April 12, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

A Q&A With Intrepid’s Kenny Onishi

12 min read

Group travel is either a wonderful, unique, life-affirming experience — or one of the seven circles of hell, depending on who you ask. But some travel companies, like Intrepid, have been hard at work on fixing group travel’s reputation. Namely, bringing people around to the idea that group travel doesn’t necessarily have to be something one does when one is either very young or very old, but something one can do when one is neither.

The result is somewhere between a Contiki tour full of Australians who like to party and a Trafalgar tour full of pensioners (who like to party). While Intrepid tours by no means discourage partying, the emphasis is more on building social connections through such things as exploring new places, experiencing culture shock, and having stimulating dinner conversations about art, politics, and Taylor Swift.

Intrepid Travel was founded 35 years ago by two friends from Australia who wanted to travel, but not necessarily party while doing it. They believed in a new idea for group travel: that it could benefit not just the travelers themselves, but also the communities they visited. Inspired, the two friends — Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester (“Manch”) — set off for Africa. They decided to forego the comfort of an air-conditioned bus, modified a truck, and crammed it with friends and supplies. On this trip, they realized that this was something others might be interested in doing, possibly without the cramminess. At the time, the word ‘intrepid’ seemed to perfectly encapsulate the type of group travel adventures they wanted to create.

These days, Intrepid offers small group tours to just about anywhere in the world, with a well-defined community engagement program and robust sustainability guidelines that includes a B Corporation certification; a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), a framework used to align a company’s operations and strategies with universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption; and a commitment plan that supports our Climate Emergency declaration. (Intrepid has been carbon-neutral since 2010, and carbon offset all its trips.)

Besides doing good for the planet, Intrepid also believes doing good for people. This manifests itself largely in the company’s trip design, which encourages spontaneous human connection and social interaction through culturally-enriching activities that abide by the ‘off-the-beaten-track’ mantra without literally straying too far from said beaten track. In other words, your Instagram stories will look just as good as people on other group tours, but you’ll have the additional benefit of a cool, non-touristy experience that will make for a great bonding moment — think things like staying in a traditional Japanese guest house in the mountains; visiting a Turkish bazaar with an all-female craft group; or taking a cooking class inside someone’s actual home. (You’ll find many reviews and forum posts affirming this: the most common story seems to be people meet on Intrepid trips, become great friends, and then go on more Intrepid trips together.)

But how does Intrepid actually ensure the humans on its trips form meaningful bonds? Is the secret something stupendously simple, like keeping the group sizes small, thereby all but safeguarding some kind of interaction? Or is there more than goes into it, like grouping like-minded people together and hurling them toward adversity, like, say, forcing them to catch public transport in a foreign city where no one speaks the language? Or perhaps it’s both, or neither.

There was only really one way to find out. Below, I spoke with Kenny Onishi, Intrepid General Manager, Japan, to learn more about Intrepid’s approach to trip design.

How does the trip design process at Intrepid work? How is each trip itinerary decided, and what are some of the steps and thinking that go into this process? (Would love it if you shared specific examples from trips you’ve designed.)

Step 1: Check booking trends.

Step 2: Gain potential product knowledge through our local operators (DMCs) and doing desktop research.

Step 3: Collect feedback from customers, agents, sales & marketing teams.

Step 4: Research travel trends though conferences and reports organized by different tourism bodies and organizations.

Step 5: Competitor research.

Step 6: Digital insights like google trends, key word searches.

With the Premium Japan trip, for example, we researched the key highlights in Japan that are essential by looking at search trends, competitor offerings, insights from our sales and marketing team and defining the product style. We identified the market and needs of our customers, i.e., North American customers like short and travel with more comfort, mostly older customers, slow pace preferred, etc.

Finally, we work very closely with our Destination Management Company (DMC) on confirming logistics and key inclusions and finding the wow experiences that will suit the need of our customers.

In a post-COVID era, I think group travel holds the promise and ability to bring us back together. My first question on this is: did Intrepid see an uptick in sales following the pandemic? Was there enough evidence to suggest not just a resurgence in people’s desires to travel but also to be connected to others when doing so?

Global travel has bounced back rapidly and demand for our style of sustainable experience-rich travel is stronger than ever. We can see that in our record sales results and positive cashflow. While in many ways it feels like business is back, of course, that’s not the full picture.

The pandemic will leave generational scars and already we can see that some countries and regions have been much slower to recover. Inequality is growing and huge global challenges remain. Making friends and connections are actually the main reason for many people who travel with Intrepid.

I’m interested in the idea of how group trips can be designed to foster human and social connections. Is this built into the trip design process at Intrepid? If so, would love if you to talk a little bit about your experience in designing trips in such a way that people get the chance to connect/talk/get to know each other.

Over the past 30 years, Intrepid has figured out what travelers really want on a group tour; ease and peace of mind of traveling with others and a mix of local secrets and authentic experiences so they can experience the pulse of a destination… and not just see it.

Intrepid averages about 10 people per tour — the perfect number to hop on a local bus, squeeze into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and get to know people on a deeper level. We certainly design our trips with this in mind.

Small group travel takes away all the awkward pressure to befriend strangers and automatically gifts you with a small circle of like-minded, enthusiastic travel mates to ooh and aah with, take your photos, share meals with…plus, traveling with a close group of people automatically translates to family, as there is nothing that bonds people together quite like a 4-hour bus ride or experiencing stomach flus together.

Let’s talk about Japan specifically. I have been on an Intrepid group trip around Japan, and it was interesting to see what kind of things the group bonded over. I noticed the big group bonding moments usually happened around cultural differences/shocks — with Japan specifically, how do you design the trip in such a way as to provide a good balance of these moments, without tipping the scales too far in either direction?

At Intrepid, we always try to provide more insight into local culture and life through authentic experiences , providing travelers the opportunities to experience the local culture just as the local people do. It’s not always an easy balance when it comes to culture differences. It does come down to how open-minded our travelers are but we like to believe that by choosing to travel with Intrepid or choosing to travel to a different country and culture, there is already a level of acceptance for culture differences.

We’ll work closely with our local team to figure out the local experiences that have a positive impact on our travelers and really nail on what the experience is like, what it involves, the level of excitement/shock this may cause for our customers.

For example, visiting an onsen spa is an essential part of Japanese culture and part of the charm that Japan holds on the rest of the world. So, it’s highly recommended but we work with our local team to ensure that it’ll be a positive experience for our customers. We manage customers’ expectations on such activities, what to prepare for, what’s unique about it, or its cultural significance, and the potential unfamiliarity they may be faced with. In this case, we have information about onsen in our ETI to prepare customers for it.

We ensure the delivery of the experience is flexible and accommodating, with our leaders and suppliers setting the right expectations for customers and done in a way that’s respectful to local culture and people as well. This would mean the leader would explain about the general onsen etiquette, recommending high quality onsens to visit, and accommodate requests like having a tattoo, allow people to opt out and recommend alternative activities to do.

We also make sure we have a backup plan too if it may get too confronting for certain customers. In this case, it’ll be recommending using a private one.

[For other experiences], we keep an eye on new trend in the destination and what the competitors are doing well, plus review our customers feedbacks and leader reports to make sure we are able to make adjustment and improvements.

Finally, and potentially the most important aspect, we look who our customers are and what they want to experience in the destinations too, the style of their traveling, the demographic, their personal interests and we design the trip in a way that can satisfy them, ie. for a foodie trip in Japan, we’d include more experience with food and drinks, not just for them to try different food but also to understand the process of making them or the cultural importance, or if it’s a premium trip, our feature accommodation presents the Japanese character of a traditional onsen but with a twist of having a private onsen in the room with elevated beds instead of tatami mats, and the communal onsen with view as well.

How do you work with local business owners and on-the-ground teams in a country like Japan to ensure that Intrepid groups get an authentic experience? One of my favorite moments from the Japan itinerary was the few days in the mountains where we slept in a traditional Japanese guest house. Would love it if you could talk about the thinking behind balancing moments like this with more traditional aspects like museums, restaurants, guided tours, historical sites, etc.

Working with local small businesses is our guiding principle as a responsible travel business who want to promote sustainable development in a destination. We differentiate ourselves from the traditional tour companies who are inclined to offer generic tours. Iconic sites are an essential part of why people want to visit a destination but being able to be shown the more niche, yet wow experiences and places are the icing on the cake and is what we are proud of ourselves in providing. And these would often be experiences that customers do not know how to arrange by themselves.

Even for iconic sites, we also want to look at how to do it differently. Take Fushimi inari in Kyoto for example, most tours will only make it to the temple ground and see the Red Torri Gate and that’ll be it. But for us, we’ll want to go up higher in the mountain and follow the Torri Gate all the way to a viewpoint where you may have a bird’s eye view of the Kyoto city (providing a hike up to the mountain would suit the customer type). Most of the generic tours to Fushimi Inari won’t do this.

Our DMCs being the expert on the ground would be able to help us bridge the gap and discover experiences and work with businesses that can provide a unique experiences to our customers and they can also provide training to them to understand our style of travel, our customers and ensure there’s a way to a sustainable cooperative working relationship.

How much do you allow guest feedback to influence trip design? Can you talk about an example where a piece of particularly great feedback influenced the outcome of a trip in terms of design/itinerary/etc.?

We constantly review feedbacks from our customers. Normally if we see a repeating issue, then we’ll look at how we can address it to improve the trip. Customers sometimes will provide great ideas too like if they did something in their free time that they love, we’ll also see that as an opportunity to develop new experiences.

Japan Highlight trip for example, this year is the first year we’ve run it since the pandemic yet when we reviewed the feedback on it from pre-pandemic, the feedback wasn’t great re: the visit to Kamakura as it wasn’t providing enough iconic and niche experiences to customers on a short trip to Japan. Therefore, we worked with DMC on finding alternative destinations that can deliver both (ie. iconic — view of Mt. Fuji, Japanese tea culture and niche — farm stay and local family experience) and we’ve already had over 100% increase on this tour this year comparing to 2019 and the feedbacks are so much better too.

What are your particular thoughts on the post-pandemic travel world? What trends are you seeing, particularly in the Asia sector? What are people craving, and how is this influencing what types of trips and experiences you’re thinking about doing in the future?

More people are traveling with more comfort and prefer to visit the destinations that they are familiar with (i.e., Europe) or go to bucket list destinations (i.e., Egypt). Japan and South Korea has the biggest increases for us with bookings, as they are likely to be considered safe but also has distinct culture and traditions that are very different from our source market.

An increasing demand on comfort level but also balancing with the budget they have, i.e., a customer may travel on a Basix trip in Japan as Japan is still a very expensive destination however may choose to travel on our comfort trip in Cambodia because it’s a relatively cheap destination.

People want to have more experiences on their trips rather than doing generic touring. This could be an accommodation with cool local character or a street market food crawl — things are authentic and may not be very familiar to the general crowds.

We have already been developing more comfort and premium level trips around the world, including adding another premium trip in Japan and a premium trip in South Korea. But we need to keep constant check on the trend as this is only the first year of the return of global travel after the pandemic.

Finally, can you talk about a personal travel experience on a group trip that really impacted you and was memorable for all the right reasons? Would love to hear some of your stories!

I will have to say about my trips to Central Asian countries – Central Asia Explorer, visiting Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I was lucky to travel on this trip in 2018 and it was such a great group tour for all the right reasons. First up, it’s a destination that’s difficult to travel on your own.

Secondly, we keep a small group size (10 of us on the tour) so that we can use smaller vehicles to access roads that leads to villages and local communities that we visit. So, the group are ‘forced’ to cramp together almost all the time for the first half the trip. This may sound a little risky for group dynamic but it’s the experiences of being on such a road trip, visiting very small places where we are the only foreigners in the village, with the leader being very engaging and bringing the group together to experience all the new things that we all bonded so well with each tother (also over a bit of Vodka and card games).

Finally, we were a very diverse group from people in their 70s from Canada to people in their mid-20s from Switzerland — altogether 6 different nationalities including our leader and we’ve all become friends. We all stay in touch, even after five years.

When getting to Uzbekistan, the second half of the trip, when we didn’t have to be all in one vehicle all the time, we were able to still do a lot of activities together but also some personal explorations and exchange about the new things we’ve experienced separately too. Also being on this one trip visiting two different countries are like doing two separate trips given the culture and landscape and experiences are so rich and different. The destinations experiences and the group together have made this a great trip for me.

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