'If you are a person who likes to walk through Croatian meadows past sheep, don't be a banker': Q&A with Edward Piegza, Founder / Owner of Classic Journeys

16 March 2011

by Nicole Petrak, ATTA Special Projects & Assistant Editor, AdventureTravelNews

The following Q&A is with Edward Piegza, the President and founder of Classic Journeys, an adventure travel company that operates cultural walking adventures, culinary tours, family journeys and private journeys in 68 regions in 31 countries on 5 continents. Born in Pennsylvania, he is married with two sons, ages 14 and 11. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Illinois and an MBA in marketing and finance from Northwestern University. He began his career at Continental Bank in Chicago before heading to San Diego in 1992 to run a British tour company. He founded Classic Journeys in 1995. His hobbies include skiing; tennis; coaching sons in football, basketball and baseball; hiking; and long beach walks with his wife, Susan, and Rhodesian Ridgeback, Torre.


How has Classic Journeys been impacted by the recent and current global economic situation, and what, if any, operational adjustments have you made? What strategies will you be pursuing in 2011 and beyond related to this?

The travel industry in general had a lot of challenges, especially when the economy was at its lowest. But the good news is that the way our business is structured, we came through it well. For example, we used some spare energy to find ways to make the trips even better. We took a breather and instead of just expanding our trip regions, we leveraged our people to get even deeper into our trips.

This set us up to really experiment and grow each individual tour; and to look for ways to make the experiences we already offer richer, with even better value for our guests.

Your newsletters for Classic Journeys are great - a variety of trend content, consumer information and a connection to what Classic Journeys offers in these relevant areas. How have your marketing and outreach strategies developed over time, especially in social media? What have you found successful, and unsuccessful in these areas?

Thanks for the compliment on our newsletters. From a marketing point of view, we are trying to speak to our guests in a way that is true to who we are as a company and travelers. That’s one thing we love about social media—it’s so direct and true.

We’re absolutely committed to being in the social media space. We tweet, we blog and we’re on Facebook. But social media, for us like a lot of companies, is evolving. It’s one tool in the kit. Not the most important tool, but one great part of the conversation.

It’s hard to analyze, but our newsletters let us focus on a region or time of year and lets us stay current in a way that no published catalog can. And with social media, we can introduce very timely and targeted communications, like a new photo contest in a very cost effective and relevant way.

One thing you've mentioned is that over half of your clientele are Boomers 60 or over, and that they're attracted to what you call "sight-doing." Can you explain more about what trends you're seeing in what these travelers are looking for? Has online and social media been efficient in reaching these clients? How will Classic Journeys be marketing to Boomers in next few years?

We think of sight-doing as not just superficially seeing a region, but really getting an immersion in the history and culture and daily life of the people in that region. I’ve found our blog to be a great tool for expanding on real interactions we have on tour, and so sharing the sight-doing that actual guests are experiencing. My favorite current example would be a blog I edited after receiving an email from guests who were on tour with us in Vietnam. In it, the guests shared their experience with our local guide Mai, and how she introduced them to locals picking out a pig, and then with 50 women in a village market. Our guests, experienced world travelers, marveled at the level of personal contact Classic Journeys’ guide was able to facilitate. (You can read all about it at: http://classicjourneys.com/blog/when-pigs-fly-or-at-least-ride-a-motorcycle%e2%80%a6/)

We like to market our product on the basis of experiences and what you’ll feel on tour, rather than things or sites you’ll check off. That means with Boomers we’ll need to be even more true than ever to that idea.

Another trend you've noted is the uptick of family and multi-generational travel? How much growth have you seen here, and why? What elements go into make a trip successful for each member on multi-generational trips?

A: We thought family and multigenerational travel was a good idea from the beginning, and saw lots of good reaction from our guests. So we’ve been aggressive in adding places and experiences to our offerings.

It always felt very intuitive to us that families should and could travel together, and if we built a good product they would come. So for us that means multiple guides, finding ways to make the cuisine of a region approachable to picky eaters, and activities for every age in a family.

The good news is that having created the product, the population at large has discovered it too. Travel is a way to get every member of a family away and together. And you don’t have to succumb to the lowest common denominator.

We anticipated this trend. And so now you see a place like Morocco. Who would think that you’d take kids there, and yet it’s a wonderful vacation for families. Everyone has a great time, everyone gets to do amazing things like camel riding, sand surfing, oasis walking and biking. And it’s all safe and approachable. Watching my own family and other guests there I see that adventure doesn’t come and go at certain ages in your life. The desire for it is always there.

Classic Journeys recently celebrated its 15 year anniversary - if you could go back fifteen years and give yourself 3 pieces of advice ahead of your journey, what would they be? Would that be different advice than what you would give to beginner tour operators in today's environment?

The advice I’d give myself 15 years ago is the same advice I’d give a beginning tour operator now:

1.  When you meet great people, grab them. They might be guides, business partners, employees. When you meet someone who says things that make sense to you and resonate with you, grab them.

2.  Expect to be sucker punched once in a while. If you’re like us, you plan and plan and plan, and then something happens that throws so much of the planning out the window. We try not to think of these events as scary emergency times, but as opportunities. So for example, pre 9-11 we had no trips in North America. Within a few months of 9-11, we had scouted nine North American trips, and they now make up a 20% share of our total guests in pie that’s significantly larger than a decade ago.

3.  If you are a person who likes to walk through Croatian meadows past sheep, don’t be a banker. (I do and I was.) So often I’ve found that if it’s something I like to do, we do it. And most times, it works. It goes back to being true to yourself.