Adventure travel has always been an integral part of Susan and Werner Zehnder’s lives, so much so that 20 years ago, they and five colleagues decided to stake their future on it, forming Zegrahm & Eco Expeditions. We caught up with Werner and Susan via phone to talk about Zegrahm’s beginning—and what might lie ahead in years to come.
How did Zegrahm get started?
We’d had several conversations over the years with Peter Harrison, Mike Messick, and Jack Grove about starting our own business—they were all freelancers and we would talk about it aboard the ships late at night. After Susan and I left Society Expeditions and were seriously thinking about starting our own expedition business, we called them and said “Would you be interested in starting a company?” They all agreed, except for Mike who was on the high seas. So I called him and said “Are you in?” and he said, “Can you tell me more about it?” I told him, “This is a satellite call; it’s $12 a minute. Are you in or not?” and he said okay.
After that, we all got together to design our logo (on a cocktail napkin—it is the same Z and world and E you see now!) and to draft our page-long business plan. Our first day of business was November 19, 1990. There were four of us in the office, we literally waited by the phones. No one was allowed to make calls as we thought the reservations would just come flying in. Soon thereafter we got our 1-800 number; our first deposit was Christmas Eve day. Our first trip was to Vietnam, we got there just as the country opened up to tourism.
What makes Zegrahm different from other expedition companies?
The fact that we are all partners has always made us different. We had owners leading the trips and owners running the office and the beauty of it was none of us had to worry about the other part of the operation.
Another big difference is our customer service. Our clients don’t get the run-around on the phone, there’s no “press one” for this or “press two” for that. You get a live person every time you call and we return our calls in a timely manner.
Can you share some favorite travel memories?
[Werner] I went scouting years ago in Papua New Guinea and we came to this one island where the children had never seen a white person before. They were running away from me! And there was no sense of time on the island; they didn’t have watches or clocks. There was no sense of age, even. It was just an amazing, eye-opening experience. If you’re talking about favorite wildlife experiences though, it has to be Antarctica. The wildlife is so tame that you actually have to get out of their way. The penguins just come up to you even though you’re trying to keep your distance. This continent doesn’t belong to anyone; you really do feel like a visitor there.
[Susan] I was in the Solomon Islands once and sort of became a “snorkel queen,” helping people who didn’t know how to swim well learn to snorkel. We were in very shallow but pristine water and I was able to help people who didn’t feel comfortable putting their faces in the water. They got to experience this incredible place—to see the fish and the coral and the beauty of the water. It was a very satisfying experience.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
We’ll always have small expeditions—our clients would rebel if we ever went out on a huge ship. We’ll always have the best leaders, whether it’s land or sea. And we’ll always listen. The best thing for us has been to give our clients what they want and to pay attention, to listen to their feedback as to where they want to go.