Chad Carey, Co-Founder of Chimu Adventures: “Quality control on the many review sites is one of the greatest challenges facing tourism and the travel industry today”.
About Chimu Adventures: Chimu Adventures is Australia’s leading travel company for excursions to Latin America and Antarctica. Founded in 2004, they aim to provide travellers with customised tours based on their individual needs. In addition to providing travel services to individuals, they also assist other operators in getting to Antarctica. They are a member of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.
About Chad Carey: An engineer by training, Chad Carey decided that he needed a project that helped open the world to other travellers. In 2004, after taking a sabbatical to backpack through Latin America, he decided to jump head first into the travel industry. He hasn’t looked back since. Chad holds a degree in Civil Engineering from the Queensland University of Technology. In addition to his role as co-founder of Chimu Adventures, he is currently the Vice Chairman of the Australian Travel Association for Latin America.
Tell us a bit about yourself. You’re an engineer by training. How did you wind up in the travel industry and what inspired you to create Chimu Adventures?
It started back in 2004 when I was working as an engineer in London. At that point, I had been working in the field for nearly ten years and the work was starting to get more political and less technical, which wasn’t really the direction I wanted to go in career-wise. I began to think about what else I could do that would give me the sort of challenges and fulfilment I was looking for.
At the time, I wanted to spend six months travelling through South America to clear my head. I started looking at the potential tours available, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, which was a “light-bulb moment” for me. Coincidentally, I ran into an old friend of mine who had just come back from South America and had married a Peruvian. We started chatting about the lack of options and said, “well, why don’t we start something up?”
I quit my job, went on my trip and immediately began building the plan, using the trip and the time off to research the opportunity. Everything clicked, and it all started from there.
Your products are specialised in two distinctly different regions: Latin America (which is extraordinarily complex within itself) and Antarctica. What drove your decision-making process to create tour packages in these parts of the world?
While they are two different parts of the world, I wouldn’t call them two different markets. Expeditions to Antarctica, as a tourist destination, overwhelmingly launch from Argentina. Therefore, it was a natural progression for us since southern Argentina is already part of our Latin America product offering.
Antarctica is a huge destination for Australians, who make up the second-largest nationality visiting the continent. Interestingly, we didn’t set out to serve Antarctica. Instead, the opportunity presented itself, and once we looked into it, it fascinated us, so we went for it.
That’s quite interesting. For us in the northern hemisphere, we wouldn’t think that Australians would travel all the way to southern Argentina to go to Antarctica when Australia is relatively close to the continent. What’s the reasoning for that?
Good question. While Australia is relatively close to Antarctica, it’s still 3,000 km to Antarctica from Hobart, in the south. Compare that to the southern tip of Argentina, which is only 1,000 km from the continent. When you factor in the fact that, from Australia, 3,000 km means seven days sailing each way, and that from Argentina it takes just three to four days, the time savings made by flying to South America and then travelling on to Antarctica are enormous. After all, the longer we’re at sea, the more fuel, food and amenities we have to consume, which all adds to the cost of the trip.
Additionally, Argentina is three to four times cheaper than Australia regarding overall costs. Put together, it only makes sense that we start the trip from the southern tip of South America.
Let’s talk about Antarctica and some of the other, remote southern islands (South Georgia, the Falklands) since relatively few tour operators go there. What are the challenges of leading tours to one of the world’s most remote and inhospitable regions?
Perhaps most obviously, the extreme isolation itself is by far the most significant risk. Say that someone gets seriously injured by slipping on some ice and needs evacuation. When you’re thousands of kilometres away from the nearest medical facility, getting a seriously ill or injured person to a hospital is both costly and logistically complicated. For us, we need to be ready for almost any situation.
For example, in 2008, I was on a trip to Antarctica, and the ship ran aground. The Chilean navy had to come to our rescue, taking us to a nearby island from where we were airlifted back to civilisation. That experience really brought home the risks and the dangers there are when voyaging so far into the wild frontier.
What’s so fascinating about going to this region is that it’s one of the few places on the planet where you can still go on an adventure. That is to say, once you get to this latitude, you essentially throw away the itinerary. In this part of the planet, you are at the mercy of the weather, meaning you can only explore what’s readily accessible. Conditions can change at a moment’s notice, which forces you to readapt your plans on the spot. That sort of adventure – in which you have to expect the unexpected – is hard to come by on the planet today.
Since you started Chimu Adventures, how has the Antarctica tour operator landscape changed?
There are a few more than when we started. However, even though we’re selling our own trips, we’re more of an aggregator providing services and logistics to other tour operators, and we were one of the first to start doing that. This model lets us provide services to tour operators that don’t have access to the network or expertise in this field. We’re entirely transparent with them; they come to us with a proposal, and we give them a rundown of the various options and prices.
So, I wouldn’t say that there isn’t more competition. Instead, there are more options for getting to Antarctica and the southern Atlantic Ocean.
You’re based in Australia, but you now sell tours for clients in New Zealand, the UK, the USA and Canada. While these countries all share an Anglo-Saxon heritage, they certainly have their unique customs and cultures. What sorts of differences do you see between these markets?
Of the four, the US market is probably the most different. The former three are quite similar as they share a Commonwealth heritage and the people tend to be a bit more ‘basic’ when they travel. Americans, on the other hand, are a lot more interested in the accommodation standards, whereas travellers from the other countries are more looking at the experience side of it.
Of course, Americans also have shorter annual holidays compared to the others, meaning that they want to pack as much into as short a time as possible. Additionally, Brits in particular always want a beach element in their trip, so we almost always plan a beach stay at the end of their journey in, say, Brazil.
Technology is the disruptive force in travel, with AI and machine learning working hard to smartly filter the ‘best’ itinerary choices for travellers. In theory, this transformation will let customers become more independent, and allow ‘self-booking’ of their holidays. How do you see these changes impacting tour operators like yourself and how do you combat or embrace this sort of technology?
I see some of these technologies, such as AI, being more useful around travel products that are commodities (e.g. the London Eye). We’re in the business of trying to provide unique cultural experiences and I think that is one of the main reasons people book with us. I can’t, for example, see AI booking an exclusive culinary experience in Lima or a handpicked homestay in an Andean village. These items are never going to be commodities and that’s the main reason people want to do them!
For me, the future of tourism is more around the mixing of service with technology and by that, I mean having well-travelled and trained sales staff with a powerful and efficient technology system behind them. The communication and reassurance from the salespeople will be key but equally, so will the back-end system to provide the client with a bespoke itinerary created to suit their interests, budget and timeframe.
What’s the strangest customer request you’ve received and how did you manage to fulfil it?
There are a few different ones, including some that I probably can’t repeat! One that sticks out is that we had a guy who wanted to be the first person to distil rum entirely in Antarctica. We thought it was an unusual request and agreed to do it. He brought a little distillery on wheels, and we had to find the right spot for him to use it since we have to be very careful not to disturb the fragile ecosystem. We brought him there, and he distilled some rum right there in Antarctica.
Did he at least send you some of the finished product? (laughter)
Unfortunately not, but at least we made the guy’s dream come true.
Lastly, in general (and this is a question we’re asking all of our interviewees), what do you see as the greatest challenge facing tourism and the travel industry today?
From my perspective, it’s quality control on the many review sites. This problem affects not just us but many others across travel. While we’re always quite active in replying to customer complaints and trying to resolve them, we find that many times, we have no records of these people travelling with us.
How can we have real reviews in an online ecosystem that people trust when the review isn’t what it seems? For me, the solution would be to find some form of control or verification that helps keep the review process honest and fair, so both consumers and travel providers can have a better overall experience.