Interview: Intrepid Travel chief executive says ‘market moving towards us’

James Thornton tells Travel Weekly editor-in-chief Lucy Huxley why he thinks the adventure specialist’s sustainability focus will pay off

I’ve interviewed Intrepid chief executive James Thornton three times on Zoom over the last 16 months, but this week I got to meet him in person in a London café.

He has special dispensation from the Australian government to travel overseas to visit his teams in other markets and for a meeting with his new French shareholders, whom he has also never met face-to-face.

And as a Brit living in Australia, Thornton is also seeing his mum for the first time in over a year-and-a-half.

It means that, after his month-long trip to Europe, he’ll have to quarantine for two weeks in a Sydney hotel before being allowed back to his home and head office in Melbourne.

The prospect of being holed up in approved Covid quarantine accommodation by the airport is daunting, but he says it’s worth it to be able to travel internationally again to help further his business.

“Being able to come to the UK and see Zina [Bencheikh, managing director, EMEA] and her team here is so important,” Thornton says. “I mean, let’s face it – the UK and the US are the only part of the world where we’re getting sales from at the moment.

“Australians can’t travel so that’s where our business is going to come from for the next six months.”

And he says things are slowly starting to pick up.

“We have tours running to 19 destinations in August. It’s not the 120 destinations we’d normally be operating in, but it’s a start – and we have 110 departures to those 19 countries,” he says.

“And next month, that goes up again. We’ll be operating 186 departures to 23 countries.”

He says that the phones are starting to ring more again too.

“We are slowly seeing the enquiries metrics picking up,” Thornton says. “People are either wanting to go away in three days’ time, or they are booking far in advance – many for the second half of next year.

“A lot of it is bucket-list stuff. They want to walk the Inca Trail, sail to Antarctica or go on that family safari. They have just lost two years of travel together so they are now thinking that, if they don’t take these holidays now, they might never do it.”

Thornton says the company’s new UK programme has sold well and will be retained in future years.

“We had 20 itineraries and have taken over 200 customers on trips around the UK so far,” he says. “We think this is there for the long-term and we plan to keep expanding our operations. We think people will now want a cycling trip to the Lake District or wherever, in their own country, as well as maybe a European trip. They will go elsewhere but the UK will be part of the mix for people.”

Thornton believes this is partly driven by the climate change agenda.

“The market has moved towards us on this,” says the boss of the operator – which gained B Corp status in 2018.

“Everyone wants to do this now as it’s important to consumers, especially to younger travellers. We’ve got a great head start in this area.”

Intrepid will take is first fam trip to Cornwall next month. Twelve agents will join travel trade lead Joanna Reeve on the walking and yoga-based trip to the south-west, having won their places as part of National Travel Agent Day last month – an initiative from Australia, brought to the UK by Intrepid in 2020.

Thornton is really keen to get agents travelling again – and has reinstated his own company policy, which gives all Intrepid staff around the world five days’ leave to take an educational trip on one of its tours.

“Unfortunately, it’s only in their own country currently, due to Covid travel restrictions, but it’s a start,” he says. “We have to bring the fun back to the industry.”

Thornton believes the policy will help with staff retention.

“We have stopped using the furlough scheme now,” he explains. “Everyone is back full-time.”

But he is worried that as well as losing the fun in the industry for a while, talent has also been lost from the travel sector as a result of the pandemic.

Thornton is planning a graduate recruitment programme to build it back up.

“We’re looking at partnering with some decent universities around the world and take on 100 graduates. We’ll put them through a year’s programme and maybe the top 20 at the end would be retained in full-time employment – or maybe even more. They would get the full experience, working across sales, product and within our DMC,” he says.

Thornton believes Intrepid’s values around sustainability and responsible travel make the company an attractive employer. Its recent launch of a fundraising and advocacy campaign aimed at supporting fair and equal access to Covid vaccinations around the world won it many fans.

“Not everyone approves,” says Thornton, who is introducing mandatory vaccination for all travellers and tour leaders from September 1. “About 20% don’t and think it’s not our place to do this, but 80% love us more for it and those are the people we care about. It’s good to be a brand that stands for something.

“Ending the pandemic is not only about you and your vaccine. We believe that, for travel to return, we need global vaccine equity in every country around the world.”

Securing the largest investment in Intrepid’s 32-year history in March of this year should also make the company an attractive one to work for, Thornton believes.

The strategic partnership with French family investment firm Genairgy, which owns sports retailer Decathlon, will support the adventure operator in four key growth areas – digital transformation, product innovation, market expansion and purpose initiatives.

One of those new products is Decathlon Travel, which is being launched initially in France and French-speaking markets of Belgium and Switzerland but will be rolled out in the UK in 2023, opening up a totally new customer base for Intrepid.

“All those people that go to Decathlon to buy their sport and activity gear (they get 60 million unique users a month to their website) – we’ll be able to sell them a travel experience,” he explains.

“We’ll develop totally new product for Decathlon Travel customers, centred around experiences and activities that they love. It’s very exciting.”

Thornton adds: “We wanted to find partner that could give us more than just money.

“Private Equity is great but has to get certain returns. We wanted a company that was much more culturally aligned.

“Money might be the outcome from doing something, but it’s not the reason for doing it.”