Meet the Chief Purpose Officer of the World’s Largest Adventure Travel Company

Meet the Chief Purpose Officer of the World’s Largest Adventure Travel Company


Leigh Barnes knows what you’re thinking, because he was there too, about a year ago, when he became the chief purpose officer of Intrepid Group: What exactly does a chief purpose officer actually do?

Far from being a gimmicky title akin to those found in “We’re fun, we mean it!” startups, Barnes’s new gig comes with an incredible amount of responsibility—the kind that extends far beyond the walls of Intrepid Group itself. He’s not trying to save the world or anything, but he’s not not trying to save it, either.

What he does makes a lot more sense if, first, you understand for whom he works. Founded in 1989 by a pair of Australian friends after an overland trip in Africa, Intrepid Group encompasses four tour operators, a destination management company (local experts who organize activities and the like for tour operators) with more than 20 offices globally, and a nonprofit foundation. The company’s journey has been purpose based, like the trips it designs, focusing on supporting local communities, empowering underrepresented people with opportunities in tourism, and exploring options off the beaten path to help counter over-tourism—and they’ve done it without sacrificing profit.

Thirty years later, the entire company, which offers trips on every continent and grossed more than $272 million last year, is carbon-neutral. (It has been since 2010, and has a goal of being climate positive by 2020.) Last year, the Intrepid Foundation disbursed more than $1 million among its projects, which range from supporting porters on Kilimanjaro and in Peru to caring for elephants in Thailand and researching the carbon-killing capabilities of seaweed.

In the past few years particularly, Intrepid has become a leader in the travel industry, making the call to remove elephant rides from itineraries and condemning orphanage visits, in both cases pointing to the compromised welfare of those involved (elephants and children, respectively) and increased commercialization owing to demand. Dry up demand by educating consumers, the thought goes, and the supply goes away.

Touring the cave temples of Dambulla, Sri Lanka.

Intrepid Travel

But it works the other way too: Last year, Intrepid launched a collection of women’s expeditions led by female guides, with the goal being not to exclude anyone but to provide more job opportunities for women in the countries visited as well as unique experiences not traditionally available to mixed-gender groups. It was so successful that itineraries in Turkey, India, Kenya, and Nepal were added this year to the already existing Morocco, Iran, and Jordan departures.

Intrepid also made two big changes in 2018: It earned certified B Corp status and added to the company a C-level position that would oversee and drive a lot of these initiatives. That’s where Leigh Barnes comes in. A decade after joining Intrepid as a social media manager, Barnes is the company’s first chief purpose officer.

Leigh Barnes, chief purpose officer of Intrepid Group.

Nicole Powell

Here he takes us through the loaded title, what sustainable travel means today, and where the travel industry is headed next.

Fortune: You probably know this is coming, but what exactly is a chief purpose officer? What do you do?

Barnes: It’s a pretty cool job and quite unique. Big picture, it’s ensuring the business is growing purpose—that that’s baked into everything we do. Our goal used to be to become the best travel company in the world. Now it’s to become the best travel company for the world. For us, our purpose is to create the best travel experience ever, and that means the best travel experience for the communities we visit, the planet, and our customers.

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru.

Intrepid Travel

Now, on a day-to-day, I have five functions that I cover: our foundation, our global communication, responsible business, B Corp, and people.

I don’t know how much you know about B Corp, but essentially, it’s a framework and accreditation for using business as a force of good—companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, just to name a few. We use it like you would a financial audit, in that it highlights where we need to get better and provide a “tick” for where we are doing the right thing. It covers how you look after your people, engage with the community, interact with your customer, and look after the planet. A large part of my day is looking through that, seeing how we’re tracking, seeing what changes we need to make.

Such as?

Examples of those changes are global maternity and paternity programs for our staff in over 40 countries. We now know that some of our supply-chain contracting was not up to scratch; we had contracts in Egypt for our homestays that were held by the man in the family when it was the woman running the business. B Corp shone a light on those practices. And we know whoever’s running the business should hold the contracts to ensure that they have control of their business, control of their work schedule, control of the finances. So we’ve made those changes.

From a responsible business point of view, our big, big focus right now is to become climate positive in 2020. We know that the travel sector is a big contributor to the climate crisis. And our big focus is to take climate action. We’ve been carbon-neutral since 2010, so we’ve been doing a lot of work and setting up to become climate positive next year. So an example of that is we will be offsetting at 125% as of 2020. Those funds will go to six projects globally. Everything from a rain forest protection project in Borneo and Brazil; a burning off project in Arnhem Land, Australia; and wind farms in India and Turkey.

Adventure cruising in Thailand.

Intrepid Travel

We’re in a time when more and more people want to see the world, which can open minds and spread empathy, but in the process we’re also contributing dramatically to its destruction through not only carbon emissions and other environmental impacts but also over-tourism and cultures disappearing under foreign footprints. Given that, what do you see as the biggest challenge ahead?

Over-tourism is becoming more and more an issue. We know that tourism is fantastic in job creation, but we should be distributing that wealth. That’s something that we’ve really been looking at. We’ve been trying to flip that around and focus on under-tourism, community-based tourism projects. We launched a project in Vietnam in a community that was struggling in the face of climate change, because its crops are no longer getting the same output. We helped them develop tourism products and invested in their community to build some lodging, et cetera, and now we bring probably a couple thousand tourists through there each year, and tourism is becoming a positive effect. So I think, How do we keep having a positive effect in a responsible manner, because we know tourism has positive effects, but we need to recognize and take action when it’s not.

The second is how we combat the climate crisis. I think at the end of next year we’ll probably be tackling a whole broader subsection of environmental issues. And the other, the third one, is modern slavery. We’ve done a lot of work about removing children from our supply chain and taking a stance on orphanage tourism. Children are not a tourist attraction. So it’s how we can continue to improve our supply chain and ensure that we’ve got a diverse, healthy supply chain that engages those businesses in the right way.

Selfie snapshots in Lisbon.

Intrepid Travel

You’ve said before that the bigger Intrepid gets, the bigger difference it can make. What about smaller travel companies—what steps can they take right now?

There are two things that I’d say: One, to understand where the impact is, good, bad, or otherwise, and take action to amplify or fix that; and two, by ensuring that you do the right thing, that your product is better for the planet, better for the customers, better for the community; it actually makes the product itself quite a bit better. I’d argue that it makes your dollar go further.

Second of all, my advice to any company is that by building purpose into your product it makes your product better. It makes customers engage with you more. If you understand your impact this can actually make the business better. It will make a better product for the customer, which is the desired outcome. They shouldn’t be able to make excuses, as purpose will make your product and business better.

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