Dome tents Uyuni Salt Flats (Bolivia).
Dome tents Uyuni Salt Flats (Bolivia).
Image: Stéphane Gautronneau

Great start-ups often begin with a problem.

In the year 2000, somewhere in northern Australia, the problem Tom Marchant, James Merrett and Matt Smith — friends and seasoned travellers — were pondering, was why so much of the travel industry felt derivative. Where were the unique experiences? The local immersion? The authentic taste of a destination?

They decided to do something about it.

After upping their corporate experience, in 2005 the trio launched Black Tomato, a nod to a culinary rarity they’d sampled in Moscow. It was a company dedicated to creating and curating unique travel experiences. No off-the-shelf brochures here. In their stead, a tailor-made discovery of destinations across the globe.

Success came quickly.

In 2009 they moved to larger offices in London’s hip Shoreditch district. Four years later, a New York office opened to serve Black Tomato’s unique blend of experiential travel to experience-hungry Americans.

Today, with 80 employees worldwide, Black Tomato continues to innovate, with offerings such as ‘Blink’, providing pop-up experiences in far-flung locales, and ‘Get Lost’, where travellers enjoy a sense of digital disconnect on tailor-made off-grid adventures. ‘Epic Tomato’ focuses on expedition-led travel, from Patagonia to Namibia, while ‘Field Trip’ offers immersive learning opportunities for younger travellers.

It’s safe to say Black Tomato has solved the problem, but the company’s not done yet. Wanted Online sat down with co-founder Tom Marchant to find out where the path leads in 2022.

Tom Marchant.
Tom Marchant.
Image: Supplied

How would you frame Black Tomato? You’re not just a tour operator.

Absolutely. We’re a travel company, but really the essence of Black Tomato is about inspiring people through remarkable experiences. That informs how we think and how we come up with trip ideas.

Black Tomato began because you felt there was nobody offering the kind of travel you wanted. What was the niche ?

It was about finding adventure and immersive experiences that could be organised in the short amount of time people can afford to be away from work. Guidebooks weren’t getting to the right places. Travel agents were operating with formulaic brochures.

Your time is precious, and your time off is even more so. And that’s where we felt the established companies were offering too much of the same thing. It was a spirit of curiosity that underpinned the forming of Black Tomato. We all had entrepreneurial leanings, and there seemed to be a gap in the market that spoke to people like us.

Dome tents with local furnishings Uyuni Salt Flats (Bolivia).
Dome tents with local furnishings Uyuni Salt Flats (Bolivia).
Image: Stéphane Gautronneau

Why has your brand of experiential travel become so sought-after?

When we started the company the word experience just wasn’t around as much as it is today. The experience economy has grown enormously since we started the company 15 years ago. We’re in an age where experiences have become a collectible. It’s almost a material good for people. Twenty or 30 years ago people may have collected cars or art. Today the experiences you gain, and how they define you, is something that is sought after by people. That fuels innovation, it fuels opportunity.

What trends are you seeing in customer demand?

We’re seeing a big move to what we call the ‘BFGs’, the Big Family Get-Togethers.

In the last few months 55% of our bookings are for large family groups in spectacular parts of the world, looking to connect after what’s been a tough few years. We’ve got families booked into Southern Africa, families taking over haciendas in Salta, Argentina, families in the Galapagos. In line with this trend we also launched a service called ‘Field Trip’, where you can turn certain days in to educational classes for children.

ESO Paranal experience.
ESO Paranal experience.
Image: Supplied

There’s also a taste for a little deprivation in the ‘Get Lost’ offering?

‘Get Lost’ is an idea I had a few years ago, asking myself ‘What is relaxation?’ Could we design an experience that challenges the person both physically and mentally, and channels their mind so they have to be in the moment.

‘Get Lost’ adventures take people out of their comfort zone, where they can forget the ebb and flow of everyday life, the pandemic, work. They get away and immerse themselves in that moment. Each adventure is bespoke, so we sit down with clients to understand what they want to do, and their limits. When we create a route, guests are always under the eye of our specialist guides, who are often ex-special forces or military. So far we have organised ‘Get Lost’ adventures in deserts, mountains, polar environments and jungles.

How do you keep the offering fresh in a fast-changing world?

Within Black Tomato we have an Innovation Council, with a remit of coming up with new products and services. A lot of the ideas get locked in the vault for a rainy day, some may not feel right for the moment, and some are trends we keep an eye on for the future.

We also look at what’s happening outside travel. Travel is a connection for all your passions — art, music, food, literature, whatever — so we’re always looking to see cultures or trends that could shape how people are feeling about certain trips, or parts of the world.

Live out your gaucho fantasies in South America.
Live out your gaucho fantasies in South America.
Image: Tansu Topuzoğlu/Pexels

What new products have come out of that approach?

With people spending extended periods at home with their children, and spending more time reading, we launched a new product called ‘Take Me On A Story’, which creates amazing real-life experiences based on the classics of children’s literature.  There’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, with travel through Oxfordshire, and an adventure in Iceland for ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. With the surge in demand for family travel they have sold really well. It’s about finding new ways to bring family travel to life.

How important is sustainability... either to you, or your customers?

I haven’t mentioned sustainability because it’s now just a given. It’s increasingly baked into everything we’re doing, from offsetting travel to connecting travellers with local communities.

We also see people are changing their approach to travel. There’s a trend we call the ‘Highs and Lows’. Travellers have one ‘High’ a year, a long haul flight to a far-flung destination, and then in between for all other travel, the ‘Lows’, it’s more local. In Europe it means lots more rail travel, in the US more road trips. There’s a perceived fatigue around flying, and people asking if it’s always necessary. We have seen a huge shift there.

In the Andes, revel in unique yurt sleep-outs under the stars.
In the Andes, revel in unique yurt sleep-outs under the stars.
Image: Yurt Andes

Which destinations are on your radar for 2022?

For myself our ‘Field Trip’ offering is really exciting. I have two daughters, so I’m hoping we’ll get to Havana, where we do amazing work with the film institute. And then also some marine biology experiences in Scotland.

In terms of destinations I’m excited about parts of Argentina. We’re also doing some quite interesting stuff in Romania, and then there are parts of southern Europe that have been out of reach, getting back to places like Puglia in southern Italy.

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