Last updated: 10:38 AM ET, Mon August 03 2015

Intrepid Travel Sets New Course

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | July 17, 2015

Intrepid Travel Sets New Course

Cuba is one of the many destinations where Intrepid Travel looks to grow as part of its rebirth. (photo by David Cogswell)

Intrepid Travel recently dissolved its Peak Adventures Travel Group strategic venture with TUI Travel. The relationship lasted four years, but as of a couple of weeks ago the two entities have parted amicably, James Thornton, global managing director of Intrepid Travel told TravelPulse. It was an amicable split over irreconcilable differences.

Now the full control of Intrepid's products has returned to its co-founders, Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester, and it has returned to its founding ethos.

The Intrepid Group which Wade and Manchester take away with them is a portfolio of adventure travel brands, including Intrepid Travel, Peregrine Adventures, Geckos Adventures and 17 destination management companies.

Intrepid was part of and had the backing of TUI plc, which claims to be the largest leisure travel company in the world. Why would they want to give up that leverage, that security?

“I think ultimately we just had different philosophies about the way in which we operate business,” said Thornton. “One isn’t right. And one is not wrong. They are just ultimately different. As a publicly listed company, profit is the key driver for TUI. It’s the starting point of how you run a business. Whereas for us, we take the approach that we want to grow our business, we want to have a purpose beyond profitability. We want to run world class trips. And as a result of these activities, profit is an important output. We’re not saying profit is not important. It’s an output, but it’s not the key motivator for why we set up the business in first place.”

After four years it became clear that “those different philosophies were best suited to go their separate ways,” said Thornton. “We’re pretty pleased with the outcome because from our perspective we get to be the world’s largest provider of adventure travel experiences. So it’s pretty exciting.”

The Takeaway

Intrepid existed 22 years prior to the formation of Peak. After four years in partnership with TUI, Intrepid is going back to being a private entity. What has changed? How is the new independent Intrepid different from the independent Intrepid before the Peak experience? What value has Intrepid retained from the experience?

“We’re grown larger,” said Thornton. “I think the main thing the strategic venture provided us with as a publicly listed entity is that they have excellent governance, excellent health and safety procedures, excellent processes and back-end systems that we can leverage off of. We’ve learned an enormous amount there and we can then take that forward into being a private entity, along with key philosophies we have around entrepreneurship, innovation and being agile, which you as a private company can put much more in the forefront of what you do.”

Now Intrepid believes it has the best of both worlds, of public companies and private companies.

“We’ve been able to garner a number of practices from them, but now we’ve been in a privatized environment we are now best suited to be able to drive the long-term great ambitions that we have,” said Thornton. “For us the key driver is to be a purpose-led organization. We want to be a business with a purpose beyond profit and for us we’re pretty strong in changing the way people see the world. We very much believe that adventure is about attitude.”

The Intrepid Style of Adventure Travel

Intrepid’s view of its customers goes deeper than seeing them as consumers to whom they may sell products. Intrepid is in the business of selling intangibles. Many of its highest values do not show up as line items on a corporate balance sheet.

“People are inherently curious,” said Thornton. “They want to get out, dig beneath the experience. They want to have real experiences, meeting the people, experiencing their culture, trying the food.

“And we also find that people who travel in our style of travel become better world citizens. I know that sounds quite a grand statement, but it’s very true. They get an inherent understanding of the world that’s out there and that’s why our kind of travel is becoming so popular and we’re getting such great responses.”

The style of culturally immersive, experiential travel promoted by Intrepid is sweeping the world in a rapidly moving wave of popularity. But Cyndi Zesk, Intrepid’s president of the North American market, is emphatic that it is nothing new for Intrepid.

“It’s important to know that that’s really been part of the DNA of the company since the beginning,” said Zesk. “For us it’s kind of a rebirth. It’s going back to what we stood for 27 years ago.”

Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester started the company just after completing their university study and taking off on a trip to Africa.

After their trip, said Zesk, they had a revelation. “They said, ‘Hey, you know what? Nobody is really seeing the world this way,’” said Zesk. “’Let’s try to show some people how you can experience a destination in a real way, in a meaningful way, and from inside out. They went on to build a company, really the first of its kind back in the mid-‘80s, and turned it into a business and delighted themselves by becoming successful at it, and just continued to grow. It wasn’t until four years ago that they started to build the largest portfolio of adventure brands in the world. And with the purpose of providing adventure to everybody along that life cycle spectrum.”

Adventure for Everyone

Intrepid now has travel brands and adventure travel styles designed for practically all age groups.

“If you were in university and looking for something in budget that was an overland program, we have that with Geckos,” said Zesk. “If you were somewhere in the middle and you were looking for a three-level active experience we have Intrepid. And then if you were an older audience who wanted a more luxurious experience we have Peregrine.”

And finally, Intrepid takes its style of travel to the furthest reaches of the market normally seen as remote and inaccessible to the adventure travel market: time-crunched Americans. Through its Urban Adventures Intrepid gives people a chance to experience its style of travel in a few hours without having to even travel.

“This great program takes people in their own backyards, whether you’re a traveler or are living there permanently, it allows you to experience small group adventures in a real local way for a couple of hours,” said Zesk. “We were in the east village a couple of weeks ago and we did a cocktail tour. We visited some of the speakeasies, went to a tequila bar, talked to the owners. It was great.”

Around the office, Intrepid jokes that its Urban Adventures are the “gateway drug to small group adventures,” said Zesk. “But it gives them a taste of what we offer on a larger scale but with only the commitment of a small amount of money and a few hours of their time.”

Target North America

Intrepid estimates that it rules about half of the Australia and New Zealand adventure travel market. And it has a solid marketshare in the U.K. But in North America the adventure travel industry is still relatively in its infancy. The fact that interest in experiential travel is igniting across the country with such rapidity now leads to the belief that the growth potential for Intrepid in the giant North American market is astronomical.

“We see a huge potential in the U.S. market to really crank some long-term growth,” said Thornton. “Our product is perfectly set up. We’ve got some fantastic brands. We have real customer alignment. We’ve got a huge range there and great potential to grow in this market with two really experienced leaders with over 20 years experience. It’s a pretty exciting time for us.” 

To lead its campaign for the North American market, Intrepid has enlisted Zesk, formerly of G Adventures and previously with Collette, and Ron Fenska, also formerly of G Adventures.

“People want to have an experience,” said Thornton. “It’s about variety and accessibility. People demand to do something real. It’s no good to just come back on the other big bus or cruise ship. They want to get out and meet the real people and try the transport, try the food, want to be getting back and having great after-dinner party conversation. And that’s what we provide.”

Intrepid is well positioned for the rise of experiential adventure travel in the U.S. because it has refined its products and its approaches for 27 years in markets where adventure travel has been popular for much longer.

“The American market does want adventure more and more,” said Zesk, “and it is a huge marketplace. But Australia and Britain have long led this kind of travel. For many in those regions it was a rite of passage. As you grew older you went out and expeirenced this kind of travel. In the ‘80s Intrepid grew in those regions.”

In the U.S. market, Intrepid is decades behind its development in the UK and Downunder. “We are newer, we are growing,” said Zesk, “but it’s also where we see the best opportunity right now.”



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