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Becoming a purpose-driven company

In the first of this three-part "A Journey for Purpose" series, our founder begins the story of finding SA Expeditions' purpose, beginning with our birth in South America and continuing with a pilgrimage across the Andes for thousands of miles on foot. 

SA Expeditions was born in a converted garage in Lima, Peru, by a group of California expats. We recruited our first employee from the family-run boutique hotel next door (and we sent our first clients there too). We were completely immersed in the first international destination to which we were bringing our North American clients. We understood the difference between a multi-national hotel brand and a local and thoughtfully run boutique hotel in a real South American capital. We knew our drivers and guides by name, and it was never a consideration to underpay those looking after our clients on the ground. This more intimate perspective of the impact our travelers had in Peru was formative, stamped into our DNA – even now that we operate trips over three continents. 

Corporate Social Responsibility terms like “triple bottom line” and “balancing profit with purpose” are important examples of how society is refining capitalism to be more responsive to the needs of society and our environment. Our company, SA Expeditions, was born in the midst of the continual wave of ethical readjustments  that took place at the beginning of the 21st century, and we have never operated in an era when business operations didn’t have to care about their externalities. For us, social impact and profitability are inextricably linked. It’s part of the business environment we were raised in.

An example of how SA Expeditions' business model promotes environmental and societal stewardship

We’re in the business of designing and operating custom explorations that we believe can be a powerful force for good. But there's no getting away from the fact that we operate within a larger industry that has long been plagued by overtourism (and is now already suffering from post-pandemic tourism spikes). The tourism business leverages local culture and ecosystems to attract visitors and turn a profit, often extracting a tiny piece of authenticity one visitor at a time. If the tourism of the future doesn't help to regenerate the cultural and biological resources of the planet, it will impact the future profitability of our industry and our company, which both rely on it.

Against this backdrop, I decided to step away from the day-to-day operations as our CEO and go for a long walk through South America. A walk that brought me closer to the knowledge and insights needed to navigate our company through a future that requires us to balance profitability with our impact. The walk lasted for more than 200 days across an ancient path that interweaves – both physically and metaphorically – the most important socio-economic challenges facing 21st century South America. 

The Great Inca Trail, also known as the Qhapaq Ñan, is the largest UNESCO World Heritage site on the planet and is far more than a path through the Andes. It was one of the great public works of pre-industrial man, spanning 25 000 miles at its peak and connecting the most advanced civilization in pre-Colombian America, the Inca Empire. A tiny subsidiary of this great road became popular in the 1980s and was coined “The Inca Trail” by enterprising tourism companies. The Inca Trail is and will remain, one of the most important travel brands in South America, leading hikers along a 30-mile trail section to Machu Picchu.

Conservation of the Inca Road is at an important crossroads. On the one hand, Inca roads are being abandoned by rural communities and bulldozed over by modern development. And on the other, contemporary society is finally beginning to awaken to their inherent value. I am convinced that we need to harness the power of the Inca Trail brand and use it to spread visitors over a larger array of Inca Trails. If done thoughtfully, the project will also promote dignified development of Andean populations.

The Great Inca Trail expedition team during their long walk on the Inca Road

The Great Inca Trail expedition team during their long walk on the Inca Road.

A positive cycle of business behavior

Healthy idealism in business should always be accompanied by solid economics and a disciplined approach to management. Our company’s leadership balances its energies in driving both our purpose and our balance sheet instead of focusing on profit and purpose as separate spheres. We see them both as core and complementary activities.

SA Expeditions judges its success on the depth and quality of our network instead of how many employees or offices we have. Given that our network spans areas of the world where the balance of power favors us, we must prioritize fairness with underserved suppliers. This means placing gentler, more humanistic demands on our partners as opposed to hammering them to squeeze a fraction of a percent on costs. As our business grows, so does our impact … In ways that can be either negative or positive depending on how we respond.

We have seen first-hand the impact the pandemic has had on our small in-country suppliers (and our whole industry). And we are now using the capital of trust and solidarity built up in times of growth and prosperity to maintain cohesiveness during a time of famine. It's no surprise to us that our low impact kind of private travel seems to be the most resilient type of travel in this new world. This demonstrates how there can be practical and very beneficial financial reasons to do the right thing for people and the planet.

The big question we will try to solve from here is how to quantitatively measure and score what doing right for people and the planet looks like. Because in the end, we want our clients’ travel choices to give them purpose and serve as a force for good.

What's next?

This discussion will continue in this three-part series called “A Journey for Purpose.” In Part Two, our Chief Operations Officer Riva Bacquet will tell the story of finding our way through our B Corp certification, sharing some of the insights and challenges of this journey. Corey Jay, our resident B Keeper, will give some finer detail, measure our progress, and pin us against the larger economy in Part Three. We will enquire about the future and try to answer the burning question of how to play a regenerative role in the cultural and environmental resources of our planet. We hope the series will be as educational as it is inspiring. Maybe it will even rouse others to build and engage with businesses with purpose.

About the author: Nick co-founded SA Expeditions and currently serves as its Chief Explorer. He is a dreamer and a thinker; someone who will always wonder what lies beyond. Originally from California and resident in Peru for a decade, he straddles two worlds. He has a BA in South America Studies from the University of California and a trans-global MBA from Saint Mary’s College of California. Nick believes wholeheartedly that tourism has the potential to bring dignified income to the forgotten people and places of the world.

See our purpose in action here.

This article was originally published on May 19, 2019 and was updated in January 2021.

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