Interview with Edward Piegza of Classic Journeys

2 February 2021

Classic Journeys is a luxury boutique tour company, operating small group walking, cultural, family, culinary, and multisport trips in 100 regions in 50 countries on six continents.

Edward Piegza, Founder & President, Classic Journeys

The award-winning company, which celebrated its 25-year anniversary in 2020, is the Adventure Travel Trade Association's (ATTA) longest-standing member, with its membership dating to 2001. 

In the midst of testing time for the travel industry, Lesley Brannen with the ATTA sat down with Classic Journeys president and founder, Edward Piegza, to discuss the effects of the pandemic, and his hopes for the future of travel.

Q: Classic Journeys turned 25 recently, congratulations! You’re also officially ATTA’s longest-standing member. 

Thank you! When we joined in 2001, ATTA’s passion for adventure travel, and your mission to “protect the natural and cultural capital” really resonated with me because it matches our mission at Classic Journeys. ATTA is a supportive and inspiring community to be part of, especially as we work together to make sustainable, regenerative tourism the norm. 

Q: As a leader in the industry, what kind of adventure travel trends are you seeing emerge amid COVID-19?

A lot of guests who usually travel abroad and don’t want to wait for border re-openings are opting for domestic trips with the same awesome itineraries and bespoke service that Classic Journeys delivers worldwide. For example, though COVID-19 forced the postponement of a trip to Iceland, we were able to give guests an experience just as unforgettable in Alaska - complete with northern lights sightings, an incredible glacier hike, husky sledding, and more! We’ve termed it Bucket List Experiences over Bucket List Destinations. 

We’ve seen an increase in guests enquiring after destinations that are more off the beaten path, for both domestic and international travel. Ironically, destinations that are more restrictive in their guidelines have actually become highly sought after. These include the Galapagos, where they limit the number of visitors to the islands, and Zion National Park, where the Bureau of Land Management caps the number of people in the Narrows to no more than 13 at one time. Places like Montana and Iceland, which are wild, open, and sparsely populated, are also being prioritized because they offer an unforgettable experience, around very few people. 

Classic Journeys - Chile - Torres del Paine national park

Q: In response to COVID testing requirements, Classic Journeys created “travel bubbles” for destinations like the Galapagos. Can you tell us more about that?

Where countries have carefully reopened to travelers who meet certain safety steps (e.g., a series of negative COVID tests), we’ve sat down with tourist board members, our expert local guides, and an infectious disease doctor (who just happens to be a 17x Classic Journeys guest) to plan what we’ve called a travel bubble. For our Galapagos travel bubble, that means the moment guests arrive in Quito or Guayaquil, they’ll meet their Classic Journeys guide and representatives from a private COVID testing company. While they await the negative results to continue onto the Galapagos (we’ve arranged for a quick turnaround), we’ve curated a two-night visit in either city that includes a socially distanced but immersive tour of the city, as well as airport transfers, breakfasts, and the PCR tests. The result is that instead of complicating the travel experience, it actually streamlines it, makes it all seamless and turnkey for the traveler, and allows our guests to maximize their enjoyment in the Galapagos by providing them piece of mind that they are in a safe travels environment.

Q: This model seems like it would fit well with the CDC announcement that from January 26, a negative PCR test must be provided to return to the U.S. 

Absolutely. We’ve become well-practiced in adapting to COVID requirements of different destinations and ensuring safe and quick testing around the world. We can incorporate testing seamlessly into our tours, without taking away from guests’ enjoyment of the destination.  

Q: The media are predicting a surge in bookings after COVID, nicknamed revenge travel. Does this look likely to you?

I’m definitely feeling a combination of pandemic fatigue and pent-up wanderlust, as are my family, colleagues, friends, and all of our guests who send me notes of encouragement and aspiration. People who usually travel several times a year are holding those funds for a bucket-list adventure like our Chile Antarctica total eclipse tour this December. Guests have booked trips to make up for missed graduation, birthday, or anniversary celebrations. A lot of travelers are booking more in advance for late 2021 and 2022, to save their places ahead of the “revenge travel” surge and experience the joy of having something to look forward to. Of course, everyone has their own idea of when they’re happy to travel again, whether it’s a lower number of cases, or the vaccine. We understand that, and our resounding message is, “we’re ready when you are”. 

Q: What other adventure travel trends do you foresee emerging?

I’m anticipating more private tours, and I think companies will look to our small group model when it comes to public tours. Micro weddings – where large hometown weddings don’t meet COVID-19 restrictions. Multigenerational family trips. So many birthdays have been missed, not to mention holidays and anniversaries, graduations. Travelers are starting to turn to us to help them find ways to celebrate them all in one trip. 

Classic Journeys - Iceland Founders Edward and Susan Piegza

Q: One thing that identifies Classic Journeys is how you feature local guides in all of your trips around the world. How have you managed to stay in touch and keep spirits high amid the border closures?

Absolutely. I’ve always said it’s not what I know, it’s who I know! And that is never truer than our amazing extended family of expert local guides around the world. I’ve always admired how well-connected our guides are. And that’s never been more apparent than at the beginning of COVID-19 when we had guests in South Africa and Chile at the time of the border closures. Our South African guide, Clive, had to call in favors with the station chief for British Airways to get the last seats out of Cape Town for guests whose flights on Virgin were canceled. And thanks to his personal relationship with the mayor of Easter Island, our Chilean guide, Andres could fast track our guests to the front of the line for the last flight to Santiago so they could fly home before the border closed. 

We followed the journey of Ulisse in Naples, who sent daily updates from the moment coronavirus hit Italy, through lockdown announcements and more. And the same with other guides around the world; Atli in Iceland, Susana in Portugal, Vibeke in Norway and so many more. Inspiring and moving. 

Q: You run tours to 100 regions in 50 countries. How do you manage to make each one bespoke and personal?

We kiss many frogs to find prince and princess charming! That includes the guides who join our guests throughout their trip, each hotel they stay in, the restaurants they dine in, and the vineyard owners, artisans, and craftsmen they meet along the way. We don’t stop searching until every detail is perfect, and if perfect doesn’t already exist, we create it! Just one example...once we lunched with a Cuban farmer to discuss the best local walking trails, and because our dream route didn’t exist, he cut the path for us!

Classic Journeys - Morocco - Agafay Desert Founders Edward and Susan Piegza

Q: As a valued member, Classic Journeys participated in the global consultation process to develop the COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines (see here). What are the biggest challenges your company has faced amid the global pandemic?

Because we operate trips in more than 100 regions in more than 50 countries on six continents, it offered us a 60,000-foot view on what was taking place around the world and what was working as the pandemic developed. From that, we were able to respond quickly as the pandemic hit, managing to get all guests home safely against sudden border closures, and rescheduling already-booked trips. There’s been a lot to adapt to amid constantly changing situations from state to state, and country to country. And it’s been difficult not being in person as much with our guides and hoteliers around the world—who are really personal friends. On top of that, it is so emotionally draining to watch everyone struggle with the effects on the tourism industry. Thanks to the resilience and optimism of the Classic Journeys family around the world, there’s been no hurdle too high, and I’m confident we can face anything together.

Q: What long-term effects do you think COVID will have on the way people travel?

People already feel more mindful when ordering takeout to support local restaurants in their community, and I think the same will apply to travel. We’re aware of the cost COVID has had on every level of tourism, so supporting small tourism businesses, boutique hotels etc. will be more important. There’s hope of a movement above and beyond ‘sustainable tourism’, to ‘regenerative tourism’, where we work to change places and practices for the better, so that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can enjoy the wonders of world travel. 

We’re already seeing this shift, for example, the social distancing adaptions they’ve made at Machu Pichu (to space out visitors, and limit numbers,) is something UNESCO has been campaigning to do for years to better preserve the site. It’s a vastly improved way to experience such an important—formerly over visited—place. I am betting that reopening this way will encourage more conscientious plans for the future. 

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