Co-Founder of London based Experience Travel Group (ETG), Sam Clark, told us how his life long passion for travel became an award winning business. We are really proud to partner with Experience Travel Group (ETG) and Sam writes beautifully to paint a picture of travel that makes you tingle.
"Our sweet spot is the place where luxury and adventure meet. We can't offer you the kind of jeopardy we used to enjoy when we were 20-year-old backpackers. We do large doses of luxury, comfort and ease. We need it now too. However, we can get you away from the crowds; let you look afresh at the famous sites and smell and taste anew what makes a place unique and special. We'll help you recapture those moments of discovery and adventure that can make travel so special"
We got off the crowded but comforting bus into the darkness of the central Sumatran night. The jungle felt close all around, and a big and impassive guy gestured at his battered old car – 'in' he said. We looked back at our bus driver friend who smiled encouragingly "is OK! My friend! He go you". With no other choices at hand in we got. It was too dark to see the driver and his companion's faces, and they spoke no English, so we drove in a terrified silence.
I was 24 and heading off for the summer with my friend Peter, to meet our third childhood partner in crime, Henry, who had been travelling through Asia for the past year or so since he and I were last in Sumatra together the previous summer. The plan was to meet in a guesthouse in central Sumatra we had visited previously, before making our way to Bukittinggi on the west side of this huge island.
The journey had been a little stressful, with lost luggage delaying us in Kuala Lumpur and sporadic email contact making communications difficult. We had an address and a date, but that was it. We eventually caught the slow boat from Medan which goes upriver overnight into Sumatra – crossing the equator freezing, without lower deck tickets and failing to sleep on the wooden slats on the deck of a ship which looked like it had seen better days.
Tired and confused on arrival, we searched the bus station for a bus stopping at the place we hoped to meet Henry. Sumatra had a frontier feel in those days with many Javanese moving around searching for work and fortune, and the bus stations were busy and confusing. We eventually found a bus, got our bags tied to the roof and squeezed on amidst the chickens in cages, bags of rice and a crowd of people who all fell asleep pretty much instantly. After a sleepless night shivering on the boat, we did the same. Six or so hours later, we woke, and the bus was now alive with chatter and laughter. Everyone was sharing food, and we weren't left out. No-one spoke any English, nor us any Bahasa, but we managed to join in. I made particular friends with an oldish looking lady to my right, who kept insisting that I stretch out my long legs on top of her transportable chicken coop. I remember it vividly now – the atmosphere was warm and friendly and fun.
A few hours later, we started to worry a little. We had expected the journey to take 10 hours', and everyone seemed to be settling in for a long night. It was now pitch black outside, and we'd got on the bus at 10 am, hoping to meet our friend before he turned in. Peter kept prodding me – "what's happening – where are we?" And I kept saying with less and less conviction, 'it'll be alright'. Eventually, Peter took matters in his own hands and started saying the name of our destination to my friend, the old lady. People all over the bus began repeating it, trying to work out what he was saying. Suddenly the penny dropped, and there was a kerfuffle, and several people went forward to consult with the driver. Everyone seemed to have an opinion, and there was a lot of gesticulating and debate. The upshot was that the driver banged on his brakes, screeched to a halt, made a phone call, executed a hairy U-turn on the pitch-black hill road and we headed back in the direction we had come.
We were clueless. Everyone just smiled and nodded and said 'OK!' brightly – trying to reassure us and we tried, in turn, to fight back the rising panic. We drove for an hour, stopping at a crossroads at a break in the heavily forested countryside. We found ourselves gently shoved out of the bus where a man and his friend waited with a battered old Toyota car. By now, it was midnight, and with no other choice we got in, everyone on the bus furiously waving and my old lady smiling a maternal blessing down on me.
The man drove us for 2 hours or so, stopped suddenly in a dark street with no discernable address and knocked on a door. To our astonishment it turned out to be the guesthouse where our friend was sleeping, entirely unconcerned until his two friends rudely awakened him, laughing and shouting with sheer relief. The driver named a price so low that Peter insisted on giving him his full stash of Singapore dollars as a tip; about ten times the price quoted. It seemed only fair, and we had no way to thank the driver or all our wonderful fellow passengers.
(relieved friends the next morning)
(Author by Lake Maninjau, Sumatra)
I thought of that story recently as I pondered what I missed about travel and why I missed it so much during this period of enforced inactivity. I thought back to the time I co-founded Experience Travel Group (ETG) and our motivations for doing so. My co-founder, Tom and I had had such extraordinary experiences in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia, generally when we got lost, or bored or when something happened out of the ordinary to help us make a connection. We wanted to help show them some of that travel magic and those incredible connections and amazing people we'd made on that bus in the middle of the Sumatran jungle.
We looked around at the travel options: either a restricted 'fixed' package holiday, involving a whip around the sites and time on the beach or an equally mandated but ostensibly freer, path set out by the Lonely Planet or other guides, following the well-worn backpacker trails laid out from the 1960s onwards. There had to be another way.
The story of the next ten years at ETG was a slow, but inexorable path away from that original idea. It was a valuable journey for sure: we built a community of customers and local partners, a network of extraordinary experience 'providers' and a deep knowledge of how to operate holidays (short story: it's harder than it looks!). We retained our values too – of community and collaboration, of a belief that enterprising action can benefit everyone. But looking back from this vantage point, we moved away from that ideal of creating a space for travellers to create their own experiences.
So-called 'tailor-made travel' gave people the freedom to choose and design their trips, guided by well-travelled consultants in advance and local guides locally. It’s a well-formed but straightforward concept. But with commercial pressures comes a 'flattening out': safe, reliable options are preferred, well-worn itineraries come to the fore and habits get formed. Spontaneous 'moments' become contrived. While the results can still be extraordinary holidays, each party's critical involvement – the traveller and their relationship to the environment in which they travel can become transactional and stale. Technology plays a part too as I have written about here. Combined with social media’s power, demographic forces, and technological developments this all came together in issues around sustainability and over-tourism’
All this happened in the context of what has been described (erroneously) as the 'experience' economy. Based on the idea that people desire and value experience above all else, it requires the travel sector to provide people with an ‘experience’. It's a stupid notion: "on Monday you will have an 'experience' at 10 am'. I suppose this is true in a sense, but I think we all know what we mean by a travel experience: the moments, the connections, that become memories, that becomes woven into your life's tapestry.
(Sam and Tom in Sulawesi)
All we can do as 'experience providers' is to create the conditions. The traveller must be an active participant for the magical experience to happen. We can set up a visit to a buffalo-curd making family in Sri Lanka who can proudly show-off their generations-old craft and knowledge and the taste of that creamy curd will light-up the taste buds momentarily. But it's when the visitor lets down their guard, smiles at the mother and attempts a joke and shows an interest in the craft, that it generally happens; a memory is created, and that connection is there forever.
In some ways, the past few years at ETG have been a journey back towards this ideal. The pandemic induced shutdown speeded that up like it has so much else. We've been discovering tools to put the friction, the spontaneity and the accidental back into our holidays. While we might draw the line at the sheer panic of being on the wrong bus in the middle of the night, we can help create those heightened moments which seem to be a pre-condition for people to make those connections across cultures. We can provide tools to help our travellers take care of their own travel experience.
One way to do this is to help travellers discover their 'comfort zone'. We believe that you need to be slightly outside of your comfort zone to have a truly magical experience. Too far and you're in the realms of panic. And no-one wants that. Peter and I remember the experience quite differently – he as a horrible situation from which we were lucky to escape alive, while I, knowing and trusting the friendliness from previous experience, was uncomfortable and anxious but confident we would be OK. Our individual experiences of the situation affected our memories.
At ETG we call the concept, your 'TravellerDNA'. This is the idea that your past travel experiences, your situation in life, your motivations, (and those of your travelling companions) are all factors that feed into creating your next travel experience. We explore this idea with our customers in several ways and are about to launch a new product, called ‘The TravelerDNA Scan’ – a deep dive into the ‘why’ behind your travel. Prevented from travel, this is an excellent time to re-examine why we travel and where we are going. If this resonates, and you would like to look at your travel in a novel way, then drop me a line.
(Kite flying, Temple Rock The Mudhouse)
But remember to ask where your bus is going before we strap your luggage to the roof…
Back in 2006, I co-founded Experience Travel Group with Melissa and Tom, driven by a shared passion for what we felt were 'proper travel experiences'. Today Experience Travel Group is a formidable network of people both in the UK and across Asia, focused on helping and inspiring people discover to have extraordinary holidays.