One on One with World's Greatest Living Explorer: Sven Lindblad

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Photo: Lindblad Expeditions

One of the world’s most legendary explorers, Sven Lindblad, is now public property. Or, at least his eponymous company (Lindblad Expeditions) is after a $439 million merger last month that essentially took it public. After decades in the business, Lindblad opens up to Yahoo Travel about his life, his inspiration, and just how he got where he is.

Yahoo Travel: Your late father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, was a pioneer in the adventure travel industry. Did you always know you’d follow in his footsteps?

Sven Lindblad: I did not.

YT: What did you think you wanted to do?

SL: I wanted to be a photographer and a filmmaker and a naturalist. I only went one year to college and it’s kind of a funny story. I wrote a term paper that got me into a lot of trouble. So my father organized for me to go to East Africa for the summer with program called Operation Crossroads Africa. We were in Uganda, and then he organized that I got a job offer at a tented camp in Sapo National Park in Kenya without me knowing that he had organized it. So I called home to my parents and I said, “I’m not going home.” I went to East Africa in 1969 or ’70 for a summer and stayed for six years. I just bounced from job, to job, to job, to job. I did some guiding, I worked for a filmmaker for a while, I worked for professional hunters for a stint looking after their wives, so I did a variety of things. Still, I had no interest in getting into the travel business.

YT: So how did you end up in the travel business?

SL: [During that time,] I spent a year and a half photographing elephants, and one day my father visited me at one of my camps and asked me if I would come back and work for him.

YT: How did you come to have your own business?

SL: I worked with him for a year and a half, and I realized that I viewed my father as this rather heroic figure for my entire life — although I hardly ever saw him, because he was essentially always gone. And so he was a sort of heroic figure to me. Then I worked for him and I had some challenges about my perspective of how he ran his business that I felt I needed to do something separately. So one day I approached him and I said, “Look, I can’t work here anymore. I can do one of two things: I can go off and do something else or I had this idea for a division of Lindblad travel.” I would own 25 percent — the business bond requires $20,000 worth of capital, and I could scrape together $5,000 — and my father would own 75 percent if he put in $15,000. And so we did that. I bought out Lindblad’s interest a few years later. That happened in 1979 when I was 29 years old, so by 1984, I think it was, I bought out Lindblad’s interest entirely and then it was a fully separate company.

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Africa (Photo: Thinkstock)

YT: So where was your interest initially — was it Africa?

SL: I started off in places that I had a fair amount of, or a lot of, geographic knowledge. So East Africa, India, and I got sort of enamored with the American Southwest and the American West, and then I was also incredibly enamored with Baja, California. And that’s where we chartered our first ship and began a series of voyages in Baja, California and eventually Alaska. Eventually we started adding ships via charter or purchase.

YT: What makes your tours different? What can people expect when they get onto your ships?

SL: We facilitate the opportunity for people to explore. And in order to do that, you have to understand geography, you have to have the right ships for the right geography, and above all else you have to have the right people who can execute the ideas that you develop. Because at the end of the day, people are going to devote a certain amount of time to doing this kind of thing and they have very high expectations. We own six ships and we charter four. [By owning] we have a large degree of influence over how they run. With lot of [companies], there is an owner of a ship and then you have another company that manages the ship, then you have somebody else who charters the ship, so there are different horses pulling in different directions. By owning ships, we can control the delivery of the experience.

YT: You had a merger that took your company public in July. How does that change things.

SL: It gives us a war chest of capital, and we have very very good partners. We have bootstrapped this business since 1979 and borrowed money, bought a ship, gave it back to the bank, borrowed more money, and it’s probably held us back a little bit from the kind of growth we would have otherwise pursued. Now we believe that there’s a tremendous audience out there for what we do; we believe we can grow it and we can now do it at a faster and more effective clip.

YT: And where do you see the industry going as a whole?

SL: A lot of people are getting into adventure travel in one form or another because it is the largest growth sector in travel. It’s not the largest sector, but it’s the one that’s growing the fastest. So there will be more and more people trying to get in, and I believe there’ll be a lot of turnover. Companies will fail for whatever reason — probably because they don’t fully appreciate the complexity of it from the perspective of both operating and from the perspective of what consumers want and expect. Now you’ve got things like large cruise companies all of the sudden acquiring or wanting to build ships that they’re attempting to brand as expedition ships, for example. We’ll see what happens as a consequence of that.

Lindblad’s father was one of the first to bring tours to the Galapagos. (Photo: Lindblad Expeditions)

YT: How many days a year do you travel?

SL: It completely varies. Since 2009, my travel has been cut down considerably because that was a fairly challenging time and I had to stay “nose to the grindstone” so to speak. I traveled a couple of months, three months maybe, but now I’m accelerating my travel again, because in many ways my value to the enterprise is correlated to travel, to develop, energize, what we’re doing out there.

YT: What are your favorite places to travel to?

SL: I never answered that question, but I’ll answer it for you. It’s almost like, if somebody asked me like, “What’s my favorite food?” and I really don’t have an answer to that — I love Italian food, I love Greek food, I love Indian food. So I’m really an omnivore when it comes to travel. So right now, for example, at this moment in my life, I’ve spent an enormous amount of time in the third world, and in very wild places.

YT: Like?

SL: Africa, various remote areas in South America, etcetera, etcetera. Right now I’m also really keen to spend more time getting reacquainted with Europe. Every time I go to Europe I just love it. I don’t want to be in the major places, in the high seas and you know, bump shoulders with throngs of tourists, but I do want to go to the lesser-visited areas or to go to the more traditional places, ideally off-season.

Antarctica (Photo: Lindblad Expeditions)

Sea of Cortez (Photo: Lindblad Expeditions)

YT: Where you could still feel like a little bit of an explorer?

SL: Yes. I love to go back to places that I really care about. So for me it’s not always about newness. So for example I would go to Antarctica every year if I had the time. I would go to Baja, California – well I have been planning [to go] every April for the rest of my life. I’m going to leave one of our expeditions in the Sea of Cortez in April because that is just the coolest place in the world to be. I’m going to do a once-a-year invitation on the trip in the Sea of Cortez and I’m gonna sort of plan it for years ahead so the people can kind of build it into their lives. Where I want to aggregate these interesting people that I want to hang out with and who will learn from that experience.

YT: It’s a little like the ultimate dinner party, isn’t it?

SL: Yeah, yeah.

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YT: That’s great.

SL: At the end of the day, I love to travel almost anywhere in the world. But also going back to places, it’s funny because the first time you go to a place you’re kind of overwhelmed with certain things, and the next time, you get more into the nuances, and ultimately the nuances can be more interesting than the first time. So this idea where a lot of travelers – I hate this concept – sometimes you hear from, when they say, “Oh yes, I’ve done” wherever.

Photo: Lindblad Expeditions

YT: Like everything is a checkmark, right? Like we’re just going to check it off the list. That’s really boring.

SL: Exactly. So anyway, so I think a blend of a certain amount of newness and then going back to places is certainly the way I would conduct my travels. I’m going off to the South Pacific in October. We have a voyage on one of our ships together with TED around ocean health and ocean issues, so I’m very excited about that.

YT: When I link of Linblad, I think of the more intellectual side of travel.

SL: Well we paired up with, you know we use our ships for convenings. We’re doing one in January with the Council for Research and Exploration for National Geographic, which is a conservation-oriented voyage. We did a voyage with Al Gore and his Climate Reality Project a couple years ago in Antarctica. We convened an arctic summit in 2008 when we brought political leaders, business leaders, scientists, musicians, and religious leaders together to try and see how climate could be more effectively dealt with across platforms. So we’ve worked with The Aspen Institute. We have a pretty broad range of people that we work with in that regard. And I’m gonna spend a lot more time now focusing on some of those relationships and doing more of that.

Related: I Went Swimming in the Arctic and Survived

YT: You’re also on the board of Ocean Elders.

SL: Yes. It’s a group that came out of a voyage that we had in 2010 with TED. It was a celebration of [explorer and marine biologist] Sylvia Earle’s TED prize. It was meant to be modeled after the Elders group, which dealt with human rights and political issues. And it’s an aggregation of people – Richard Branson, Queen Noor, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, and various others – who meet periodically and try and figure out how we could lend our voice and our networks to ocean issues of magnitude.

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