Homecoming: A story of a boutique travel company
The idea of home has been as ephemeral as it has stifling, my whole life. The travel company I co-founded, and lead has espoused these characteristics in its ten years of life too.
In the beginning – The Early Years
The idea of SA Expeditions was created over a barbeque in Lima, Peru by two guys from California on an adventure to South America. Dave and I also found two other adventurous Californians in Peru right at the beginning. Riva and Staci would come on as our first destination experts and are now our COO and Sales Manager. Here we were, four Californians beginning a travel start-up in the half-basement below my home in Lima, Peru, where I lived with my family. Not very long after that, we had a small team of expat adventurers and local Peruvians learning how to sell travel to the beautiful country we all found ourselves in.
And really, Peru was easy to vouch for. It was blessed with towering mountains that hid lost cities, steaming jungles, and a coast endowed with some of the richest seas in the world. We were young: I was the oldest at 30, and the one who was supposed to be the adult. We spent a year with seven people packed in that 150-square-foot half-basement room and the small patio out front where our sales team manned the phones. By the time we moved into our first independent office down the street, we had managed to squeeze nine people into a space the size of most people’s kitchens. This year of incubation together was an intensive study of trial and error and established strong bonds. Ten years later, nearly our entire current management team was there during these formative years.
Fast forward five years – The Middle Years
SA Expeditions had grown considerably, and we were designing and operating experiences across South America, which brought its own set of pains. Dave, our other co-founder, left the team as families grew and needs changed (don’t worry, you’ll see he comes back later!). We also became a fully virtual, cloud-based company, adopting the practice far before it became normal. Our reality as young explorers in 2010 had changed, as had the needs of the business. We were growing up, literally and figuratively, and it was time to envision a future that was not fully based in South America.
So we registered in San Francisco, as California was our home and we figured it was a sexy address that might also give our clients comfort (being listed in a jurisdiction that would make us accountable should we not live up to our promises). I began to split my time between Lima and Northern California, where I recruited a team that revolved around marketing, design, web, and accounting. We became a more traditional gringo organization, even joining a hipster co-working space where we kind of fit in with the rest of the digital nomads. We’d come a long way from our early beginnings in Peru.
Our late middle years – The Long Walk
Eventually, our organization became a curious collection of folks from around North and South America in what is a global and disbursed travel supply chain. California was our administrative and creative hub, while South America inspired our explorer senses and allowed us to perfect the business of trip operations. I, though, had found myself split between two worlds. One amongst modernity in California, and the other exploring the frontiers of South America, while also trying to raise a family somewhere in the middle. Times were changing and SA Expeditions was evolving, and I decided to radically re-look my approach to life and business. I decided to go on the biggest exploration of my life when, in 2017, I explored, by foot, 2,000 miles down the spine of the Andes on the Great Inca Trail – 130 continuous days of walking and many other month-long trips. This feat was only possible with the support of SA Expeditions and many key people who not only walked with me, but helped build a new way of understanding what conservation of the Inca road can do for the Andean world and the communities along its route.
The company progressed by leaps and bounds during those years, as we continually got better at our craft, and our portfolio of clients expanded. We continued to formulate grand plans for the future and held raucous company summits from Rio de Janeiro to the Galapagos Islands. My long walks gave me ample time to think about the purpose of SA Expeditions, something that went beyond trying to make a profit. By 2018, we were immersed in actions to adjust our business model so that our economic engine could maximize its positive impact on society. The times of abundance had given us the space to understand and build products that promoted the conservation of natural and cultural patrimony. We found that this message resonated with recruiting more smart enthusiastic team members, as well as more clients.
We were feeling so successful and bold that we even convinced Dave to come back and join the team in early 2020. It was a reunion that took us right back to the very beginning. It reconnected us with a key thread of our history (and also gave us the one skillset we’d always missed since he left!) We were poised to conquer the world…
Then the pandemic hit, the world went into lockdown, and the bridge SA Expeditions and I had built between our two homes of Peru and California closed.
Reimagining our future – Coming home to California for a second time
As I spent my days in lockdown in Lima, Peru, I began to think about my family and friends in California. I thought deeply about our company’s future offering trips across South America in times of pandemic. And I found myself deciphering this new world, chasing some ephemeral balance and feeling pulled in two directions.
And that is when it hit me! I suddenly realized the mistake in only considering California as a place where our clients come from. SA Expeditions could also bring its clients to the Golden State and use our craft to design and operate private trips across communities that could use high-value economic rejuvenation. After all, it was exploring across California with my parents that sowed the seeds of my wanderlust and brought me to Peru with a backpack at 24, and by extension, led to the founding of SA Expeditions. It was California that raised me, its universities are where I studied and what shaped my intellectual sensibilities. It was California that gave SA Expeditions the talent and the security to grow our business during the middle years. It is California’s capital in Sacramento where we hold our annual management summits.
I had compartmentalized California and South America to serve two different purposes in life and business, but it was now time to blend these worlds once and for all. I decided that I would jump headfirst into offering a California travel experience that only a local could facilitate. An experience that is informed by a decade of exploration across South America, and by a team that is at the very top of their craft in trip designing. I then got excited!
My mind raced with images of California’s Sierra Nevadas, its pristine coasts, its majestic redwoods, its otherworldly deserts, its world-class cities, its diverse and eccentric people. I found deep joy of the type that I had felt at the very beginning of the SA journey in Peru. I realized I could further break down what lines remained between my authentic self and my work. It all fit into a puzzle that had always been there.
California – A love story
So here we are, Riva, Dave, Staci, me, and the rest of the SA Expeditions team embarking on a new chapter. A chapter in which we’re finding home yet again and building strength during times of challenge. And as reciprocity for such love from our home state – that has raised us, educated us and strengthened us – it’s time that we direct our economic engine to support its economic revival. We will be practicing a California tourism that is private and high-value and focuses on getting our clients off the beaten path to experience this wondrous state as a local, while meeting the standards of the world-class adventures that we have perfected in South America.
As Chief Explorer of SA Expeditions, I invite you to come and explore California with us, our home.
Want to escape to the mountain, deserts, and beaches of the Golden State as SA Expeditions does? Peruse our private tours designed by Californians here.
To be sure the reader doesn’t think that we’ve disowned our other home in South America, or that a virus can stop our journey, you can read a recent article on our company's evolution throughout 2020 here.
This piece was written with love and appreciation for all those who have come along on this journey we call SA Expeditions. You can read about our entire team here. And for a few from the early and middle years who are not on the team page, but who have shaped our journey immensely: Laura Yates, Kristina Rudge, Gina Allman, and Jenny Byrne.