IN 1989 Geoff Manchester and Darrell Wade thought there could be more to organised travel. They started Intrepid Travel with the vision of offering sustainable adventures to locations which were less well-known in mainstream travel circles.
Mr Manchester, the company’s managing director, says that it was about offering travellers a more authentic experience and allowing them to see “a country as it really is, warts and all”.
Reality it seems, is incredibly popular.
The company has grown from a revenue base of zero, and now turns over $120 million a year. It has nearly 1,000 staff and caters to approximately 100,000 travellers a year.
Intrepid also has locally based companies, or joint ventures in 22 countries, and offers more than 800 different tours.
The growth has not gone unnoticed. The company topped the BRW Fastest Growing Companies List in 1996, and featured in the top five again in 1998, 1999 and 2001.
“We have had a very fast rate of growth,” says Mr Manchester.
He says that despite the travel industry’s propensity to grow and contract based on world events and trends, Intrepid Travel’s business has remained largely steady and consistent.
Mr Manchester, however, doesn’t just measure success by growth. Customer and staff satisfaction are also key benchmarks.
“Our number one measure of success is our customer feedback.
“We tend to get feedback from 50 per cent of our customers and our feedback average is a rating of 4.72 out of five, which we feel is very, very high.”
With such high satisfaction ratings from a large percentage of customers, Mr Manchester says the company has a good level of repeat business.
“First time travellers don’t necessarily know about what it is that we do. But when they’ve travelled with us, they learn about it and want to come back again.”
Despite the importance of returning customers, Mr Manchester says new customers are essential for any successful business.
“For the company to continue growing, you’ve got to be bringing in new business all the time.”
Mr Manchester says Intrepid Travel offers products which are in demand in the evolving tourism industry.
“The market has been moving towards what we do – experiential travel – for some time now.
“We have a really big focus on our customers and what it is they want. We want to provide the services that they really need, want and find desirable.”
Travellers who use Intrepid frequent Australia, Peru, India and Thailand. Yet, the destination Mr Manchester would like to see grow in the future is Burma.
“We used to run trips to Burma but we stopped in about 2003 due to the political situation there,” he says.
“We’ve just gone back there this year and demand is way beyond our expectations.
“It would be great to see that continue to grow over the next few years, because the people there who are involved in tourism, suffered enormously when it stopped.”
This genuine care for the people involved in all levels of the travel experience has become a key component of the company’s appeal.
“The ethical side of travel takes quite a bit of investment for us,” he says. “We have people working specifically in that area. But the investment is good because people are attracted to a company that doesn’t just do it for marketing purposes, a company that does it because they believe in it.”
Mr Manchester concedes that in some cases, travellers may be able to organise a trip more cheaply than if they were to use Intrepid – but says in many cases, it could be false economy.
“You might be able to do it more cheaply backpacking, but it takes you much longer to organise than it does booking a trip.”
As all the little costs and expenses build up, Mr Manchester says you may not actually end up saving money by doing it yourself.
Indeed, travelling with Intrepid can give travellers the opportunity to visit places they may not otherwise see.
The company takes tourists to Bhutan, a landlocked country in south east Asia. Bhutan used to restrict tourist numbers, but now just requires all travellers to visit with a local licensed tour operator or international partner.
Mr Manchester says locations such as Bhutan continue to grow in appeal for the modern traveller.
“People who have travelled a lot want something new and different. They like the idea of going somewhere that’s ahead of the crowd – but it’s also about learning about a country’s culture and history and experiencing a different sort of place.”
Mr Manchester says his plans for the future centre on developing new and interesting products in the experiential and adventure travel areas. Intrepid will also look to expand its customer base.
“We’d like to open up to new types of people that we don’t necessarily attract right now.”
Yet, with such exceptional growth and expansion, how does the modern day Intrepid Travel compare to Darrell and Geoff’s visions for it in the late 1980s and early 1990s?
“It is pretty well achieving our vision,” says Mr Manchester.
He says the company’s growth and profitability, combined with staff and customer satisfaction levels, closely align with his initial plans for the company.
“We also feel we’ve succeeded in terms of being a responsible business, in the sense that we ensure that what we’re doing is sustainable.”