Sam Bruce

Sam Bruce

29 January, 2014
Travel sustainably
Co-founder, Much Better Adventures
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Traveling and exploring: too often, in our quest to see the wonders of the world, our travels bring about unintended harm to communities and the surrounding environment. Is there a way for people to keep traveling, but in a more sustainable way? We chat with Sam Bruce, co-founder of Much Better Adventures about why it’s important to support local travel businesses and what sets their service apart from the rest.

Ecozine: Where did the idea to start Much Better Adventures come from?

Sam Bruce: We’ve got three key inspirations behind Much Better Adventures.

The first arose from us all working for relatively small travel businesses. Alex, Ed, Guy, Tom and I, had learnt firsthand that it’s ridiculously expensive to advertise holidays online. Some well known agencies can charge up to 60-70% commission on bookings, which is simply untenable for so many independent specialists out there. The consequences were there to be seen, an ecolodge in Ecuador that Alex worked at had to sell their land to loggers to stay afloat as they had too few visitors. There needed to be an affordable marketplace for organizations like them.

This also sucks for travelers who are trawling through the same old holiday listings from big travel brands and sadly missing out on so many unique choices. Finding active holidays online is really a bit of an ordeal. On average people look at more than 20 websites before finding what they want – life’s too short. Our new ‘reverse auction’ format solves that by allowing travelers to broadcast their travel intentions and have specialists, who they probably wouldn’t have found otherwise, reply with tailored options. 

We’re also very passionate about creating a more sustainable tourism industry and want to tackle the issue of ‘green-wash’ and ‘green fatigue’. Just because something’s called an ‘eco-tour’ doesn’t mean it is one. So we highlight and reward companies that have proper sustainability policies in place and work closely with travel companies who genuinely want to operate ‘much better’.

Ecozine: How does the service offered by Much Better Adventures help the smaller, independent travel companies?

Sam: A bit like a matchmaking service, we provide a platform for smaller, independent companies to meet customers they probably couldn’t have been able to meet otherwise.

When you search for “Ski holidays in Chamonix” online for instance, one of the most popular ski resorts in the world, the same set of companies tend to dominate the first few pages of results. It’s the same with most adventure holidays. The local operators are stuck in the shadows on pages 5, 6, 7 and 8… if at all. So we’ve snatched at the big opportunity to put them in front of customers looking for what they offer. That’s what we’ve developed.

The soul of the brand is driven by the fact that when you travel you often see things that are ‘wrong’. You go to places like Koh Samui in Thailand for example and can you see entire beachfronts have been demolished and transformed for big hotels chains. They now have Starbucks and McDonalds along the coastline there where once stood great local café’s and restaurants. If you were going to go to Koh Samui, why would you go to McDonalds? You may as well stay at home.

I guess we’ve all seen things like that and we just wanted to do something about it. That’s how tourism has to evolve to be sustainable – it has to support local and independent businesses. We’re trying to provide a marketplace online where travelers can support these places, so that more of their money is staying with the local community; staying in the local economy.

Ecozine: You have quite an impressive database of holiday destinations. Did you source them out yourself?

Sam: Yes - with a big help from our ambassadors and holiday reviewers. We set up a network of local ambassadors around the world, and met as many business owners as we could at industry events as well as trawling the web to find recommended operators. At the start this was fine but it wasn’t quite scalable enough. There were three of us working on it full time, and that just wasn’t enough to populate a website with 10,000 travel companies that are very hard to find. It would have taken us a lifetime to try and find them all. But it was a worthwhile endeavor. It got our name out there and I’m glad we did it that way to begin with because we figured out what not to do which is a very valuable lesson for any startup.

Ecozine: Your ambassador program invited people in local communities to reach out to you and promote their local businesses. However, now that the ambassador program is no longer active, how are you finding new businesses?

Sam: Many of the businesses are now coming to us, which is obviously much easier! I think in doing that ambassador program and reaching out to local communities, we’ve got word of mouth among travelers and adventure holidaymakers who intrinsically like to share the places they’ve been.  We get new suggestions and new companies signing themselves up on a daily basis.

Now, if we get a customer holiday request in that doesn’t match our current database of suppliers we do the research and find some operators that do match. This is proving to be a far more efficient system and we’re adding new suppliers all the time.

Ecozine: Would you ever revive the ambassador program?

Sam: I think if we had someone on a full-time basis to do it, then yes, as I really like the concept. It wasn’t efficient for us at the time but that doesn’t mean we can’t revisit it in the future. This is really our first start-up, and we’re learning how best to do things as we go.

Ecozine: Do you have a vetting program for determining whether or not a business qualifies to be listed on muchbetteradventures.com?

Sam: Yes. We have three memberships available for our suppliers:

1) Local/Independent businesses, i.e. Any local or independent adventure travel business. We moderate every single company that comes onto the site to make sure they are a good fit;

2) Much Better Approved businesses, i.e. Businesses with vetted sustainability policies and action plans in place. These muchbetter businesses are highlighted and have more exposure across the site; and
 
3) Pioneer businesses, i.e. Businesses with trips that are created to benefit destinations and communities that they visit. This membership is reserved for the real thought-leaders in the travel industry.

The muchbetter businesses go through a strict vetting process where they submit a sustainability policy with some key criteria, complete with detailed action plans to make sure that they continually improve their business. This ‘muchbetter’ status lasts for just one year, so we can monitor which businesses are keeping up the momentum on an annual basis. Our model allows us to remain independent and unbiased.

It’s not just about showcasing leaders though, we want to help businesses that want to go greener and cut costs so we created a sustainability policy generator. This is a jargon-free service for any travel company, large or small. We spend an hour with them on the phone to create a very detailed policy and 12-month action plan for them. It’s a very practical and supportive service that we’ve developed with The Travel Foundation and Sustainable Travel International.

Ecozine: What has the consumer response to your service been like?

Sam: Overwhelmingly positive so far. Some people really hated browsing for holidays!

Our consumers are getting 5-6 personalized offers on average from hard-to-find companies and saving a lot of time otherwise hunting through endless search results. It’s a novel format in travel but our new users are recommending it to their friends and nearly all our bookers say they will use it as their first point of call next time they’re holiday hunting.

We’ve had some really great press as well which helps spread the word. In fact, The Financial Times recently wrote that our site ‘could change the way people book holidays’.

We’d like that!
 
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Planning your next getaway? Travel much better. Visit www.muchbetteradventures.com and get personal offers for your next adventure!

Want to get in touch with Much Better Adventures?
Follow Sam: @muchbetterSam
Follow Much Better Adventures: @muchbetterAdven
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By: Esther Wong
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