I run a luxury adventure travel company, but I refuse to hire anyone with a travel background to work there. Here's why.

Antarctica   Cookson Adventures guests ice climbing

Courtesy of Cookson Adventures

A Cookson adventures trip in Antarctica.

  • Adam Sebba is the CEO of Cookson Adventures, an ultra-luxury experiential travel company.
  • In this role, he says that he'd rather work with outsiders - including former military officers and a one-time fashion director - than typical travel industry insiders.
  • He also never sends employees to industry conferences; instead, they attend science lectures, film screenings, and art exhibitions.
  • Here's why: The travel industry is stagnant and ripe for disruption - and to stand out in the noise of any crowded marketplace today, you have to be unique and eclectic.
  • Take calculated risks when you hire people, he says.
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I work in luxury travel - and yet I don't hire anyone with a travel background to work here.

Ok, you caught me. One of our directors, Nick, does come from a travel company. But one travel guy in the entire company isn't bad. Advertisement

We also have ex-documentary makers, a round-the-world sailor, a private jet executive, a submarine pilot, a yacht broker, former military officers, a scattering of polar explorers - including one who lived on Antarctica - not to mention a finance director who worked in fashion and healthcare.

Adam Sebba

Courtesy of Adam Sebba

Adam Sebba.

I started my business career at a well-known management consulting firm. "It always helps to bring fresh insight," a partner advised me, "if you have one person from a completely different industry on a case." This mantra stuck with me, and now later in my working life, I've found the tactic working again.

The traditional travel industry, like so many other sectors, is stagnant and ripe for disruption. Even experiential travel companies can suffer from a lack of imagination. Originality is sacrificed for scalability and trips become off the shelf, 'one size fits all' packages. To stand out in the noise of any crowded marketplace today you have to have a differentiated customer offering.

So, not only does our unique and eclectic mix of backgrounds work, it's essential. Because the three things that make our team different all boil down to this mix of people.

1. We’re breaking the mold

1. We’re breaking the mold

We don't send people to travel shows; instead, they attend science lectures, film screenings, archaeological seminars and art exhibitions. And that's how we source the truly different. "There are unexplored and breath-taking cave paintings in China," an art historian imparted to us at the Venice Biennale. "There's a lost city," a South American archaeologist confided "deep in the Colombian jungle that used to be controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia."

And last year, a scientist told us that he believed that there was an undiscovered species of killer whale circling the Southern Ocean. So, we designed an experience with these scientists at its heart; and it led to the almost unbelievable discovery of a new species — the 'type D killer whale' with a pointer dorsal fin and a smaller white patch by its eye — during one of our trips to Antarctica.

2. We evoke emotion

2. We evoke emotion

One of our mantras is "location is subordinate to experience" or in other words, it's not about where you go, but how you feel when you're there. What emotions does your experience evoke in your family; what lasting memories do you create with your friends?

To think like that, you have to behave differently — and we've found that when you've been indoctrinated into the traditions of an industry, it's hard to break out.


3. Making the impossible possible

3. Making the impossible possible

I joined the Army the day before 9/11 and served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Northern Ireland. During my service, I learned that the military teaches you how to execute missions with scarce resource and creative planning. To build a luxury camp in the middle of primary rainforest requires complex logistics and a mission-focused approach. That's why we have two former army captains on our projects team.

So, what have we learned from hiring such eclectic and talented people? Three things.

  • If you want to truly do something new, there's no cookie-cutter person you can hire ready to hit the ground running.
  • Take calculated risks when you hire people. Prize transferable skills above industry experience.
  • Above all, invest time in developing and training people.

We've found that when you get these things right, the "power of difference" can be transformational.

Adam Sebba is the CEO of Cookson Adventures, which crafts travel experiences that mix adventure and luxury for its global client base.