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“I go where the animals are,” said Hayley Shephard, an interpretive guide for some of the most remote and cherished destinations on the planet. Shephard spends the summers and fall working working with her longtime colleague and “boss” John Gunter, CEO of Frontiers North in the tiny subarctic town of Churchill, Canada. In the summer, Shephard guides kayaking trips to observe Beluga whales and in the fall polar bear excursions. Gunter and Shepard last week shared their unique views from the frontlines of the environment at Skift Global Forum in New York City.
Gunter, whose family has operated Frontiers North for 30 years, is hands-on in addressing the challenges of growing his boutique tourism company while working to preserve and protect the fragile subarctic community of Churchill.
Corporate social responsibility isn’t just a buzzword for Gunter, who puts every decision through a disciplined framework that defines his companies culture. While this is a solid business practice, it’s also essential for attracting the best talent. Gunter regularly works with other business leaders, city and regional government and the national parks to plan ahead to avoid over-tourism “once it happens, it’s too late.”
Shephard, who has worked for Frontiers North for 14 years, said: “I prefer to work with those that operate at a high standard of both safety, product/services and who are environmentally aware. If they care about all this stuff, I jump in with both feet. “
Shephard, who guides Antarctic expositions in the off-season, has been active in the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators a critical consortium for helping to manage access to a growing number of tours to the region. She and her colleagues have worked to limit the size of tours, the rest period for areas for beach landings, and the monitoring of wildlife.
Gunter and Shephard have had their conflicts throughout the years on policy and best practices for operating a responsible business.
In a good-hearted exchange, they teased each other on the issue of single-use plastics with Shephard calling out Frontiers North for justifying using single-use plastics for several years before getting religion.
Gunter, as CEO, had command of the supply chain and could ensure the responsible disposal and reuse of every element. After returning from a trip to a remote beach in Africa with his wife where he saw plastics washed ashore, he kidded Shephard, “I have a great idea. Let’s eliminate the use of single-use plastics this season,” and so it was finally done.
Citing the importance of partnerships for developing responsible programs, Frontiers North has had a long partnership with Polar Bears International, sharing their tours and access with scientists who track and report out not only to guests but to the world. Programs like the Polar Bear Cam keep they eyes and ears of the world focused on the polar bears as an indicator of climate change.
When asked if they find all of it depressing at times, Gunter and Shephard were both upbeat, they see the real impact of climate change. “The polar bears are getting smaller, which means they are not getting enough to eat.”
Concluding that they and their guests all have unique jobs to manage the complexities of responsible travel, both agreed that their shared mission is to create experiences for their guests that transform them into ambassadors when they return home. Shephard hopes to do that by helping them connect with animals and Gunter by operating a forward looking, transparent and responsible tour company.