DESTINATION MASTERS
Into the Wild, with The Wilderness Group 
XO Private Interview

The Wilderness Group DMC brings together the experience and expertise behind leading adventure travel brands Wilderness Scotland, Wilderness Ireland, and Wilderness England and today provide the benchmark for luxury active and experiential travel across the UK & Ireland. The Wilderness Group are also the pioneers of sustainable travel in Scotland.

Find out more about this fascinating company in this interesting interview with Stevie Christie, the Head of Adventure, and find out how they carved the path to success.

What is your personal background? Was getting involved with Wilderness Scotland a natural development for you?

I've lived in Scotland all my life (apart from wee spells overseas), I studied law at uni and worked 3 years in civil service doing environmental policy work. I quit and went to Namibia for 4 months to lead an expedition for Raleigh International (charity). Then worked as a freelance guide including trips to Peru and Kilimanjaro, as well as all over Scotland. I met Paul at a time when I was thinking of setting up a business of my own, which would have been very similar to Wilderness Scotland and it all just went from there. Paul and I have been working together for 20 years now!
The Wilderness Group developed into a highly-respected, multi-award-winning, experiential DMC covering the UK and Ireland. But, how did it all get started 20 years ago?

A realisation that there was more to life than a job in the city, that it was possible to forge your own path and do something you were passionate about. An awareness that there was a gap in the market in Scotland (initially) for high quality tours with a focus on nature. And a desire to build a green/sustainable business - before that became fashionable. We wanted to show it could be done and inspire others to follow ... which seems to have worked!

In terms of challenges and/or hurdles that you came across while building the company, which ones immediately come to mind?

Many! 'Highlights' include the 'foot and mouth' cattle disease which closed much of the countryside in our first year; the Icelandic volcano closing the skies; the financial crash; oh yeah, and Covid!

Beyond that - building a team which understood what we were about; converting outdoor instructors into guides (there is a big difference between the two, despite initial appearances); and breaking into the US market (I like to remind myself that The Beatles never conquered America, so what chance do we have - hence the strong emphasis we place on working with our trade partners). Relocating the business from Edinburgh to Aviemore in the Highlands was a big and bold move but one which has worked very well for us. One of the main challenges for us has been to persuade travellers that a trip to the UK and Ireland can be every bit as rewarding as any other trip on your bucket list. But I think our creative trip design and expert delivery of experiences has overcome that.

Reading client feedback, we regularly have seasoned travellers telling us that of the 7 continents and 100+ countries they have visited, the trip which stands out is their one with us. That's very satisfying to read and a testament to the strong team we have built here.
"With a wealth of combined experience, we have an intimate knowledge of the UK & Ireland’s wild places and their hidden secrets"
From the outset, The Wilderness Group has always been a designer and operator of highly experiential and bespoke journeys before it actually became a significant travel style around the globe. Has your experience in this field aided your corporate growth in recent years?

A key feature of the business is that our team lives in the destination, and many of us have lived here all of our lives. We've always used our local knowledge and connections to build extra features into trips - anything from having a friend serve tea and scones to a group of cyclists in her garden, to impromptu stops to visit a local farmer (who also happens to be a retired boxing champion!) on the west coast of Ireland. These connections have always proved meaningful to our travellers as it allows them to meet real people in their home environment. It's not a show - it's real life. The depth of knowledge in our team, and our ability to create these genuinely unique experiences, has always worked for us - and travellers globally are beginning to realise the importance of these events in their travel experiences.

Other than the experiential elements, how does The Wilderness Group differentiate itself from the competition? How would you describe the DNA of the company?

You cannot beat the depth of knowledge that you get from living in the destination, and all of the local contacts that result from that. These foster a level of creativity in trip design that I rarely see elsewhere globally, as well as the ability to deliver on what we promise. We can genuinely surprise and delight clients by providing an experience for them that they could never have imagined without our input. We've also invested a huge amount of time and money in training our team of guides and they are so crucial to the delivery of the client experience. We have regular gatherings with our guide team, and hearing them speak with such passion about their experiences, and seeing their commitment to our team and our trips, is hugely inspiring for all of us.

"The principles of “leave no trace” and supporting the local communities we work in are the cornerstones of our commitment to sustainable travel"
What is the perfect Wilderness Group client profile? Where do most of your clients originate from and are there any new geographical markets that you're currently exploring?

The perfect client is simply someone with an open and curious mind, a love of travel and an appreciation of the natural environment. We can see that more and more travellers have a desire to connect with nature, which is exciting and satisfying for us. Many of our clients are from North America, but we also have significant travellers from the UK, Europe and Australia, as well as an increasing number from Asia.

The future seems bright for your line of business after the recent, global events. How do you see The Wilderness Group develop over the next five to ten years?

I don't think anyone can predict the future, especially in current times! What I can say is that our core values will stay the same - connecting travellers to nature, people and place; helping them explore and discover the UK and Ireland; and remaining absolutely committed to delivering the highest quality experiences in a sustainable manner. We will focus on what we can control and - given all we have experienced in the past 20 years - we will see what the future brings and adapt accordingly.
"Big enough to make your dreams come true, small enough to care"
There's no doubt that you have a most inspiring or hilarious anecdote to share. Let's have it!

There are many hilarious tales of course, and many of these could only be shared in a bar! Ask me about the bike which went missing from outside a pub on the west coast of Ireland sometime ...

However, one inspiring tale recently involved a family group from the US who had a vague family connection with the Isle of Mull from many generations before. That was all they knew, so we included a few days on Mull at the end of their custom trip. Over the course of the trip, our guide managed to research into their past, based on stories they shared. He eventually figured out which part of Mull their family must have lived. In a bar one night on Mull, he got speaking with an old local farmer who turned out to be a walking history book! And he was eventually able to identify the exact farmstead - long-abandoned - which was related to the family's history. The next day - the last of their trip - the family was determined to visit it. This involved a long hike up a wild glen, on a day of stormy weather. A few hours later - having pushed themselves to the limit hiking through bogs, crossing rivers and enduring the storm - they reached the ruined farmstead, set on its own in the mountains, miles from the nearest road. There were tears all round (guide included!) as they sat among the ruins where their relations once lived. It was an experience they never expected to have - but one they will never forget.

 The industry has changed significantly over the years since you started this exciting adventure. What elements, trends or similar have impacted your business most?

We've benefitted from an increase in nature-based travel experiences, and I think that will continue to be the case. Based on our local knowledge, we've always offered custom travel and this is clearly a growth area, spurred on by Covid. When agents and travellers speak with us, they understand that we understand our destination better than anyone, and they now see the value in that. I think we will continue to surprise and delight travellers with what we can do. I also think that in the past there was a disconnect (in the industry and for travellers) between luxury travel and active travel, whereas we find these combine very well - and this style of 'wild luxury' can result in very unique and rewarding experiences for travellers.
Yvan Vermeesch
                          
Belgian by birth, Yvan Vermeesch grew up across Africa before heading to the Caribbean followed by the stunning city of Prague before calling the Mediterranean island of Mallorca home. Always looking to innovate across the board and with a clear penchant for everything experiential in travel, Yvan Vermeesch takes great pride in connecting the finest players in bespoke travel around the globe.
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