//Interview: James Thornton, CEO, Intrepid Group

Interview: James Thornton, CEO, Intrepid Group

Sam Ballard talks sustainable travel and shared value at the small group operator. 

Once a niche interest, responsible travel now attracts more travellers than ever. In fact, in its Travel Trends report, ABTA has said this will be the year that responsible tourism goes mainstream.

However, there are a select few that have been promoting it for decades. The Intrepid Group is most certainly on that list.

Founded in 1989 by Australians Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester, Intrepid is now one of the leading small group tour operators in the world. It doesn’t just donate money to worthy causes, but looks to create ‘shared value’ between local communities and corporate entities.

“Traditionally there was corporate philanthropy and then there was corporate social responsibility,” explains James Thornton, CEO of the Intrepid Group – the first non-founder to hold the position. “Now there’s shared value, which is an initiative we subscribe to.

“The idea is that through partnerships you can collaborate on an issue – be it environmental or social – and, critically, create a competitive advantage for the business. Philanthropy is fine, but it isn’t sustainable. It’s too easy for corporates to walk away. If it provides the corporate entity with a competitive advantage then it will capture and engage the corporate in solving a commercial problem.”

This is the future of sustainable travel. Essentially, create a business model whereby the company benefits from a sustainable social enterprise and the entire mechanism is self-fulfilling. For Intrepid, which will take 430,000 travellers away this year, it means leveraging the power of that consumer base to do some real good while also making a profit.

“An example of the work we do is an initiative called Koto in Ho Chi Minh City,” Thornton adds. “It was started by an ex-Intrepid leader called Jimmy Fam. He wanted to set up a cookery school and train up local, underprivileged children to provide them with an income that would enable them to have a livelihood.

“We’ve been big supporters. Not only is it philanthropic in nature, but it provides us with a competitive advantage. We can take our groups to Vietnam and through Koto. They get to have a fantastic experience and eat a local meal cooked by trainees in this cookery school. Then they can make donations themselves.”

Intrepid went carbon neutral in 2010 and banned orphanage visits in 2016-17 after research it commissioned revealed that as many as 70 per cent of orphans had been sold into orphanages by their parents. One of the more controversial initiatives that Intrepid took a leading stance on had a more surprising effect, however.

“In 2014 we became the first tour operator to ban elephant rides,” says Thornton. “We commissioned the charity World Animal Protection to look at animal welfare standards in 118 elephant parks in southeast Asia. They found that only four met even the most basic standards.

“Back then, southeast Asia made up 35 to 40 per cent of our overall business and almost every operator would have elephant rides on the front of their brochure. It was a difficult choice. Would people move over to competitors to get that experience? Or should we take a market-leading position.”

The ban came in March 2014 and the avalanche of positive coverage that followed – by global media outlets such as the BBC, CNN and the Financial Times – meant they have an ownership of this topic.

“As a result 122 tour operators followed in our footsteps,” Thornton adds. “It’s now socially unacceptable. It also helped us grow. The year after we banned elephant rides more people travelled with us to Thailand than the year before.”

Thornton, who joined Intrepid in 2005, held various roles in the business before becoming CEO in March 2017. He now also chairs the Intrepid Foundation – the group’s not-for-profit arm – which is run independently but with its costs covered by the Group. At WTM London last November he picked up a World Tourism Award for the work that the foundation has engaged in.

Since becoming chairman, Thornton has brought in a general manager and hired a team of three. There has been a narrowing of focus to target United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Eight – which is about fair work and employment.

That is where initiatives such as Koto or the Tourism Hub in Myanmar – an initiative with local women in Yangon – come in. Well thought out social enterprises give Intrepid’s travellers unique experiences. That in turn increases the company’s profits and allows them to create more.

“There is totally a business case for responsible travel. We have two overarching things we try and do in our company. The first is that we try and grow the market for sustainable, experience-rich travel. The second thing we try and do is create a business that has a purpose beyond profit. That’s not to say that we don’t want to make a profit. We just want a core reason for being, beyond making a profit.

“We fundamentally believe that the more we are able to grow, the more we can do things in the purpose space, and the more we do in the purpose space, the more we are able to grow.”