium programs target buyers who can be rewarded for their business purchases with points that are accumulted to select prizes from a catalog. In the Harvest Partners premium catalog, Angling & Hunting Adventures offers two angling adventure “prizes” in Canada, and one each in Costa Rica and Minnesota.
What separates them from a travel agency is their insistence on handling nearly every detail, even down to mailing a map that highlights the traveler’s journey from their own front door to the ultimate destination. Ready-to-go luggage tags are mailed to every group member. Travelers are given time schedules and a checklist for items such as rods, reels, tackle, clothing, and rain gear. Of course, airline tickets are arranged for and on some trips even the food, beverages and liquor. “We do it this way so the company doesn’t have to worry about anything,” says Kliewer. “We have a contact person with the company, of course, and copy them on everything. In some cases we’ve even done trips where people have just shown up with their suitcase and we provide all the tackle, rods and reels and rain gear.
Kliewer says, “It’s fun talking with people who are excited about doing something they have never done before. They can sense the excitement in our voice when we tell what it is like to go on one of these trips.”
Less than 10 percent of their trips are for hunters, a percentage Kliewer expects will increase within the next few years. Most hunting trips usually involve top executives desiring an exclusive hunt – elk, for instance – or a larger company out to woo a single key customer. Hunting itself doesn’t lend itself to larger groups, unless the target is pheasant or upland game.
Then there is Costa Rica. “Paradise,” he whispers while pointing to a blown-up photo of himself standing alongside a caught yellow fin tuna. Recently Kliewer and Craven visited one of their best camps, Golfito Sailfish Rancho, a tropical hamlet in Costa Rica, where “monkeys are swinging in the trees and toucans are flying around.” In a four-day period they completed what is known as the “Costa Rican Grand Slam.” It is a hot spot for fishing, the best in the world, Kliewer claims, and the dining fare is five-star.
Angling & Hunting Adventures works with a host company in Costa Rica that sends a greeter to meet the travel group at the main airport in San Jose. That contact person becomes their taxi driver, Spanish interpreter and tour guide.
“Yes, a member of our party caught a 154-pound yellow fin tuna,” admits Kliewer with no semblence of pretense, “and others landed dorado, also called mahi mahi, which were good eating. A ten-foot long, 110-pound sailfish and two blue marlins, one 270 pounds and the other, 375, were caught.” The 154-pound tuna, which was “all muscle, like a freight train,” Kliewer claims, took a member of their party nearly an hour to land.
They have thought about offering exclusive trips with celebrities – they have one such contact in the “athletic arena” – but athletes have very small windows from which to schedule an angling diversion, and working around them is no small feat.
“We’re always looking for new customers,” Kliewer says. “We’re working on one right now – one of the world’s largest travel companies. They have nothing like we offer. If we can work out an arrangement, they would book the companies and become our ‘broker.’ It would be a pretty big jump for us business-wise, but we’re up for the challenge.”
Even though they have been filling the travel needs of adventuresome business souls all over the United States for four years, few locals in Fairmont even know their business exists, he says. But it really doesn’t surprise him because they don’t market to individuals through any mass media, only to corporations, and to them mainly through direct contact.
Co-Owner Mans The Fort
Mark Craven, equal partner in Angling & Hunting Adventures, runs the office and handles most of the day-to-day details. He is a row crop farmer with the free time in winter to be at his new business full-time at what is becoming more than just a sideline. Craven and Kliewer were in business before, in the mid-70s, when they began an aerial photography business in Fairmont. Craven flew the single-engine plane while Kliewer hung out the open door and nervously snapped the shots.
“Seventy-five percent of our business is done with travelers heading north in the summer,” Craven says. “But now with us adding on Costa Rica, and other trips to Mexico and the Bahamas, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that even out fifty-fifty, with fifty percent heading south in the winter.”
From his desk at their Fairmont headquarters, Craven looks up at a blown-up photo of his own recent trip to Costa Rica. “A gentleman who went to Costa Rica with us this winter hit twelve sailfish in one day. That was a lot of work and it exhausted him by the end of the day. It took him at least thirty minutes to reel each one in.”
Craven believes they fill a need with companies and corporations because many businesses don’t have the time to properly plan incentive and premium trips. Once the sale is made, he says, their business is self-perpetuating. “The companies we work with are growing and the people who go on our trips have positive experiences.”
©2000 Connect Business Magazine