Lindblad Expeditions made an announcement recently that company founder Sven-Olof Lindblad is stepping down from his role as CEO. To anyone who has observed Sven Lindblad for decades and seen his single-minded dedication to his work, the announcement may have been disorienting. Could Sven Lindblad actually be retiring?
The thought crossed my mind, but upon thinking about it, it was just inconceivable that Sven would be backing away from the work to which he has devoted his life. It is not hyperbole to say that, for Sven Lindblad, his work is not merely a job or a livelihood, or even just a business enterprise, it really is a mission.
Sven Lindblad was the person who originally urged the US Tour Operators Association to take action on environmental protection by establishing the Travelers Conservation Foundation, and he was its first chairman. TCF later evolved into Tourism Cares.
But his biggest impact on environmentalism is through his work with Lindblad Expeditions, which gives people experiences that ignite their own passions for protecting the planet. There’s no one in the travel industry for whom the word “mission” is more appropriate. He’s up there in the pantheon of greats.
He shares that space with a handful of others, one of whom is his father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, a one-of-a-kind pioneer. Lars was the first, among many other distinctions, to take tourists to Antarctica. He was the guy who figured out how to do it. He created the model that practically all of the Antarctic expeditions still follow.
After traveling with his father as a young person, and then working for his father’s company, Lindblad Travel, Sven started his own expedition company in 1979. He called his company Special Expeditions. It was independent of Lindblad Travel, but he did follow in his father’s footsteps of exploration in spirit, as did many other tour operators.
In the year 2000, long after his father’s death in 1994, Sven changed the name of his company from Special Expeditions to Lindblad Expeditions. In making the change, he honored his father; but it had taken 20 years for him to reach the point where he felt ready to try to live up to the name that his father had built to a legendary status.
After I heard the news that Sven was leaving the role of CEO, I was fortunate enough to be able to reach him and confirm what I expected. He is not backing away from Lindblad Expeditions, on the contrary. He’s not stepping down, he’s stepping up.
“This was something I decided to do almost two years ago,” he told me. “and we started a diligent search for someone to take on the role. The main reason was that, when you’re CEO on a day-to-day basis, you’re consumed with so many different things. And I really wanted to focus on other aspects of the business, which I wasn’t able to do with the same amount of dedication or focus because I was CEO. So, I felt that bringing in someone else to do that would liberate me and allow me to focus on the things where I really believe I can help build and grow the company.”
To fill the role Sven was vacating, he and the Lindblad board of directors settled on Dolf Berle, who currently serves as chief executive officer of Topgolf Entertainment Group. Effective May 10, Sven will become co-chair of the board, along with Mark Ein, the current board chair.
Now that the Lindblad brand is so solidly established, the company wants to grow, both organically and through acquisitions.
“We believe we can be a platform company,” he said. “We just acquired two companies: Off the Beaten Path and DuVine Cycling + Adventure.”
These companies are a departure from Lindblad’s previous offerings, which have always been ship-based. By this move, the company signals that it wants to also apply its brand ethos to travel that is not based on ships.
“We believe our guests are omnivorous,” he said. “And we want to be able to offer them a variety of possibilities, and stay within the family, so to speak. We think that’s a good business strategy, and we think that it’s helpful to guests. At the same time, we will continue building ships of one kind or another, depending on what we define as a need geographically and what we believe is a market.”
It’s classic branding strategy. The trust the Lindblad brand has built up over 40 years can now be a reliable endorsement that can guide travelers in their search for operations they can trust. To a loyal Lindblad customer, if the Lindblad brand promise is incorporated into the product, it can be trusted.
Meanwhile, with the US crossing the threshold of 4 million vaccines in one day, and full availability to all adult Americans projected by May 1, the travel industry is dawning again. After a year on the sidelines, Lindblad Expeditions is in the process of reopening.
But the timing of the reopening is still somewhat a game of chance. Much is uncertain as countries try to vaccinate their populations and stop COVID. No one knows exactly what countries will reopen and in what order.
“We’ve always said you need three things in order to reactivate,” said Lindblad. “You need a credible medical solution, which we believe we have. We are requiring adults to be vaccinated. And we are requiring that primarily based on a survey we did with our guests, in which vaccination was highest on the list in terms of what people want to reactivate.
“Two, you need a welcome mat. Regions and countries have to open their doors. And that’s proving to be somewhat more complex in terms of opening more quickly, because there’s still a lot of places that are not open. For example, Norway, which is normally important to us in the spring, is closed. So our re-entry will be dependent on who opens the doors.”
The third factor is people being ready to travel again.
“Obviously,” he said, “you have to have guests who believe in your protocols, and at the same time believe they will have a top-quality experience. You need to combine all those things.”
In spite of frustrating setbacks, overall trends continue to look good. “I believe certain countries in our court will start opening up,” he said. “I certainly think our saying that we’re prepared to come in with a fully-vaccinated community will help a great deal.
Opening Lindblad Territories
While Europe is struggling with setbacks in infections and difficulty distributing vaccines, many of Lindblad Expeditions’ favorite regions for travel are going to be available again soon.
“We announced recently that we are going to begin in June in Alaska and the Galapagos,” he said. “And in July and August, we’ll be adding new geographies.”
While it’s now possible to set dates for restarting expeditions in some areas, projecting the date when the company will be fully back in business is not yet possible.
“It’s hard to give a specific answer to that,” he said. “For example, Canada will still be closed, and that’s important to us for a variety of itineraries. So, I would say that by July and August we’ll add a couple of geographies, and into the fall, a couple more. I think it will be the first quarter of next year before we’re fully operational.”
And by that time, Lindblad Expeditions will have no doubt evolved significantly and may have a couple more brands under its belt. That’s just a guess.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.