PUBLISHED05 Jun 2020

In the Spotlight: Darrell Wade Co-founder of Intrepid Travel

This is The first in a series of interviews with thought leaders in our community.

Mitzi Goldman, CEO of Documentary Australia Foundation, discusses creating shared value for social impact, the effects of COVID-19 and documentary as a tool for change with Darrell Wade, Co-founder of Intrepid Travel.

Intrepid Travel is the world’s largest adventure travel company – operating tours in 120 countries for tens of thousands of tourist each year. They are a social enterprise that focuses on immersing travellers in experiences that support the communities they visit. Believing that by creating strong, sustainable relationships with communities from around the world they can shared value and move forward together.

Mitzi: I wanted to start with you talking about Intrepid as I am sure that is front of mind right now – How is it going?
Your industry is probably the hardest hit at the moment and it must be incredibly challenging with a business you have grown from nothing. 

 Darrell: On the one hand it would be hard to answer anything other than absolutely horrendous – we are a global tour operation and we operate trips in 120 countries around the world and our travellers come from 40 odd countries around the world so it is an incredibly global operation. As of today, we don’t have a single piece of operation happening, we have suspended all global operations, so last year our revenue was just shy of $6million and as of today it is nothing. We have no work for staff to do, local communities we travel through – their income has also completely dried up in most cases – and it is just a really tough time.

 – How are you communicating with the communities you travel through and who depend on you for their livelihood?  

 The communication side is always difficult – I am talking into local communities here, a relatively small village in India or Kenya or wherever it is – some of these communities simply won’t know why we aren’t coming back. They have probably heard about Coronavirus they may see it as a problem here in China or Europe or maybe America, so getting that story through to them hasn’t necessarily been that easy.   

 The staff situation has been utterly exceptional. We were literally making hundreds of people redundant a couple of weeks ago, and the level of support for people you’ve just sacked is the most extraordinary thing. You’ve just can’t believe it.  

 – That is a huge testament to your leadership – the way you have looked after them over many years and the organisational culture that has been built.

 Perhaps not so much me, but the broader team . If ever there is a time where you can pin point organisational culture, it would have been in the last month or so. we had literally thousands of travellers stranded all over the place, and it’s been very difficult to get them home, get them back, safe  When we suspended operations we had about 5 and a half thousand clients who were still in various countries around the world, in 87 countries around the world, and you have got to get them home – back to England, back to America or back to Australia, whatever it is – and that is an extraordinary challenge to keep them safe so we had a lot of people dedicated to bringing them home. We had people working all hours of the day and night and weekends and then we had our first round of redundancies and then people are still working to get people home and you just think ‘wow, if you could bottle culture, this is it! You can just see it. It is extraordinary’.  

– Speaking of culture, I think this can be the most important thing. Making everyone feel they are in it together.

 Well you are, and this is perhaps where filmmaker and traveller isn’t so different.  When you look at both of our industries, neither of us create anything quantifiable.  What we do is create stories, create emotions, create relationships . You feel like there should be a column on your balance sheet for culture, but it doesn’t quite work that way! It is almost un-quantifiable the thing which is so valuable.

 – Many are getting ready for a new ‘tomorrow’ – Have your motivations changed since you started? and how will you do things differently? 

 I think they probably are, in a way it is a matter of the more things change the more they don’t change. So when we were a start up and there was two of us really what we wanted to do was take people travelling in a way we thought was enjoyable and really immersive into the local culture  You expose them to different cultures and really give them an understanding of how something different works, and as a person in Melbourne or Sydney we have a certain view of life out in an Australian paradigm if you like, but someone who is growing up in Thailand or Turkey or India or Brazil has quite a different set of criteria and I think until you are meeting with those people and talking with those people and living in that country albeit for a little while, and particularly at a very deep immersive level, you aren’t going to start to understand what that paradigm is and so therefore your own blinkers will still be on. But if you can do that I think you can become a more open-minded citizen.  you are probably more open minded to different issues, be that race or be that gender or be that disability, whatever it is.   

 We are a very big on what Michael Porter would call “shared value”, and shared value is all about looking at what different stakeholders want out of a relationship. A local community will want certain things, a staff member will want certain things, a traveller will want certain things, us as shareholders want certain things. And those things work better – you get better outcomes – if you recognise all the multiple stakeholders and what their specific interests are.  If you design your products and your experience and your communication around that multiple stakeholder shared value approach then you are really build sustainability for everyone – for your traveller, for your local community, for us as shareholders and for staff etc and I think going back to your earlier point about culture, I think it also drives a collaborative culture which in itself is a self-reinforcing philosophy and success factor.

 – You taught me a lot about shared value. When we worked together on ‘I am a Girl’ and documentaries I suddenly realised there is a lot of shared value between documentary filmmakers and the people who are interested to support storytelling.  

 And the subject material – the person who the film is about. They have a story to tell, and they are seeking something out that process. They want to get their message out in some form or another onto a larger stage to build empathy or support or whatever it is for their particular topic.  

 –  A really successful partnership has shared value at its core.
Can you describe a partnership that has worked well between Intrepid and a documentary you have supported?

 It is tricky because sometimes you can build something and see something and you see value and worth and reward there, but you can’t necessarily quantify it. So for instance I am A Girl, we were extremely happy with that process.  but the 2040 outcome is quantifiable… in the film Damon talks to a guy about permaculture up in the North East of America…and that lead to thinking around permaculture and… I can’t quite remember the catalyst but it lead to a project or partnership with the University of Tasmania on setting up a pilot program off the South West of Tasmania. We combined with 2040 to run a fundraiser and to date we have raised $750,000 which has directly resulted in the launch of this trial program and so we’ve got rafts of growing seaweed in Tasmania which is sequestering carbon, and full university test modeling so that we know the carbon sequestration, the fish species which may or not result. If that works, and early indications are very good, then that whole platform will be able to roll out around the world – now that is extraordinary.  

 We’ve had something like over 40,000 donors, different people, putting money into that program, and sometimes it is as little as $5 and sometimes it is as much as $5,000, but these are people who have seen the film and they have been moved by the whole experience to say ‘hey climate change is a real problem, these guys are doing something, and I am going to help. I think that is just an incredible story  

But I do think ultimately the success of a film is how many people see it. if we want to talk about true impact there is a primary impact – how many people saw the film and were impacted by it, and there is a secondary impact of what actions they may or may not take after that in terms of lifestyle choices or whatever. But that primary impact of bums in seats which is probably old fashioned and probably inadequate – it just wasn’t there enough for me. You can rerun an entire Disney franchise almost and get 500 million dollars of sales or billions of dollars of sales and you kind of think ‘hmm, what is going on here’?

– It is a bit like comparing apples with oranges. There is a kind of cultural backwardness – I have spent my life trying to get audiences in cinemas for documentaries and still don’t understand why don’t people see that documentaries is, I think, are the most interesting form of content.

Bringing us back to the partnership and how it could be better. I am wondering if there is a question of alignment of goals?  

 Absolutely right. I think it is totally about alignment. One of the reasons where I think it could have done a little bit better – Intrepid is one of many stakeholders but Intrepid could have done quite a lot more to get bums in seats and get awareness and so forth. The business for whatever reason chose not to, but it will be because they’re not willing to be or seen as a key stakeholder so therefore they don’t own the outcome of the success of the film. If I draw a parallel to a local community in Borneo and you go into that village and you create an atmosphere between us as a tour operator… basically we all want to get a successful outcome here. The village wants sustainability, it wants income and skills development and so forth, the traveller just wants a great time and wants to learn something and so forth, as a tour operator we want to make some money out of it and we want to have a long-term sustainable product. You can put those three or four stakeholders together, not necessarily physically, and work it through what each wants and double check what each wants and then build a sustainable model.  

– What was the most rewarding part of the experience with 2040?  

I think just physically seeing it was incredibly rewarding. And after that thinking of what this might be if loads of people see it, then it drops down into change in behaviours so you can actually get a result on climate change. That kind of potential reward is incredibly satisfying because you think this could be another little piece in solving this problem across the world and really encouraging change and encouraging behaviour change. And that’s why you love documentaries as much as you do, it is because that is the power of storytelling.

 – Absolutely.  Moving back out to birds eye view, and we have worked together across this relationship for a number of years now, I guess I am asking what would you say to other people? Whether they are philanthropists or business people or impact partners, or even filmmakers, about establishing and having really productive partnerships together for social change with documentaries.

 I guess in a word “just do it”. Just go out and back your judgment. If you’ve see a kernel of an idea for a film, or someone has pitched something to you and you see the story and have faith in the producers and you can see the financial side of it coming together then just back it, back the team. I think most people know, that documentary is a really powerful storytelling medium so if you see something then just go for it – it is as simple as that.  

I do think… sometimes people get too hung up on the analysis of impact. While impact is clearly critical and must be achieved because otherwise you shouldn’t be doing the project, it is still an imperfect science the analysis of impact and how you can achieve and measure impact. While we don’t want to be creating products that aren’t impactful, but the design of impact programs and measurement of those programs – I am not 100% convinced on that yet.  

– What advice would you give filmmakers on engaging effectively and inspiring partnerships with funders, philanthropists and corporates? 

 I think the primary message is not a new one – it is to continue to tell the best story you can. At the end of the day the success of the product is going to be the quality of the story they can tell, and all of the associated production values in the telling of that story. That is the primary thing.  

 The second part of it is the audience that is created around that story telling. The quality of the product, and then the size of the audience. I’m a broken record I know but I go back to the size of the audience and for me it just isn’t big enough and, for reasons I don’t understand, we haven’t been able to create sufficiently large audiences and that is kind of frustrating.  

 I think there is real scope… I look at our office in Melbourne and there was about 300 people there and the average age is probably late 20’s, early 30s and I know that those people would prefer to go to watch the latest documentary than they would the latest Marvel franchise. Maybe our staff are little bit more socially inclined or socially conscious inclined than the average population but it wouldn’t be dramatically so I don’t think.   

 I think people do increasingly have a hunger for social change and awareness and activism and films suit their social lifestyle as well. You put it all together and I think the future of documentary storytelling should be very bright indeed.