Tour operator Travel The Unknown closed in August 2021 after nearly 15 years, but co-founder Rahul Aggarwal is relaunching the business. He spoke to Josie Klein.
Q. Why did you set up Travel The Unknown?
A. I’ve always loved exploring destinations that are off the beaten track, so I started the business with a friend of mine in 2007 to help other people access those experiences. We began offering small, tailor-made trips to northeast India, then gradually built up until we were going to around 60 countries. We were growing well and in 2019 we decided to invest in building the business by hiring more staff and taking agents on a fam trip – little did we know what was about to hit us.
We began offering small, tailor-made trips to northeast India, then gradually built up until we were going to around 60 countries
Q. How did the pandemic impact your business?
A. The first signs of the business suffering came in January and February 2020, as Covid was already spreading in Asia; then it arrived on our shores and everything changed. Business income completely dried up. Clients had a lot of goodwill and understanding in the beginning and delayed their trips instead of asking for refunds, but in 2021 the clamour for refunds became much stronger and it was difficult to manage our cashflow. On top of that, our Atol renewal had come up which required a huge cash injection. To try and make it work we got rid of the lease on our office and were forced to let staff go, but eventually we couldn’t find a way to continue. It was devastating for both us and our partners, many of whom were small and relied on us as their main source of business. I felt terrible knowing they would suffer as a result. It was also upsetting to say goodbye to our customers, who had been so supportive throughout our journey. After almost 15 years in business, it was tough to close, especially under such difficult circumstances.
Clients had a lot of goodwill and understanding in the beginning and delayed their trips instead of asking for refunds, but in 2021 the clamour for refunds became much stronger
Q. What did you do after you ceased trading?
A. I turned my attention to learning about sustainable travel, which has always been an interest of mine. I enrolled in the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and completed a course to obtain my professional certificate in sustainable tourism. The course was inspiring and opened my eyes to the importance of sustainable travel and ensuring that all tourism is responsible. I then realised the quickest way I could have maximum impact on the industry would be to use my new-found knowledge to educate our partners and teach them how tourism must change. After completing the course, I contacted the liquidation company and set about getting Travel The Unknown back up and running. My partner hasn’t joined me so this time I’m doing it on my own which is exciting but daunting.
I realised the quickest way I could have maximum impact on the industry would be to use my new-found knowledge to educate our partners and teach them how tourism must change
Q. How many of your partners work sustainably?
A. I’m working through contacting my suppliers and educating them on what they can do to be more sustainable. Some of them are already educated on the subject, but others are not, and need guidance on how to change. I have been on video calls with various partners explaining the approach we need to take going forward and what they need to do at their end, such as change the hotels they use, or work together with their guides and drivers to educate them about sustainable tourism. It has been a fun and interesting process speaking to them all and I will continue to contact them to ensure we are sticking to our sustainability goals.
I’m in the process of reaching out to clients to tell them I’m back and to explain what is going to be different about the company this time around
Q. What is your plan for the next year?
A. I have reactivated the Travel The Unknown website but I need to remove some destinations that I won’t initially sell, update prices for itineraries and add a sustainability section. I’m in the process of reaching out to clients to tell them I’m back and to explain what is going to be different about the company this time around. I would love to get some trips going this year, but that will depend on whether I get any bookings. I’m hoping I’ll be able to take staff on early next year, in which case I’ll get an office again. The next few months will be key to see if there are any other setbacks for the industry.
What will be different about the company?
I’m taking what I learned about sustainable travel and pouring that into the heart of all our tours. That might mean I will no longer offer tours to some destinations I used to go to, but that’s OK. If I was to go back to selling trips to unsustainable places, it would look like I’d learnt nothing from this experience. I’m not going to go out and preach about sustainable travel – holidaying should be a fun, relaxing time for people – but some of my clients come to me because they need a bit of hand-holding and nudging in the right direction to make better choices, and that’s what I’m here for.
With this new incarnation of the business, I want to help clients and explain to them why we might choose one property over another or why a particular activity isn’t sustainable. I don’t want to berate them, just explain, and then they might make a better decision in the future. The trust model is also different to before the pandemic, as I have joined the Protected Trust Services. It’s important our clients know their money is protected, especially after the last two years.