Cents of Adventure
by Janet Essman Franz
Matt Holmes is at home outside just about anywhere in the world
Boundless Journeys, a Stowe company dedicated to small-group adventure travel, has allowed Matt Holmes, its founder and president, to pursue his love for travel and earn a living at the same time.
Matt Holmes is living a childhood dream of a career combining his interests in nature and outdoor adventure sports with his passion for international travel. He is founder and president of Boundless Journeys in Stowe, a business specializing in small-group adventure travel.
The company arranges trips to locales such as South America, Africa, and Asia where clients participate in mountain trekking, walking, kayaking, rafting, camping, wildlife observation, and cultural journeys. Now 41, he reflects on his years of preparation to create a company that provides what he calls “some of the world’s great adventures.”
Growing up, Holmes enjoyed skiing and traveling with his parents and two younger brothers. The family vacationed in the United States and Europe, stayed active outdoors, and kept a ski house in Quechee. They moved frequently — living in Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia, and Ohio — for his father’s work in marketing for corporations such as General Foods and General Electric.
When it was time for college, Holmes considered the University of Vermont and visited Burlington. Although he loved the region, he ultimately chose the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he majored in business. The international travel bug hit hard when he spent a semester at sea, studying and exploring in Spain, Yugoslavia, India, Egypt, and Thailand.
“It left me craving more and I traveled every opportunity, always seeking new adventures,” Holmes recalls. Seeking ways to get involved in the travel industry and fuel his passion, he joined travel agencies’ mailing lists, pondered their catalogs, and envisioned himself touring exotic places.
Upon graduating from college in 1990, Holmes worked at an Aspen ski shop and started his first business — as a painter. Still dreaming of international adventures, he decided to try living overseas. He chose Japan.
For one year he taught English to business people in Tokyo and toured Asia during work breaks. He spent several weeks each in China and Indonesia, where he walked the land and visited with residents, getting to know their culture and customs.
During this time, Holmes corresponded with Heather Warner, a high school classmate with whom he reconnected at their five-year reunion. They met in Hawaii for vacation, fell in love, and stayed four months, says Holmes.
Not yet ready to marry, they pursued careers in separate locations. She studied psychology in Boston and he went west: first to Jackson Hole, Wyo., to teach outdoor programs at a school for troubled children; then to Gunnison, Colo., to live in a tent for a month while earning Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician certification.
The couple continued vacationing together, visiting Italy, Turkey, India, Singapore, and Malaysia. “You really get to know somebody pretty well that way,” says Holmes.
In 1995 they moved to Seattle, Wash. He worked ski patrol for Crystal Mountain in winter and spent summers guiding rafting trips. He also started his second business, a sea kayak rental and instruction service called Windsong, and led tours to South America.
“I met an individual who had a company based out of Bolivia. He was looking for [American] guides to take clients from the U.S. mountain biking, hiking into the Andes, and rafting in the jungle,” Holmes says. For the next few years, he split his time between Bolivia and Seattle, guiding trips and ski patrolling.
“The rest of my time in Seattle revolved around developing skills to work in the adventure travel industry. I wanted to get into the business, but in a way that didn’t have me guiding all the time or being gone most of the year, because I knew it wasn’t a stable life. Ultimately, my dream was to start my own business.” He earned an MBA from Seattle University, attended travel agent school, and worked sales for an adventure travel agency.
After four years in Seattle, Holmes and Warner had had enough of urban life. “The traffic was getting to us, real estate prices were too high, and Heather wanted to go to medical school. I felt the draw of Vermont from coming here as a kid,” he says. “We wanted a place with a good outdoor environment. I knew Burlington was a beautiful city on a lake.”
They married in Maine in 1999 and rented a house in Bristol before purchasing a home in Hinesburg. He took a job as vacation sales manager at Sugarbush, and she studied pre-med at UVM while working at Fletcher Allen Health Care. She ultimately switched to a physician assistant program in Massachusetts, which she completed in 2007. Holmes, meanwhile, stumbled upon the springboard he needed to reach his career goal.
He saw an ad that a walking tour company in Waterbury was hiring for a managerial position. He applied, but it was an entry-level job for which he was overqualified. The company owner called to offer him a different position: launching a venture to offer a greater diversity of experiences, such as hiking, rafting, and kayaking.
Holmes worked on the launch for about six months, until the parent company decided not to pursue that direction. He was folded into the original company doing sales and marketing.
“I learned a lot about running a company like that — the operations of a trip; sales; marketing,” he says. “It was an opportunity to think more about if this was what I wanted to do and what it would entail.”
In 2003 he quit his job and opened an office on the Stowe-Waterbury Road. “I thought it would be a good address for the company,” he says. “I have an affinity for ski towns. I love the activity there.”
Holmes hired one staff person, Karen Cleary, to manage tours and direct public relations and marketing. The staff expanded as sales grew 30 to 40 percent a year, says Holmes. Now four full-time employees coordinate destination logistics such as hotel arrangements, meals, and activities.
They work in concert with a crew of 80 guides around the world to arrange 60 custom itineraries for about a thousand clients a year, with group size, on average, of six to 12 people.
Trip fees range from $1,900 for six days of snorkeling, sea kayaking, and camping in the Baja Sea of Cortez to $7,300 for a 10-day private tour of Botswana. Although it’s based in Vermont, the company’s clientele comes mostly from other states and English-speaking countries.
Holmes’ passion and drive motivate people around him, says John Turner, creative director and owner of Digital Flannel of Norwich, the designer of the company’s printed marketing pieces. “He knows what he wants on a project and has a true vision for Boundless Journeys. It’s easier to channel someone who knows exactly what they want and to get his passion on paper.”
Boundless Journeys’ mission is to “break out of the typical mold and offer a more authentic experience,” says Holmes. This is achieved by staying close to the land and mixing into the local culture. Guests tour with local guides who know well the native people, wildlife, and special places. Using private accommodations, they visit areas most tourists do not see.
“They create an experience that lets you get close to the culture in unique ways,” raves Mary LoVerde, a repeat customer from Aurora, Colo. On a Boundless Journeys trip to Jellyfish Lake in the island nation of Palau, she says, “the guide timed it so we got there as other groups were leaving, so we had the entire lake to ourselves. They made it a different experience, with unexpected delights, and we didn’t stand in line to do it!”
Hiring local guides allows Boundless Journeys to support native communities. The company also aims to do one charity trip per year, such as in 2008, when it took people to volunteer at a medical clinic in Tanzania. “All profits made on that trip went to the clinic,” says Holmes.
He emphasizes the importance of staying current with marketing technology to curb expenses and target customers. Fifteen months ago, the company stopped producing its traditional 55-page print catalog and went to an online format, thus reducing print and direct mail costs, the company’s largest expenditures.
A revamped website allows readers to ask questions and has a blog where guides and guests can post comments, information, and travel updates. Using social media such as Facebook allows for quickly reaching a niche clientele.
During the last year, Boundless Journeys received accolades from leading authorities in adventure travel. National Geographic Adventure magazine rated it one of the Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth; Travel + Leisure named it seventh-Best Tour Operator in the World; and National Geographic Traveler featured the company’s tours in its “50 Tours of a Lifetime.”
Holmes removed himself from leading tours so he can focus on running the company, but he still enjoys scouting locations and traveling for fun, sometimes with Heather and their daughter, Jordan, born in 2003. They recently took a family vacation in Montana, horseback riding, hiking, and fly-fishing. The family also enjoys downhill skiing and cooking foods of the world. “I make pretty good dim sum,” he claims.
Although the last year has been tough on the travel industry, says Holmes, “adventure travel is growing faster than other segments of the industry. We’re still in an aggressive growth mode; however, our goal is not to be the biggest but to be one of the best.” •