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Intrepid, known for its small group adventures, is inching into providing accommodations with a new investment. It's also working to reduce its carbon footprint by slashing flights.

Series: Leaders of Travel: Skift C-Suite Series

Leaders of Travel: Skift C-Suite Series

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Intrepid Travel, an operator of small group tours and adventure travel, has sought to establish itself as a leader in responsible tourism. Intrepid’s top boss said the company is actively involved in reducing its carbon footprint per trip while growing its business.

In an interview with Skift, Intrepid’s CEO James Thornton said that the company is reducing its carbon footprint by reducing its internal on-trip flights by 4,000 this year. The company also announced a range of 40 new train itineraries this week to encourage slow travel.

The moves come against a backdrop of increasingly extreme weather. In 2023, Intrepid Travel recorded 121 more climate-related incidents than the year before. Thornton said that while it’s difficult to guard against these events, the company relies on diverse offerings and destinations to pivot or adapt as needed.

The CEO also elaborated on the company’s new investment in accommodation. Intrepid has already invested in three locations and plans to open at least two more. In the last two weeks, the company hired an ex-Accor brand and growth strategist to run this hospitality venture.

Carbon emissions and climate disasters

Intrepid CEO, James Thornton. Source: Intrepid.

Skift: Intrepid has long been championed as a leader in responsible tourism. Can you elaborate on how you’re currently working on reducing emissions and provide any insight on future plans?

James Thornton: Intrepid’s history in responsible travel dates back to its inception. The most recent moment for us was in 2020 when we were the first global tour operator to sign up for the Science Based Targets initiative. So we’ve been on that journey implementing those reduction targets and that really starts with trying to decarbonize our itineraries.

We’ve been moving more and more internal flights out of our itineraries. We’re now operating 4,000 fewer flights. Just to kind of explain how Intrepid operates on trips, we typically go from one destination to another destination. So if you’re in Vietnam, you might go from Hanoi in the north down to a hotel in the South. Typically, those itineraries, dependent on the length, would have had an internal flight component, but that’s the most carbona-intensive part of the experience. And so we’re removing the internal flights and replacing it with a local transport option. 

Skift: In 2023, you experienced an increase in climate-related incidents from 48 to 169. That’s a pretty big increase. What are you doing to guard against the impacts of climate disasters on your operations?

James Thornton: So 19 years ago, or even 10 years ago, climate-related instances were fleeting rather than a part of our everyday business. And it just felt to me in 2023, and suddenly into 2024, the number of floods, fires, volcanoes, whatever it might be that’s related to some form of the climate disaster was impacting us every single day. 

But we think it’s just the risk of doing business and we have to manage against it. And, you know, we have our own destination management companies in the vast majority of the countries within which we operate.

So rather than relying on third-party companies, it’s our people in-destination who have the up to the minute information to be able to guide us on steps we need to take and what we need to do. There is the risk of a volcano erupting or if there are signs of, you know, fires, we’re able to adapt our itineraries and manage accordingly, but it does mean that sometimes some destinations are off limits.

We can never protect against natural disasters. Every instance is different and that’s the nature of being a tour operator. Maybe I’m being too, I don’t know, blasé about this but we run 1,000 trips to 100 countries. Stuff happens you have to manage and deal with it. Our strength is in our diversification. 

Investing in accommodations

Skift: Intrepid has been expanding into accommodation. You own an eco-lodge in Queensland. Should we expect to see more of this? 

James Thornton: So we have a 15-room ecolodge in northern Queensland called the Daintree Ecolodge. We’re 50% invested in, a business called Cabn, which is a range of 39 off-grid cabins throughout South Australia. We also have a hotel in Hoi An, which is on a long lease that is run and operated by Intrepid. 

We are expecting to make announcements in Morocco and Scandinavia. In Morocco, we’re looking at riads, and in Scandinavia, we’re looking at eco-lodges. And the last thing we’ve done, which we haven’t actually announced, is we’ve just employed an accommodation strategy lead. So someone who actually reports directly to me who is running our kind of expansion and growth into accommodations. Her name is Celine Hurelle, she is ex-Accor, and she joined us [a couple of weeks ago]. 

Skift: What pushed you to start dabbling in accommodations?

James Thornton: We have challenges in terms of demand or supply in some places. A classic example is Marrakech, where we’d have 20,000 customers a year going through the city. We simply can’t get access to the number of riads that we need to be able to cater to the demand that we have, and so having our own riad would just solve a supply issue. 

We also want people to see and find Intrepid. And if they only touch us once every 700 days, the likelihood is they might not necessarily stick with us even if they had a great experience. If we’ve got a series of accommodations, that provides another touch point with a customer who doesn’t always want to go on a big adventure.

So yes, it’s a way for us to expand beyond that kind of core leadership in small group adventures, which we’re obviously well known for.


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Tags: accommodation, carbon emissions, carbon footprint, ceo interviews, climate change, future of lodging, intrepid, intrepid travel, regenerative tourism, responsible tourism, responsible travel, Travel Experiences

Photo credit: Intrepid CEO James Thornton. Intrepid

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