We're eager to see what happens when two well-known brands join forces next year. Could we see a National Geographic Expeditions–Adventures by Disney mashup?
National Geographic is known for bringing the world to readers, viewers, and travelers — but now the company is trying to reach more of the world.
Its travel and tour division, National Geographic Expeditions, is expanding or forming new partnerships with cruise lines. An acquisition last year put it in position to operate its own tours for the first time since it was formed 19 years ago. The company has opened sales offices around the world and plans to tailor trips for those overseas markets. And new majority ownership by The Walt Disney Company, expected to be official next year, is likely to expand horizons even more.
“The mood around here is excitement; they see the potential of all the great things we can do together,” said Nancy Schumacher, who heads National Geographic’s travel and tour operations.
Change is nothing new for National Geographic. The storied National Geographic Society, a nonprofit focused on science, exploration, and education, worked out a $725 million deal with 21st Century Fox in 2015 to create the for-profit National Geographic Partners. Fox owns 73 percent of that venture, which includes the TV channels, studios, famous yellow-bordered magazine as well as other print and online media, and travel business; the society owns the other 27 percent.
Last month, Disney shareholders agreed to buy Fox’s entertainment assets for $71 billion. While National Geographic is just a small part of that deal, it’s already visible on the radar of its future owner.
“National Geographic is another tremendous brand built on quality, one that has global reach and cross-generational appeal. We also like that its values are vital and relevant to a planet facing environmental challenge,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger earlier this month in an earnings call. “Our goal is to support Nat Geo’s expansion around the world and provide the additional resources required to position the brand as another major provider of [direct-to-consumer] content. And we see numerous other exciting opportunities for this brand across our entire company, including in the ecotourism space.”
Well before that shift in ownership takes place, the company is already making moves to grow its presence around the world. Longtime partner Lindblad Expeditions — which also has an agreement to use National Geographic in ship names — has just expanded its relationship with the company to market beyond the United States to Latin America and Canada. The two companies have co-selling, co-marketing, and branding agreements.
A new partnership with luxury expedition line Ponant will allow that operator to create co-branded experiences with National Geographic targeted at customers in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia Pacific. And starting in September, National Geographic is moving into river cruising with a partnership with Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours. Experts will give presentations and hold discussions National Geographic River Cruises throughout Europe and in Myanmar.
That follows the purchase last year of longtime partner Global Adrenaline, a tour operator that Schumacher founded, for an undisclosed amount. The deal allowed National Geographic to act as its own tour operator — rather than outsource to a partner — for the first time. After the acquisition, Schumacher moved to National Geographic as head of travel and tour operations and now overseas the team responsible for land, ship, and jet tours, as well as its collection of lodges.
Now, the company operates some trips including private and custom tours in-house, while still working with partners for sailings, jet travel, student tours, family, and a category called “Journeys,” which uses G Adventures. Its “Unique Lodges of the World” collection numbers 61 independently owned and operated accommodations around the world. And while a longtime relationship with TCS World Travel for jet trips will wrap up at the end of 2019, the company expects to make an announcement before long about private jet operations starting in 2020.
Schumacher said National Geographic Expeditions distinguishes itself by the caliber of experts and photographers it uses and the access it provides travelers.
“We really give them a backstage pass to major world sites and help them visit with local experts and luminaries,” she said. “So it’s not only the National Geographic people we actually put on the ship or on their trips that accompany the groups throughout, but on our trips we will actually stop and meet with local researchers, local conservationists that have been funded by National Geographic.”
And more than a quarter of proceeds from travel products — 27 percent — go back to the National Geographic Society to fund conservation, science, and research, she said.
Skift spoke to Schumacher about her global priority list, getting into new markets, the explosive growth of expedition cruising, and the opportunities that await with Disney.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Skift: Why are we seeing these kind of increases — an entirely new partnership with Ponant and an expanded partnership with Lindblad? What’s going on to fuel that?
Nancy Schumacher: What’s happening with our business at National Geographic Expeditions is we have been in business for about 20 years here in the U.S. market, and we actually are expanding our business globally. One of the ways that we’re doing that is through this cruise expansion with Ponant in these markets outside of the U.S. One of our goals, as a business, is to increase the reach globally. We’re a global brand name, but historically our travel business at National Geographic Expeditions has been largely domestic focused. We are expanding that. We have offices in Sydney. We have offices in India, Mexico City, in London, and so we now have teams that are global, and we are now developing products that actually reach those global markets as well.
Skift: What do you envision coming out of that, and what kind of products would you see being tailored to some of those regions?
Schumacher: Over the last few years, we’ve set up offices across the world to work on curating travel products that work for each of these markets. A first approach is actually to be selling the products that we currently have, that are on offer in our U.S. market. Then, we’re looking at, specifically, what are the unique products that each of the markets would require or need or want. So right now, we’re at the stage where we’re selling our U.S. products overseas, and gradually, we’re developing other partnerships internationally that will provide products that are uniquely suited to the markets in which they operate.
For example, we have a partnership with Sparkle Tours in China, which actually really is tailored to the Chinese market. … We have another partnership with a company called Kel 12 in Italy that’s promoting National Geographic Expeditions’ products, but in Italian language through an Italian-based partner, who really understands the Italian tour market. So you’ll see more partnerships like that coming out of us in the coming years.
Skift: Do you run into any brand un-awareness in other parts of the world?
Schumacher: Yeah. I would say we certainly have the greatest brand recognition here in the U.S., but we’re a global brand. You know, you see and hear about National Geographic everywhere in the world. So, while we might have a higher amount of brand recognition in the U.S., it is also very high internationally as well — surprisingly high. It’s a publication that’s published around the world. [There are 36 local language editions for National Geographic Magazine, and 18 for National Geographic Traveler, a spokeswoman said.]
Skift: Circling back to the cruise part of the business, what do these expanded partnerships or new partnerships mean for you, and also for travelers?
Schumacher: I think for travelers, what it means is we’re going to be reaching new audiences that we haven’t reached before. Our new partnership in Latin America, for example, or in Asia Pacific, or in Europe and Africa, these are audiences that haven’t had us really targeting them in the past, and with a product that we’re designing that’s well suited to their market needs. So, now, if you’re a traveler coming from Asia, now you’ll have a product that’s actually readily sold in local sales offices. And the calls will be answered in local language, where it’s kind of user-friendly for the market that works best for you. And then the product has been designed to suit your markets as well.
I write about cruise and I’ve noticed so much activity in the expedition space, either just a bunch of new ships or luxury lines getting into expedition. … I’m wondering if that is changing what you do or how it’s changing what you do and what kind of programs you put together, and what kind of offerings you can come up with with your partners.
Schumacher: I don’t think that rapid growth in the interest in expedition cruising is changing the way that we do things. We along with our partner Lindblad Expeditions, are really some of the pioneers in expedition cruising. We’ve been partners with them since 2004. So we’ve been doing this, and Ponant has been doing this for a long time. The partners that we’ve worked with are the long-established pioneers in this industry that have kind of paved the way and generated product interest such that other people are now jumping on board and joining into the industry. I think that it didn’t necessarily change the way that we’re doing things. We are still committed to doing expedition cruising with the highest of environmental standards and doing it in a responsible way that we’re working with local cultures and maintaining the integrity and authenticity of the tours that we offer and the places that we visit. It’s still very important to us, no less important today than it was 14 years ago when we got into this business.
Skift: Are there any new or different things that you’re seeing consumers demand overall, but specifically in cruise?
Schumacher: I think that my answer to your question is going to really apply overall, but it also very much applies to cruise. I think that we’re seeing a trend in the industry that our travelers are asking for not luxury in terms of the type of pillow they have in their room or the amenities that they have in their hotel room or ship cabin, but really luxury in experience. So what kind of experience can we offer them that really provides them with an authentic view into a certain location, into a certain landscape, into the local wildlife or local culture? That’s actually what travelers today are valuing. They value the luxury that they might get in a hotel or on a ship in terms of infrastructure, but more so than that what we hear in terms of comments when they come back from a trip, it’s the interactions that they have with the local people. Or the understanding of wildlife that they gain by doing sort of local wildlife hikes with an expert and somebody who’s a biologist and a conservationist. That’s what actually makes a difference for the travelers today.
Skift: Do you still have a long priority list of stuff that you want to do with National Geographic Expeditions broadly?
Schumacher: We obviously have a lot of plans for our business and some of those are publicly known and some of those are not. One of the things that we have done, National Geographic Expeditions a year ago purchased a tour operator called Global Adrenaline that was based out of Chicago and had been one of National Geographic’s long-standing partners. And what we are doing as a business is we previously operated our business with licensed tour operator partners operating on our behalf and we now are a tour operator. So one of the things that we have been doing … [is] we are bringing certain products in-house.
For example, our land product and our active product, those are products that we are going to be operating ourselves as National Geographic rather than working through a third-party outside licensed partner. And that’s a big step for our business. We previously only worked as license business and now we actually are working as a tour operations business. It’s just a different kind of business. It’s not better or worse. The reason we are doing this is number one, to make sure that we’re fully controlling the full customer experience. From the call center to the guest services, preparing people for the trips and actually operating the trips.
Because as [a] license business we had a lot different tour operators operating our trips and … they were fantastic partners and doing a really great job of that. But as you can imagine, when you have a lot of different licensed partners, it’s very different from doing it all yourself. By bringing everything in-house, that will actually help us control the guest experience from the very start to the finish, make sure that we have consistent standards and the consistent ways that our brand is represented across all of our products.
Skift: So you’re not working with tour operator partners in land business anymore?
Schumacher: No, we are in some our land businesses but not all of them. And so what we’re doing is we’re gradually looking across our portfolio and we’ve decided to bring in certain products. Part of our land business was already operated by Global Adrenaline and so what we’re doing is just bringing the rest of the land, the group land business and the private and the custom programs back in-house so they’re fully controlled by National Geographic. And same with our active product. Our active products previously were with an outside licensed partner and now they’re going to be operated by National Geographic.
Skift: There’s been a lot of change at Nat Geo just in the last few years. 21st Century Fox came in [as majority owner in 2015]. Now Disney’s shareholders have approved their Fox acquisition, which means they’ll take over that 73% stake. What potential do you see with that new ownership stake?
Schumacher: I think it’s going be fantastic. For not only National Geographic Partners as a whole, but for our travel business specifically. Disney is an amazing institution and understands consumers, and already is working in the travel business. They have Disney cruises, they have a line of trips called Adventures by Disney.
I’m really excited to be owned by Disney. I think that they’re going to bring a lot of expertise to the conversations that we have about what we can do to grow our travel business.
So I certainly welcome the conversations that we’re going to be having in the coming months, because I think they’re going to be a great parent company for us. I think that through our connection with Disney, we’ll have access to audiences that we currently don’t have access to. And I think that will really be supportive of our business growth overall.
Skift: Could you foresee some kind of Nat Geo presence with Disney Cruise and some kind of integration with Adventures by [Disney]? Could those universes co-exist at some point?
Schumacher: First of all, we haven’t had any conversations with Disney, about sort of integrations of our travel businesses at this point. But I would need to understand their goals for their business.
I certainly believe that if they have travel businesses under the Disney brand name, and we have travel businesses under the National Geographic brand name, there still would be many opportunities for us to talk about how our businesses can be supportive of each other, even if their brand names still remain independent.
I think it’s really up to Disney, as to how they want to approach it, with respect to their travel businesses. I’m certainly open to all the possibilities, and I can see a lot of ways that, even if we are operating as independent brand names or as combined brand names, that we can actually help each of our businesses grow. Because we will be offering a broader range of travel products to consumers. Right now, Disney has some, and we have a bunch of other ones, and there’s not a lot of overlap. So I think a combination of the two companies will really provide a strong portfolio of products for the consumer.
Skift: I’m sure this is not news to you, but on their last earnings call the CEO, Bob Iger, mentioned he was excited about opportunities in the eco-tourism space through the National Geographic partnership. He also mentioned, this might be just in the media context, but that Disney’s desire is there to support Nat Geo’s expansion around the world. Are you preparing a wish list? How are you getting ready for those conversations? Are you getting ready to go in there with some grand plans?
Schumacher: Well I would say, on the positive front, we already have grand plans for our business. … Like I said, I welcome the conversations with Disney, because I think they’ll be really great conversations to have. Because I can share with them what our vision is for the business and how we want to grow our portfolio products, not only domestically but internationally, and how we plan to do that and just ensure a greater consistency of the customer experience, and what we can do to ensure that all of our products are really embodying the National Geographic brand to the greatest extent possible.
There are certain things, obviously, [necessary] to grow. You need investment, you need resources, so I’m sure we’ll have those kinds of conversations at some point.
I almost think having them understand the great growth opportunities we have in our business is going to be super important, just so they understand what we’re doing and what we see in terms of our future as a business. We believe that it’s a bright future, we believe and are already making investments in our future to help us grow that business.
I view it as just bringing them into that conversation. Sharing with them what our vision is, and our view of where this business can go. And then getting more input and thoughts, advice, … and incorporating that and then throwing it forward.
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Photo credit: A National Geographic Expeditions group in New Zealand in 2015. The travel and tour operations of National Geographic is moving forward with global expansion plans even as a new owner, Disney, prepares to come in. National Geographic