An open letter from Intrepid Travel’s CEO: balancing purpose, people and profit during a global pandemic

written by James Thornton April 29, 2020
Intrepid Travel's CEO, James Thornton


For as long as I’ve known Intrepid, the company has never been motivated by money for money’s sake. That’s exactly why I was drawn to it in the first place 15 years ago – it had intentions and motivations beyond just dollar signs.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before.” But let me explain.

Since its inception on a Melbourne kitchen table 31 years ago, Intrepid has been committed to balancing purpose and profit for all of our staff, customers and partners. This global pandemic has made it increasingly challenging to get the balance right.

And in some cases, we haven’t.

Ever since we suspended operations on 14 March for the first time in our 31-year history, our primary focus has been getting more than 3,000 Intrepid travellers home safely as coronavirus spread around the world.

We’ve had to make countless impossible decisions on the fly. Decisions that have ended decades-long careers, decisions that have left families and staff around the world without incomes, decisions that have broken hearts and caused all of our staff and friends a lot of pain.

And we’ve had to make more of these life changing (and business changing) decisions in the past six weeks than the past 31 years combined. We’re an extremely close-knit team at Intrepid, and it’s hit us all hard.

At the same time as all of this has been happening, some of our customers have raised concerns about changes to our booking conditions and our response to their enquiries. Those concerns were absolutely valid. And in the midst of everything we’ve been dealing with, while our intentions have always been good, we could’ve handled some things better.

And I’m sorry we didn’t.

For any customers who feel disappointed with our response to their enquiries during this time, who feel as though we have taken their trust for granted, or who feel like we’ve let them down, I hear you, and I apologise.

As CEO, I take responsibility. I’ve also taken action. We have now formed a critical response team to speed up our processes. Thank you for your patience and support as we have worked through these issues.

As I mentioned above, none of the decisions we have ever made as a business, and especially over the past six weeks, have been motivated by money. Let me demonstrate what I mean by that: we make on average 4% profit on every trip we operate. So, when you purchase a trip from us, 96% of your payment goes to facilitating the experience, paying suppliers and staff, and the business earns 4%. When we sell a trip for $2,000, we make around $80.

That’s how the business has always worked. We try and keep prices down because we want our style of travel to be accessible and affordable. And we put an enormous chunk of that 4% profit back into community and environmental projects around the world that help improve livelihoods, and work towards safeguarding this planet for future generations. The Intrepid Foundation, our charity, has raised over $10m since 2002 alone.

Tree planting in MyanmarThat is not just marketing talk, or spin, or ‘greenwashing’. Everything we do as a business is driven by this purpose. Our trips, by sheer virtue of them existing, help change people’s lives for the better.

Outside of paying our staff to facilitate all of this great work, that is literally where the money, your money, goes. We even report on it every year. You can read our 2019 report here.

The point is that we walk our talk, and in 2018 we were even certified as a B-Corp. In order to achieve that certification, a business needs to meet the highest ethical and moral standards at every single touchpoint. It’s great, yes. But we feel like it’s also literally the least we can do. We want to help try and solve the global issues we’re facing. Being a profitable business puts us in a great position to do that.

We know that responsible travel can be a huge force for good, so we’re finding it especially tough to be a travel company that can’t travel right now.

We had to suspend trips which resulted in 35,000 cancellations from March through to May, and now with no signs of borders reopening, we have been forced to suspend all trips through until the end of September.

This decision further impacts all the people that rely on Intrepid. We’re offering all our customers 110% travel credit for when the world opens up again. We don’t know when that will be – nobody does – but we know that we will be there when it happens.

And the shape Intrepid is in when that does happen depends on all of us – including you.

Nepalese leader in the mountains looking into the distanceSo that’s what we’re asking of our customers: if you can, please take the 110% credit voucher. That will help us plan for the future, it will help us employ countless numbers of people both in our offices and destinations, and it will enable us to offer you the best service and trips imaginable when the world opens up again.

We understand that some of our customers have also lost jobs and income as a result of the pandemic and a credit simply won’t cut it. We are not denying those people refunds, and their wellbeing is extremely important to us.

But for those customers who can afford it: giving those refunds now will make it much harder for us to get back on our feet when this is all over, much harder for us to get back to work, much harder for us to do anything.

So please understand: it isn’t your money, for money’s sake, that we’re interested in. It’s what your bookings and your commitment to travelling with us means for our staff, our local guides around the world, our suppliers, the communities we visit, and the social and environmental causes we believe in.

By accepting that 110% travel credit and keeping your trust in Intrepid, you’re making a down payment on the kind of world you want to see when the worst of this coronavirus epidemic has passed. And, with the help of our staff and local leaders around the world, you will be able to see it.

For the past 31 years Intrepid has done whatever it can to be a genuine force for good. I hope that with your support now, we’ll be able to continue for at least another 31.

Thank you for all of your support. In more ways than one, it means the world to us.


Editor’s notes: this article was updated on 30 April 2020 to reflect the current number of trip suspensions. Unfortunately, due to the impact of the pandemic and the overwhelming amount of comments on this letter, our team have been unable to respond to everyone. We are grateful for the kind thoughts and encouragement shared by many of you and have reached out to any travellers with cancelled trips directly to discuss their situation. As specified in our original booking conditions and within this letter, we are offering refunds to customers who request them and apologise for any delays in responding to enquiries. 


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