With more consumers holding travel companies accountable for their social and environmental impacts, the high-minded notion that purpose-led companies can also be profitable is proving out.
This sponsored content was created in collaboration with a Skift partner.
Contrary to conventional business wisdom, profitability doesn’t always come at the expense of a company’s efforts to be responsible, ethical, and fair. In fact, according to Skift Research’s State of Travel 2023 report, these factors are emerging alongside wellness and sustainability as key travel drivers amidst economic anxiety, climate change, and political uncertainty.
“Leading with purpose drives profitability,” said James Thornton, CEO of adventure tour company Intrepid Travel. “When I first joined Intrepid 18 years ago, people thought we were crazy when we talked about purpose-led travel. Now, we’re on the cusp of a much bigger movement.”
As the first and only non-founding CEO of Intrepid, Thornton’s goal is to help create positive change through the joy of travel on the road to building a billion-dollar company.
“People increasingly want deeper, more sustainable experiences, so the market has been steadily moving toward us,” Thornton said. “We’re very well placed to grow strongly and change the way people travel.”
While the first article in our series with Intrepid addressed the importance of transparency in travel and provided tools and actionable advice for travel companies to deliver on the promise of becoming more publicly transparent, this follow-up interview with Thornton explores how purpose and profitability go hand in hand, particularly when a company’s mission aligns with the values of its customers.
SkiftX: Travel took a major hit during the pandemic, but Intrepid managed to weather the storm successfully. Can you walk us through why that is and how the company adapted and thrived during those challenging years?
James Thornton: The pandemic was the ultimate test of our purpose and profit business model. Now that we’re on the other side and growing again, having recorded the highest sales months in our history, I can confidently say that our purpose and profit business model got us through.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, we launched a global vaccine equity campaign focused on improving access to Covid-19 vaccines, introduced an open-source carbon measurement toolkit, created an animal welfare policy toolkit to help tourism companies implement more ethical wildlife practices, and introduced our first-ever ethical marketing policy. These purpose-driven efforts helped keep our customers engaged when they couldn’t travel and reinforced brand loyalty. It also allowed us to engage with the industry and use the time to build a more equitable and sustainable future for travel.
We were well on our way to becoming a billion-dollar company when Covid hit — and this year, we’re back on track for a record year in terms of bookings and other success metrics. If this trajectory continues over the next three years, we will have created the world’s first billion-dollar, purpose-led adventure travel company.
SkiftX: Is it really possible to lead with purpose while navigating the road to profitability?
Thornton: Many executives still believe you can’t be purposeful and profitable, but that’s almost like saying if you want to be a purposeful business, you’ve got to be some kind of non-governmental organization (NGO) that doesn’t make money.
In fact, several market factors support the idea that doing good is good for business, including growing expectations among customers for responsible options, the ongoing need to ensure equitable treatment of employees to attract top talent, and government regulations cracking down on greenwashing. As time goes on, it will be harder and harder to be profitable without being mindful of your social, environmental, and economic impact. Some of today’s most profitable businesses are the ones with the strongest purpose levels — think of Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia.
In 2018, we were certified as a B Corporation, and we invested heavily in our purpose during that period, which helped make our financials even better.
SkiftX: What exactly are B Corporations? What advice can you give travel executives looking to certify?
Thornton: B Corporations are businesses that are required to meet high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency. They aim to make a profit just like any other business, but they’re also committed to more than just the bottom line. Increasing team engagement and creating a positive brand and employee experience are just as important to a company’s long-term growth and overall health. We attract better talent because we are a purpose-led business.
Becoming a B Corp is an extremely rigorous process that requires a significant investment of time and financial resources, and businesses need to get recertified every three years. But this rigorous process — and the organization’s high-caliber standards — are the factors that can ultimately lead to more profit down the line.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to go about the B Corp process. At Intrepid, our purpose team actively manages our ongoing B Corp status. Other travel businesses may delegate the responsibility to operations or another department, but the important thing to remember is that it requires cross-departmental collaboration.
My advice to other travel executives is to research the certification process thoroughly so you really understand what’s behind that B Corp certification stamp — and then communicate that clearly to your employees and customers. And remember, you can hire B Corp consultants for expertise and support, and to lead certification on your behalf.
SkiftX: What are some of Intrepid’s most recent responsible travel initiatives?
Thornton: When it comes to responsible travel, our product is at the heart of our purpose. Just prior to the pandemic, we launched our Women’s Expeditions, which became hugely popular as a way of empowering female-owned-and-operated businesses and educating travelers about the experiences of women around the globe. We started with Morocco, Iran, and Jordan, and this year we’ve launched new expeditions in Turkey, Nepal, and Pakistan.
While innovating new responsible travel experiences is a main priority for Intrepid, it is equally important that we are constantly evaluating and evolving our current products. Another initiative involves evaluating and removing itineraries that are no longer aligned with our animal welfare guidelines. This past year, we audited more than 140 wildlife experiences to ensure we maintain ethical standards. For example, we removed an experience at Madagascar’s Andasibe-Mantadia National Park because the animals lived in enclosed spaces for the sole purpose of travel and entertainment without clear conservation intentions.
On the climate front, we continue to implement our verified science-based targets and decarbonize our business via product innovations and operational enhancements. This includes removing flights from itineraries where a viable alternative exists and introducing electric vehicles where possible – for instance, for our airport transfers in Sri Lanka. We also have a target to transition all our offices to renewable energy, and our most recent office to make the shift is Johannesburg, South Africa.
Beyond that, Intrepid’s commitment to transparency is reflected in a new initiative to help customers better understand the impact of their trip via carbon labels. Because we measure the carbon footprint of all our trips, we’re able to share this information with customers via our website. The rollout of these labels has just begun across 600 of the top trips on our website.
SkiftX: How does this carbon labeling work? Why should more business executives consider measuring and sharing their emissions?
Thornton: After completing a comprehensive audit of the carbon emitted on our trips, the carbon label will show travelers the total CO2 of the trip, identifying the different components that contributed to the overall emissions, such as accommodations, transportation, food, activities, and waste. Intrepid’s greenhouse gas inventory calculation process was developed in line with the best-practice requirements set by Climate Active, a partnership between the Australian Government and Australian businesses to drive voluntary climate action.
It all goes back to transparency and providing information that empowers our customers to make decisions about their travel impact. Carbon labeling is a simple and transparent way to demonstrate the impact of our trips on the environment.
We all have a carbon footprint, and putting a label on it tells our customers we’re taking ownership of ours. Reducing our carbon footprint as a business is one way we can make it easier for customers to identify lower carbon trips. We hope this process will encourage other businesses to hold themselves accountable — owning their current impact while doing the work to improve it.
SkiftX: What does the future hold for Intrepid?
Thornton: I’m just putting the finishing touches on our 2030 strategy and I can confidently say the future is looking bright for Intrepid. We’ve already seen a big market shift toward our style of responsible, locally led travel. I believe this will accelerate in the coming years as travelers seek authentic connections and community-led experiences.
I’m also particularly excited about the opportunities for our brand to expand into new verticals — including accommodations, day tours, media, and advocacy — as a way to not only introduce new customers to our style of travel but also to play a meaningful role in the lives of our current community, in between their adventures.
SkiftX: Can you share a favorite Intrepid tour or experience?
Thornton: That’s the hardest possible question, but I think back to being face to face with a mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda for my honeymoon on Christmas Day — that was pretty hard to beat.
For more information about Intrepid Travel, click here.
Please join James Thornton, CEO at Intrepid Travel, for a special session at Skift Global Forum, September 26-28 in New York City.
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