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#228 - Defining the Future for Sustainable Travel, with James Thornton of Intrepid Travel

June 07, 2022

#228 - Defining the Future for Sustainable Travel, with James Thornton of Intrepid Travel
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In 2019, more than 1 billion international trips were recorded globally, contributing to 8% of the world's carbon emissions from the travel industry. This record inspires us to reflect and understand the importance of preserving and protecting mother nature through more responsible and sustainable travel.

In 2019, more than 1 billion international trips were recorded globally, contributing to 8% of the world's carbon emissions from the travel industry. This record inspires us to reflect and understand the importance of preserving and protecting mother nature through more responsible and sustainable travel.

James Thornton is the CEO of Intrepid Travel, the world's largest certified travel B Corp to date. Intrepid Travel is a global tour operator with a mission to create positive change through travel. They take small groups to travel through the most amazing places, with real-life experience in a local way, ensuring they always travel with a positive impact.

James's passion for traveling led him to leave a career in asset management to join Intrepid’s UK office in 2005. In 2017, he was appointed the first non-founding CEO of Intrepid Travel, achieving numerous milestones and growth for the company and successfully steering it through the pandemic.

During the conversation, Cory and James talk about the future of responsible and sustainable travel. James shares Intrepid's steps in preparation for different crises, including Covid, their support to local partners, and their commitment to protecting the planet for future generations of travelers.


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  • James's background before joining the travel industry
  • Qualities that Intrepid Travel looks for in their people
  • The challenging experience of the travel industry during Covid
  • Intrepid's simplified approach to customer interaction
  • The importance of customers’ awareness of their travel experiences
  • The biggest challenges in sustainable travel
  • Intrepid's actions to create more responsible and sustainable travel
  • The collaboration between Intrepid and local communities
  • How Intrepid impacts its stakeholders and drives commercial success
  • The decision to ban elephant riding in Thailand






Cory Ames  0:03  
Before jumping into this episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, here's a quick word from our sponsor. At Saybrook University, MBA and DBA degree programs are built for the quadruple bottom line. People: empower others within your organization. Planet: champion environmentally friendly solutions. Profit: increased profit with integrity. And finally, Purpose: when business is guided by purpose, everyone benefits. Saybrook MBA and DBA programs challenge conventional business practices in favor of disruptive innovation and sustainability. Explore a business administration program that is guided by purpose. Learn more at growensemble.com backslash Saybrook. That's growensemble.com backslash Saybrook.

James Thornton  1:03  
What we try to do is have a big impact, but try and do it with a small footprint. So what that means practically is that our trips are designed to try as much as possible to give back to the people and the places that we visit. So we stay in locally owned, smaller style accommodation. That means we don't use western chain hotels, we try as much as possible to dine at locally owned community restaurants. So we're avoiding fast food, international chain restaurants, wherever possible, and it's not always possible. We try and travel on public transport, bus, a train, use a bike, use different forms of public transport in a local country. And as much as possible, we're always trying to visit locally owned businesses or projects that have a positive social impact.

Cory Ames  1:55  
What's the future of sustainable travel look like? This, the question that we try to answer today on this episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. And to do so I'm joined by James Thornton, the first non founding Chief Executive Officer of Intrepid Travel, the world's largest certified travel B Corporation. Today, Intrepid has more than 1200 staff in 25 offices around the world. And under James's leadership, they achieved B Corp certification in 2018, and recently recertified. He also recorded four consecutive years of record top and bottom line growth between 2016 and 2019. Before the COVID 19 pandemic hit. And although quite devastating for the entire industry, James says that Intrepid is emerging perhaps better than before COVID, as a responsible and sustainable adventure travel operator. In this conversation, James and I discuss what it means to travel sustainably, what it means to run a business in the travel industry responsibly. We talk about what this looks like now, having faced a few crises and still some staring us straight in the face, like climate, and what this looks like further out into the future. So it's a really interesting conversation with James, Intrepid Travel, an exceptional leader in the space of the travel industry. I know you'll enjoy this conversation like I did. But before we jump in, I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. The weekly newsletter that I write, curate and publish myself send out every single Monday to our community of changemakers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get that next Better World Weekly in your inbox. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter. All right, y'all. Without further ado, here's James Thornton from Intrepid Travel.

James Thornton  4:01  
My name is James Thornton, I'm the Chief Executive of Intrepid Travel. If you're not familiar with Intrepid, our mission is to create positive change through the joy of travel. And that's pretty much what drives everything we do here at Intrepid. We're a global tour operator taking travelers to the world's most amazing places and ensuring they travel with impact, and hopefully that impact has a positive effect on the people in the places that they're visiting.

Cory Ames  4:26  
Well, a lot that we'll get into there. But first, James, I'd love to start perhaps with your origins into the industry. So I think something that is special about the travel industry is that it can be quite Passion Driven. And I know you've been with Intrepid for some time, not always at the CEO post, but I'd love to hear what brought you to the industry and perhaps to this company specifically.

James Thornton  4:48  
Certainly Cory. My background was private client asset management, which I'm sure many listeners are familiar with, but to be brutal, it's the concept of making what I would describe as rich people richer. And I did that Post University for a few years and was heading towards my mid 20s. And thought, "Do I really want to spend the next 40 years of my life making rich people richer? Is that gonna get me up every morning? Or am I going to be excited? Am I going to be energized?" And ultimately, the answer was no. And so I kind of figured that, if you can find something you're passionate about, and be prepared to work bloody hard at it, that often you can be successful. And I had two real passions in my life at the time, the first one sport, big soccer player, as you call it there in the US, and sadly, not good enough to to make a living out of that. My second passion was travel. And I thought, "Well, it'd be great to try and find a role in the travel industry." 

And after much searching, I came across a small Australian privately owned company called Intrepid Travel. They were doing some exciting things, taking predominately Australians to different parts of Asia, but on a big kind of global growth expansion program, and I became one of the early employees in our UK office back in 2005. Took a job as a sales and marketing coordinator. And I think if I'm honest, at the time, I kind of naively presumed that I'd probably do the job for a couple of years, get to see part of the world, and then go back and get a more traditional corporate job like I'd been in previously. But yes, 17 years later, I'm still here. I've been very, very fortunate to to live and work all over the world now. based in the UK, Melbourne, back to the UK, and very global roles in nature, predominantly growing up in the Sales/ Marketing commercial side of our business. I was appointed the first non founding Managing Director of the Intrepid Travel brand in 2012, when I was just 31 and having a three week old son. I've been the group CEO now for over five years. And yes, super lucky to lead the world's largest certified travel B Corp. And yeah, really honored to do it, although maybe the last couple of years with the challenges of the pandemic it hasn't been the best experience - but yeah, very, very lucky indeed.

Cory Ames  6:58  
Well, that was going to be something of a follow up question. A business with quite a legacy, the first non founding CEO, what's that like to take over and transition to that role? Anything particularly challenging outside of you know, this casual global pandemic that's happened for a travel business? 

James Thornton  7:17  
Yeah, I was quite lucky. I mean, I probably one thing I always say, I've been very lucky, Cory, Intrepid, that we have this kind of notion of people. We look for people that are hungry, humble, and smart. And hungry, in the sense that we want to try and always be a bit better. Humble, in that we recognize it's very much a team effort and it's not individuals. And smart, not necessarily in you know, MBA kind of smarts, but smarts as in the willingness to understand that people have different nuances. So being smart around emotional intelligence, or smart around being prepared to learn. And I think that's probably some of the qualities that Darrell and Manch, Intrepid's two founders, saw in me. I was very lucky to get given opportunities very early in my career that I probably wasn't ever ready for, but was always willing to work hard and give a good crack at. 

So yeah, it's definitely intimidating when you take on from two very successful entrepreneurs and founders, people that are loved and respected within our business. But I think the key thing was to make sure that I didn't try and do what they did, because I'm not them, and I can't be them. And I think one of the great things about leadership is that I get lots of inspiration from lots of different people. But the reality is you have to build your own style, and be authentic and true to yourself. And if you do that, then very often, you can be successful. And that's worked pretty well for me. We had a very, very great kind of four year lead from 2015 to 2019, doubling the size of the company record profits. Record customer NPS employee NPS became the world's first largest certified travel B Corp. So we've done a fantastic journey from years 27 to 31. So kind of prepared me in a way quite nicely for the challenges that the pandemic laid out for us over the last two years. But I feel we're putting those behind us and now back into that great environment again.

Cory Ames  9:05  
We won't dwell too much on it, we'll certainly start to look forward here quite quickly, but encountering the pandemic as a business - So in an industry so acutely affected to it, not just, you know, we're operating as we can, it's literally like complete shutdown for the sector that you're in for a duration of time. What sort of action steps did you take? How did you start to make sense of it as the leader of this business, this organization? And likewise, you mentioned sources of inspiration, like, where did you look for inspiration and support and stuff to start to make decisions as a leader for Intrepid?

James Thornton  9:42  
Yeah, look, it was the most unbelievable time, wasn't it Cory? I think in January of 2020, Intrepid had its biggest sales month in history. We'd just come off four consecutive record years. January we did $55 million in sales. You know, we're on the journey to become the world's first billion dollar adventure travel company. I was recruited as CFO because we wanted to move towards an IPO in a couple of years, you know, general counsel. I had all these fantastic growth ambitions. And about mid January, I got a call saying, you know, have you heard about this thing called Coronavirus that's going on in China? And, you know, to a degree, not laughed, but didn't take it seriously. You know, we survived SARS, we survived bird flu, we had good experience of going through the global financial crisis. So I felt we were well prepared. But clearly, as things started to emerge in scale, in mid February, we realized this was super serious. And I think one of the best things was we got ahead of it in terms of our crisis planning. So by mid February, our leadership teams meeting twice a week, we were going through all of the different scenarios. 

And one of the scenarios was what if the world shut down. And of course, at the time, when we started to work through that scenario, it seemed completely implausible. But very quickly, and a pace of change that none of us has ever seen before, it was suddenly realistic. And I'll never forget, I sat in the room I'm in now on Friday, the 13th of March, which may be an ominous thing, Friday, the 13th. And someone coming into the meeting and at the time, the meeting was all about generating demand and giving customers confidence to book, and the person came in and said that the Prime Minister of Australia has just told Australians that they need to come home because the international border is likely to shut. And that was quite a silencing moment. We then had to take the steps to start to think through how we're going to repatriate the more than 3000 customers we had on our trips. We had to start to think through the fact that not only were we a business with no revenue, we're a business that had to repay the revenue that we had earned over the course of the last six months. A business that had been scaling at a compound average growth rate of 25% a year. 

So I built the resources in to make that happen. And suddenly, we had no income coming in. So all of the decisions we had to make were fairly quick. Two key things I learned at the time: number one, communicate, communicate, communicate. I know that sounds, you know, a bit kind of-- of course you communicate. But we communicated at a certain time to our business once every two days, because that was the pace of change. And we communicated good news. But we communicated bad news, because I think one of the biggest things is you recognize it's really easy to communicate good stuff. Communicating bad stuff is tough. But if you don't communicate the bad stuff and tell people what's happening, they will draw their own conclusions. And I think that was part of the no matter how difficult the situation was or how tough the decisions we had to make, I was going to communicate all the time and really frequently. 

The second thing I learned, which again, you will say is no brainer, but get great people around you. I'm super lucky at Intrepid that I have some fantastic leadership team. They're often more experienced than me, they have better skills than me. And you know, we've recruited the CFO, we recruited his general counsel, fantastic Chief Operating Officer and a range of other wonderful C roles and leaders in the company. And they just stepped up incredibly. And the brutal reality is that Intrepid deals with crisis all the time, you know, earthquakes in Nepal, or different economic or social incidences that occur. So we're well versed in crisis management, but it was again, just a really important reflection for me about the importance of great, great people.

Cory Ames  13:11  
And so here we are now a little over two years later, still, in a pandemic, not endemic yet, hopefully, we're headed there. But how do you feel now? Because that is a completely different circumstance in which we're describing, or at least I hope that it is. What you imagined as literal worst case scenario comes into fruition. But how are you feeling right now here in 2022 about your position?

James Thornton  13:37  
Yeah, now Cory, I feel really optimistic, to be honest with you. And I probably wouldn't have said the same three or four months ago. I think, from a global standpoint, I think we had this period of time, probably September, October, November last year, where we saw good momentum building, it felt like we're starting to make progress. Vaccinations were rolling out quite widely in many parts of countries that Intrepid has source markets in. Obviously, omicron was a real kind of hit to many of us, kind of three months of really knocking us on the head again, but ever since early February, we've seen really strong momentum. Bookings are now at or beating pre COVID levels in the US and UK markets, which make up about 70% of our global revenues. 

We're quickly bringing back more and more destinations. This month, we'll have 83 countries live, go back to March, we only had 45 countries live, so more and more destinations coming online. If you've visited an airport very recently, you will see queues are back at airports. It's busy. There's not many empty seats on planes. And we're seeing all of our demand metrics point towards people not only being willing to now book travel, but actually willing to depart on travel, and I think we've been able to do some some pretty exciting things in the course of the pandemic which have positioned us nicely to hopefully take advantage of that bounce back. But like all travel companies, I guess we're now suddenly faced with the thing that we've been waiting for for so long, which is lots and lots of demand and having to try and meet that demand very, very quickly. So we're scaling up. So very much feels like you're almost in mini startup mode again, which is quite strange for a business that is 33 years old.

Cory Ames  15:17  
That's a really interesting observation. And it makes me wonder, as so many businesses, no matter the industry began to consider or kind of remold things, is there-- you're in startup mode to some degree, as you mentioned, there. Are there different ways in which you're building and growing the company now, than you were pre COVID?

James Thornton  15:36  
Yeah, I think so we've made quite a few changes within in the organization over the course of last couple of years. Previously, we'd had a multi brand business, Intrepid Travel was the kind of global Halo brand, but we had a series of other brands that targeted certain niches. We'd long desire to move towards a single brand portfolio, that was something we put in place over the course last 18 months. So we're definitely seeing a simplified approach for our customers just interacting with the one brand. I think we're seeing the way in which customers want to interact with us has also changed significantly. You know, previously, people were willing to accept longer duration times in terms of responses. We're seeing that absolute need for instant responses in terms of speed of decision making, speed of response in terms of booking. Customer wants to come in, interact with us, book with a seamlessly on our website, they want to be able to follow up through live chat. So we're seeing that need and that desire for very quick and very strong response times. 

One of the other things that's changed, Cory, is that the customers actually have more questions. The pandemic has changed a lot of things for a lot of people, it's not quite as simple as you just walk up to the airport anymore, hop on a plane and turn up in a destination. You know, previously, you're thinking about, have I got my passport, have I got my visa, have I got the right currency? And what's the Wi Fi password going to be? Today, it's, you know, what is the vaccination status? Is there any testing requirements going on? You know, what happens if the worst does happen, and I do end up getting sick. And that's what we're finding more and more customers wanting to travel in kind of structured group environments, because of the security of that group situation. So the needs and wants our customers have have changed, the requirement for speed is only getting stronger. And so companies like ours are having to adopt and adapt pretty quickly to make sure we're continuing to be relevant and take advantage of that huge stimulation demand that we're seeing.

Cory Ames  17:28  
And so if the market has really shifted in the customer desires and behaviors have changed a bit, well, what do you feel is different, if anything about the culture of the companies, the brands, the organizations operating in the travel space? Is there some sort of change in the culture that you've noticed at all and the ways people are approaching? You know, as you all operate so many different trips and itineraries, for example, or maybe as well, kind of industry wide, you see people interacting with how they operate in a different way, or considering things in a different lens?

James Thornton  18:00  
I think one of the things that's really emerged in the last couple of years is that that awareness and recognition that, especially for our type of customers, that the world is experiencing a climate crisis. And I think, now one of the things that by being stuck at home for a couple of years, suddenly, villages in India and Nepal could see the Himalayas for the first time. Suddenly, European cities weren't being overwhelmed by big cruise ships. Suddenly, sea life was returning to, you know, the canals and waterways in Venice. And so I think increasingly, we're seeing a recognition from consumers that when travel returns, they want to make sure it returns in a sustainable manner as possible. And so customers are increasingly asking more questions around your sustainable travel policies or your responsible business. What do you do? What's your work around carbon? What's your size or group? What is the impact that an individual's travel is going to have in terms of a local destination? 

So yeah, we're definitely seeing that people are looking through that sustainability lens more closely. And I think that will influence people's decision making. The second thing we're seeing is that people increasingly want experiences and they want to be active. For many of us, unfortunately, we've been stuck at home for not quite two years, but for large parts of the last two years. And we're missing that that human connection, that ability to meet people face to face to get under the skin of a destination, to be active, to cycle, to hike, to support local communities by buying local projects. So yeah, we're seeing that kind of drive for both sustainability but also for experiences be really at the forefront of customers kind of purchasing decision making at the moment.

Cory Ames  19:42  
I would love to get into the types of things to where Intrepid is really starting to perhaps push towards setting some sort of standard or defining what responsible travel, sustainable travel, can look like now and into the future. But before we do, I'd be curious to get your take as to where do you feel like there's some real shortcomings for the industry right now? Like in the context of sustainability. Where do you think the industry has the greatest challenges? Or barriers to being sustainable?

James Thornton  20:09  
Yeah, well, the biggest challenge has got to be carbon. I mean, if you think in 2019, I think people made more than 1 billion international trips globally, which was the most ever. And so obviously, the pandemics curtailed travel for a couple of years. But there is absolutely no denying that travel and tourism's rolling, and climate change is significant. I think pre pandemic, the industry contributed about 8% of the world's carbon emissions. So, you know, that is ultimately the biggest challenge that travel industry has to face together. I don't think it's, it's not going to face alone, it has to be faced between business, it has to be tackled by by government, and you're seeing some progressive governments do that. 

The likes of the French government, for example, when they bailed out France, the requirements of the bailout of France was that France had to reduce the number of short duration flights that it had within country and actually advertise rail travel instead. And it had to make a commitment towards moving towards biofuels. So government has a responsibility. And customers have a responsibility too, you know, customers just turning back and hopping on big polluting cruise ships, because the price is 400 bucks. And it's normally you can eat buffet for a week, and putting no money into local communities is not a sustainable form of travel. So I think there is a responsibility of business, of government, and customer to have to all work together. But ultimately, we've got to tackle climate change because it is the number one issue and the reality is if we don't have a healthy climate, there is no tourism industry. And unlike the pandemic, where the pandemic has to a degree been been resolved by vaccination, there is no vaccination for climate change.

Cory Ames  21:53  
Has the relationship between Intrepid and how you communicate around air travel, or how, you all schedule or coordinate the itineraries around some of your trips. Has that changed at all as a product of the last couple years?

James Thornton  22:09  
Yeah, definitely. I mean, Intrepid has, we've been a carbon neutral business since 2010. Which is fine, but in 2022, it is no longer enough to be carbon neutral. So what Intreipd has done is made with the first tour operator, to commit to verified science based carbon reduction targets, science based targets initiative. And that commits us to reduce our carbon emissions in line with a 1.5 degree future. To do that, we're having to change the way that we run and operate our company. So we're actively trying to decarbonize our trips, we're doing that through a few different ways: one, designing new styles of trips, and got to think in that instance, about walking, and more cycling and trekking and active adventures. Intrepid just recently acquired a company in the US called Wildland Trekking, because it has that absolute philosophy of kind of no trace travel, backpack on your back and walking into a destination and camping, and taking your food in and bringing all your waste out. 

One of the second actions we're taking is looking at ways to remove flights from our itineraries. So we're actively removing short duration flights a little bit like the Air France example I use previously, the French government's put in as part of its bailout, Intrepid has removed small internal flights. So we have itineraries in places like Cambodia. And typically in the past, we would fly from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh to the main tourist destinations in Cambodia. But to be honest, the experience was pretty rubbish because you'd be jumping on a kind of low cost airline, airport to airport, the flight's very short, emits a lot of carbon. And instead, we've replaced the flight with a small boat trip down the Mekong instead. Customers get a better experience, they get to see a different part of Cambodia. Carbon is reduced in their itineraries. So there's some of the ways that we are working towards removing carbon from our trips and our products. We're going to have to continue to do more of that in order to meet the verified science based targets that we have set ourselves.

Cory Ames  24:21  
Intrepid as the world's largest adventure travel tour operator, do you see there any difficulties between being the largest, and as well, very much so consciously minding the level of responsibility and sustainability? Does that come into conflict at all?

James Thornton  24:37  
It does. I think we are the largest adventure travel company in the world. But we are still absolutely tiny by comparison of the revenue that goes into global travel. I think pre pandemic Travel and Tourism supported one in 10 jobs globally. So it's a vital sector for global growth. It supports billions of jobs worldwide, and it contributes to enormous economic security and wellbeing. And you've seen that particularly in countries, the impact of travel not taking place in countries, there are the positive aspects. But the negative aspects of it are where travel is the number one form of GDP in a country. So places like Nepal, or Peru, or Kenya, where it plays such an important role for local communities. So I think the challenge is trying to support the recovery of tourism in as responsible way as we possibly can while finding the balance in ensuring we support and protect livelihoods globally and continue to protect fragile ecosystems, wildlife cultural spaces that tourism relies on and trying to reduce carbon emissions all at the same time. So there is a very delicate balance. 

I think what we've got to try and move - hopefully move - customers away from is travel that does not support local communities. And I kind of use that reference of jumping on a big cruise ship: it's polluting, doesn't really benefit local communities, it's ice cream tourists really - the only benefit local people get is when travelers get off, buy an ice cream, and get back on board. So I think it's about promoting the right style of travel, and growth in the right style of travel is okay. But we've really got to kind of temper in and change consumers behavior around making sure that the travel can be sustainable for local communities. And it's tough, it's tough, it's not easy to do. 

Cory Ames  26:24  
Yeah, it's not a straightforward answer, for sure. But we mentioned that right way of travel and a lot of, perhaps, the themes have already been touched on throughout our conversation thus far. But I'd love to dive deeper into that James. What-- we mentioned the sustainable the environmental impact on one aspect, but what else kind of falls into this overarching umbrella of sustainable or responsible travel as by what aligns with Intrepid's ethos? What else do you start to throw in under that overarching definition?

James Thornton  26:56  
I think a really important thing. I mean, when you think about the term or the definition of sustainable travel, Intrepid describes our style of travel as sustainable, experience rich travel - sustainable experience rich. And what we try to do is have a big impact, but try and do it with a small footprint. So what that means practically is that our trips are designed to try as much as possible to give back to the people and the places that we visit. So we stay in locally owned, smaller style accommodation. That means we don't use western chain hotels. We try as much as possible to dine at locally owned community restaurants. So we're avoiding fast food, international chain restaurants. Wherever possible, and it's not always possible, we try and travel on public transport, a bus, a train, use a bike, use different forms of public transport in a local country. And as much as possible, we're always trying to visit locally owned businesses or projects that have a positive social impact. So when you're traveling Intrepid, you're not going to stay on a large foreign owned resort, which by doing that means that more of the money can benefit the local people and communities so I think that's what we try and mean by sustainable travel when you think about it Intrepid context.

Cory Ames  28:19  
that gets me thinking too, with such, kind of, care and attention paid to each individual itinerary, what do you think about Intrepid has allowed y'all to be able to grow and expand and add so many different itineraries while still taking that, like, if I'm thinking about my own travel experiences, and what's been so special and unique about those, the great thing about it is that it seems like oh, this is kind of a one in a million sort of experience, or this is a once in a lifetime sort of deal. What do you think about Intrepid has allowed y'all to be able to replicate that to some degree at such a large scale?

James Thornton  28:55  
I think the probably the one of the biggest things for us is the size of our groups, our average group size is 10 people. So it's kind of always a difficult balance. Because the brutal reality of economics is the larger the group, the more money you can usually make. But we recognize that the smaller the group, often the better the experience. And so I think group size is critical. When I think back to the best travel experiences I've had trekking with the gorillas in Rwanda, you know, seeing the Taj Mahal, not from the point that the majority of tourists see the Taj Mahal but from the river at the back to the Taj Mahal, with a small group on a couple of very small boats. It's these unique experiences staying in the local homestay on a tiny little island in Malaysia in Kuala Kangsar, with 10 little huts, having a local meal with a Muslim family. These experiences you can't do with bigger size groups. They're also experiences that often you can't organize yourself quickly and seamlessly. 

So I think one of Intrepid's skill sets has been keep the group size really small. Make sure as much as possible, we're looking to when the tourist groups go that way, effectively, we're trying to go the other way. And to try and see something as much as possible in a different light. And the way that-- the secret sauce of how we do that is that we run and own our own operating companies in partnership with with local people. They're run by local people, you know, our companies around the world are, I think 90% of the general managers that we have are local to a certain destination. Our leaders are 99% local leaders. There's not an American or a Brit, in my case, taking you through Vietnam, or Tanzania or Namibia. It is a Vietnamese person or Tanzanian person taking you through those destinations. No one knows the destination like the local leaders and guides themselves. 

So yeah, I think it's kind of the group size. I think it's the trying to see iconic sights and off the beaten track sites in a more unique and different way. And then that kind of global network that we have through our through our local leaders and operating companies, provides us with some distinctive recognition. And then lastly, Cory, the recognition that if we don't take care of the people in the local communities, and the people and and the planet, like I said earlier, we're not going to have a planet to be able to show in 30 years. And certainly I know that Intrepid's legacy, we want to make sure that while we continue to grow, we do it sustainably. And it's done in a way that people can continue to enjoy the experiences we have. As you and I both know as young parents, we want to make sure that we hopefully leave the world a better place for our kids and that they can go off and have these wonderful experiences themselves. And we don't mess it up for them now through our through our travel experiences.

Cory Ames  31:40  
Certainly agree. And what, looking forward for Intrepid, besides, you know, perhaps finding more creative itineraries or creative problem solving around perhaps some of the greatest environmental impacts and likewise, just looking to meet the moment of the market demand. What else are future priorities for y'all at Intrepid right now in ways that you want to grow and evolve?

James Thornton  32:02  
Yeah, I think we're always looking at, you know, kind of new, more innovative styles of products and travel, ones that have a lighter carbon impact. One of the things Intrepid's always typically done is to take consumers from the US, from the UK, from Australia - there are three kind of core source markets - and we take them to all over the world - to different parts of the world. But one of the things that we haven't done a good job of recently is actually show them their own backyards, as we would refer to in Australia. 82% of travel spent in the US is spent on domestic travel experiences. Yet, Intrepid spent this whole time advertising to American consumers to leave America and go and see the rest of the world. Yeah, there's some wonderful travel to be had locally and 82% of travel spend is spent locally. So Intrepid is spending a lot of time and thinking about how we can apply sustainable experience rich travel for people to be able to see their own countries. So we've spent a lot of time over the course of last year, growing and expanding our range of US trips. 

I talked to the Wildland Trekking acquisition that we did recently, getting out and trekking into the canyons, rafting in the canyons, doing some cycling experiences, some indigenous experiences, taking a new spin on traveling to some of the iconic destinations, we're doing exactly the same in Australia where we're trying to embed more First Nations experiences on to traditional travel itineraries. So I think that will play a role. One of the other areas the Intrepid is interested in is the accommodation vertical. Pre pandemic, we were carrying 470,000 customers on trips all over the world. But those customers are often staying in different types of accommodations. And I think there is a role that Intrepid can play in providing some more unique kind of off grid sustainable experiences. We've just gone into partnership with a company called CABN down here in Australia, with a view to building 70, off grid, sustainable, low impact cabins, where customers not just go on trips and experiences, but that can actually stay in Intrepid accommodations, too. 

So yeah, I think kind of more growth in domestic product, more new innovative itineraries, we're going to continue to kind of expand the vertical by looking at accommodation. And as I said, at the start of the call, we are living in a climate disaster. It's not climate change, it's not a climate emergency, it's very much a climate disaster. And so we have to continue to champion and push the agenda around working towards a 1.5 degree future. That means that companies like Intrepid, we need to reduce our scope one our scope two our scope three emissions, change the way in which we're operating as much as we possibly can, and to be honest, try and influence as much change as we can. We're a certified B Corp. And as part of the B Corp movement, a movement that's now over 5000 companies, try to influence change. You know, we see lots of bigger corporate entities. Larry Fink in his annual letter to investors continues to reference purpose, but we need to move from the kind of the referencing of purpose to actually real tangible change and try and drive that through business and influence business that actually there is a way you can be commercially successful. And Intrepid is a for profit entity. But there is also a way that you can run a business that benefits the people and the planet too, and that one should not come at the expense of the other.

Cory Ames  35:29  
I'd love to hear more on that point, specifically, just because I think it's a really interesting piece of discussion to where there feels like there needs to be some sort of tilt between: we won't make decisions to perhaps be more sustainable, or I guess, you know, reduce typically negative environmental impact at the expense of what would be commercial success, or, you know, your revenues, your profit margin, etc. And so to me, it seems like it's this separation of like, how much environmental degradation are we okay with, as opposed to the question of like, well, what sort of conventional business success are we okay with stepping back from? 

I guess, because there's decisions that I'm sure you're making - your leadership team is making - constantly, especially with all the nitty gritty sub economies, local economies that you're involved with. How do you go-- this is super open ended. But how do you go through making those decisions as you're weighing-- You know, for one, the expansion of the products that caught my attention, was you're expanding into adding different accommodations. What I had questions about there is how do you balance that with, you know, exactly what you mentioned earlier of, if you're expanding to accommodations, does that then take some revenue out of potential local community? If Intrepid now provides the accommodations and whatever community someone's visiting, is that then divert some revenues that would have gone elsewhere? I'm not saying that that's that's the case. I'm just wondering how you rationalizing these sorts of decisions in all these different small business decisions that come up over time. 

James Thornton  37:03  
So I think, to be honest, Cory, we use B Corp methodology. And so I don't know I'm sure your listeners are increasingly familiar with B Corps - B Corps are businesses that have to apply by the highest standards of verified social environmental performance, huge degree of transparency and openness. And fundamentally, what they have to do is they have to benefit all stakeholders. And so by benefiting all stakeholders, it's moving away from the traditional Milton Friedman approach to business, which is that companies exist solely to benefit shareholder. Intrepid has five key stakeholder groups that we have to benefit and we have changed our Corporations Act. So we are now a mission locked business. And it requires the directors, of which I'm one, of the companies to benefit all stakeholders in our group. So that's our shareholders, that's our employees, our customers. It's our local communities, and it's the environment within which we operate. 

And the truth is, Cory, it's really hard. And I kind of, you know, I don't put it out there as a wonderful shiny thing to do because it's the right thing to do, or we clearly we believe it's the right thing to do. It is hard, because at times, those things come into conflict. As I said earlier, I could make Intrepid more profitable tomorrow by changing the group average group size from 10 to 20. But I know that 20 will give a worse customer experience, it will mean that we can't stay and support certain operators or providers, we'll have to start chartering more buses, which will mean we have to not be able to use more public transport. So there's all kinds of-- when you're looking at your decision making framework, having to consider all of those five stakeholder groups is complicated. And it is not simple. And Intrepid does not get it right all the time. 

But by using the B Corp methodology, what you're trying to do is as a B Corp, you get assessed every three years, 200 Questions rigorously reviewed, and you're trying to improve your score all the time. And so Intrepid just moved from 82.7, when we first certified in 2018, recertified in 2021, we got a score of 91.2. So we improved by 10%. So all the time, I'm trying to look at how can we improve our score. So if you're a perfect business, you get 200 or 200. So we're not perfect business. So it's always that balance between trying to improve each aspect but I do believe that often they're not at counter to each other. So being a purpose led business and being a for profit business is not one or the other. And what we have found at Intrepid over the course of particularly the last six, seven years is that the more things we've tried to do in the purpose space, and by that I mean we're the first tour operator to ban elephant rides as an example. The more that tends to engage our people, the more engaged people we tend to have tends to enable us to engage our customers better. The more engaged customers we have tends to help stimulate sales and demand. And we know through our business model and the way we operate that the more sales we're able to generate, typically, that then leads to better shareholder returns. And if we're driving higher profits and better shareholder returns, we're able to reinvest more into purpose. 

So very simplistic, but if I use the elephant example, for a minute, go back to 2010. If you want to travel to Asia, pretty much every person traveling to Asia, going to Thailand, would go and jump on an elephant. And so at the time, I can't remember the volume of business that went Southeast Asia for a trip, but let's say it's 35, 40% of our business. But we did a piece of research with World Animal Protection, and it found that over 118 wildlife venues that were surveyed only perform at the basic standards of animal welfare. And so actually what Intrepid was doing, by putting customers onto an elephant riding was harming animal welfare. And that simply wasn't acceptable anymore. But the problem was that people went to Thailand to travel with us, because they wanted to have these experiences. So we made the big bold decision in 2014, to become the first global tour operator to parallel from rides, we shared our rationality and our research as to why we did it. It's still the most shared piece of content Intrepid has ever produced. It got us global media coverage on CNN and BBC and the Financial Times and New York Times and the like. 

And we were quite nervous, because we weren't, maybe our customers would just go and travel with competitors or other people. What we actually found was that in 2015, we carried more people to Thailand than we'd ever carried to Thailand in our past. And perhaps more importantly, we changed the industry because now over 200 tour operators around the world, including the likes of TripAdvisor now ban elephant rights. It is socially unacceptable to, I think, ride elephants in Thailand. So by taking a strong purpose led approach, we actually ended up carrying more people to Thailand, which actually meant that we improved our profitability in the region, but also drove positive social change in the industry was then followed. So that's how I mean that if you get it right, and we don't always get it right, but if you do, purpose can actually drive commercial success and you can actually go about changing the industry and the process. 

Cory Ames  42:30  
I think a huge piece of it that you mentioned there is the commitment to transparency, and as well, experimentation and you know, leaning towards that direction of purpose, what seems right and ethical perhaps. Transparency, both with teams internally, you know, with your employees, but likewise, your customers, you know as to why you're making the decisions that you're making, even if-- because you can gauge that most likely some of them will be wrong decisions that you make. James, I really appreciate you taking the time. But before we wrap up you mind if I ask you a few rapid fire questions?

James Thornton  44:19
Go for it
Cory Ames  44:20  
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All right. So first one, what's maybe a book film or other resource that you might recommend to our listeners? Something that is impacted you recently or maybe you always come back to?

James Thornton  46:02  
Yeah, two quick ones. Let your people go surfing by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. It's Yvon Chouinard's memoir, story of the man who brought doing good and having grand adventures into the heart of his business life and created the most unbelievable business. I'm a huge Patagonia admirer and the work that Yvon's done. So really encourage your readers to read that book. If you want to watch some good TV at the moment, watch, WeCrashed, not just because it's fantastic and taking the wondery podcast story of what happened with WeWork. And while it's, in a way, a horror show, it's also-- I learned a lot. You know, Adam Neumann, visionary storytelling, how culture can really go wrong. And critically, that ultimately cash is king. And why you can drive great revenues, at some point your business has got to be sustainable, and deliver sustainable returns. So yeah, I really enjoyed watching that recently.

Cory Ames  45:35  
Excellent recommendations. Next for you, what's maybe a morning routine or daily habit that you absolutely have to stick to, if anything? 

James Thornton  45:43  
Yeah, I'm based in Australia, but I run a global company with offices in 25 countries. So I'm constantly juggling time zones. And sometimes that means really early start some work calls, especially catching up with my team in the US. But if I can, I do try and fit in regular runs. I've completed four marathons now. I'm running London later in the year and New York just before the pandemic. So although COVID has put a halt to those races over the past couple of years, yeah, running's a really good thing for me, really good for my mind, obviously good for me physically. I always come up with typically three ideas on a good run. I'm also a big soccer, or football fan, as people might be more familiar with it. So you're always trying to keep up on what's the latest scores. I was watching my beloved Tottenham just before this podcast, so I try and squeeze that in as well if I can.

Cory Ames  46:27  
All right. And then one perhaps relevant for you, what's maybe one of your top travel experiences that you've had recently?

James Thornton  46:36  
Wow, recently Cory, I mean, it's such a good one. Best travel experience I've ever had is traveling with the gorillas in Rwanda - that was just absolutely utterly breathtaking. Recently, to be honest, my travel experiences have probably been closer to home. I've been exploring parts of Victoria, which I haven't had the opportunity to do. Last week I was in a pretty amazing spot called Lord Howe Island. Lord Howe Island is a tiny 10 kilometer by one kilometer subtropical Island. It's an hour and 50 minute flight from Sydney, into the Pacific on the way to Fiji. And it's a cross between the Galapagos and Hawaii. Super chilled out beach vibe, but amazing wildlife. So we were swimming with turtles, we were swimming with sharks with Sting rays. So yeah, look out for Lord Howe Island if you can get there sometime, highly recommend it. It's almost like a real life Jurassic Park minus the dinosaurs.

Cory Ames  47:30  
Good. And the last one for you, James, what's one last bit of advice that you might leave our listeners with? These folks are changemakers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe?

James Thornton  47:40  
Yeah, I think many people haven't had a trip since the start of the pandemic. Or, I've heard some people say they're feeling apprehensive about traveling again after two years. And I think if you're one of those people, and you're in a position to do so, do go ahead and book an experience that you've been looking forward to. Don't put it off or wait for it. We've all missed out on so many things. And now I think really is the time to try and make up for that. And just remember that you aren't the only one that will benefit from your travel. Local communities and businesses are ready to welcome you and you can be sure that your travel, if you book it with the right company will have a big positive impact.

Cory Ames  48:18  
All right. Well, James, thank you so much for that to end on. Lastly, where should folks keep up with you and Intrepid? Where are the best places to follow along?

James Thornton  48:26  
Yeah, head to Intrepidtravel.com for all your, kind of, travel wanderlust inspiration experiences - book your next adventure there. We've got over 1000 to choose from. And you can hook me up on Twitter at James P. Thornton or follow Intrepid underscore travel.

Cory Ames  48:42  
All right, we'll have all things linked up in our show post at social entrepreneurship.fm. Thanks so much, James.

James Thornton  48:47  
Thanks, Cory. Good to connect.

Cory Ames  48:48  
All right, y'all. That's a wrap on another episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well. I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers on all things building a better world does the newsletter I write and publish send out myself every single Monday go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox. And finally, if you know of a company work within a company or run a company that might be interested in sponsoring the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, we always love starting conversations with potential partners who share our vision of building a better world together. Go to socialentrepreneurship.fm backslash contact. There, you can fill out a quick form, start that conversation with us. And these sorts of partnerships fuel our mission to build a better world together. All right, y'all. Until next time.

James ThorntonProfile Photo

James Thornton


Hailing from the UK, James began his career in asset management before making a career change to join Intrepid Travel’s UK office as Sales & Marketing Coordinator. Over the past 16 years James has held a variety of senior roles including EMEA Regional Director, General Manager Global Sales, and Managing Director of Intrepid Group. Appointed as CEO in March 2017, James has been instrumental in the growth of Intrepid, focusing on the dual objectives of growing the market for sustainable experience-rich travel and operating a company that balances purpose and profit. Under his leadership, Intrepid achieved B Corporation certification and recorded four consecutive years of record top and bottom line growth between 2015 and 2019. In 2018 James was named Hospitality and Tourism Executive of the Year in the CEO Magazine Awards. He is a member of the Young President’s Organization and the Australian Institute of Company Directors.