Still fly­ing high

It has been a land­mark year for two un­usual Aus­tralian travel com­pa­nies, re­ports Barry Oliver

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.odyssey­ www.bill­peachjour­ pro­gram in Aus­tralia. www.aber­crom­ 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-sa­ 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.gourmet­sa­ 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.ori­on­ 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.out­back­en­ 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.tony­ Win­ners in all cat­e­gories will be an­nounced in the Jan­uary 17-18 edi­tion of Travel &In­dul­gence.

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