On 25 April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal’s Gorka region triggering an avalanche on Mt Everest and devastating local communities. Within twenty-four hours, Intrepid Travel established emergency relief, pledging to donate all profits from 2015/16 Nepal trips towards international and local NGOs working to rebuild the country.
Almost thirty years ago, Darrell Wade and Geoff ‘Manch’ Manchester, who met during their first week at the University of Melbourne, founded Intrepid Travel with a vision to provide value-for-money travel adventures that benefit both travellers and the places they visit.
Commitment to their socially conscious business model has been a key driver of success and seen the company expand to become a global leader in responsible travel connecting over 250,000 travellers with inspiring experiences in more than 100 countries across all 7 continents.
When I interviewed Wade, just days after the Gorka earthquake, he was in Nepal reviewing reconstruction efforts and evaluating after-affects in the areas Intrepid operate, to ensure safety for travellers and offer support to local teams and suppliers.
The earthquake had triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest. Kathmandu also suffered damage, and fears of aftershocks, as well as the loss of homes, forced villagers into temporary huts. The surrounding hilltop villages were worst hit; many reduced to rubble; but the mountains themselves are relatively intact.
“Tourism is the biggest employer in the country and has a far greater footprint that just those directly employed by the industry,” says Wade. “Further aid dollars will help – and we will continue our appeal. But I believe the best thing we can do now is actually visit Nepal so our work in the region is focused on making this possible.”
Dr Ben Neville from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Management and Marketing, says Intrepid’s approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR) can be defined as broad. In contrast to a narrow method, based solely on yielding profit, Intrepid recognises the broader environments upon which the business is dependent.
“A broad CSR approach doesn’t necessarily result in direct measurable returns,” says Dr Neville, “but generally we see important in-kind business impact, such as improved social bonds, brand perception and cost savings through improved environmental efficiencies.”
Intrepid invests in internationally accredited projects in their biggest destinations to offset their carbon footprint and offers customers the opportunity to help tackle climate change by offsetting the most carbon-intensive portion of their trip, the flight. They also contribute to local economies by hiring local staff, using locally owned ground transportation and accommodation, recommending local vendors, and investing in renewable energy projects.
Making philanthropic donations to the destinations where they operate was a core part of Intrepid’s original business plan.
The irony of our plan to me is that our philanthropy actually started before we had ever received an income ourselves. I’m not entirely sure we didn’t take the business model a bit far!
TURNING ALTRUISTIC VISION INTO A BUSINESS REALITY
“Customers and other stakeholders are not experts in the social and environmental issues that face a company,” says Dr Neville, “so businesses must show leadership in developing programs that prevent harm and address problems. The legitimacy of Intrepid’s CSR program fuels brand loyalty, where customers will the company to succeed.”
Full of youthful enthusiasm after graduating with commerce degrees, the entrepreneurs had a compelling business plan for low cost, authentic travel, fueled by a strong sense of social and environmental responsibility. But, they broke the number one rule of starting a new business - not having enough money to make it happen. While cash was in short supply, they had resourcefulness in abundance and very quickly identified a low risk opportunity to expand internationally.
“We realised that the Australian market was very small for what we had in mind,” explains Wade. “So, we got on planes and found agents in New Zealand, Canada and the UK in the first year. The great thing about agents was that you didn’t have to pay them to promote your products, only when they made sales.”
While growing their reach and establishing offices in source markets and destinations across the world, as well as expanding their offering with innovative unique travel itineraries, Wade and Manch were simultaneously advancing their responsible travel ethos.
One day about ten years ago, while I was reading Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, I realised that far from being a responsible travel company, we were in fact environmental vandals; our carbon emissions were huge.
From that day, Intrepid measured, managed and mitigated emissions from every day of every trip and the company was declared carbon neutral in 2010.
Intrepid’s philanthropic actions also support their core business by preserving the untapped culture and beauty of their global destinations, which offer travellers uniquely authentic experiences. “For us, destination preservation and cultural protection is, and always has been, very important because this is what our travellers come to see and enjoy in the first place,” says Wade. “You can’t have one without the other.”
Active participation in rebuilding Nepal is just part of the Intrepid’s commitment to their customers and to conserving the global environment that is their playground. In 2002, they established The Intrepid Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that allows travellers to give back to the communities they visit. The foundation has raised over AUD$4 million for more than 70 non-government organisations around the world, which support initiatives in health care, education, human rights, child welfare, sustainable development, environmental conservation and wildlife protection.
Dr Neville says it is becoming increasingly important for businesses to drive change. “It is more important than ever for businesses to take global leadership on social and environmental problems,” says Dr Neville.
“Take the B Team, a conglomerate of business leaders providing a united voice to drive a better way of doing business for the wellbeing of people and planet; they recognise that their long-term business interests are dependent on a healthy social and natural environment, as well as a healthy global economy.”
“Business in Australia has generally been very slow to recognise this, or at least to speak up and lead on these issues. Intrepid is a trailblazer in this sense and clearly understands the importance of preserving the social and environmental fabric, both for the local communities and for their own business.”