The Accidental Tour Operator: Thomas Stanley, Stanley Travel
Photo courtesy Stanley's Adventure's
Thomas Stanley, owner of a niche travel company called Stanley’s Adventures, has one of the most colorful histories of anyone in the travel industry. Stanley has cut a unique path through the tour industry, and has managed to find himself in the middle of some of the greatest travel industry adventures in the modern history of tour operating.
Stanley's Adventures LLC specializes in customized travel products for sophisticated travelers and operates the websites ChicBizTravel.com, TheChicAdventurer.com, ChicGayTraveler.com, ChicHoneymoons.com and ChicGayHoneymoons.com.
Stanley’s colorful history in travel includes being president of Travcoa, chief operating officer of Cox & Kings USA and holding positions with Trafalgar, Mountain Travel – Sobek and the original Lindblad Travel.
To Stanley, it all unfolded as a great happy accident.
“In many ways I’m sort of the accidental tour operator,” says Stanley. “But in some ways when I look back on it, it all makes sense. I was always the one that took the National Geographic out of the mailbox first and read it from cover to cover, not just for the pictures. Then I’d put back in the wrapper and back in the mailbox for my parents.”
As a kid Stanley dreamed of traveling to the wildest places on earth. “The wilder the better,” he says. “The place that seemed the most incredible to me was New Guinea. It seemed to be lost in time.”
Stanley grew up in Oakland. His first international travel experience was when he was 19 and he and his friend Guillermo took a Volkswagen down through Mexico and into Central America.
“We spent three months traveling to Nicaragua and back,” says Stanley. “Actually we didn’t make it back with the car.”
It was the late ‘70s, “They were not good years in Central America. We were robbed at gunpoint in Guatemala. They went for our cameras, our wallets. Luckily we had our passports and some other money stashed away. They didn’t steal the car. We ended up blowing the engine in Taxco. We sold the car and everything we could in Taxco. We got enough money to get back over the border on a bus. We hitchhiked from San Antonio to Santa Barbara. We made it back just in time to enroll in school. Our parents never knew what an adventure we had.”
After he left school, Stanley went to Australia and for a year and a half he sustained himself with various jobs, such as working on prawn boats and painting houses. Then he realized he could actually travel to his dream destination, Papua New Guinea, and he did.
“It was where I had wanted to go, and I found out I could do it,” says Stanley. “A friend joined me and we ended up renting a dug-out log canoe and paddling 100-200 miles down the Sepik River.”
When that voyage was done, Stanley headed off to Southeast Asia and then wound up in Hong Kong. He wanted to go to China, but the travel agencies told him Americans could not go.
“I ended up meeting a back-alley travel agency who said he could set up a tour group for two,” he says. “I called my dad and in a few days was in Hong Kong. We went by rail all over China, not knowing the language, showing up in places and having reservations at a time when there were almost no tourists. It was pretty funky in those days. I got a remarkable tour of Shanghai with my dad.”
After the trip, Stanley returned to the U.S., but soon got a call from a friend of a friend who had heard about his travels to China. He was setting up a company to operate trips into China. With Stanley’s experience traveling in China, he qualified as a tour director.
His first attempts to guide tours in China were clumsy. But he had studied anthropology and archaeology and when he saw the terracotta warriors in Xian, he was seized with fascination and a hunger to learn everything he could about them.
“I read everything I could on it, so it was one part of the tour I could do a really great job on.”
It turned out to be very lucky for him that he did that.
“On my second tour I was talking to my group about how these magnificent terracotta pieces got there and who Emperor Qin was, and after I finished talking to my group this very tall imposing man with an accent I never heard before said, ‘I could use a man like you.’ It was Lars-Eric Lindblad. ‘When you get home I’d like you to come to Connecticut,’ he said. ‘I’d like you to work for me.’”
Lars-Eric Lindblad was a legendary pioneer of the travel industry, an intrepid explorer who opened many of the frontiers of travel. He was the first, or one of the first, to take travelers to many places that American tourists had never visited before, such as Antarctica, the Galapagos, Easter Island, China and the Seychelles.
To be selected by Lindblad to be part of his organization was a ticket to traveling the most exciting, exotic and remote places on earth.
“Working for Lindblad was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Stanley. “He was one of the finest luxury tour operators. Lars was a real pioneer. He opened so many areas like Antarctica for tourism.
“He was my mentor. He really set a very high standard for me in terms of a travel professional. He was uncompromising and provided remarkable travel experiences in the best way possible. He proved the ends of the earth were attainable.”
Stanley led trips in China and in his free time traveled extensively in Africa and Asia. He led trips in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
In 1989 Lindblad Travel closed its doors. Stanley joined a startup company called Private Jet Expeditions, which used a 727 with all business class seats. Besides its regular high-flying customers, the company provided transportation for tours of Madonna and Paul Simon, and for Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar when he went on a skiing trip to Colorado.
When Private Jet Expeditions was sold to a company in Georgia, Stanley didn’t want to move with it, so he stayed in California, combining his love for travel with work in the film industry scouting locations in Berlin, Athens and Cairo for the movie “Deception” with Andie Macdowell and Liam Neeson.
While in California, Stanley got a chance to work for Mountain Travel – Sobek, one of the leading edge adventure operators. He worked there seven years, became Africa director, developed tours in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
In 1999 when the dotcom revolution was booming, Stanley took a job developing a website with Unexplored.com. Soon after that he had an opportunity to join Travcoa as vice president of sales and marketing.
Stanley worked his way up to president of Travcoa before leaving in 2004. He worked as vice president of sales and marketing for Trafalgar, operated a consulting business, then took over the leadership of Cox & Kings, The Americas in 2010. He left Cox & Kings in 2012 to focus on his own consulting company, his new travel company Stanley’s Adventures, and to pursue screenwriting work in Hollywood as T. Gordon Stanley.
A life packed to the brim with rich travel experiences creates many stories to tell.
“Authentic, experiential and ethical travel is core to who I am,” says Stanley. “I am still in awe of the world and it is my mission to bring along those with a deep curiosity about the real world, to provide the opportunity for them to experience this great planet in the best way for them.”
With several screenwriting projects in the works, Stanley finds no conflict between his screenwriting and traveling careers.
“I am also a story teller,” he says. “I love gritty reality, reality documentary serieses about people overcoming adversity, stories about those who push the limits of themselves and this world, stories of explorers and adventurers. Fiction and non-fiction, I love to write about these things.”
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