Becoming a purpose-driven company
Secondary Categories: The Great Inca Trail
In the first of a three-part series, our founder explains how the pursuit of exploring and conserving a five-hundred-year-old road network can make solid business sense too.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), terms like “triple bottom line”, “corporate citizenship”, and “balancing profit with purpose” are all important examples of how society is refining capitalism to be more responsive to the needs of society and our environment (compare the situation today with, say, mining in Potosí in the colonial era). Our company, SA Expeditions, was born in the midst of a new wave of capitalistic 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 any modest level of success. It is as if SA Expeditions is like a millennial, unable to remember a world without the internet.
I would like to go a bit further, though, and explain the actual business model of our particular social venture, shedding light on what happens when a company’s efforts to create a positive impact on society also inherently strengthen its product development, and the advantages and benefits of those products. Put differently, I want to show you that social impact and profitability can be inextricably linked, and that a company’s economic engine can create a force towards societal improvement as part of its structural DNA.
While charitable donations by the private sector are generally noble and critical to funding the non-profit world, they operate on a completely different model to a company whose economic engine is structured to solve that issue.
One of the global thought leaders in the ‘business for purpose’ movement is the apparel company Patagonia which explicitly states that it is in business to “Save our Home Planet”. In response to statistics that show that the textile and apparel sector contributes 20% of global production waste and other trends like the fact that the average consumer buys more clothing than ever before and keeps each garment for half as long, Patagonia took the bold step of building a new manufacturing process that was more circular in nature. The hallmarks of this approach were to strive for zero waste by manufacturing apparel that can last a lifetime and can ultimately be repaired and/or recycled into new products. Their mission to save our home planet was translated into their product development process.
How does SA Expeditions’ business model promote conservation of a 500-year-old Inca road and promote societal improvement?
We’re in the business of designing and operating custom vacations to South America, although we prefer the term “explorations”. We operate within a larger tourism sector where destinations are being plagued by over-tourism, demonstrating the bad side of tourism as an extractive enterprise. We believe travel can overwhelmingly be a force towards good, echoing Mark Twain who said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” At the same time, it’s also a business that leverages local culture and the environment to bring visitors and turn a profit, often extracting a tiny piece of authenticity one visitor at a time. This reality doesn’t only affect the cultural and biological diversity of the planet, it also impacts the future profitability of our industry and our company which both rely on culture and the natural environment.
In South America alone, we see Machu Picchu bursting at the seams, Easter Island being forced to put limits on visitors, and the Galapagos having to double down on its conservation efforts to mitigate the effects of rapidly growing tourism. Against this backdrop, and as leader of a company that relies on these destinations for a healthy financial position, I decided I would step away from the day-to-day operations as our CEO and go for a long walk through South America. A walk that would bring me closer to the knowledge and insights needed to navigate our company through a future that will require us to balance profitability and our impact on the cultures and landscapes that drive it. The walk has 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. It is now one of the most important travel brands in South America, ferrying 500 people per day along a 30-mile trail section to Machu Picchu (which also receives a few thousand tourists by train every day).
Walking for thousands of miles along the Inca Road re-arranged my sense of distance and space, allowing me to slowly become acquainted with the mountains, the Inca paving stones, the locals, the butterflies, the lost ruins. I’ve built a deep friendship with this monumental work, one step at a time. The separation from the frenetic pace of modern life has allowed me to intimately observe the challenges of equitable development of indigenous cultures of the Andes and it has helped me to understand how our company can play a positive role in their future. In its heyday, the Qhapaq Ñan connected a pan-Andean society that still flows through the veins of the people who live on its path. Five hundred years later it should be resurrected to achieve its original purpose: that of economic development.
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.
Our explorations have given me an acute understanding of the challenges of preserving the planet’s largest World Heritage site. 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. Trails that are just as impressive as the one leading to Machu Picchu and far less crowded. If done thoughtfully, the project will also promote dignified development of Andean populations.
The way I see it, the Qhapaq Ñan is a stone path reaching almost 50-feet wide at some points that cuts across Western South America like a vein of tourism gold. A vein that intersects hundreds of communities that are disintegrating in the face of mass emigration to cities and, worse still, the digging of actual gold by the mining industry.
A positive cycle of business behavior
We send clients on private experiences to South America’s most exclusive and stunning locations. Our team explorations and accompanying awareness campaigns in which we share the walks with the world as they happen do two things. They give us the logistical intelligence to develop new products, and they concurrently build demand within our community of traveling clients. Our operational structure is set up so that 70% or more of the capital generated gets injected into the specific local, regional and national economies. When our clients travel on the Inca Road, they put real economic value on this important patrimony and incentivize its conservation.
Healthy idealism in business should always be accompanied by solid economics and a disciplined approach to management. The costs of building awareness and promoting conservation of the Inca Road are integrated within normal company operations and not chalked up as an annual donation. We measure these exploration and awareness costs against product development and revenue from selling trips along its path. Our company’s leadership also 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, complementary activities.
Consider the topic of negotiations with providers. SA Expeditions judges its success not on how many employees or offices we have, but rather on the depth and quality of our network. To efficiently drive profits we focus on establishing win-win provider relationships. In the context of our purpose as a company, this means giving priority to service providers who promote awareness and conservation of the Inca Road and/or other threatened heritage in their respective regions. Like a coffee company that sources only fair-trade coffee, we build awareness and conservation into our supply chain. This means placing more humanistic and gentler demands on our suppliers, as opposed to hammering them to squeeze a fraction of a percent on costs. As our business grows, so does our influence with suppliers – we will use this to promote conservation of the Inca Road within our industry.
If a company’s “purpose” is part of its founder’s DNA, it must also flow through the veins of all those who are representing the brand. It must serve as a moral compass, providing meaning to their everyday work that, like all work, might be tedious and/or stressful. Our people need to be able to make a direct connection between their daily work and how it helps the company achieve its purpose.
When perusing our trips on the web, our purpose page is always visible. This creates awareness of the Inca Road as part of the buying process, and suggests innovative and socially responsible products for our customers to experience. Their choice of vacation can give them purpose and serve as a force for good too.
With attention spans being reduced to Instagram snippets and cat videos, we’ve decided to break things up a bit and will continue this discussion over a three-part series called “Finding our Purpose”. In this series, we'll explain our challenges, measure our progress, and share our insights. We’ll investigate the future and try to answer the burning question of which other threatened cultural and environmental resources our team of dreamers and nomads can help to save through exploration and awareness. 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 at 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 of South America and the world.