Still flying high
It has been a landmark year for two unusual Australian travel companies, reports Barry Oliver
F a week is a long time in politics, as former British prime minister Harold Wilson famously remarked, 25 years is a lifetime in the world of travel. That’s the milestone being celebrated this year by education specialist Odyssey Travel and luxury tour operator Bill Peach Journeys.
Odyssey Travel is far from your run-of-the-mill company, which is just how executive director Denis Simond likes it. One difference is that it’s a not-for-profit concern, so Simond doesn’t have shareholders breathing down his neck. He says it’s a welcome relief from his time at the helm of Saga Holidays in Britain, where the bottom line ruled. It means we can concentrate on making sure travellers are getting value and good educational travel experiences,’’ he says.
Any money that is made goes back into the Wollongong, NSW, based educational travel company or is held in reserve to cover leaner years. When Simond took the reins of an ailing Australian and New Zealand Royal College for Seniors in June 1995, his first move was to scrap the word seniors, which was seen as a negative. The word college met the same fate. A lot of people associated it with exams and tests, something Odyssey is definitely not about, even though it’s owned by 25 universities, with Wollongong the founder.
Odyssey was purely an inbound company in the early days, bringing Americans into Australia and New Zealand. These days outbound travel is bigger, with trips, called ed-ventures, all across the globe. Simond says he was attracted to the word odyssey by its definition as a journey with a purpose’’, which perfectly summed up what he wanted to achieve. We’re marketing to active, mature adults who are inquisitive and want more than gawk and walk’ from their travel. They want their experiences enhanced, and we do that by learning for fun.’’
It’s a formula that has seen the company grow from a staff of six in 1995 to more than 30 in its anniversary year, with offices in Melbourne, Sydney and Wollongong as well as Auckland. We found an itch and we scratched it,’’ is how Simond sums up the company’s approach. Odyssey’s travellers average 65 to 68 but Simond says age is not the critical factor. The key thing is they know their limitations.’’
Frank Bladwell, a former Sydney high school principal, is typical of Odyssey’s 25 or so tour leaders, all drawn from an educational or academic background. He says the role has given him a new lease of life in retirement: I love it, it’s like a second career,’’ says Bladwell, who led the company’s first group tour to Vietnam in 1999. He says what Odyssey travellers have in common is a desire to learn. They want a bit more than having a few buildings pointed out to them.’’
Odyssey’s just-released 2009 catalogue features all-
Plane sailing: Aircruising with Bill Peach Journeys over Western Australia’s Buccaneer Archipelago inclusive trips in Europe, Asia, America, Africa and the Middle East; and cruise destinations include the Antarctic.
Even though Odyssey has carved itself a niche, Simond sees every travel company as a potential rival.
But I don’t think there’s anyone doing quite the same thing as us. What works is going to unusual places that others don’t: Georgia, Azerbaijan . . . or Outer Mongolia. And the emergence of the Baltic states has also been a big success for us.’’
The world’s borders may have changed in 25 years but some things remain the same: Italy and Britain are still the company’s most popular destinations. FORMER ABC presenter Bill Peach blazed a pioneer’s trail 25 years ago when he and Nancy Knudsen hit on the idea of using chartered planes to take travellers to remote areas of Australia in the lap of luxury. There were a few charter trips to single locations but no one was covering the entire continent, says Peach, who fronted This Day Tonight from 1967 to 1974 before turning his hand to ABC travel documentaries. The aim was, and still is, adventurous destinations by day with as much luxury as we can find by night,’’ he says.
Sydney-based Bill Peach Journeys was launched in 1983 and the concept of aircruising took off in May the following year when a groundbreaking group of 40 set off in an aptly named Fokker Friendship turboprop on a 12-day outback trip that included Longreach, Kakadu, the Kimberley, Broome, Alice Springs and Birdsville.
We flew halfway to London without leaving the continent,’’ Peach says.
The Great Australian Aircruise is still one of the company’s mainstays, though Peach says Mount Isa was dropped from the original destinations. For some reason a mining town was not popular with the ladies, so we now fly to Katherine Gorge.’’
Early customers wanted more of the same, but new destinations, so the Great Southern Aircruise was born, stopping off at remote towns such as Broken Hill, Coober Pedy and Kalgoorlie as well as Western Australia’s Margaret River region.
The company spread its wings in 1987 to see if the aircruising concept would work in New Zealand. In fact it was even easier,’’ says Peach. The longest flight was about 30 minutes, but still fantastic aerial sightseeing, especially over the Southern Alps.’’
Early charters were with the now defunct East-West Airlines. Peach says he was sad to see the Fokkers go but it became impossible to get parts. None of the operators we chartered from exists now.’’ These days the company has a 34-seat Dash 8 on permanent charter.
Aircruising is only part of the story: Peru’s Machu Picchu and the Amazon were early destinations for more conventional trips and in 1989 the company hosted tours visiting the Arctic and the Antarctic. These days its program includes a number of aircruises, trips on Silversea’s luxurious Silver Wind, European river cruises and African safaris.
Peach says 30 to 40 per cent of customers are repeaters. We have people who have done more than 50 trips with us. We’re not Qantas, we can’t take out TV commercials, so word of mouth is really essential.’’
Perhaps it’s the luxury as much as the destinations that has travellers coming back for more. People have become quite gourmet in their demands . . . they’re interested in good food and wine, they’re people who’ve been around and know what they want.’’
Peach, 73, who accompanies about seven trips each year, says he never tires of travel: Not if I’m seeing new things. I’m a natural stickybeak, which I think helps.’’ www.odysseytravel.com.au www.billpeachjourneys.com.au program in Australia. www.abercrombiekent.com.au. Lords Kakadu & Arnhemland Safaris, NT: This family-owned company specialises in small group tours with an Aboriginal heritage focus. It’s not the sights, it’s the guides’ interpretation that makes the difference, says the company, which is ‘‘ small enough to give a damn’’. www.lords-safaris.com. MaeveO’Meara, Gourmet Safaris, NSW: When author and broadcaster MaeveO’Meara launched her food safaris 10 years ago they were limited to Sydney. It was, she says, just ‘‘ a mad idea’’. These days the world’s her market: Vietnam, Thailand, Bali and Greece are among the latest additions. The tours, all designed byO’Meara, focus on authentic food experiences guided by chefs and home cooks. www.gourmetsafaris.com.au. Orion Expedition Cruises: Australian owned and operated, Orion combines adventure and five-star luxury on an ice-strengthened ship that carries just 50 couples and 75 crew. Staterooms, all with ocean views, boast flat-screen televisions and marble bathrooms. Signature menus are designed by Sydney’s Serge Danserau and destinations include the Kimberley, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, New Zealand and Antarctica. www.orioncruises.com.au. Outback Encounter: Custom-designed five-star travel programs to remote locations are the speciality of this innovative company. Outback Encounter can arrange escapes to up-market island resorts, safari-style camps, fishing lodges, luxury yachts, villas and beach houses with bespoke treats and itinerary highlights. www.outbackencounter.com. Tony Tan, Unlimited Cuisine Company Tours, Victoria: Roving chef and bon vivant Tony Tan leads fun food tours to destinations as diverse as Spain and Shanghai as well as running his popular cooking school in Melbourne, where a year-round schedule of classes features guest chefs, food experts and a broad range of cuisines. www.tonytan.com.au. Winners in all categories will be announced in the January 17-18 edition of Travel &Indulgence.