Work Hard, Play Hard – An Interview with Denise Oblak of Canyon Voyages Adventure Co.

Pete CodellaArticles

This is the fifth in a series about women in the Utah outdoor recreation and adventure travel business. My name is Emilia Wint and I’m a member of the US Freeskiing Team. As the GOED intern, I’ve been traveling around the state to hear the stories of the women doing business in the coolest industry in Utah. Please note the opinions expressed by the interviewees do not necessarily represent that of GOED, but they promise to be interesting!

Denise owns Canyon Voyages Adventure Co. with her husband Don, and the business has become a mainstay on Main Street in Moab. We talked creative marketing campaigns, tailoring big regulation to small business and inflatable alligators.

Denise Oblak

Canyon Voyages Adventure Co.

Moab, UT

  1. What brought you to Utah and why did you stay?

Well, my husband and I were living in Arizona and had a job change. We visited friends in Moab early in 1990. Moab was a sleepy town. Mountain biking had just gotten noticed. My friend flat out said you need to move here and start a business. It was the right time, we were young and energetic and it was a good opportunity.


  1. With all the other outdoor recreation companies based in Utah what made you decide to set up shop?

At the time there were already several other river running companies. In our business, you need a government permit to operate and these are tightly controlled. But, I guess we were in the right place at the right time. We were able to get a permit when Moab was just beginning its tourism boom.


  1. What is your niche market?

It’s a little different for different products. For river rafting we cater to smaller groups and families. We also see a lot of Europeans. A French travel guide did a write up on us so we see a lot of French visitors. We also offer raft and kayak rental equipment for folks who prefer to run the river on their own.


  1. How do you set your business apart from the competition? Or, What is your unique sales proposition?

We’re very hands on. We’re here everyday and have been for 25 years. Customer service is huge for us. We know our customers’ names. Awhile back we offered free breakfast so we woke up at four in the morning and baked muffins to reel in clients. We used to have a sign outside the shop that said “Ice Cream Floats!” That got people in the door and we told them they could have ice cream after they floated the river with us!


  1. What do you value about doing business in Utah?

I like the freedom to explore new markets. When we first came we joined the Chamber, and were welcomed with open arms. People were there to help and support us.


  1. What could be improved in regards to doing business in Utah?

More dialogue between small businesses and the state. We’ve been getting challenged by government regulations. They’re written with all the best intentions, but often address issues found in very large organizations and not necessarily a small business such as ours. Big corporations usually have the resources to deal with increasing regulation, but mom and pop shops like ours are placed at a disadvantage. For example, the Department of Transportation in Utah follows federal guidelines to the letter while some states have tweaked their guidelines to accommodate the needs of small business. Colorado has worked with outfitters to tailor the regulations.


Insurance requirements for seasonal businesses have been a big issue for us. To comply with the MC 90 requirement which is a federal DOT regulation that Utah has adopted, we would need to insure our vehicles year round. But we only use them seasonally–about half the year–so insuring them when we aren’t using them is far too expensive. We need dialogue with the state to accommodate the needs of small business.


The government shutdown a few years ago completely disrupted the outdoor industry down here and throughout southern Utah. Luckily it was close to the end of the season for us, but other outfitters like the bike shops and 4×4 tour companies were in the height of their busiest time. It was pretty chaotic. I’d hate to see that happen again.


  1. Would you recommend an outdoor enthusiast get into this business? What advice would you have for them? If not, why?

I would say do more homework than we did. But it did work for us! The business climate is more challenging now than it was back when we started. Look for opportunities in emerging markets. Get out there and ask questions and talk to people. Know where you can get financing. Money is a huge factor.


  1. What is the biggest mistake you’ve made with your business? How did you recover? What did you learn? Would you change anything if you could go back?

For a time we tried to expand into areas we didn’t have enough expertise in. We started doing 4×4 tours. After we got into it we realized that being successful in this new market was going to require a lot more resources than we had at the time. So now we do referrals with other 4×4 companies in town so we can concentrate on river related activities. Luckily we realized we were straying from our path before it hurt us. Focus on what it is you do best. Be true to your mission.


  1. What misconceptions about Utah do you encounter when working with your clients?

The liquor thing. Where is the liquor store and what are the hours is the most common question. People are curious about Mormon culture but mainly it’s the liquor laws.


  1. What advantages does Utah offer compared to our fellow western states?

We have five National Parks and nine National Monuments. I always say you could draw a line through the middle of the state and everything south of that line could be a National Park. We have such amazing beauty here.


  1. What do you tell people when they ask what it’s like to live in Utah?

I love living in Utah. I grew up a flatlander and after coming here I’ve never looked back. It’s so beautiful. I love to share it with people.


  1. What is your favorite season in Utah?

Fall. because we’re almost done with the season and can breathe a little easier. The water is warm and the Colorado River is still flowing well and the weather is nice.


  1. What is the most ridiculous thing someone has brought on a trip?

Hmmm, inflatable alligators and giant pillows.


  1. Any recommendations to someone looking to explore what Utah has to offer?

Plan a whole lot more time than you think you need. We see lots of folks who come to Moab for just a few days and then realize there’s no way to see and do everything that they had hoped.