Last updated: 07:37 PM ET, Tue August 02 2016

On Adventure's Cutting Edge

Intrepid Travel debuts new Expedition series and a P2P Cuba Program

Vacation Agent | Tour Operator | James Shillinglaw

On Adventure's Cutting Edge

PHOTO: Intrepid Travel, which has been operating in Nepal for nearly 26 years, has led the way in relief efforts following the April 2016.

When Nepal was hit with a devastating earthquake in April, a disaster that killed more than 8,800 people, injured more than 23,000 and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, it was the global travel industry that the jumped in to help the country recover. Indeed, one tour company in particular has helped lead the way in providing relief to Nepal.

Intrepid Travel, the Melbourne, Australia-based escorted adventure tour operator, happens to have one of the largest trekking operations in Nepal with 200 employees. It felt intimately connected with the country and its people. The company’s Kathmandu-based team also ensured the safe evacuation of the 168 travelers it still had in Nepal after the quake.

Intrepid then announced that it would donate all its profits from the next season, which begins in October, to Nepal recovery as part of a million-dollar fundraising effort (visit The company has already raised $400,000 AUD (more than $309,000 U.S.) through its Intrepid Foundation for relief efforts. Intrepid also began a campaign urging travelers to visit Nepal in 2015-16 season to support the country’s recovery.

“We have a duty to that country because we are one of the biggest tour operators taking people to that part of the world,” says James Thornton, Intrepid’s Melbourne-based managing director, who has been with the company for 10 years in various roles. “Tourism is Nepal’s largest industry, but without visitors, many Nepalese people will find it difficult to earn a living. We believe it is important for Intrepid to lead the way and support the country when it needs us most.”

For Intrepid, the effort to help Nepal was nothing new, because the company has been deeply involved with adventure travel destinations for 26 years now. Two Australians, Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester, founded the company in 1989, so they could offer more affordable, local adventure travel experiences for their customers.

Intrepid now carries 250,000 customers a year on 1,000 different programs on in more than 100 countries on every continent. Every trip is designed to allow guests to experience the local culture, meet local people, try local food, take local transport and stay in local accommodations.

Last year Intrepid carried roughly 100,000 guests on small group programs, usually just 12 to 16 people in size. The average land-only cost of an Intrepid trip is just $2,000 per person, although programs can range up to $8,000 for the company’s Antarctica expedition. Intrepid’s target customer is an independent traveler, age 25-49, who has traveled before but has limited vacation time and is interested in an adventure-oriented escorted tour program at a value price.

According to Thornton, Intrepid gets roughly half of its business from Australia and New Zealand, while the United Kingdom represents 20 percent. But so far the U.S. accounts for just 12 percent of the company’s passengers. Indeed, Intrepid is not well known by U.S. travelers and the U.S. travel agent community, except for those deeply interested in adventure and experiential travel.


That’s about to change, however, as Intrepid ramps up its North American operation and grows its reputation among the agent community for delivering experiential travel to exotic destinations. The company now has offices is in Petaluma, Calif., and Toronto, Canada.

Over the past two years, it also has begun adding experienced U.S. tour executives to its team, including Cyndi Zesk, now president of Intrepid Group North America. Zesk previously served as vice president of global marketing for G Adventures for three years and was vice president of marketing for Collette for nearly 15 years.

In January, Intrepid also hired Ron Fenska as vice president of sales for Intrepid Group North America. Fenska served as director of sales for G Adventures for nearly three years and held a variety of sales posts for Collette for nearly 18 years.

On the product side, Intrepid has ramped up its focus on escorted adventure travel by unveiling a new series of Expedition trips and debuting a new people-to-people (P2P) program to Cuba aimed at the U.S. market. The Expedition series was developed with input from 2,000 Intrepid employees worldwide, who were asked to design dream trips to the world’s most obscure destinations.

Based on that feedback, Intrepid has launched four new itineraries and expects to introduce another six before the end of the year. So far these include a program focused on the southern Mexico jungle, a new trip to Papua New Guinea, a program to Georgia, and a tour of Kosovo and the surrounding region.

READ MORE: How to Go Off-Map with Intrepid Travel 

“While the trips are all new, the Expedition-style of travel marks a return for us to the early days of adventure travel,” says Thornton. “When Intrepid started 26 years ago, there were times that we didn’t know exactly what we were doing each day, and that was part of the attraction for the travelers who joined us.” Indeed, part of the allure of these new Expedition programs is they may not always go off as planned, according to Thornton.

The Expedition trips will have limited departures in 2015, giving Intrepid the chance to test its new products. If they are successful, they will be incorporated into Intrepid’s regular lineup of trips. More than 50 submissions from the company’s staff met the criteria set out by Intrepid for the new range of exploratory-style tours, which required trips to be logistically possible, not include a “danger zone,” and visit places that are genuinely new and unusual.


Intrepid’s Mexico program, for example, described as one that will explore the thick jungle and lost cities of the Mayan World, traces the route of archaeologist Giles Healy, who in 1946 led an expedition to the ruins of Bonampak, which turned out to be one of the great discoveries of the 20th century. Travelers will follow in Healy’s footsteps with a native Mayan guide and local archaeologist to discover some of the lesser-known Mayan ruins and they camp next to an archeological site. They also will explore the markets of Oaxaca, colonial Puebla and Cristobel de las Casas. The 15-day trip is priced from $2,995 per person, land only, with one scheduled departure on Nov. 14.

In Papua New Guinea, Intrepid’s new program is designed to trace the rivers, valleys, gorges, mountains, volcanoes, lagoons and inlets that make up the island nation. Travelers will see a canoe landing that kicks off the Kinavai Ceremony, the vibrant masks and costumes of the Rabaul Mask Festival, and men dancing through flames at the Baining Fire Dance. They will encounter local village life in Matupit Island, visit war relics in Kokopo Town and cruise around the Duke of York Islands. The eight-day trip is priced from $3,705 per person land only, with one scheduled departure on July 13.

Georgia’s isolated and rugged Svaneti region is the focus of yet another Expeditions program. Intrepid describes the area as one where tribal traditions still hold sway and where the wheel only made an appearance in 1935. Travelers will visit century-old churches and hike through valleys to see Mt. Shkara and join a local family to help prepare a traditional meal. The 10-day trip is priced from $1,590 per person land only, with the first of two scheduled departures on July 20.

The new Kosovo program, which also includes Albania and Macedonia, will traverse the mountains and green fields throughout the region, passing monasteries, lakes, valleys and Byzantine churches. Travelers also will get to experience hip cafes in Skopje and sail on Lake Ohrid, as well as the mosques of Prizren. The 15-day trip is priced from $1,795 per person, land only, with one scheduled departure on Sept. 5.


Beyond the Expedition series, Intrepid is expanding in other areas where it already features programs. The company has have been operating P2P trips to Cuba for non-Americans for more than 10 years and has 20 local guides in the country.

Since President Barack Obama’s announcement in December opening up travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens, Intrepid has seen a surge in Cuba bookings and inquiries from American travelers.

Traditionally, Cuba P2P tours are staffed with guides provided by the Cuban government, but Intrepid’s local operations team works with professional tour guides that are government approved, but not assigned, to provide travelers with education on Cuba’s history and culture.

The new nine-day Hola Cuba adventure, set to launch on Aug. 1 as the first of 10 departures, will bring travelers up close to the country’s people, culture, historical sites and music. Travelers will take a cultural journey through Havana’s churches, the valleys and farms of Pinar del Rio and on to the Afro-inspired beats of Trinidad. Along the way, they will meet expert chefs, tobacco farmers, historians, local artists and salsa dancers.

Activities will include a walk through Havana’s Old City, a World Heritage site since 1982; a visit to Santa Clara, a key city in the Cuban Revolution and the site of the mausoleum and museum of Ernesto Che Guevara; and an exploration of the Manaca Iznaga Plantation, one of only 13 remaining estate houses in Valle de los Ingenios and home to the Iznaga Tower, a symbol of the country’s slave past. The program is priced from $3,175 per person land only.

With its new Expeditions series and a U.S.-targeted Cuba program, Intrepid seems poised to crack the adventure travel market in the U.S. And as travel agents seek more experiential travel for their customers, the company appears to be in the right place at the right time to capitalize on the newest travel trends.

“People don’t want to spend money on possessions, they want to spend it on real experiences,” says Thornton. “Real is the word that sums up what we do as an organization. People want to meet real local people, try the real transport, eat real food and have a real experience. And that’s what we provide.”

For more information on Intrepid, call 800-970-7299 or 866-915-1511 (travel agents), email us at or visit


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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the July 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.