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How Intrepid Travel was smacked with an industry-changing pandemic – and kept on swimming

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Among the many, oh-so many sectors affected negatively by the global pandemic, you can count the travel and tourism sectors among those hit the hardest. Dynamic Business sat down with Sarah Clark, Managing Director APAC at adventure travel company Intrepid Travel, to discuss how lockdowns and travel restrictions impacted the business and how they were forced to adjust on the fly.

Intrepid Travel began 2020 in peak form. In fact, January of 2020 was the company’s biggest sales month thus far, following four years of strong growth and a turnover of $AUD491 million in 2019 alone. The business’s angle of “sustainable experience-rich travel” was paying off, customers enjoying staying in locally owned accommodation and homestays, eating at local neighbourhood restaurants and travelling by public transport where possible.

To say things were looking good was an understatement. Apart from business going swimmingly, Intrepid Travel was making strong moves in purpose-led activities such as climate change, animal welfare and orphanage tourism. In February 2020, the company had made a deal with WWF-Australia for marine researchers to accompany some voyages to Antarctica and even published a seven-point climate action plan.

And then the clouds rolled in

“Intrepid started to see the impacts of COVID-19 on bookings in February 2020,” Sarah tells Dynamic Business.

“As a responsible business, we started to look at the different scenarios. Part of being a B Corp [businesses given a certification of “social and environmental performance”] means transparency is key, so we shared information with our global teams. Come mid-March when a pandemic was declared and international borders closed, like most businesses, that’s when we really felt the impact.”

Sarah describes how Intrepid, following years of record financial growth, a strong balance sheet and no debt, suddenly found itself managing a halt on travel and a subsequent impact on bookings and revenue. On top of that, there were the very real health and safety concerns for customers and staff suddenly stranded following last-minute restrictions.

“When borders started to close and we halted global operations for the first time in our 31-year history, we had more than 3,000 customers stuck in different countries, as well as leaders and crew,” Sarah says.

“Our focus was on repatriating those people, which was a complex exercise especially in countries where most travel, including flights, had suddenly stopped. A major advantage Intrepid has is that we own a network of destination management companies, which means we have experts with local contacts on the ground in 23 countries. That was a huge help in the immediate crisis.”

Reducing headcount

As with countless businesses around the world during this period, Intrepid was also forced to face something all companies dread: a reduction in staff.

“The pandemic has been devastating for travel and tourism and we needed to protect the business for the long-term,” Sarah says, before laying down the devastating number. “Over the last 12 months, our global workforce has reduced by around 45 per cent.”

Sarah describes the decisions she and Intrepid’s management team had to make during this time as “some of the toughest of my career,” and points out the importance of teamwork and trust among colleagues in helping business leaders get through the hard times.

“Having a strong and trusted bond with our leadership team meant we were able to support each other through those times. For me, perspective was a grounding factor.

“We have people all around the globe, in communities that are reliant on the travel industry for survival. We are lucky enough to live in a country that has a safety net when things like this happen, however not everyone is so lucky. In some ways being a leader in this situation is better as you need to be positive and there for your people. It’s the people that help you push through.”

Just keep swimming

Managing the staff that continued on with Intrepid became a high priority for Sarah and the leadership team, particularly as high emotions and remote work added to overall concerns.

“Throughout the pandemic, Intrepid implemented a variety of measures to help our team manage. For instance, our EAP [Employee Assistance Program] was extended to all of our offices. This program was always available to staff in Australia, but now, staff and their families all around the access have access to four free confidential counselling sessions on a variety of topics per year.

“Our management team also increased communication with staff, developed a virtual health and wellness hub, and checked in on how they were going through two people surveys throughout the year. This was particularly essential when transitioning the teams and adjusting them to remote work.”

As difficult as this period has been, Sarah explains that it was imperative that Intrepid use the quiet period to plan ahead.

“While the pandemic is obviously devastating for tourism, Intrepid made the decision to use this pause on global travel to reimagine parts of the business to position us strongly for the rebound. This included the launch of a whole new range of local trips across the globe and the development of new virtual experiences for customers to enjoy at home.

“We’ve also used this time to develop tools to help other travel businesses restart in a more responsible way, such as our decarbonisation guide, which provides easy and practical steps that all businesses can take to start reducing their carbon emissions today.”

That guide, for those interested, can be downloaded here.

Full steam ahead

Sarah says she has endeavoured to stay optimistic during the last year, and is even more hopeful now that – where possible – doors are opening and the tourism industry is seeing a chance to make a comeback.

“Travel will rebound, and when it does, we want to be leading the way to ensure it is rebuilt sustainably. Delivering tourism dollars back into local economies around the globe and reconnecting people with different cultures and experiences is what continues to drive our passionate team. There is an exciting time ahead for the travel industry – reimagined.”


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Guillermo Troncoso
Guillermo is the Editor of Dynamic Business and Manager of film & television entertainment site ScreenRealm.com. Follow him on Twitter.