Henry Cookson, founder of Cookson Adventures, speaks with Globetrender about what he predicts for the year ahead – from remote destinations to expedition yachting – as well as how heads of industry can be inspired to treat the world in a more ethical way.
What’s new for Cookson Adventures in 2021? What kinds of trips are you arranging for clients next year and beyond?
There are several trips that have been rolled over into 2021 that Covid has obviously stopped from proceeding, so we’re still working on those. One of them is a four-month sabbatical so there’s a lot of date changing happening.
In terms of people booking long-term, we’ve always had the last-minute, impulse let’s-go-somewhere-type clients, and we have others who a booking a little more far out, and they tend to be legacy-type trips – big families getting together or a big anniversary holiday celebration. But they’re not committing to actual dates because of the see-saw of news that comes back from Covid.
These aren’t easy quick trips that you can cancel and move – we put a lot of time and effort into these things and with our model and how we work, we actually charge for our time, in terms of a planning and project development fee. And, of course, that fee goes into something tangible that can be moved around, but until we really know where we are, people are being hesitant to book.
What we’re doing is looking at a three-month window. People need that security that the country is definitely open to travel and the likelihood is they’re not flip-flopping like a lot of other countries.
Are clients doing lots of multi-destination trips?
You’re slightly limited by the country but we’ve got a family who always do a ski trip over Christmas and New Year but because of Covid that is not so viable. They want to go away for three weeks, so we’re looking at a multi-destination trip to Central America, a Costa Rica/Colombia combo.
And then we have a group of friends that likes to travel a couple of times every year, between eight and 16 of them depending on who’s available. And again this bunch want to do lots of different types of activities, they just want to keep going and going. They also want that total exclusivity but in a ten-day trip.
There aren’t many places that you can go and plonk yourself for ten days and keep people totally occupied without heavy logistics and having a whole fleet of helicopters on standby, taking them off.
So in this case we’re looking at a multi-destination thing, and again we’ve pivoted to Central America, where we’ve done two different destinations within Mexico, another one which is a combination of Panama and Colombia, and then there’s two African options – “surf and turf” – which is a private island for four days, where we know we can keep their attention, and then another six days in the bush.
How has the way you work changed?
In the short term, we’ve slightly shifted our approach. We very rarely give a set date or set itinerary for any trip but, currently, because people don’t want to go through that lengthy process of getting from the seed of an idea to actual planning and committing to a trip, we are taking a more traditional approach.
We’re finding interesting places such as lodges and islands and saying: “These are the dates, this is your ‘start from’ cost’,” to get people interested, and then we can talk about building in the bigger sort of production we’re used to.
What travel trends do you predict for 2021?
On Cookson Adventures trips, we’re used to having people in a little bubble. We go to places where you won’t see another soul, you have this total experience where other people don’t exist, it’s you, nature, the experts and other people where you’re staying.
And even when you’re going to different parts of different counties, we’ll try and avoid going through choke points at immigration – if we can bring immigration to our clients, then we will.
What I’m saying is people who traditionally go to resorts, go to the Maldives, something that’s a little bit more safe, where you just pick up the phone and your travel agent sorts it out, I think because of Covid, people will want to get away from other people.
So we’re already quite well placed – this is what we’ve been doing for years already, and I think there will be an uptake of people wanting more remote travel. There’s a sort of a “let’s get away from Covid” mentality.At the same time, I think people have also had a lot of time to think and reflect about life, where this planet’s going, where everyone has been in stasis for several months, and I think there’s also a bit more of a thirst to do more cerebral, different types of experiences rather than going for a full-hand massage. They will want to do something a bit more meaningful and thoughtful. Maybe it’s conservation-led, maybe it’s more wellbeing or culture-led.
Over the past few months, we’ve had a huge uptake in clients who were not on our radar before. So there is this thirst, and we’re seeing it on the yachting side of things as well. We’re getting a lot more yacht owners in particular saying: “We want to take our yacht around the world, where do we start?”
That one is challenging at the moment because a lot of our clients are global, and in order to get a sense of what someone really wants from something like that, you need to really sit down and look them in the eye and throw ideas around. Everyone goes on about Zoom, but you miss something in that connection.
So there’s yacht owners wanting to take their boats to more intrepid places, and there are charterers who are tired of going to the same places as everyone else and saying: “Let’s go out and see the world.”
That’s a really exciting hope for me because what we do is logistic-heavy – we’re using boats, private planes, helicopters and there is a carbon footprint there, so we now offset all of our carbon out of our own profit.
That’s our responsibility, on behalf of our client, we’re paying for it. If a client is bringing in their own plane, we have the ability to calculate the carbon emissions. We say: “We can calculate it and if you want, you can also donate [to offset it].”
Do you think all travel companies should start carbon offsetting?
If they want to exist in the future, then yes. To be able to travel, you need to see a pristine world, and if we destroy the very world we want to see…
Just because people are flying and going on holiday it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to shoulder the entire responsibility though. It’s a global problem that everyone needs to pick up on. Carbon neutral is one thing but there needs to be a more proactive approach as well.
What’s the future of sustainable or regenerative travel?
I used to call it my “hidden agenda” and I wouldn’t actively promote it but you could subtly slip the conservation element into a trip, even for someone who had no interest prior to that.
It’s not about forcing stuff down people’s throats. It’s not just look and see, it’s actually touch, engage, give back, and then you can come back not only having had a great time with friends and family but having made a difference. And also, with an understanding of why we have these problems.
My bigger picture thing is engaging with people so I can actually start unleashing those huge resources they have, those funds, into stuff that can change our world. Our clients are captains of industry, they employ thousands of people and have factories all over the planet in multiple countries, for example.
It’s not about telling them what to do but maybe next time they have that board meeting or restructure their company, they’ll think “actually let’s do it with a little bit more of a green hat on and make a bit of a difference”.If I can give a percentage of my profits to climate change, it’s going to be a drop in the ocean. If I can leverage what we do by showing and engaging people in this beautiful world we have, they can do it a million-fold, more than I can ever can.
I don’t want to be someone that’s saying, “you’ve got to get out there because it’s all going to go”. It might be sadly true in some aspects but I don’t think you can have that alarmist approach.
But if you can make them understand: “You’re here with your children, you’re very privileged to see this but there is a distinct possibility, unless someone steps in and changes things, your grandchildren will never witness this.” That’s quite harrowing, we don’t want to shock people, but we want to say, this is the reality of where things are.I’m so privileged to have seen as much of the planet as I have, but I still get incredibly jealous when I meet someone who had a head-start and started travelling in the sixties or seventies – or even the eighties and nineties. So much of that stuff has gone, it’s quite terrifying.
We need to do something to change. It’s not just about amassing wealth – what is money if we don’t have nature?
Everything we have is inspired by nature, whether it’s architecture, fashion, technology, that’s our Ground Zero of inspiration and if we get rid of it, fine, we can be a Blade Runner-type dystopia world living in mega-cities, but for me I just think that’s a pointless existence. So hopefully we can persuade some of these people. And we’ve had success, for sure.
Have you seen an increased in demand over the past few years for travel to the polar regions?
Yes, I’ve always had people approach me for the polar stuff because I’ve done expeditions there in the past. And it’s like everything, there are always going to be those trail blazers who don’t need the affirmation that their friends have done it and it’s safe, but now that more people have done it and, of course, it’s quite an interesting dinner party conversation: “I’ve just come back from the Antarctic.”
It’s quite exciting when you know and connect with someone who has been somewhere which, maybe prior, was too extreme or too dangerous.
Are there limits on visitors numbers to the Antarctic per year?
There’s certainly more appetite for it, absolutely but it’s more of a logistics thing. There’s two sides to it – you have the cruise ships, which are taking the vast majority of people down there and they’ve been growing year-on-year. Obviously Covid has pushed things back a bit, but the potential energy capacity is there to go up. It’s not my place to say whether it should be limited or not, if it’s done responsibly and with care, then that should continue.
For us, we’re so low volume, our footprint is so small in terms of the amount of people who go there. Our limitation I suppose is our capacity as a company to do multiple trips over any one season – I would say three or four trips over one season is what we’d be comfortable with if it was to happen right away, and then maybe the following year maybe more.
We don’t want to get greedy, it’s a quality/quantity approach. Once you’ve done the heavy lifting to bring in a trip, and you have your logistics and assets there, it’s much easier to add a trip on to that. The first one is the big uphill.
The challenge faced with polar trips is people are used to travelling with a kind of schedule, but for those kinds of trips you have to allow two or three days either side for weather delays. It would be an awful shame if you found out you’ve booked a week-long holiday but you’re delayed by two days and there’s a massive storm coming in. Getting people to commit to that time can be challenge.We’re very honest about it – I’ve actually turned down business because someone has said they can only come for the week, I’ve suggested they do more because of the weather, they’ve said they’ll risk it and I’ve said it’s not worth it, there’s too much money on the table for them to go down and have four days. You don’t want to travel half-way around the world and blow seven figures on a one-day experience.
When people are used to booking trips and being given an itinerary, it’s like: “Okay, well I might want a bigger room or that lodge,” but everything we do has a knock-on effect. If you decide to go in a certain direction, it impacts the whole trip, or if you decide to go a week early, well then the weather window is a little bit less likely to be alright.
We had a client that we were doing a complicated Galapagos trip for that had so many moving parts and they had to understand the ramifications of every element and they said: “I haven’t got the bandwidth right now, let’s do it another time.” This was after two months of back and forth. It’s difficult.
We could throw it at them and say “that’s it” but if somebody is going to the Galapagos and they’re not likely to return, and they’re investing a huge amount of time and money, it’s got to be perfect, so better to put the business back another day rather than just grab it.