Darrell Wade, 47, has enjoyed travelling ever since he first tagged along with his retailer father on a buying trip into China, aged six. But it wasn't until 1988, when he drove a converted pick-up truck across the Sahara, that the backpacking enthusiast thought of how to do it on a permanent basis. Sitting round a campfire with an old university chum called Geoff Manchester, he discussed the pros and cons of independent travel. Going it alone meant "you can do what you want, where you want", but it would often cost more. A traditional tour was cheaper, "but you're herded around like sheep and told where to eat and when to sleep. We asked if there could be a happy medium."
A graduate in marketing from Melbourne University, he knew that once he was safely back home in Australia his first step should be to conduct market research. But those he spoke to in the industry were less than enthused. "They all told us we were crazy. 'No one travels like that,' they said. 'You'll go broke don't do it.'" Wade and Manchester ignored them. "We decided that because it was a new idea, it was either great and we'd make a fortune, or it was really dumb and they were right, and we'd go broke. We decided to take a punt on the former."
In 1989, armed with a A$20,000 loan from Wade's family, they bought a second-hand typewriter, borrowed a dining room table and blagged some free office space from an Italian travel agent in the Melbourne suburbs "who offered his store room in exchange for the commission on any airfares we sold". They printed a brochure and ran some newspaper adverts for escorted tours into Thailand, but "nothing really worked. We'd get two to three phone calls for every ad when we really needed 10-12."
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It was to be a full four years before "I got an acceptable level of income", he says. The breakthrough came in 1993 when they started running trips into Vietnam. It had been a closed communist state since the end of the war in 1975, but was just starting to open up. Intrepid Travel was fortunate to be one of the first tour operators into the area. At A$2,000 a head, they took 500 travellers to the country in 1993, then 1,500 in 1994, gaining some good PR in the process. Expanding tours into other countries, they hit the A$1m turnover mark by 1995. By 2000, they were doing $A10m a year and growing at 40% a year.
Then came the Sars epidemic. "The impact of Sars in 2003 was a real wake-up call. We were still just Asian-based, and it closed down our gateway hub, Singapore, and destinations like Vietnam. So we set about diversifying into other regions." After establishing start-up units in Ecuador and Peru, they bought a British tour company in 2006 which gave them access to Africa. Since 2004, the firm's turnover has grown from A$30m turnover to more than A$120m. Doesn't he ever get bored of travelling? "Hell no! I just got back from Africa last week and it reaffirmed what an amazing privilege it is to work in a growing travel company. As we cruised the Zambezi River searching for sites for a new game lodge it occurred to me that life could be worse!"
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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