James Thornton of Intrepid Travel On How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Local led & designed — The best travel experiences are led by a local who is in the know and include those little-known gems that a traveler wouldn’t necessarily find by themselves. A customer recently wrote to us praising their tour leader in Morocco who made a point of stopping at all the best street food stalls, so customers could taste authentic flavors. You don’t get that type of experience without a local leader.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Thornton.
Hailing from the UK, James began his career in asset management before making a career change to join Intrepid Travel’s UK office as Sales & Marketing Coordinator. Over the past 16 years James has held a variety of senior roles including EMEA Regional Director, General Manager Global Sales, and Managing Director of Intrepid Group. Appointed as CEO in March 2017, James has been instrumental in the growth of Intrepid, focusing on the dual objectives of growing the market for sustainable experience-rich travel and operating a company that balances purpose and profit. Under his leadership, Intrepid achieved B Corporation certification and recorded four consecutive years of record top and bottom-line growth between 2015 and 2019. In 2018 James was named Hospitality and Tourism Executive of the Year in the CEO Magazine Awards. He is a member of the Young President’s Organization and the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up in England, my dream was to play professional soccer (or football) but when that didn’t happen, I headed to university and subsequently landed a summer internship at an asset management company.
After graduating I headed overseas to travel which I loved. On returning to the UK, I got a job back at the firm where I had interned and so began a career in finance.
I learnt a lot and had many opportunities, but I soon realized that making wealthy people wealthier wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life.
When I saw a sales and marketing coordinator role advertised for a travel company with a focus on sustainability called Intrepid Travel, I jumped at the chance to work in travel. That was in 2005.
I had many different roles at Intrepid in both London and Melbourne, and in 2017 I was appointed CEO, becoming the company’s first non-founding CEO.
The idea of using business as a force for good has been extremely motivating for me. I am proud to have led Intrepid Travel to become the world’s largest travel B Corp in 2018 and continuing to cement our global leadership in sustainable travel. Our focus now is growing purpose and profit in pursuit of being the world’s first billion-dollar adventure travel company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
After more than 16 years of adventures, it’s hard to pinpoint one, but the period of 2014–15 sticks in my mind. At that time, Intrepid had split from one of our key shareholders, and the business went back to private ownership under our Co-Founders. It was a fresh start, a rebirth if you like. We built a four-year plan that resulted in revenue doubling, consecutive years of record profits and Intrepid becoming an established global purpose leader. We never looked back. By the end of 2019, Intrepid had revenues approaching $500m, EBITDA of $28m and was the largest global travel B Corp. It proved a business philosophy that you can be commercially successful, while also making a positive impact on communities, your people, and the planet — and that one can drive the other, and vice versa.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure any of these are funny but I once lost Intrepid’s largest B2B partner who contributed 20% of our annual revenue, made a significant budget error which led to a large profit hole, and have started new product ranges and brands that failed to meet expectations and have since shut or shrunk. Every time I failed, I learned so much, and that helped contribute to Intrepid’s many successes — most notably doubling our company in size from 2016 to 2019 (years 26–30 of the business!), while delivering record profits and achieving BCorp status. We couldn’t have done this without learning from earlier mistakes.
The culture we really want to foster at Intrepid centers around thinking big, taking chances, and taking accountability when things go right or wrong. We always strive for progress, not perfection. And creating an environment where people have a license to make mistakes has helped accelerate our growth and innovation.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Intrepid’s Co-founder and Chairman Darrell Wade has supported me throughout my journey to become the first non-founder Managing Director in 2012 and then Group CEO in 2017. Darrell’s big on trying new things, making decisions, owning mistakes and radical transparency. He won’t give me the answers, but will challenge me to find them, and support me no matter what.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
There are two things I’d like to highlight:
- B Corp — Intrepid Travel is the world’s largest certified travel B Corp, which means we’re committed to balancing purpose and profit. We became a B Corp in 2018 and we’re encouraged to see more travel companies becoming B Corps since then. Like all other B Corps, such as Patagonia or Ben and Jerry’s, we believe that good business is about more than just the bottom line. We believe we can be a force for good in the world, and we have the highest standards verified social and environmental performance and public transparency.
-We have a long history of prioritizing the work over the words — the company was one of the first tour operators to build a responsible business department in 1996 and in 2013, we officially put a stop to elephant riding on all Intrepid trips, an industry-shaking move. We have been carbon neutral since 2010, having offset more than 358,000 tones of CO2 emissions worldwide. We’ve taken aggressive step to tackle the climate crisis, including open-sourcing a 10-Step Guide to Decarbonize Your Business, written by in-house environmental impact specialist Dr. Susanne Etti. In 2021, we created first-ever ethical marketing guidelines to improve diversity, equity, inclusion and allyship to underrepresented communities in travel.
- Open-source resources — for us, sustainability isn’t an innovation. Intrepid was founded in 1989 to give back to the people and places we visit. In 2020, we became the first and only global tour operator with a verified carbon emissions reduction target by the Science Based Targets initiative, which means we’re decarbonizing our business at the pace and scale that science tells us is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5C. Under our plan, we will halve our carbon emissions by 2030 and be net zero as soon as possible before 2050. As we’ve progressed on this journey, we heard from many other travel businesses that they wanted to start addressing their carbon emissions but didn’t know where to start. So, to help other travel businesses decarbonize, we’re sharing our IP via open-source tools, including our recently released 25-page open-source carbon measurement toolkit. We are increasingly measuring success on our ability to influence change in the industry and create impact beyond the walls of Intrepid.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Climate change isn’t a pain point — it’s an existential threat to the travel and tourism industry. We’re already seeing the effects of climate change in extreme weather in destinations and communities that we visit. Without safe and sustainable destinations, there is no travel industry. The tourism industry needs to come together on urgent action to decarbonize. We cannot have business as usual. We are the first (and only) tour operator to have verified targets by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) in 2020. At Intrepid Travel, we believe that by making our knowledge and expertise in carbon emission reductions available to others, such as our 25-page open-source carbon measurement toolkit, we can accelerate decarbonization and support our industry to a safer and more sustainable future. We are the signatory and launch partner to the Glasgow Declaration for a Decade of Climate Action in Tourism, which includes reaching Net Zero as soon as possible before 2050.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
The pandemic has had a huge and lasting impact on travel. Three things I believe are here to stay:
- Closer to home — people have been forced to travel in their own countries or regions, and they’ve discovered this can still be a transformational experience. You can have an incredible adventure, connect with local communities, support local businesses and feel refreshed. Intrepid has more than 50 new local or domestic trips in countries like the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. With travelers becoming more concerned about climate change, I also believe more people will opt to travel more locally, more often, in the future.
- Active adventures — after months or years of being cooped up inside, travelers have an appetite to get out, get active and experience the world in a new way. We’ve seen a rise in popularity for active adventures of all kinds — walking, trekking, and cycling. People want to try new things, take on a challenge and reconnect with nature.
- The value of travel experts — Travelling during a pandemic can be complicated. Travelers are recognizing the expert advice and support that travel agents and tour operators offer. If things change suddenly, you have an expert on your side who will provide you with accurate information, or if you need some support on the ground (like getting a PCR test), you want a trusted local who knows their way around the system. We’re also seeing growing demand for private group or tailor-made travel, which allows maximum flexibility, with all the best experiences and inclusions, created specifically for each group.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Normally, I travel a lot for work, so my holidays are all about spending time with my wife and nine-year-old son. We like to mix activities, discover new cultures, try good food and relax — which Intrepid’s family trips are perfect for. Our trips are small group touring at its best — great itineraries, local activities, and amazing trip leaders. In 2022 we’ll be heading to Italy and Croatia during the summer and we can’t wait to wander the harborside of Split, island-hop between Korcula, Mljet, and Hvar, and of course looking forward to the family pizza night in Sorrento!
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Intrepid’s trips are all about connecting with places and people, which has many different wellness benefits.
A 2020 survey showed that following trips, Intrepid customers experienced a positive impact in education (99%), culture (98%) and health and wellbeing (91%).
Respondents also reported long-term changes, with 61% of respondents saying that their travel experience motivated improvements in their lives, with the most cited improvements being appreciating cultures and more awareness and action around environmental issues.
We introduced over 200 new trips since the pandemic started, many focused on cycling, hiking, and walking as part of focus on low-carbon itineraries that positively impact communities, planet, and self.
Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Local led & designed — The best travel experiences are led by a local who is in the know and include those little-known gems that a traveler wouldn’t necessarily find by themselves. A customer recently wrote to us praising their tour leader in Morocco who made a point of stopping at all the best street food stalls, so customers could taste authentic flavors. You don’t get that type of experience without a local leader.
- Sustainable — This year has been a reminder that climate change is all around us and is impacting destinations and communities. Travel companies need to take action on carbon emissions, for the planet and also because customers will increasingly demand this. Intrepid has developed more than 40 decarbonized trips, which focus on low impact activities, and by 2022 we will have reviewed our top 50 itineraries to identify if there are flights under 1.5 hours that can be replaced by another viable alternative.
- Diverse experiences — Travelers want to experience and see big ticket attractions, but they also want to dive deeper and discover new perspectives. Intrepid has launched 38 new trips in the US, which really share diverse stories, highlight different communities, and allow travelers to connect.
- Safe and equitable travel — We need to acknowledge the challenges of travelling during a pandemic, and I believe the most important thing that will keep people coming back is ensuring travel is safe and responsible — for everyone. That’s why Intrepid is strongly advocating and supporting global vaccine equity and mandatory vaccinations for travelers — we believe that travel can only really return when everyone in the world has safe access to vaccines.
- Fun — People travel for many reasons, but you’ve got to have fun along the way. As a company, this is really important to us. It is one of our company values and our mission is to create positive change through the joy of travel. We want everyone to have fun, to experience new things, and to be safe in the knowledge that they’re being responsible for people and the planet.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The Intrepid Foundation was established in 2002 and has donated more than AUD$12m to 138 organizations around the world.
In 2020 alone, the Intrepid Foundation created 226 jobs, supported 139 people to become job ready and positively impacted 7221 lives.
The foundation has also provided direct aid to communities during the pandemic. For instance, porters and cooks in Peru who normally supported Intrepid travelers on treks to Machu Picchu, were left without an income, when tourism came to a halt. We redirected more than $20,000 that had been earmarked for a porter welfare and training program to an emergency response via local NGO MEDLIFE. This supported the distribution of food parcels to 356 families in December and helped to feed over 1,700 people.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Action on climate change would bring the most good to the most people. So many experts and activists have worked tirelessly over the years to start this movement and the most recently IPPC report really hammered home why we all need to get serious about climate change and start urgently addressing it. Intrepid is a leader in climate change — we’ve been carbon neutral since 2010, became the first (and only) global tour operator with verified science-based carbon reduction targets in 2020, and in November 2021 we became a launch partner and signatory to the Glasgow Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism. This is the first time the global tourism industry has come together on shared commitments to address climate change. This is what we really need, as without healthy destinations, communities and wildlife, there will be no tourism in the future.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Twitter — @jamespthornton
LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/james-p-thornton/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!