Executive View: Darrell Wade of Intrepid

Darrell Wade, chairman of Intrepid Group, was interviewed by editor in chief Arnie Weissmann for his thoughts on what 2019 might bring:

Pretty much all major markets around the world are healthy with the one notable exception of the U.K. I think the U.K. is trapped in a bit of a Brexit funk, and we've seen soft business out of the U.K. for the last six months. But that doesn't go across to Europe. Europe is solid. Not spectacular, but solid.

Moving across the Atlantic, the USA is just incredibly strong. It'd be impossible to overstate how strong. On Cyber Monday, we had a record sales day that was 60% up over the previous record sales day, which was $400,000. On that Monday, we did $720,000. On Tuesday we did just over $1 million, and Wednesday we did $1.5 million. Crazy-amazing growth from the U.S. I'm sure the team has done a few things right, but on the other hand, it's hard to explain that kind of growth.

Darrell Wade
Darrell Wade

And even beyond that cyber bubble, we're just finding it really strong in the U.S., definitely the strongest market in the world. It's dangerous to extend that out into all of 2019, but we're very bullish about results for next year. It should be another record year for the industry generally and us specifically.

Australia had a very solid year. We're getting the highest growth rates there that we've had in five years. We're a more mature business in Australia, and so growth is harder, but we're at 19.5% growth, year-to-date, and we're thrilled. They've had a buoyant economy for 20 years. Unemployment very low, confidence quite high.

China is the only Asia source market of significance for us, and our market share is absolutely tiny. Still, China outbound is very solid. Not growing at the explosive rate it was a couple years ago but still a very healthy clip. There's been a flight to quality in China; it's had a checkered past, with some very cheap products that were subsidized by shopping. The market is steering away from that and also steering away from large-group coach tours. Chinese travelers today are looking for experiences: cultural experiences, food experiences, nature experiences. Destinations like Australia are doing well because, well, the Chinese really like to see blue sky.

Overall in touring, I think large coach formats are struggling a bit, in both the youth and older markets. The FIT operators, whether in the luxury market or below, are doing well, as are those with a small-group base like us. I think it's the continuing move to authenticity, that desire to get closer to the destination and be traveling on your own through a tailor-made arrangement or in a smaller group.

As far as destinations go, we're seeing a real resurgence in the Middle East. Egypt in particular, but Turkey, as well, had very strong numbers this year, and the forward bookings for next year are very solid indeed. It's off a relatively low base, because two or three years ago, Egypt was in terrible shape. Now, we're seeing the biggest numbers we've seen in 10 years.

Africa as a whole is having the best year ever and will have the best year next year. Both East Africa and Southern Africa are doing extraordinarily well, although, interestingly, South Africa itself is not doing super well, not by us anyway. But just north of there, Botswana and Namibia are doing well. Even Zimbabwe is coming back a little bit. In East Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya all are very strong performers.

The other region of the world that is doing really well is Central Asia. Joanna Lumley, who was in the [BBC] show "Absolutely Fabulous," did a series on the Silk Road. It was really good, and afterward, even Kyrgyzstan shot through the roof for us, and we're going to struggle to run enough trips to Uzbekistan. I'm pleased, because it's a pretty extraordinary destination, but whether or not it's the next Iceland or next Croatia, probably not.

We're playing with an adventure cruising concept with small ships, going into really tiny ports and villages, about 50 passengers. We'll double departures on that in 2019. There's a market there, but in four or five years, we're going to need a lot more of these very small ships, and there's just not a lot of them.

We're going to continue to grow and develop China, but otherwise we're pulling back on looking at new international source markets. We're getting such great growth out of North America and Europe that we're going to really focus on about a dozen really key markets and put more effort into those to keep the growth going.

It's about return on investment. When we're getting growth rates of 24%, 30%, 50%, we just want to stick to our knitting.

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