Adventure awaits: Go big and go bold! From abseiling down a mountain to twilight snowmobile excursions, cooped-up wanderlusters are yearning for adventure. Adventure tourism is expected to have a YOY growth of 17% through 2025 while soft-adventure travel is growing at 65%. The travel industry will need to take it up a notch to meet this burgeoning appetite for adventure.
Aspart of my series about developments in the travel industry over the next five years, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Thompson.
Lee Thompson is a former photojournalist who spent 14 years covering breaking stories around the world before setting up Flash Pack with his wife Radha. In 2014, he took one of the world’s most viral selfies from atop the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Travel has always been part of my career. I spent 14 years as a photojournalist, and my career took me to over 100 countries across the globe, covering everything from war zones to political unrest in some of the world’s most remote places. It’s given me the opportunity to discover hidden communities and “no-go” areas that most tourists don’t get to see.
Then in 2012, I started dating Radha, and we both instantly connected over our shared love of travel. However, we noticed a distinct lack of appealing options in the travel market for people our age (30s and 40s) at that time.
In 2014, we launched Flash Pack — the only group travel company that connects like-minded solo travelers in their 30s and 40s on life-affirming adventures across the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When Radha and I first started Flash Pack, there were times when I wasn’t sure if we’d make it. We’d burned through most of our money in the first six months and had only received one booking — which we had to refund because we needed a minimum of four people on a trip. But we couldn’t just give up. Around that same time, I saw an article about the renovations being done to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. As a photojournalist, I wanted to take a selfie at the top of the crown.
No one had ever been let into the statue before, but I convinced the archdiocese to give me access to take the photo on the promise that it’d be a fantastic way to promote tourism — especially around the FIFA World Cup that Brazil was hosting at that time, in summer 2014.
With our last $1000, I took the “First-Ever Selfie with Jesus” and released it two weeks before the World Cup. I gave the image away to journalists in exchange for a backlink to Flash Pack’s website, and it went viral! After just two days, we received 1.4 million hits — crashing the site at first. But the buzz it caused turned into constant bookings and monthly revenue from then on in.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is a tough one as we’ve made a ton of mistakes — it’s inevitable when you’re growing fast and working alongside unpredictable world or weather events. On one of our first group trips, we sent a group of Flashpackers up to a remote mountain region of Spain on a convoy of Vespas. It was May time and we assumed the weather would be great as it usually is at that time of year. Instead, a freak snow storm blew in and we were forced to pause the trip. Luckily, I was there at the time, and I remember vividly our customers huddling around a fire to keep warm. I was dressed in a pair of shorts, absolutely freezing, and frantically trying to work out how to keep everyone happy as I worked out a plan B! I can laugh about it now; it’s just one of those things that makes travel both brilliant and a bit of a head spin.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
Say no more! We are all so used to saying yes to everything to get ahead so it sounds a bit negative. However, after six+ years of running Flash Pack with many ups and downs and probably even more burnout moments, I’ve realized how useful saying no is, too.
Multitasking can actually be incredibly damaging for productivity and, of course, to our mental health. But saying no is not only about laying down barriers, or carving out the time for the things you want to say yes to. It’s also a core strategy for success.
As a founder of a $27 million bootstrapped business, there were many times throughout the journey we were approached with funding offers. And at many times, it certainly would have been easier to say yes; but I knew we were not there yet. The business needed more of myself and my partner Radha’s direction before bringing in outside partners. We said no many, many times before we finally said yes this past fall, and those no’s have been central to the strong position we find ourselves in now.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Radha, my co-founder, my wife, and the mother to our beautiful two-year-old daughter, Anyā. She is not only my rock in life but the person that challenges me to be my best in business and an equal partner in every way. We’ve leaned on each other through the pandemic when our company was devastated, and everything we had built was gone. We worked side by side, around the clock every day to help our customers get refunds, to buy our business back, and to relaunch this past fall. Simply put, we couldn’t have done it without each other.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
When Radha and I first started Flash Pack in 2014, there was a massive gap in the market for adventure travel opportunities explicitly geared toward people in their 30s and 40s. We wanted to design each Flash Pack adventure as a fantastic opportunity to break out of your comfort zone and do things differently while also getting to know like-minded, interesting people.
Each adventure is uniquely curated to bring travelers together. And to ensure the authenticity of each adventure, we’ve also created the “Inside Pack:” a group of solo travel experts and previous Flashpackers who’ve helped design every trip in our new collection.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
A recent study we commissioned found that the average American has lost seven friendships since the start of the pandemic — and nearly three-quarters say they are looking to make new friendships as we emerge from the global health crisis. These findings shine a light on the hidden toll of COVID — when it comes to the broader fallout from the pandemic, we always hear about jobs and lifestyle changes, but less about how it’s impacted our relationships with others. Our goal is to connect like-minded travelers and foster meaningful connections that you might not achieve in everyday life.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Solo travel bookings are already up 300% compared to those booking as couples, families, or friend groups, and adventure tourism/soft-adventure travel is also growing. It’s not for everyone, but our goal is to break people out of their comfort zone, to create connections through travel, and to make meaningful memories and friendships that last a lifetime.
As you know, COVID-19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share five examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
- Travelers aren’t willing to wait to go on that “once in a lifetime” trip anymore: They are booking trips and bucket list-worthy ones, especially for the second half of 2022 and into 2023 already. Once upon a time, a bucket-list-worthy trip was marketed to a retired, older population. But after years of isolation, canceled trips, and missed opportunities to see the world, travelers are going big. Flash Pack has launched 17 one-in-a-lifetime itineraries all around the world. We have been focused on building unique adventures like staying on converted land rovers for the world’s greatest view of the wildebeests’ migration in Tanzania or staying on your own private island for uninterrupted views of the Northern Lights, in the Arctic Circle. Travel companies should look to provide unique and new experiences to meet this demand.
- Adventure awaits: Go big and go bold! From abseiling down a mountain to twilight snowmobile excursions, cooped-up wanderlusters are yearning for adventure. Adventure tourism is expected to have a YOY growth of 17% through 2025 while soft-adventure travel is growing at 65%. The travel industry will need to take it up a notch to meet this burgeoning appetite for adventure.
- Seeking more meaning from travel experiences: Traveling for travel’s sake? A tongue twister you won’t hear in 2022. There’s purpose behind where and who we travel with–and why we’re traveling. Flash Pack’s “Pal-demic” study showed that 73% of respondents said they’re looking to establish new friendships as we approach the two-year pandemic mark. And research shows that close relationships are vital to happiness and wellbeing, yet it is exactly this life-enhancing quality that our survey shows is being eroded. At Flash Pack, we’ve seen that group travel goes hand-in-hand with friendship — so we’re determined to turn the tide and have a hyper-focus on friendship and connectivity in all of our trips and excursions.
- Flexibility is key: With the unpredictability of COVID for travelers and businesses alike, it will be more important than ever to customers that this flexibility is communicated upfront about their trip so that they can book with confidence. And make sure that you book with a travel company that uses a trust account model. Despite travel picking up, many travel companies are clinging on after 18 months of almost zero business and they may not survive the winter. We hold customer money in a trust account through a third party which guarantees refunds within 14 days if the trip is canceled for any reason. More information about our COVID refund guarantee is on our site here.
- Safety first: Just as flexibility will be a priority, so will safety. Implementing and communicating COVID safety measures to customers upfront is an absolute must and will be for some time.
You are a “travel insider.” How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
This is all about finding new, comfort-busting experiences that really get under the skin of a particular place. We’re talking about things like searching for octopi in the kelp forests of the Cape Peninsula, cave dining in Argentinian Patagonia, or hiking a secret back-door route through the desert to the UNESCO world wonder of Petra in Jordan. How can you do things with a little twist, offering a unique or local perspective in ways that surprise and delight? It’s discovering that “wow” factor that makes an adventure feel totally out-of-this-world.
Add in some beautiful boutique hotels, knowledgeable guides, time to unwind, and a group of like-minded travelers of a similar age and life stage to travel with: voila, the perfect trip awaits.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness-driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Flash Pack is all about uniquely curated experiences and group dynamics. We’ve created new experiences specifically for these solo adventurers, designed to help make a group of strangers bond together. The group dynamic is everything and is the core of all Flash Pack trips. From guide selection and training combined with the perfected curated experiences and high-touch service features, we try to set up every step of the process around connecting with your fellow travelers for lasting friendships.
Nearly 60% of Flash Packers have kept in touch at least every few months, and almost 30% keep in touch every month!
We’ve seen how group travel goes hand-in-hand with friendship — and we’re determined to turn the tide and create one million friendships as we emerge from the pandemic through adventure and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Tourism accounts for between 8–11% of global carbon emissions, so it’s important that we step up and take individual responsibility to negate that impact. Flash Pack has joined forces with Natural Capital Partners to measure the carbon impact of each of our adventures, so customers know at a glance how many carbon tons their bookings will generate.
We then offset these carbon emissions by investing in a programme designed to reduce deforestation in the Amazon. This includes working with local groups to enhance ecosystem services and develop conservation-based agricultural practices. These initiatives will help to protect more than 100,000 hectares of endangered rainforest in the Amazonian basin.
We also believe very strongly that the future of the travel industry lies with local communities. Within each of our trips, we work closely with local tour leaders, partners and hotels, in order that we can directly support local economies via the adventures that we run.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe we are in a position to start a global friendship movement. Travel brings people together and solo group travel, even more so, unites like-minded strangers through the unique experiences that they share together. There’s so much potential to carve out moments of lasting connection in real life, away from daily demands and distractions.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!