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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Butler-Madden

How Intrepid Travel strikes the perfect balance between profit and purpose

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

“When the time is right the world will need travel. It needs openness, kindness, curiosity. It needs intrepid people.”

Intrepid Travel was founded in 1989 by two University mates who shared a love of backpacking, Geoff “Manch” Manchester and Darrell Wade. A trip with a group of friends through Africa in a converted rubbish truck was the inspiration for what eventually became the world’s largest adventure travel company.

Their love of the cultural experience that backpacking gave them, got them wondering how they could share this experience with friends of theirs who weren’t as confident as they were in travelling independently.

From the very beginning, Intrepid’s goal was to create a style of travel that could benefit both travellers and the places and people they visit. Their vision reflects this. It is “to change the way people see the world”.

Almost thirty years later, it is still integral to who Intrepid are and what they do.

Intrepid Travel’s higher purpose is “to be the best travel company for the world.”

“The best travel company FOR the world” immediately tells us that they’re a business that is in service to the world.

It is in stark opposition to the many businesses whose driving vision or mission statements (wanting to be the biggest/best/most successful) put them – the business – at the centre of their world.

Intrepid aren’t like that. They care about the people they serve – their employees, clients, partners, suppliers and the communities and environments in which they operate. They run their business accordingly.

So let’s now unpack some of the actions Intrepid Travel have undertaken since they started in 1989.

  • Intrepid have always been about travelling the local way. That means they use local accommodation and transport; they eat in restaurants owned and run by locals; they use local tour guides. Not only does this give travellers an authentic local experience, but it also means that their money is being spent with locals, so it benefits the local communities instead of going into the coffers of multinational companies.

  • Over the years Intrepid have advocated on issues such as climate action, animal welfare, child protection and gender equality. They were the first global tour operator to end elephant rides – it was a risky decision at the time, but doing the right thing not only helped to grow their business, it changed the industry.

  • In 2002, in response to their travellers telling them that they wanted to give back to communities, Intrepid set up a not-for-profit, The Intrepid Foundation. The Foundation provides a transparent and trusted way for travellers to support destinations and communities. Their mission is to improve the livelihoods of vulnerable individuals and communities around the world by supporting local initiatives that deliver real impact. Between 2002-2020 the Foundation raised over AU$11.6 million for more than 137 communities around the world.

  • In 2008 Intrepid became a signatory to the UN Global Compact, one of the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiatives. They became a carbon neutral organisation in 2010.

  • More recently, they became the first and only tour operator in the world with verified science-based carbon emissions targets.

  • In 2018 Intrepid Travel became a B Corp. Currently the largest B Corp travel company. For those not familiar with B Corp, it is a global ethical certification. B Corp certified companies meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

  • B Corp certification puts Intrepid Travel amongst companies like Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s and Etsy, but Intrepid are certainly not new to the ethical standards game. As we can see from their humble beginnings and the many actions they’ve taken since starting, they have in fact been leading the way in their industry consistently, for many years.

  • By the beginning of 2020, Intrepid Travel was riding high. In 2019 they had achieved their fourth consecutive year of record financial results and carried more than 460,000 travellers.

And then, the world changed.

Covid 19 hit and almost overnight, Intrepid Travel went to zero revenue.

In March 2020, Intrepid suspended global operations for the first time and entered a period of hibernation. They had to retrench many of their employees and reduce the salaries of those who stayed on. This pause in operations gave them a chance to start to reimagine the future.

This is where Intrepid’s Purpose guided them. It was the North Star that enabled them to look beyond the crisis.

One of the things that came out of this period of reimagination was advocacy for a more responsible return to travel and and to support collective action in the broader tourism industry, to ensure other companies restart their operations in a more sustainable and responsible manner. This resulted in the collective action they took on Climate Change and Animal Welfare, as shared earlier in this chapter.

They also used their platforms to educate travellers, highlighting the climate crisis, animal welfare and other environmental and social issues. They progressed with their work on decarbonisation in 2020 culminating in the business becoming the first tour operator with verified science-based emissions targets.

Intrepid Urban Adventures pivoted with Online Experiences, which provided customers with a way to travel while staying at home. This action also helped to support tour guides while tourism was on hold.

Intrepid’s 2025 strategy is to grow with purpose. They aim to become the world’s first purpose-led billion dollar travel company by 2025.

They are not shy in their desire to be profitable. They recognise that profitability is essential for them to realise their ambitions to be the best travel company for the world.

I love how they describe the relationship between profit and purpose as a “package deal”. It says it all really.

Intrepid Travel are not in business for themselves or their shareholders and investors. They exist to make things better for the communities in which they operate and the wider world. And it’s not just about the action they take. Their ambitions are greater than that, which is why they are using their influence in the travel industry to drive improvement. Their impact and influence reach well beyond the boundaries of their industry. They are leaders. They’re providing us with a model; inspiration for what business-for-good can look like.

When the time is right, we will travel again, and Intrepid Travel will be there to guide us to travel responsibly.

You can have a listen to my interview with Geoff Manchester on the For Love & Money Podcast here. This interview offers some great insights to people in business who are curious about what a truly purposeful organisation looks like and the relationship between purpose and profit.

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