I don’t know how often I will write here – I kept a blog at Xebidy and it was both successful and stressful. It opens you up to a lot of criticism, but it really is only my opinion, no fact, even if written as so – often wrong, always adamant. I think writing like this provides me an opportunity to think out loud and maybe a few take something relevant from it.
I have been directly or indirectly involved in tourism since 1993 when I joined Outside Adventure Exchange/Kiwi Experience – a month before tourism legend Keith Marsh. I owe a huge amount of my ideas and thoughts to my mentor and subsequently business partner in Stray, Neil Geddes. I really have a huge respect for Neil and the trail-blazing path he led in backpacker/youth tourism – although to be fair in all types of tourism. I also owe him no thanks for making me an alcoholic – but that is another story!
The biggest thing I have learned from Neil is that great product is the most important part in creating a tourism company. When I started U. Neil’s influence is absolutely evident in the amazing trips we are trying to create. I want to include more than anyone else – I hate this race to the bottom in price, and I really want U. to be a transformative experience for our customers. I want to fight the way other operators are stripping out experiences and activities to make their trip seem super cheap and then making the customers pay unfathomable amounts on the ground. If an experience is worth doing and essential to the trip then it should be included in the price of the trip up-front. Creating unique amazing experiences is what we do this for – to make something incredible for our travellers – it is not about us, it is about U.
I remember so many great product creating junkets with Neil such as Raglan where we sussed this amazing sustainable eel farm and drunk wine late in to the night with corporate US-escapee and Raglan surf school founder, Charlie. Or hiking the villages of Cinque Terra up and down until we found the right spot for our groups in Riomaggiore. We called Neil “the holiday hitler” because he made us walk so much – although it was made all that easier with a wine and a few bruschetta at every little bar in every village we passed! Maybe this is the story of how I became an alcoholic. It was always about finding something unique and special – we did it in Cahors, the war cabinet rooms in Barcelona, Uncle Bois, Mahinapua Pub, Barrytown, Nundle and Bingara, and so many more incredible places.
Of course, not everyone wants to jump out of a plane or bungy off a bridge. But conservation projects, community interaction, transformative experiences should be created by hand and included in the price of the trip. Creating amazing tourism experiences is not about bundling together run of mill corporatised products.
A laughing point over the years, and again paraphrasing Neil, has been the so called independent traveller. We used to joke “I am so independent – I bought a car, got the coach mag, and followed the Kiwi Experience bus, we did everything it did”. Unfortunately it is so true. Still today!
The argument that by stripping out activities and experiences you give customers choice is a weak proposition on many fronts:
- Firstly, it actually creates a poor experience by having a group of haves and have nots. Often you end up with a trip that half actually can’t afford to do the activities. Sure, there may be a free alternative for those that don’t choose the activities – but it does not create a great environment when half jump back on the bus/train/transport buzzing from their awesome experience. In many cases, it forces some travellers to actually buy an activity that they genuinely can’t afford – the tour guide or peer pressure leads them to spend money they just don’t have. This might lead to them skipping meals or experiences they really wanted later on in their trip or putting themselves into unmanageable debt when they get home.
- Secondly, and more importantly, if you are not going over and above to create amazing experiences exclusive to your trips then you are not making an effort to create something special for your customers. I would say, in fact, you really don’t care about your customers travel experience. It is economically impossible to make something special if only a handful of the trip opt-in to do it. This is what I thinks sets us apart at U. We work with incredible local community partners to create these one-off experiences and by being able to guarantee to bring our travellers there and ensuring the price is both fair and helps the community – we can make the local community projects economically viable.
- If you are just including everything optional it means you are just taking the off-the-shelf run of the mill tourism attractions – many of which are bland and not tailored to any specific sector. The experiential youth sector don’t want a boring tour of the sugar factory, the same one the packaged Asian tour does, so why do you stop there and make it an option! Referencing that so called independent traveller who follows the bus – they don’t actually get to do everything the group does, because if you create truly unique experiences – they don’t exist for the wheel-sucker.
Unfortunately creating a great tourism company doesn’t necessarily mean creating a successful one. There are just way too many operators in this world trapped in a price race to the bottom. Cutting costs, offering poor experiences, pulling the wool over their customers eyes that they save money – when in fact, they end up spending more on the ground.
U. is the coolest thing I have ever worked on. The team are amazing and the trips and experiences we create continue to blow me away everyday. I think our new Nepal trip has the potential to be one of the greatest trips on the planet. Working with the SASANE Sisters (a local group that retrains ex-sex trafficked women into careers – and in our case, guides) is so rewarding. The experiences we pack into that trip such as white water rafting, clean-up at Australian base camp, staying in a monastery, cooking classes in a home stay, are truly unique. I can’t wait for the first departure later this year.
I am super excited about the internship and conservation projects we are currently developing. Being able to help young people travel the world, get out of their digital, find the best versions of themselves and feel like they can have a positive impact on the world is something I have become passionate about. A big thank you to Lasse Finderup, who started Trinus Rejser, and opened my eyes to the deterioration of youth mental health today – it has driven me to go to the extreme of wanting to create something that actually facilitates a pathway to tomorrows leaders becoming better humans.
I want to prove Greta Thunberg wrong – the future of our planet is not not travelling. It is travel! Getting more people out travelling in truly meaningful ways will make us more respectful, more tolerant, more environmentally aware, and economically conscious. I want to say to our young people (my two wonderful sons included) it is OK to take a year or two off, travel the world, dance on tables, fall in love, and out again, many times, do the Aussie/Kiwi thing and work in London, or the European thing and work in Australia and NZ. But while you do it – invest in yourself, engage in Impact! Experiences that both teach you something and equally put something back into the community or environment with which you visit. Travel might be the one thing that can save this planet from the the environmental crises we seem to be heading toward, from the ever growing poverty gap, from gender inequality. Travel can create better human beings.