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This travel company books surprise wilderness adventure vacations

Black Tomato Co-Founder Tom Marchant explains the business model for planning globe-trotting luxury surprise vacations, the price point for these experience purchases, travel demand, and rising energy prices affecting travel expenses.

Video Transcript

DAVE BRIGGS: Well, for those of you that flew over this holiday weekend, you are well aware travel is back, big time. Official TSA numbers show nearly a half a million more air travelers this time of year than just a year ago, and just a fraction off of pre-pandemic levels, despite massive inflation at a 40-year high. Many even showed up at the airport with no idea where they were headed.

Tom Marchant is the co-founder of Black Tomato Travel. Tom, I went to Charleston, South Carolina over the weekend. I don't like surprises, but your company caters to those who love a big surprise. Tell us how this works.

TOM MARCHANT: Yeah, I mean, we cater to people who are looking for exceptional travel experiences. And we have a service called Get Lost, where we literally get people lost and help them explore their way out of wildernesses. It started a few years ago, where we saw people coming to us, saying, look, I'm looking for a challenge. I want to do something different, something I've never done before. And so we asked ourselves a question-- what would be both a physical and perhaps a mental challenge for someone?

And that would be taking them to a remote area, giving them some basic survival training, and then giving them a challenge to explore their way out of these stunning landscapes, all the while, in the eyesight of our special guides and people on hand to make sure they're still safe. But it means you manage to take people all over the world, from Morocco, to Iceland, to Libya, to Utah, and giving them some of the most sort of exceptional, I'd say, travel experiences of their lives.

SEANA SMITH: Tom, that sounds like a very, very intense trip, especially for people who might not be necessarily expecting it. I'm curious, have you ever gotten pushback from some of your users? Maybe they weren't looking to be that active, or they didn't want to go to the particular destination that you guys picked out for them. And how do you handle that?

TOM MARCHANT: It's a really good question. I mean, the whole setup of our company is that we're bespoke, so we're always set up to cater for our customers' needs. But one person's fitness, say, or appetite for adventure is very different to another's.

So it's our job to really understand just what they're looking for and have honest and candid conversations, conversations with them. That's the only way you're going to get a good trip. So perhaps if some time, someone might sound quite ambitious, we'll ask them a few questions just to understand if they really are that ambitious. And then we'll work with them to give them the trip that they deserve and will remember forever.

DAVE BRIGGS: How much does it cost? And how many people are you seeing doing this? Is it growing?

TOM MARCHANT: It really is growing. I mean, the cost varies from low $10,000s to, depending on where you're going in the world and for how long with how many people, to the over six figures. We have seen a significant increase in these type of trips since the pandemic, actually, quite interestingly. I think during the pandemic, a lot of people were planning what are they going to do when they could travel again, looking for a really epic adventure. Perhaps, they needed to kind of have an experience that allowed them to reset and think about what they want to do going forward in their lives and looking for something that would really give them all of that.

And yeah, we've seen a spike in about 30% on bookings. And enquiries are up 80%. And we're seeing the trend get picked up the travel industry all over the world. So we think it's a type of travel that will appeal and continue to appeal. By all means, it's not the only type of travel that people take or that we offer, I should add. But it certainly caters to the sense of adventure, the sense of spirit, and the sense of doing something different that I think during COVID, when we were so frustratingly locked down, people often daydreamed about and has decided to take action and actually bring that to life.

DAVE BRIGGS: OK, so are these people tend-- do they tend to be very adventurous people or, typically, over-planned, boring people that really need to shake it up and wake up their life? And if you could, tell me the most popular spots.

TOM MARCHANT: It's a really good question. I would say that both of those types. I mean, I could think of one great customer was a mom from the States who wanted to just kind take a break from the-- I don't know-- the day-to-day and shake up her life a bit and get purpose back. And that really gave her purpose again.

And other people are-- other types are, yes, there's adventure-hungry people who are looking to do something different. In terms of popularity, Iceland, you know, it's the country that's almost like God created for natural adventure. Morocco is very popular. In the US, we're doing these kinds of adventures in areas such as Utah and New Mexico. And then down into Southern Africa as well, the areas like Namibia have the most beautiful and striking landscapes, which to take these adventures within.

SEANA SMITH: Tom, we've been talking a lot about inflation, higher gas prices. Obviously, that has an impact on air travel. How has inflation impacted your business at all? Are you raising rates? And I guess, how do you see that playing out over the next couple of months, as the White House and the Fed works to get inflation under control?

TOM MARCHANT: It's a really good question. I think at the moment, we haven't seen it impacting our business. The level of demand for the type of travel we offer and from the audience sector we cater to is the highest it's ever been in the company's history. However, the rising costs are part of the conversations we have with our customers. And people are using the possible future impact of those to really assess what they're getting from their trip.

Is it real value, which is a key thing for us, really proving that every dollar spent is a dollar well spent. But at the moment, I think a lot of people during the pandemic, we're seeing kind of recalibrated what they wanted to do with their travel lives. And we are seeing them move more of their spending to an area perhaps over other areas. So it's not something that we can ignore. And we are very aware of the potential impact. But at the moment, demand has never been higher. And we're trying to cater for that, but still, obviously, throughout all of it, deliver great value.

DAVE BRIGGS: Because of that demand that you mentioned, that Seana mentioned, that we have seen thousands of flights canceled just over the weekend, there's a reported shortage of pilots in this country of more than 12,000. How is that impacting the entire industry?

TOM MARCHANT: It's a challenge across the whole industry. I'm talking to you from London at the moment. And there have been huge challenges very similar to that in the UK just over the last weekend. We're seeing in hospitality, I think not to keep going back to COVID because it's great that we're moving forward, but one of the challenges being, a lot of people left the travel industry because there were redundancies, because there wasn't-- the business travel sector actually kind of stopped for a while.

So there is a need to kind of get people back into this industry, make sure we've got the right numbers of staff, the quality of recruitment in there, to ensure that the vacations, the trips that people dream about, can be realized. So I think it's going to be-- it'll be challenging. I think it's definitely fixable. But I think what we're starting to see is these massive surges back where people can travel again and want to travel again. And the industry is playing a bit of catch-up in terms of its resourcing for that. But I'm hoping that will catch up very soon.

SEANA SMITH: Tom, real quick, you've researched all the top places. I'm sure you've been to many of those countries before. What's the number one spot that you haven't gone to that you want to go to?

TOM MARCHANT: Ooh, gosh. That's a good question. Right now, it's probably Chile or Chile, the Atacama Desert. I really-- I love just remote landscapes. And the chance to explore them, the way it feels like you're the only person on the planet there, I think it's probably a bit of an antidote to the busy, crazy, hectic day-to-day lives we lead. So that's top of my list. But given the job I have, that list tends to change every week. So but right now, that's where I'd like to be.