June 2003, London. The sun is shining and there is that air of freedom and potential which rides on the (sometimes) stifling heat of summer in the capital. Australian travel friends, Greg Carter and Chad Carey, are living in the big smoke – as young Aussies do. A trained history teacher and engineer respectively, they are sharing a few beers at a boat race.
The conversation dives into South America: a continent so vast and affecting that it inspires a passion only those who have traversed its terrain can understand. Greg and Chad adore this place, yet it causes them strife. Why is travelling there so damn hard? The logistics of getting around are either inflexible group travel or daunting solo trips. The quality is low and the price tag is stubbornly high. Compelled to do something about these woes, they mop their ideas up with beer mats and stash them for their return to Australia.
Switch the scene to Chad’s lounge in 2004 where a third-hand laptop, a lot of late nights and those beer mat scribblings come together. Latin America and Polar Travel Specialist, Chimu Adventures, is born – introducing fully flexible, guaranteed Latin America itineraries and polar expedition cruises to the Australian travel industry. Beer mats have their uses.
July 29, 2019, marks 15 years of Chimu Adventures. In this time, the business has fulfilled its mission to have full control over the flexibility, quality and value of its Latin America and polar adventures, while also giving back. It has grown into an AU$40m enterprise, employing over 70 staff in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Germany and on the ground in Latin America. 2020 will see Chimu commence their own Antarctic operations aboard the Ocean Endeavour.
From London in their mid-twenties, to Sydney and the Sunshine Coast, Greg and Chad (now 42) reflect on the inspiration behind Chimu and the 15 lessons running the business has taught them.
Find your niche.
Chad Carey: In the Australian market, South America and the polar regions were regarded as too obscure to sell or even travel to in 2004. Rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, we were inspired by this window and saw it as an opportunity.
Greg Carter: When we first started, nobody in travel was using Google Ad Words. We advertised Inca Trail permits on Google and began a booking engine – just for the Inca Trail. 15 years ago, we probably sold five times the amount we sell now. No one had ever done it and it was something like five cents a click. We thought we were kings of the world!
When you are young, you are fearless.
CC: The sheer enthusiasm of starting a business under 30 is such an enormous advantage: provided you can be level headed enough to harness that enthusiasm, pair it with other people’s knowledge and not make too many large mistakes.
GC: I have too many friends in their 40s and 50s say ‘I wish I had done this when I was young, but I was too scared…’ Now, they have a house, they have a mortgage and they have kids. You can still do it, but everything is a lot harder.
With youth can come limitations.
CC: Most people under 30 have little experience. It can be much harder for a younger person to negotiate or be respected in business meetings. They are intense and full of traps: if you’re not confident and/or prepared, your age can leave you at the mercy of more seasoned negotiators.
GC: You may encounter criticism. My parents weren’t always encouraging because they wanted security for me. I had studied as a history teacher but wasn’t in a rush to pursue it – how can you teach kids how to experience the world when you haven’t yourself? But family and friends thought I was crazy and predicted bankruptcy within a year.
There will be sacrifices.
CC: In the early years, we couldn’t justify taking a wage from the business. For me, it meant working my day job and spending my evenings and weekends working on Chimu. Newly-married and with a baby, this was tough. Greg took a wage first as I continued with my day job. We finally got to the point where I felt I could commit myself full time to Chimu. I quit my job as an engineer: a solid career that I’d worked at for almost ten years. A week later, the Global Financial Crisis hit and I remember being very, very nervous about the decision I’d made.
GC: Chad and I travel so much for work – last night I got home at eleven-thirty after being in Melbourne and started on emails and phone calls. It is that kind of stuff which people don’t see. They know you’ve done well for yourself, but don’t realise behind the scenes. Be prepared to never turn off – you are never on holiday. If there is an emergency in Peru at one am on a Sunday morning, you’ve got to step up and take the call. I don’t sleep well and it takes a toll on health.
You may want to quit.
CC: Multiple times. For me, though, the alternatives were less appealing. If I gave up Chimu, I would need to go back to a role in engineering. Not that engineering is that bad, but I loved what we did at Chimu and I wanted to love my job: not just exist in work for the pay cheque.
Mistakes will be made.
CC: One of our most spectacular failures was in the first few weeks of operation. We wanted to make a splash, so we took out some large adverts in a major newspaper – assuming it would give us immediate enquires. The cost was around a quarter of the total capital we’d invested in Chimu. The day the adverts were published we waited for the phone to ring all day. Not one single call. It was a terrifying waste of the precious little we money we had.
They ultimately help you learn.
CC: In retrospect, this may have been one of the best things we did as it made us become creative with how we did our marketing. We became laser-focused on getting an effective return from our marketing dollars.
GC: We are not afraid of making mistakes. Some people are petrified but they happen all the time in my personal and professional life. Sometimes you just have to back yourself and go for it.
You won’t always agree…
CC: If there was something I wish I’d realised sooner, it would be that data analysis is so key to decision making. Don’t work off gut feelings: take time to crunch numbers and information – the results are often very different to what you presume.
GC: Data is important; however, I am a big believer in taking chances. If we had analysed the data behind every single decision we had made, we wouldn’t have been able to seize so many opportunities.
…But you can always give back.
GC: Chad and I come from households where giving back was always part of life and this has always inspired us. One thing that has stuck from childhood is the saying: ‘Don’t help because it is convenient, help because you can.’ Working in countries such as Peru, a developing country, you see how important reciprocity from our operations is.
CC: Philanthropy and sustainability have always been a huge part of the plan. Chimu has helped raise close to $1m in funds towards purpose related activities in the past 15 years, for example through microfinancing projects and donations.
The travel industry is incredible…
CC: It helps spread acceptance, inclusion and understanding. What better way to break down prejudice than to help someone travel to South America, meet the people and realise how life is there. How better to teach people about the environmental impact of climate change than to promote places like Antarctica, educate passengers on what is happening there and bring them home as advocates.
…Yet innovation is scarce.
GG: I truly worry that a lack of innovation will kill this industry. We have all these opportunities at our disposal, yet there is a copy-cat culture whereby companies simply replicate each other’s ideas. They aren’t taking risks and there is a paucity of unique creativity in the industry. We have this amazing licence to do so much. We need to inspire one another to do more but in an innovative way.
Make an impact.
CC: Our largest impact, product wise, was to market Antarctica in a ‘One Stop Shop’ perspective: the first company to do so in Australia and, to the best of my knowledge, globally. Offering clients almost the full suite of ships to Antarctica and channelling our expert advice to match clients with the right product for them. Travelling to Antarctica is a costly exercise and I find that people really value the advice and assistance we can provide them.
Empower and inspire your employees.
CC: We’ve tried to stick to our values and create an environment where people want to work. More recently, team members have vocally compared working inside Chimu to other travel companies. That makes me realise what a great thing we have going. We have a highly engaged team of very skilled people and seeing them all work together towards a common purpose makes me incredibly proud.
GC: Flexibility is big for us. Some staff work remotely and we actively promote travel opportunities. If you have been to Antarctica and Latin America, then you know how to market it. I have never wanted to be the boss – that is why we employ the leaders we have in each department. Yes, we have been burnt: we have overshared and we have hired people that aren’t necessarily a good fit. Most of the time, however, if you are open, transparent and involve people it will work in your favour.
Sustainability comes first.
CC: What I grapple with the most is the carbon emissions of travel and air travel particularly. Of all the emission incentive industries in the works, aircraft emissions are still the one with no feasible solution to end the use of carbon fuels. It brings out the struggle between the engineer, environmentalist and traveller inside me. For our polar vessels, we want to investigate the use of bio-fuels where possible.
GC: We need to keep giving back. We are just going to carry on not being greedy. As a small business, we have always punched well above our weight on this front and we aren’t going to stop now.