The mountain guide profession facing the Internet
In just a few months, the Kazaden and Direct Mountain websites have shaken up the professional outdoor activities sector in France. But if some people welcome initiatives that clarify the offer and give a 2.0 visibility to professionals who are sometimes absent from the Web, others denounce an uberisation and fear, in the long run, an even greater precariousness. So, is this a disruptive economic model or an adaptation to consumer habits? Montagnes Magazine went to investigate these new players, the mountain guides and their unions.
The Kazaden and Direct Mountain websites appeared on the Web in November 2015 and June 2016 respectively, and respond to a simple concept: to offer a platform on the Internet which, in return for a commission, puts outdoor sport professionals in touch with individuals who are looking for a guide to discover, learn or improve a discipline. While Kazaden aims to cover all outdoor activities (from mountaineering to sailing), Direct Mountain focuses solely on the mountain sports sector.
Saving time for clients, visibility for guides
It was the desire to fill a void that originally motivated the creation of these platforms. Sylvain Hortoland, founder of Direct Mountain, explains that the idea came to him "while talking to a friend who was looking for a mountain guide on the Internet to do an ice climbing course. He was having trouble finding offers, being able to compare them and, above all, he was spending far too much time for his liking." On the Kazaden side, they mention "the multitude of service provider sites", which "offer quality services, but often presented in a very heterogeneous way", which would make the comparison of offers and the reservation not "always easy. But beyond simply clarifying the offer and saving time in booking, the platforms also point to other advantages for customers. "The customer is now attracted by the guarantees we provide," says Kazaden. "These include: a quality, qualified and insured professional; and a specialised customer service department that can assist them in their process. Sylvain Hortoland, for his part, highlights a platform designed as "a directory of professionals, including comments from other customers", which allows "to have the contact details of the professionals and [to] deal with them directly, without intermediaries". At Kazaden, they say they approach professionals with great care: "We make sure that their diplomas and insurance are valid. Our canvassing is mainly based on recommendations. When we don't have enough information about the professional, we look at his or her online presence and especially his or her e-reputation. Afterwards, we call clients individually to obtain qualitative feedback on the outings, which allows us to validate the pro as a trusted partner."
For their founders, if these platforms make life easier for clients, they would also be a boon for the professionals themselves, who are far from being all equal when faced with the complexity of managing an Internet presence. According to Kazaden, mountain guides would gain visibility thanks to "efficient and intuitive tools" that allow them "to present themselves and propose activities online in a few minutes", while leaving "the pro in charge of his schedule and his interactions with the client." At Direct Mountain, they praise a solution that allows guides to "boost their business as freelancers" by offering them a web presence "without having to design their own site or worry about SEO." This advantage is also recognised by the guides. When questioned, a mountain guide working in Isère and registered on Kazaden - but who wishes to remain anonymous - also argues that these platforms, linked to social networks, allow professionals to reach other audiences, in particular "a non-mountain audience, new to guides." For Nicolas, a mountain guide in the Écrins, who nevertheless refuses to register on one of these platforms, Kazaden and Direct Mountain can also offer professionals an "international opening", which is not always easy to build. Same opinion from the Syndicat National des Guides de Montagne (SNGM), which welcomes "a way of finding new clients" and points to a logical development at a time when "the digital revolution [...] will have an increasing impact on all human activities."
A fear of a precariousness of the profession
However, mountain professionals are not unanimous about the appearance of these platforms. The SNGM is interested, but is cautious about what is "both a threat and an opportunity" for guides: "Digitalisation will develop, explains its president, Christian Jacquier. It can prove to be a positive complementary tool if the guides appropriate this technology and keep control of it." The SNGM's desire to see the profession adopt these new technologies was demonstrated by the establishment of a partnership with Kazaden when it was launched in 2015. This partnership is no longer active today, due to the great diversification of the activities offered by this platform.
The Syndicat interprofessionnel de la montagne (SIM), on the other hand, is much more doubtful. Its president, Yannick Vallençant, even says he is "critical and even frankly annoyed. I am critical, he explains, when I see adventure, the mountains and the guides sold online as simple consumer products. I am annoyed by the outrageous, even misleading marketing of some of these sites, which serve up exactly the same storytelling." After testing one of the platforms [Note: this is not Direct Mountain ;-) ], he also questions the idea that the professionals are "hand-picked" and "all nice": "When one of these platforms was launched, I created a profile of a guide who was arrogant and unsympathetic to the point of proposing a programme for a luxury ascent of Mont Blanc, with a private refuge and a free helicopter descent at the slightest sign of fatigue... Both my profile and my programme were put online without any modification!"
Nicolas, for his part, fears that the prices of the outings will be dragged down in the event of the hegemonic development of these platforms: "If the platforms remain underdeveloped and numerous, they will be one more string in the guide's bow. On the other hand, if they become indispensable for guides, we can fear financial insecurity because of the more intense competition. It is difficult not to draw parallels with other sectors where this uberisation has been rife." This fear of seeing fares used as an adjustment variable is also mentioned by the president of the SIM: "To be ranked at the top of the search engine, you have to be low-cost, which is the main objective element of differentiation. This is extremely perverse and suicidal in the long run."
As for the platform operators, they deny any desire to create competition. Sylvain Hortoland, from Direct Mountain, considers that, far from making guides more precarious, "the aim is to develop their activity as independents." Kazaden explains that: "Rather than proposing offers that would compete with each other, we encourage our partners to propose alternative packages to those already available, by highlighting their specificities." For the Isère guide registered on Kazaden, "as long as the platforms do not impose their prices, the guides will remain free to apply their rates, even more so than within a company."
Evaluating the guide at the expense of safety?
Another bone of contention is the question of the safety of guides and clients during mountain tours. And at the centre of these questions is a practice: the possibility of commenting on the performance of professionals on the platform once back in the valley. This is an option offered by Direct Mountain, which explains: "Comments are free, there is no rating system for example. The customer can express their feelings as they wish. The professionals have, of course, the right to respond to comments made to them." At Kazaden, it is impossible to comment or rate the service, but clients are contacted after the activity "to know if everything went well and how to improve our service."
Commenting on the outing and the guide's abilities is not new. In the 19th century, for example, the guides in the Oisans were given a booklet by the Société des touristes du Dauphiné in which clients could leave a comment about the guide at the end of the trip; a practice which was generalised to most valleys and which only really disappeared after the creation of a national diploma. The principle had its legitimacy, since this booklet was the only guarantee for clients that they were dealing with a competent professional. But, from now on, the guides are all trained in the same school, the National School of Skiing and Mountaineering, and cannot work without the state diploma that it issues. And this is why the possibility of commenting on the guides' performance on the Internet leaves some people sceptical, or even frankly worried. Thus Nicolas wonders "whether it is reasonable to leave it to the neophyte or non-autonomous client to judge the performance of the professional guide." Behind this questioning, there is the fear, for the guide, of being pushed to sacrifice safety on the altar of satisfying the client's wishes in the hope of not seeing his profile sabotaged by bad feedback. "The profession is constantly questioning all the 'traps' that can lead the guide to an accident, explains Nicolas. Is it appropriate for the guide to store the pressure of the score in a more or less conscious part of his brain? Doesn't this risk pushing the guide to place customer satisfaction at the top of his priorities when his primary objective should remain safety?"
Yannick Vallençant, from SIM, shows the same concern: "The quality of a guide, as perceived by the client, is a very subjective notion. When an outing goes badly, or is perceived as such by the client, it is not necessarily because the guide is 'rubbish'. It can also be due to the client, or to a human alchemy that didn't work in the roped party. Giving the power to a neophyte or ill-tempered client, or one who has had an unfortunate experience, to destroy the professional credibility of a guide with a murderous comment, is both unfair and dangerous. "
Sylvain Hortoland, from Direct Mountain, explains that "comments that do not respect certain rules (insults, etc.) are deleted." And what about negative comments? "That hasn't happened yet, he says. I think I'll deal with it on a case-by-case basis." For the Isère guide registered on Kazaden that we interviewed, comments are not a real problem: "What is the difference with the guest book that most guide websites have? Yes, we must not go to extremes, but it is up to each guide to do his job in the best way possible, for safety and pleasure and not for the score." The SNGM is also less worried: "Mutual evaluation is part of the collaborative economy. Guides are not afraid of being evaluated by customers. Customer loyalty is very strong."
Beyond security, the rating of guides also poses a problem of ethics and image for some. And they wonder about the gradual transformation of the vision of the profession, of the client and of the mountain that this can bring about. "This way of proceeding confines the client to the role of consumer and the guide to that of a product that must conform to the description, Nicolas laments. Isn't the guide first and foremost the one who passes on to his clients a culture of the mountains and the risks?" For Yannick Vallençant, "a guide is not a hospital bed or a ready-made meal and adventure cannot be a simple consumer product."
Towards the end of guide offices?
Are guide offices, which appeared at the beginning of the 19th century, threatened by the development of these virtual platforms which, in absolute terms, respond to the same principle, i.e. that of putting clients in contact with mountain professionals? Here again, opinions are divided. Sylvain Hortoland, from Direct Mountain, answers in the negative: "The contact platforms fill a gap, a demand in Internet searches. The offices have another function, and I think that the two are complementary." The same answer is given by Kazaden, which goes further by affirming that the platforms are also likely to boost the activity of these offices: "For these offices, we are an effective communication relay, which enables them to increase their volume of activity by delegating to us the work concerning digital marketing (some of them do not have a website that matches their services). We also work with a number of guide offices, which we support in their digital transition and which test new offers via our platform." This is an opinion shared by the SNGM, which believes that "companies and offices have the means to integrate this dimension into their marketing strategy, by promoting their assets." Provided, at least, that professionals do not remain "idle in the face of the phenomenon."
The assessment is, however, somewhat different at SIM, where Yannick Vallençant fears "a risk of weakening or disappearance [of offices] if these platforms prove capable of providing more work, more interesting or better paid than companies or offices." But, in his view, it is precisely "up to the companies, the offices, the structures in general to evolve, to mobilise themselves to have new ideas, to develop and enhance specific assets and to motivate their members to stay there." The president of the SIM also took the opportunity of our interview to briefly mention a project on which his union has been working for several months: "The SIM has been financing and working on the development of an ambitious web project for several months. We'll be able to say more in a while, but you should know that this general interest project will be open to all mountain professionals, without any discrimination, whatever their union, in the desire to vigorously defend a certain vision of the mountains, of adventure and of the nobility of our professions." The SNGM believes that this is not the primary role of the union: "Our profession is organised at national level, but also in local structures. Within the framework of subsidiarity, marketing is the responsibility of local structures. The union can monitor, reflect and coordinate."
For Nicolas, while these platforms may, in the long term, "be another blow to guide groups", they bear little resemblance to a traditional office: "The platforms help to dilute the image of guides in the eyes of the general public, who, when they arrive at them, have the impression that they are arriving at a gigantic guide office, when in fact they are just another shop where guides are sold!" For him, "we are moving away from the historical identity of the guide offices or the artisanal approach, in the noble sense of the term, of the independents."
If, therefore, the "digital revolution" is in full swing, the transformations it is bringing about in the mountain activities sector are certainly not obvious to all those involved, divided between the need to be present on the Net - which, nowadays, can also sound like an injunction - and the urgency of defending a profession. The debate will undoubtedly continue to enliven evenings in refuges or at bivouacs, close to the stove. Where the telephone, however smart it may be, often displays "NO NETWORK".