Black Tomato co-founder Tom Marchant explains the business model for planning luxury surprise vacations around the world, the price of these experience purchases, travel demand and rising energy prices affecting travel expenses.
DAVE BRIGGS: Well, for those of you who flew over this holiday weekend, you know travel is back, big time. Official TSA figures show nearly half a million more air travelers this time of year than just a year ago, and just a fraction of pre-pandemic levels, despite a massive inflation at a 40-year high. Many even showed up at the airport not knowing where they were going.
Tom Marchant is the co-founder of Black Tomato Travel. Tom, I went to Charleston, SC this weekend. I don’t like surprises, but your company is for people who like big surprises. Tell us how it works.
TOM MARCHANT: Yes, I mean, we cater to people who are looking for exceptional travel experiences. And we have a service called Get Lost, where we literally lose people and help them explore their way out of the wilderness. It started a few years ago, when we saw people come and say, listen, 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 challenge and perhaps a mental challenge for someone?
And that would be taking them to a remote area, giving them basic survival training, and then challenging them to explore their way out of those stunning landscapes, all the time, in the eyes of our special guides and people on site. to make sure they are always safe. But that means you manage to take people all over the world, from Morocco to Iceland, to Libya, to Utah, and give them some of the most exceptional travel experiences, I would say, of their lives. .
SEANA SMITH: Tom, this looks like a very, very intense journey, especially to people who weren’t necessarily expecting it. I’m curious, have you ever been pushed away by some of your users? Maybe they weren’t looking to be as active, or they didn’t want to go to the particular destination you chose for them. And how do you handle that?
TOM MARCHANT: That’s a very good question. I mean, the whole setup of our business is that we’re bespoke, so we’re always setup to meet the needs of our customers. But one person’s fitness, say, or appetite for adventure is very different from another.
So it’s our job to really understand what they’re looking for and to have honest and frank conversations, conversations with them. It’s the only way to have a good trip. So maybe if someone ever seems ambitious enough, we’ll ask them a few questions just to figure out if they really are that ambitious. And then we’ll work with them to give them the trip they deserve and remember forever.
DAVE BRIGGS: How much does it cost? And how many people do you see doing that? Is it growing?
TOM MARCHANT: It’s really growing. I mean, the cost ranges from $10,000 to, depending on where in the world you go and for how long with how many people, to over six figures. We’ve seen a significant increase in this type of travel since the pandemic, actually, which is quite interesting. I think during the pandemic a lot of people were planning what they were going to do when they could travel again, looking for a really epic adventure. Maybe they needed to have some kind of experience that allowed them to reset and think about what they wanted to do in the future in their lives and looking for something that would really give them all of this.
And yes, we have seen a spike of around 30% in bookings. And requests are up 80%. And we see the trend taking hold in the travel industry all over the world. So we think it’s a type of trip that will and will continue to please. It’s certainly not the only type of travel that people do or that we offer, I might add. But it certainly speaks 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 frustrated locked up, people often daydreamed and decided to act and to actually bring this to life.
DAVE BRIGGS: OK, so do these people tend to be very adventurous people or, generally, overly planned and boring people who really need to shake up and wake up their lives? And if you could, tell me the most popular places.
TOM MARCHANT: That’s a very good question. I would say both types. I mean, I could think of a great client was a mother from the United States who just wanted to take a break from the — I don’t know — everyday life and shake up her life a bit and get her purpose back. And that really gave him purpose.
And other people are – other guys are, yeah, there are adventurous people looking to do something different. In terms of popularity, Iceland, you know, is the country almost like God made it for natural adventure. Morocco is very popular. In the United States, we do these kinds of adventures in places like Utah and New Mexico. And then in Southern Africa as well, areas like Namibia have the most beautiful and striking landscapes in which to experience these adventures.
SEANA SMITH: Tom, we’ve talked a lot about inflation, about rising gas prices. Obviously, this has an impact on air transport. What is the impact of inflation on your business? Are you raising the prices? And I guess, how do you see that playing out over the next two months as the White House and the Fed work to get inflation under control?
TOM MARCHANT: That’s a very good question. I think at the moment we haven’t seen that impact our business. The level of demand for the type of travel we offer and the audience we cater to is the highest ever in the company’s history. However, rising costs are part of the conversations we have with our customers. And people use the possible future impact of these to really gauge what they’re getting out of their trip.
Is that real value, which is key for us, that really proves that every dollar spent is a dollar well spent. But right now, I think a lot of people during the pandemic, we’re seeing kind of recalibrated what they wanted to do with their travel life. And we see them shifting more of their spending to one area, perhaps rather than other areas. So it’s not something we can ignore. And we are very aware of the potential impact. But right now, demand has never been higher. And we try to respond to that, but always, obviously, in all of that, we provide great value.
DAVE BRIGGS: Because of that demand that you mentioned, that Seana mentioned, that we’ve seen thousands of flights canceled just over the weekend, there’s a reported shortage of pilots in this country of over 12,000. How does it affect the whole industry?
TOM MARCHANT: This is a challenge for the whole industry. I’m talking to you about London right now. And there were huge challenges very similar to those in the UK last weekend. We see in hospitality I think we shouldn’t keep coming back to COVID because it’s great that we’re moving forward but one of the challenges being a lot of people have left the travel industry because ‘there were layoffs, because there wasn’t– the business travel industry kind of shut down for a while.
So we have to kind of bring people back into this industry, make sure that we have the right number of employees, the quality of recruitment in there, to make sure that the vacations, the trips that people dream of, can be realized. So I think it’s going to be… it’s going to be difficult. I think it’s definitely fixable. But I think what we’re starting to see are these massive returns where people can travel again and want to travel again. And the industry is doing a bit of catching up in terms of resources for that. But I hope it will catch up very soon.
SEANA SMITH: Tom, real quick, you’ve researched all the best places. I’m sure you’ve been to many of these countries before. What’s the number one place you haven’t been to that you want to go?
TOM MARCHANT: Oh my God. It’s a good question. Right now it’s probably Chile or Chile, the Atacama Desert. I really… I just like remote landscapes. And the chance to explore them, the way you feel like you’re the only person on the planet there, I think that’s probably a bit of an antidote to the busy, crazy, hectic everyday life that we lead. So that’s the top of my list. But given the job I have, this list tends to change every week. So, but right now, that’s where I’d like to be.