ITINERO offers customers adventure tours to the most remote corners of the world. The trips cost several thousand dollars and last almost half a month. Until this spring, demand was very high, but the pandemic and unpredictable geopolitical happenings have changed all development plans. About how to create adventure tours in the situation of uncertainty and where to look for experienced and wealthy travelers, the founder of ITINERO, Anna Gibiskys, shared knowledge.
Open the world to like-minded people.
My business was born in 2012 from the idea of a travel club. At that time, I was doing big solo travels in South America and developing as a photographer. I was always running some business and spending the money I earned on travel and photography. It was hard to share the emotion whenever I returned home and told my loved ones what I had seen. They were not with me and didn't see what was revealed to me with their own eyes. I felt lonely: I wanted to share this intense life with people close to me in spirit. But at that time, there were no such like-minded people in my circle: someone had children, someone could not afford to travel. That's when I came up with the idea of creating my own travel company so that people who are just as interested in climbing volcanoes, hiking, photography, and exploring tribes could join my travels. All over the world, the tourism market offers mostly package tours. People fly to a new country but do not see it because they spend all their time in the hotel and surrounding area. My sense of justice kicked in: it is possible to look at the world differently, to get more emotions and impressions for every invested ruble. I decided to create a product that would open people to high-quality travel. When I studied the market, I understood that people make offers for a small audience in Russia- 40-47 years old who are interested in learning and trying something new. They are in the prime of their lives, and their children have grown up or can be left to other relatives. I came into the marketplace to work for them. I used to have a blog on LiveJournal where I would post my travel photos and stories about what I had seen. Subscribers asked how they could sign up to tour with me. It gave me confidence in my venture. I created a travel club website and bought traffic on the Internet. My first clients came to Peru with me. They were Moscow's top managers and entrepreneurs. It surprised me that most of the clients were women; for some reason, I thought there would be more men. But then it turned out that about 70% of the clients in this market are women. How author's tours are created My segment of the business on the international market is called Small Groups Adventure Tours. At that time, enthusiasts like me began to come into tourism with an author's vision of showing this or that country to make travelers fall in love with it. And this type of tourism began to be called copyright tourism. Gradually, so many signature tours appeared on the market that the choice was huge: yoga tours, personal development tours, extreme tours, art tours, hedonistic, sightseeing, hen party tours, blog tours, and gastro tours. My business belongs to the most popular type of author's tourism - excursions. But our tours are not dusty when tourists are taken in a bus for 40 people somewhere and on the way even get fur coats. We rent our transport, escort team, and team leader - a team leader. For example, the Sakhalin tour for a group of 12-14 people employs 14 attendants. One team does a gastro picnic with seafood, and another does a boat trip, a third does a jeep escort in the Kuril Islands, and so on. I act as a visionary who decides which country to show. I have tremendous expertise and knowledge of what and where to see. We have timelines responsible for the concept and author's vision of a particular country and the technical feasibility of the itinerary. Together with the team leader, I thoroughly discuss the design of each tour, even if we have done it dozens of times. Each new tour has improvements. We book the necessary lodges (special places for tourists to stay in national parks and reserves - editor's note) or hotels, and then we begin collecting the group for specific dates. This is the bottleneck of our business because the dates only suit some. The projects we create can only be found here—one example. There is Assiniboine National Park in Canada, which is essentially a mountain. Tourists are flown in by helicopter to the foot of it. They live in a swanky lodge for three days; their meals are prepared by a chef, a bathhouse and sauna, wildlife, and a complete digital detox: no cell phone or Internet. Tourists are led around the trails by a terrific team of mountain guides. But there is a strict limit - a group of no more than 6-8 people. I applied in July 2022 to visit Assiniboine Lodge in August 2023. We are waiting to hear back on how many people we will be allowed to bring this time. I have already sent one group of six people there. Everyone was thrilled.
There is no extreme in our tours. People don't jump with banjos, don't ride animals; there's no rafting or riding quad bikes in the dunes. I've learned that we, as entrepreneurs, are not protected in the marketplace by anything. We are responsible for everything that happens to travelers on the tour of our lives. So I eliminated all the extremes. We do immersive tours that are suitable for demanding travelers. If there are any risks, we ask you to consider them. For example, we warn that climbing to heights is impossible for people with a pacemaker. In 10 years of organizing tours, our tourists have never had even minor injuries.
Travel is only for some.
All clients who travel with us for the first time ask who else will be in the group and if they are comfortable with those people. We are interested in making sure that all travelers have fun with each other. When a person leaves a request for a tour, they are contacted by our coordinator. She explains that there will be a large and intense route of 3,500 kilometers. There are certain risks: there will not be the best hotels but mud huts in very remote mountain regions, but it is worth going there. This is the only company that will take you there. The coordinator understands by conversation whether the client is our man or not. We don't call him back if he's rude or rude. We are not interested in working with him. We only take nice people on trips. Our contract has six pages, one of which is the rules of conduct on the trip. If a tourist misbehaves, we can suspend him from the tour and take him to the nearest airport. With troublemakers, drug addicts, alcoholics, and abusers, the conversation is short - to the airport. This is my business, and I will not risk my reputation because of the inadequate people in the band. It should be noted that in the time of existence of the company ITINERO, there has been only one decision to remove a person from the tour on the first day of the trip. This measure is extraordinary, and we do not use it right and left, but it is written in the contract to protect the traveler from the toxic participants of the tour. Before we travel, we arrange a group call to tell them about the possible difficulties in the trip. Tourists, as a rule, do not require special physical fitness. The main thing is that they should be healthy and can pass the conditional 25 km in 6 hours at a quiet pace (there are such trails in Patagonia). People understand what they fit into. There was no such thing as someone on the tour not following the route. Sometimes a person goes hiking for the first time and remarks: "And I paid more money to suffer like this," but then he is very proud of himself, having overcome the climb to a mountain height of 5200 meters. Our clients buy their tickets and insurance and arrange their visas. We are only responsible for the travel project, which is many times more complicated than these issues. We have a small team, and we must stay strong. If we do everything, there is a risk of doing everything equally badly. On our trails, there is a transformation of personality. People thank themselves for doing it. They come to such natural beauty that they are enormously rewarded by what they see. Often our trips are bought as birthday gifts for themselves. When we travel, we try to manage the tourists' impressions so that their inspiration grows daily. For example, in Peru, we put the visit to Machu Picchu either at the end of the itinerary or on an exceptional day so that it would be the most vivid impression of the trip that the emotions would just burst at the end. The team leader uses his favorite tricks to manage the group's mood. We know that at some beautiful point, we need to surprise them and take out of the trunk an ice-cold champagne with glasses that no one knows about. Or take everyone to a secret place. Some teamsters play guitar. If I lead a group, the travelers get a hundred awesome photos. I know how to cheer people up and relax in front of the camera lens.
Our tours can cost less than a package tour because of the depth of detail and technicality. The difference with a package is about X2 or X3. The average cost of our two-week overseas tour is $3500 plus airfare (usually less than $1500-2000). In our kind of tourism, the maximum margin is 25%. When we make tours, we reason like this. On a trip to this country, you can make a margin of 18%, and it will sell well and quickly. And on this country, we set the margin at 30%, but it is challenging to sell the tour, so we rarely put such a project on our calendar. A group of six people is not profitable for the business. We pay taxes, salaries, and acquire, but we make nothing. If we don't get a group of six people, then the tour, in a good way, should be canceled. That's why tourists should have refundable tickets or travel insurance. But we last had to cancel a group a few years ago. Even if the group falls apart, we fill it. If there are five people and we don't have a thousand dollars to our operating zero, we offer everyone to pay $200 extra to send a group of that size. Our profits start to skyrocket when there are between 6 and 12-14 people in a group. We always have the goal of bringing the 14th traveler. In VIP projects, the economy is calculated differently. I choose such a margin where the client will be happy. I consider what he likes and what can surprise and inspire him. Some projects take six months to complete, while some I can put together in a couple of hours. When putting together a VIP tour, my time and expertise are of great importance, which cannot be digitized. We have very few VIP clients, but they are always exciting. They trust me unconditionally and agree to everything. In my company, there is a ban on discounts without a good reason. We create a profound product that cannot be cheap. A discount only happens when a customer comes a second time, and we have not spent any money to bring them in.
Expensive product for a costly audience
We have a very high cost to attract a customer. It was $150 to $250 before February 24, 2022, and now it's $250 to $350. At the start, it was clear that we were not suited to search engine traffic as a tool. For example, tours to Colombia are infrequent based on the number of search queries. People don't know about the country; they don't understand why they must go there. The only effective channel was targeting - creating a post on the now-forbidden social networks and showing it to the right audience. Now we are looking for a new way of marketing because we need more than targeting. We used "Yandex. Direkt", but after the announcement of partial mobilization, it proved ineffective, no matter how much money you poured into it. Recommendations work very well in our business; it helps a lot now. We have a closed client chat room where only people who have ridden with us are members. There we talk about our tours. Plus, we do a newsletter on our base. We work through a CRM system, so we can manually find people who have ever been interested in a tour to a particular country and send them an offer. There have yet to be guaranteed effective recruitment channels. We set the annual calendar of our tours so that we can offer variety to our clients. Most likely, if a traveler has been to one country, he will not go there again. To attract clients repeatedly, we have to offer some variety. It is good that there are exciting countries. Working through crises The events in Ukraine at one point effectively killed my business, as did the worldwide pandemic. Then we had a business downturn for eight months. Foreign countries were closed to Russians all that time, then Turkey and Kenya opened. During the lockdown, some companies came up with anything to stay in the market. I started an online course for authors and was a mentor in another similar project. When it became possible to go somewhere, we visited Kamchatka. And we got amazing figures: the conversion rate to sales was 50%. People were ready to go anywhere and as fast as possible. During the pandemic, I thought about tours within Russia. But when I calculated how much stuff I needed to use for them and how much profit I could make, there was a moment of sobriety. I realized that you need to send thousands of people on tours a year for a normal income. And we send 200 people. To attract many clients, you need a giant sales department and work in a competitive market for cheap tours. Then it became clear that we would not do tours in Russia. After the lockdown, my company grew tremendously. By February 2022, we were spending millions of rubles on promotion, and I was actively building the business. Now my task as an entrepreneur is to keep my business in Russia. After the mobilization was announced, we returned huge sums to male clients who could not go on our tours: many are not allowed to go abroad. Now our nation is at that level of anxiety where some long-term planning and purchasing goods and services that are not necessities is completely blocked. This includes travel. Traditionally, the high season was New Year's vacations and spring holidays. Now reservations for New Year's Eve appear at the last moment, a month before the start. Tourists are ready to consider only spring, and before the pandemic, the planning horizon was 8-9 months. We need to understand how the situation will develop further. This is not Covid, where everything was more or less clear: wait for the vaccine, stay at home. I can only plan the company's development if the government has its plans. Now I'm in the process of bringing the company to the U.S. market. The company is already registered there, and we are buying traffic-we are attracting Russian Americans as clients. I called potential clients and talked to them. So it became clear that our routes created for the Russian audience needed to be more suitable for them. They were only willing to go for a maximum of 5-7 days, whereas all our tours lasted 8-14 days. We have to optimize the product and the concept for the market, where well-being (well-being and life satisfaction) is the trend.