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Lunch With: Brett Wilson sits down with Rob Campbell to talk travel, business and why taking Fridays off is for chumps

Enter the Dragon

When he was younger, Max Fawcett wanted to make a mint in the markets. Now as the managing editor of Alberta Venture he gets to write about them. Close enough, right? He can be reached at mfawcett@albertaventure.com

Jul 4, 2014

by Max Fawcett

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Left: Rob Campbell, right: Brett Wilson
Photograph Bookstrucker

THE DINERS

YOUNG EXEC: Rob Campbell, Co-owner, Free & Easy Traveler
HISTORY: Campbell’s cousin, Curtis Smith, started the business in 2000 after a trip he took inspired him to do it again – and bring other people to pay his freight. He put up a few posters at the University of Calgary, bought a domain name and went into business. “The next thing he knew he had 40 people signed up,” Campbell says. After a 2003 trip to Thailand gave him the travel bug, Campbell joined Smith, with the latter arranging the trips and Campbell selling and marketing them. This year, the company expects to take upwards of 2,000 people on backpacking trips. It’s grown exponentially since then, and he’s now looking to find a way to expand the business without killing it in the process.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 10
LUNCH: Napoli pizza (Roma tomatoes, fior de latte mozzarella, garlic, olive oil, basil, sea salt)

VETERAN EXEC: W. Brett Wilson, Founder of Prairie Merchant Capital, chairman of Canoe Financial and co-founder and former chairman of FirstEnergy Capital

HISTORY: Born in Saskatchewan, educated as an engineer, worked at Imperial Oil, went back to school for an MBA, helped found FirstEnergy, made oodles of money, worked too hard, got diagnosed with prostate cancer, used said diagnosis to re-prioritize his life away from work and towards his family, left FirstEnergy, spent three seasons on Dragons’ Den and, through it all (or maybe because of it), became Alberta’s best-known entrepreneur.

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 11 (at Prairie Merchant)

LUNCH: CCB pizza (chicken, cranberry sauce, sliced brie, caramelized onions, freshly ground black pepper and olive oil)

Fertilize the organic – build on that core business that you already have. – Brett Wilson, Prairie Merchant Capital Founder

When it comes to arranging lunch with Brett Wilson, the third time really is the charm. After a couple of postponements, he’s agreed to meet at a new Calgary restaurant called Bensonhurst, one that is conveniently located just a few steps from his office and happens to have leased its space in a building he partially owns. Of course, that’s not saying much: in Calgary, and indeed in Alberta, there are a lot of things that Wilson has his hand in.

And while he arrives at the restaurant a few minutes past the appointed hour, there are no hard feelings at the table. Wilson’s a busy guy, it’s the day before a long weekend and his advice is worth a lot to a young entrepreneur like Rob Campbell. He’s one of the people behind Free & Easy Traveler, a group backpacking company that’s grown its business gradually over its decade-plus in operation and now has to decide where it wants to go next.

They kibitz about the forthcoming Easter long weekend, one that Wilson didn’t plan to take off until he realized he couldn’t book meetings with anyone on the Friday. “Sunday, I can take off,” he says. “But Friday’s a workday.” And they talk about the fact that, for all the chatter about his emphasis on work-life balance, Wilson still works relentlessly at whatever it is he’s doing, whether that’s a new yoga program or closing a new business deal. Taking it easy is clearly not in his vocabulary.

And yet, that’s the essence of Campbell’s business. “It’s a laid-back format, and we don’t want to hold your hand,” he says. “It’s your trip, and what you might be looking for could be different from what I’m looking for.” Campbell explains how he’s grown the business into new destinations (Thailand, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines are just some of the places they take people) and new trip formats, which can range from 10 to 140 days. “That’s not a trip,” Wilson says. “That’s a life.”

Wilson presses Campbell about the nuts and bolts of his business, from how they arrange the trips to the relationships they’ve built with partners in the industry. And, like any venture capitalist, he’s curious about how big the company could get.

Campbell explains that their chief constraint is the number of trip leaders they have, and while they’ve been training more of them, there’s only so many to go around. “We’ve set up a training process in the countries we’re in, where they go through the trip with experienced leaders,” he says. “But that does limit us a little bit.”

Another limiting factor is the behaviour of Travel Cuts, a student-run travel agency that hasn’t seemed very interested in offering Campbell’s products. “They have existing relationships with large partners like G Adventures and Contiki and Intrepid,” he says. “We’ve approached them and said, ‘Hey, this is what your student population wants – we’re a growing business, we’re taking more and more students of yours every year – help sell our trips.’ But they’re not interested. They have these existing partnerships in place, they offer these commissions, they do this, they do that …”

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“So they don’t want to play,” Wilson says. “Is that your major competition?”

“We do have some smaller competitors in Canada, but we were the original in this genre of travel,” Campbell says.

Wilson presses. “What do you call this genre? It’s not just backpacking.”

“It’s group backpacking trips for university students,” Campbell says.

“But you’re not tenting. You’re going from low-end hotel to low-end hotel. No, inexpensive hotels – value-based hotels!” He shares a story about his own experience in such “value-based hotels” during a trip he helped organize that featured dune buggy racing on the Baja peninsula. “I’m on an unlimited budget with clients who pay us untold millions, and the first hotel we’re at has no running water because the pump doesn’t work,” he says. “If you want to go to the washroom, it’s down the hall and over here – an outdoor biffy. On day three, one of my partners said, ‘I’ve never seen more no-star hotels in a row – but we’re loving it!’ I could do those trips over and over.”

Campbell agrees. “You don’t need all the fluff sometimes.” That said, part of the company’s strategy involves branching out into a new product, Epic Travels, that offers a little bit of that fluff. They’ve also partnered with another cousin (who used to work for Free & Easy) on a new venture called Detours that targets the growing LGBT tourism market. “It’s not making any money in the first year, but it’s starting to pull its weight,” Campbell says. “And he’s basically running it, doing all the marketing and trip running and trip building, which is nice.” Wilson approves. “I like the idea. The current model would abandon that relationship when they get a job or have a different kind of lifestyle. Anything you can do to continue that relationship, and keep those people on your trips – even a couple thousand people a year, that grows you at a pretty good clip.”

The new businesses create a choice, Campbell says – should he and Smith double-down on Free & Easy, adding new destinations and expanding to American campuses, or emphasize the two new offerings? Wilson asks him what he wants to do, but Campbell returns the volley. “Well, what in your opinion would be the smart thing to do? Should I continue to focus on building Free & Easy and growing it, maybe on an international level? Or should we take our knowledge of this demographic, the 18- to 30-year-olds, and turn it towards a larger demographic – all styles of trips, all age ranges, everything?”

“My first reaction would be to fertilize the organic – build on that core business that you already have,” Wilson says. “I like your model of having a relationship and trying to build on that. If you can bring new people in, great, but an existing customer is a valuable customer. And when I’m looking at small businesses, a lot of people value the transaction over the relationship.” Free & Easy’s model, Campbell says, is all about ­valuing the relationship. They have reunion parties for former travellers, hire tour participants to become tour guides and use Facebook and Twitter to build and reinforce a sense of community. “Forty per cent of our sales come from word of mouth,” he says.

Those sales, he says, have been growing at a pretty steady clip. “Our website, our team, the processes are all in place right now to facilitate additional growth. We’ve been averaging 30 per cent growth for the last three years.”

“That’s impressive,” Wilson says.

“But we want to take it to the 50, 60, 100 per cent growth level – and ensure that we’re keeping the same experience, the culture that comes with the company. We don’t want that to get diluted just for the sake of dollar bills.”

Whichever direction they choose, Wilson says, there’s clearly a market for what they’re offering. His son, after all, just got back from a similar trip to Europe. “I just saw pictures. He won’t tell me stories. But I see the base model as being sustainable, which is low-end, student-oriented, fun travel at a reasonable price. Put on your backpack and go.”

“Now,” Campbell says, “it’s just about exposing more and more people to the product.”

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