PHOTO: James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel. (photo courtesy of Intrepid Travel)
What a difference a dozen years can make!
Twelve years ago James Thornton was working in London financial services. Today he is the global CEO of a tour operator based in Melbourne, Australia.
“I was in private client investment management,” said Thornton, “in the financial industry. I did that after university for three years. Then I thought, ‘Goodness, I’m in my mid-twenties and I’m about to spend the rest of my life making rich people richer. And that really sucks as an existence.’
Thornton instead opted for an existence that didn’t suck: “I wanted to do something I was passionate about.”
“I was very passionate about travel,” he said. “I came across a company called Intrepid. I didn’t know them at the time. I hadn’t been on a group trip before. Luckily, they gave me a job as a sales representative in the UK. I used to go around and visit travel agents and encourage them to sell Intrepid products.”
Thornton’s enthusiasm buoyed him on a steep upward trajectory that eventually landed him in the top position of a global company.
“It’s been a good journey,” he said. “I remember the first time I went on a group trip. I had traveled independently, and I was always sure that I could do the trip cheaper, better and have a better experience on my own.”
Having experienced the challenges of independent travel in India, it was a revelation to experience group travel with Intrepid.
“In a group trip, you get the security of a group,” he said, “which is particularly important for our demographic, which is a 25- to 45-year old university educated single female. You see so much in such a short period of time, which if you tried to organize for yourself on the ground it would be very, very difficult.”
Professional organization is especially advantageous for U.S. travelers because they have shorter holidays than people in other countries.
“It’s great to get in and see a country really thoroughly in the course of a week and not have to try to organize it yourself,” said Thornton. “It’s good value for money as well.
“We operate in a three-star space. You get comfortable accommodations, use local transport and don’t have to worry whether you are paying the right amount or not the right amount because we are the experts who do that for you. There are some real benefits to small group travel, which until you experience it, you probably don’t realize.”
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Taking the Next Step
Thornton led the company through Intrepid’s privatization in 2015, when it split from TUI Travel, the colossal European travel group. TUI had owned 60 percent of Intrepid, but there was a mismatch between the philosophies of a public company focused acutely on bottom line profits and Intrepid, which did not put profit at the top of its priorities.
“We take the approach that we want to grow our business, but we want to have a purpose beyond profitability,” said Thornton.
“One of the drivers for us to take 100 percent private ownership of our business back again was that we wanted to have a business that didn’t just focus on short-term financial norms, but actually starts to think a little more long-term about people and the planet and how with business we can do something that helps change the way people see the world.”
The rift was resolved by Intrepid’s founders, Darrel Wade and Geoff Manchester, buying out TUI and re-establishing full ownership of the company they had founded in 1989. However, Intrepid could hardly be expected to fit into a public corporation when it doesn’t even speak the same language as the corporate world.
“We’re in the business of sustainable experience-rich travel,” said Thornton. “That’s what we talk to. We don’t necessarily talk to adventure travel. We talk about sustainable, experience-rich travel.”
Thornton talks about a “movement” toward an emphasis on experience.
“We live in an experience world,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about people wanting 'biggest car, nicest house, big TV.' People live in a world that is very experience driven.”
Thornton attributes the emerging movement to two primary factors:
“One is globalization. The other is [the] advent of social media. It’s not about going to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower, though people want to do it. People want to get off the main tourist trail, eat in the off-the-beaten-track restaurant no one knows about and then put it on Instagram and tell their friends about it. That’s an experience.”
With the focus on experience moving into mainstream popular culture, Intrepid is sitting pretty. That is its sweet spot.
“It’s great to see big cruise companies nowadays talking about experiences, billion-dollar tech startups talking about experiences,” said Thornton. “It’s the kind of thing Intrepid has been doing for 28 years since its inception. It just plays beautifully into our space because we’ve been in that business for a long time.”
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How to Succeed Without Really Trying
Intrepid broke off from TUI because its founders wanted to prioritize purpose over growth, though what they got was growth.
“What we found in 20 months since going back to private ownership is that there’s a huge appetite for sustainable experience-rich travel,” said Thornton. “Our sales globally last year grew more than 20 percent. So we’re seeing that if we grow, we can drive more actions around the purpose space. And the more actions we drive around the purpose space, the more we grow. So it’s quite nice.”
It turns out purpose sells.
“Especially in this day and age, I think people are looking for companies that have a purpose,” he said, “because businesses that have a purpose are often businesses that individuals want to associate themselves with as opposed to just buying a commodity and off you go.”
Intrepid is set on growing its market presence in the U.S. The U.S., with its population of 300 million, presently accounts for only 15 percent of Intrepid’s business, while Australia, which has a population of 21 million, accounts for 40 percent.
“I think the opportunity is significant,” said Thornton. “Out of 300 million people, maybe 150 million are our kind of traveler, aligned to our style, more liberal, globally thinking. If only a small percentage of them discover us, it would be a fairly large number.”
Does he ever look back and regret that he is no longer making rich people richer?
“I’m not making rich people richer in the physical financial sense,” he says. “But I reckon I’m making them richer in the personal sense.”