Robert Sharp is founder of Out Adventures, one of the world’s most highly regarded LGBT+ travel brands. The #Experientialist catches up with Robert to talk about the future of travel.
I last saw Robert Sharp, in the Hungarian capital, in a tiny little cafe in the dilapidated grandeur of downtown Pest. The cafe was ‘trialling’ their first ever gay brunch, a concept native to most OutThere travellers – but still finding its feet, not to mention support – in the rather challenging LGBT landscape that is Hungary.
He was leading one of Out Adventures‘ groups through the city, yet still made time for a quick coffee and chinwag. I’ve known Rob for around a decade now, I remember the moment we met in fact, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida – both bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, gay entrepreneurs who had both recently launched our businesses with the world “Out” in the title. In fact there’s a low-pixeled, early-day camera-phone picture to prove it. Ten years later, Out Adventures has developed a world-renowned, and infallible reputation in delivering slick and sublime escapes for the community, deeply rooted in a spirit of adventure and discovery; and a mandate to enrich the lives and livelihoods of the communities they visit.
Rob’s business, like many others in the travel industry, is going through a challenging time right now. For a vast majority of travel and travel-related enterprises, the floor has fallen away from underneath us. These are uncertain times, but it’s particularly trying for travel designers. So, some six weeks into lockdown, I catch up with Rob, with the hope to glean some insight into what the future holds.
Uwern: How are you holding up, both personally and in business?
Rob: All things considered I am doing well. I returned from hosting our India Holi Festival Foray on March 12th, and immediately went into quarantine. The day my quarantine was lifted, social distancing began. My husband joined me a week in, and I’m happy to say we haven’t had this much quality time in years.
On the other hand, Out Adventures has been flipped upside down. We’ve had to cancel all our tours through to September for now – including one of our top journeys, our hugely popular Croatia yacht charters.
Uwern: That’s a sad but inevitably a necessary step in this new-normal tourism climate we’re all operating in at the moment. The world of travel as we know it has seem to come to a grinding halt. But now we’ve had the time to acclimatise there seems to be much talk and focus around what comes next. Notwithstanding the uncertainty in what the immediate future holds, what is your next step?
Rob: We are planning to operate our scheduled tours from September onward, but we are being honest with ourselves and our clients that most of our tours in 2020 are at risk of being postponed. We’re also taking a deep dive into our schedule in 2021 and beyond.
But there are some silver linings. We are seeing the bulk of our clients moving their deposits to 2021, which has me feeling incredibly humbled and grateful. Plus, we recently surveyed our clients and followers, and the biggest takeaway (that I can share) is that the majority of travellers believe they’ll hit the road within 3-6 months of some sort of global stability, and we are planning to be ready for that surge.
Uwern: That seems wholly positive, of course there’s a lot of macro-factors that are out of our hands, like the availability and affordability of air travel, and countries opening up their borders again. It’s hard to plan for that, so what are you focussed on doing right now?
Rob: Our strategy is to build further trust with our clients so we are top of mind when they are ready to travel again. We’ve taken to being more human than ever and we’re making every effort to truly understand and empathize the struggles our clients and audience are experiencing right now. We’ve reached out to clients to continue to keep them informed and feed their wanderlusts and it’s been so much fun seeing them engage with each other on social media.
Additionally, we are doing everything we can to maintain the faith they have in us as a brand, and more importantly, the faces behind the brand. We’re putting out personalised communication, and we’re upfront about how we are both protecting their interests, and preparing our company for the other side of this. In short, we aren’t sitting idle waiting for an upturn.
Uwern: What about on the business side? What are you doing to stay ahead of the game?
Rob: We’ve been aggressively seeking better cancellation terms with suppliers around the world, and we’re working hard to pass those terms on to our clients. Since the crisis, we’ve modified our booking conditions to allow our clients the opportunity to wait as long as possible to make the decision to travel – or not. I have always believed in a taking a customer-first approach when running this business, and now more than ever those values are securing our space in the industry.
Uwern: It’s good to see that you are taking a proactive approach. There are many others in the industry that are still reeling from the shock and firefighting rather than planning for the future. Whilst this is an unprecedented time, I feel that there has been many similar threats to the way in which the travel industry conducts its business in the past and at times am surprised that there aren’t more contingency plans in place. How do you feel your own experiences of travel, and of the travel industry has prepared you for this time and what do you feel you can bring to the business, or industry at this time to help it?
Rob: I started Out Adventures during the financial crisis of 2008, and the business suffered greatly in 2015 when the Canadian Dollar plummeted. Prior to then, most of our clients came from Canada – but when our currency devalued, Canadians changed their travel habits and we suffered. I quickly adjusted our model to focus on the American market – and as a result we’ve grown into one of the largest LGBT+ operators in the world. My ability to act quickly ensured that we were still around when Canadians were ready to come back to us, and I intend to do the same. We will be here when our clients are ready to travel again.
Uwern: For an industry that’s used to goodtimes and high volume transactions, 3-6 months after global stability, whenever that will be, is a concerning timeframe. Our future hangs on consumer desire (and beyond the want and need, also socio-economic ability) to come to travel again. What can you say, or are you saying, to reassure travellers?
Rob: Like you Uwern, I have poured my heart and soul into my business and I want to see scientific progress and clarity, so we can all feel confident travelling again. To be honest – I am optimistic, but I am also scared. To a travel enthusiast I would say have faith, continue to be inspired by content put out by your favourite travel brands, and wait as long as possible to postpone planned trips. Research your bucket list, and plan for late 2020 or 2021. The world has come together, nations are sharing information, and organisations are cooperating at a level that is unprecedented.
Uwern: Do you think what is happening right now is going to change the way in which travellers approach their leisure time and behaviour?
A pause button has been pushed on travel and the economy, and there will be a long-term effect on the finances of most travellers. Although I strongly believe we will bounce back stronger than ever. Out Adventure travellers will have a renewed sense of value for money – regardless of the level of luxury or price tag attached to their trip. We will all appreciate travel in a way we haven’t in our lifetime. In the words of Joni Mitchell, “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”, and isn’t that true today?
Uwern: I too am the eternal optimist, and part of me thinks that perhaps this pause button is what we needed to reset our perspectives on how we go about travelling. Do you think this whole period will change the way in which we approach the world?
Rob: Our travellers come at the world with an adventurous spirit and a willingness to experience new cultures, regardless of the level of adventure or luxury. And while I believe travellers will have a renewed sense of adventure, they will approach the world with more caution than ever. They will look to us to understand how we will protect their safety, and to succeed we will have to address and deliver on those concerns.
Uwern: To take this conversation more specifically to our corner of the industry that is LGBT+ travel, how do you feel the community will react coming out the other side?
Rob: I believe this depends on how long travel restrictions are in place, and how the world recovers. Generally speaking, gay men and lesbians travel more than the average person, and if history repeats itself we should see these travellers hitting the road before our mainstream counterparts.
After 9/11, the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2008 Financial Recession, gay and lesbian travellers bounced back the fastest, along with luxury travel. Yes, we are in uncharted waters, but generally speaking, we have fewer children, more disposable income, and travel is more engrained in our community.
I do believe that on the other side of this we will see a resurgence of independent travel, boutique travel, and small group tours, and that it will take a while for travellers to be comfortable on large cruise ships and at packed public events.
Uwern: Given that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, what positive things has this situation taught you? What lessons for the other side will you take from all of this?
During this crisis, our first and immediate efforts were to fight for client refunds, then to renegotiate supplier contracts – all with the goal to protect our customers. In turn, our clients are so unbelievably supportive of our efforts that most have decided to postpone rather than take refunds which means we are poised for success on the other side of this. Over the years, my commitment to make pragmatic and ethical decisions has often led to me second guessing myself when looking at the loss of greater short term profits. Today it is more clear than ever that these values are exactly what will lend to our success in a crisis.
We are a lean and innovative team – and we are currently doing what we do best by planning ahead so we have tours ready to book farther in the future than we normally would. Ground breaking, I know, but it’s now so important to me that we do what we do better than ever. I am also looking at new ways to keep our clients engaged with travel if domestic travel opens up months ahead of international travel.
Uwern: Of course, nothing is certain – but if you could control the timeframe of this lockdown, what is the Out Adventures comeback trip?
Rob: I was beyond thrilled to host our Norway Mystery trip at the end of August – now postponed to August, 2021. I first visited Norway in September of 2018, and during the planning phase I was too busy to do the research I normally would and left much of the leg work to a local ground operator. Not being as prepared as I wanted to be was anxiety inducing, but the element of surprise was something I hadn’t experienced before, and I was absolutely blown away. This got me thinking, and I decided to launch the world’s first gay mystery trip. Our guests know when and where to fly, what to pack, and basically how active the trip is. That’s it. As the host of this trip, each evening over cocktails I will outline the activities for the following day. Even talking about it now gives me goosebumps.
If we are forced to wait until the end of the year, Thailand wins hands down. Our first trip in March of 2009 was to “the land of smiles” and I can’t think of a better place to make a comeback. It really has everything – food, beaches, culture, great people, and one of our favourite guides in the world. And if a traveller wants to stay a little closer to home, our other comeback trip is our Cuba New Year Fiesta which is anything but your image of a typical Cuba all-inclusive. Our gay guide Will takes us all around the island visiting art cooperatives, taking gay salsa lessons, meeting activists, and a down to earth Cuban block party at his house for New Year’s eve.
Uwern: My bucketlist has grown somewhat over the last weeks, I can tell you that for sure. What about you personally … what will be your first vacation back in this big wide world?
Rob: Italy, hands down. Believe it or not, I’ve been to over 65 countries, and never Italy. I want to spend a few days cooking with my husband and a Nona in Tuscany, climb a volcano in Sicily, and I can’t wait to cruise the Amalfi Coast. It’s interesting because I have always been drawn to hard to reach destinations, and always wrote off Italy, but I had a conference planned in Milan in May and figured I may as well add a few weeks on. As my husband and I started to plan, the excitement really did get to me. Not only is there so much interesting history and culture, but I am such a huge foodie and I honestly just can’t wait to take it easy, slow down, and literally savour the country.
Uwern: Why do you think travel is important … beyond what we know about expanding horizons and opening borders?
Rob: Travel affords us the opportunity to see how other people live, and to learn about the values that define their culture. Through a deeper understanding of these people and their values, we are better able to appreciate our differences. We live in a polarised world, and to put it simply, it’s harder to hate something you know – or someone you’ve met. It has always been important to me not only to consume a destination, but to give back to it by learning its culture, understanding the traumas that have made it what it is today, and truly engaging with locals along the way, and I can assure you this won’t change.
Uwern: How have you applied this sense of paying it back, or forward in your work?
Rob: I have made it my mission to put as much money as possible into the hands and pockets of the communities we visit. For 11 years we’ve chosen locally owned boutique hotels over international chains, we’ve sought out local LGBT+ guides where possible rather than sending our own, and we have always made a point to engage with local LGBT+ organisations where they are within reach. Looking back, that is literally millions and millions of dollars of investment in the people and communities that offer us the travel experiences we value so much, and I am incredibly proud of that.
Uwern: In wrapping up, what advice would you give your younger self … to the guy I met back in Fort Lauderdale and also to the Rob Sharp of Christmas 2019?
Rob: I would tell myself that all of the hard work will eventually pay off, but rather than being consumed by the idea of having a large successful company, I should focus on the people and the relationships around me because they will ultimately bring more joy, longevity, and opportunity than any amount of time sitting at a computer doing strategic planning.
Who knew 10 years ago that these two bright-eyed and bushy tailed guys across the pond from each other would see the success that they have? I certainly wouldn’t have, and I think we should both be very humbled and proud of our achievements.
As a champion of LGBT+ experiential travel, OutThere wholeheartedly endorses Out Adventures fantastic journeys across the world. To find out all about their trips, visit www.outadventures.com