It was while perusing postcards in Santiago nearly 30 years ago that Thomas Power came across one of Chile’s awe-inspiring Torres del Paine National Park. “I thought, ‘Blimey, what’s that?’” says Pura Aventura’s CEO and co-founder.
Power is now fronting a business — the UK's first specialist tour operator to achieve B Corp certification — which harbours aspirations of building towards a £20m business and recruiting staff five times its current levels after the pandemic curtailed the travel industry.
Brighton-based Pura Aventura designs family, walking and nature holidays to Latin America, Spain, Portugal, and Antarctica, all with a sustainable slant stemming from Power’s time as a tour guide for US companies in the mid 90s taking high school children on educational tours across Europe.
With a “pocketful of dollars”, the now 52-year-old would spend winters in South America and even set up a cafe in Mexico. However it was Chilean Patagonia’s national park that changed his life. “I thought ‘why didn’t I know more about this place?’ It was utterly beautiful,” Power adds.
Back in the UK, Power felt he was unemployable. “I was at a low and had an unsympathetic partner. She asked what I wanted to do. I told her I wanted to take people to Chile. She said, ‘Well, do it.’”
A chance meeting and five-hour chat with a park guide, fellow co-founder Diego Martin, after missing his boat across a lake subsequently sparked Pura’s journey. “I can’t stress how ignorant I was at running a business,” admits Power. “But there is evangelical passion for Chile, Spain and Costa Rica and as you get to know the countries you have to want to share the love. That’s never shifted.
“You need a lot of resilience, ignore the no’s and push on. That’s been the secret to longevity, the energy, passion and persistence. It's much more important than me. The mission is the priority.”
It’s a philosophy Power adapted to when he was accepted on Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses programme five years ago. “It was a phenomenal experience in terms of upskilling and a turbo boost for running a business,” he says. "Many of us had been through versions of a business. Today, we are just starting Pura version four.”
The travel specialist's first version was, he admits, well intentioned. “A hobby with three guides and a similar outlook, lack of skills and bumbling along for the best part of ten years,” is Power’s recollection of the company's early years. “V2 was about concentrating on margin. V3 came after Goldman Sachs and we grew phenomenally fast.”
Then came Covid and an industry effectively banned from trading for 18 months.
“Through it all was our direct relationship to the places,” recalls Power, as the company took stock. “Yet we were always really good at producing extraordinary holidays that nobody else could copy as we were militant not to follow a path and a classic tour operator model. We weren’t a reseller of somebody’s else's product. We would never do that.
“We knew exactly how we wanted to share the places we wanted to share. It was a desire to have true control of product and experience and cut out the middle people that created complexity. Once you master that, you’re left with something unique and a reason to be in the market.
“You have to keep learning, understanding that you know sod all, keep being a sponge and absorbing it.”
This has all come amid the pound falling to a 37-year low against the dollar last September, when Pura’s margins took a 20% hit just as they opened their South America itineraries.
Despite the barriers over the last three years, Pura know that they offer unique and genuine trips, one with deep-rooted local connections and few departures every week to avoid unguarded interactions with other travellers.
In an age where travel plays a major part on social media with paid influencers, Pura rely on press, word of mouth and clients being advocates of their mission.
“You start by being consistently exceptional,” says Power. “Once people have been on our trips, they go, ‘I get it now’ and understand why it’s different.”
With the travel economy back up and running, Pura's 'scale of challenge' is growing to 30% beyond where the company was placed in 2019. Power cites Pura version four shifting from current staffing of 12 to 60 in the next few years, coupled with 40% year-on-year growth and building towards a £15-20m business.
“That’s on the back of three versions of mistakes and keeping on learning. Version 4 is learning enough lessons and how much more we need to learn. That’s the exciting thing."
As one of the first UK travel outfits to become B Corps certified, the growing membership has now rallied to a combined tune of £100m revenues within that group. “That’s impact,” says Power.
“We want to be small giants. Where we operate we go deep, rather than broad. Where we operate we have real impact.”
Behind the brand: Pura's Thomas Power on…
“The Goldman Sachs programme was a four-month course with 30 businesses across the UK and no competing verticals. We were put through the mincer and it was effectively a condensed MBA. The resource thrown at it is unbelievable, plus you’re in a room with other business owners.
“The imposter syndrome is the one thing that connects you all. It makes you realise that I am good at marketing or abysmal at people and culture or finance. You just shine a light on it and it’s all building towards a business growth plan. It was intensely practical.
Five years later my network is still going strong and the impact and ramifications are phenomenal. I am still in a WhatsApp group and I was recently thanking them for help on a recent project.”
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