Setting records for height, depth and revenue

Arnie Weissmann

In 1960, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard were the first humans to descend into Challenger Deep, the lowest point in any of the planet’s oceans.

Monday, on the 63rd anniversary of that descent, Walsh, 91, was honored at the New York headquarters of the Explorers Club. In his remarks to attendees, he defined “exploration” in a way that I felt also speaks to the underlying motivation for many people when they travel.

“Exploration is curiosity acted upon,” he said. “How do we inspire curiosity, maintain and nurture it? It gives people great pleasure. You don’t have to be a headline explorer, the first one to do this, that, or whatever. There are thousands out there quietly doing the work of satisfying their curiosity. And what I like to do is get people interested in the world around them.”

Had Walsh not been an oceanographer, he would have made a great travel advisor. Any advisor who successfully matches a client’s curiosity to an experience or destination gains appreciation for a foundational characteristic of curiosity: satisfying it strengthens it. As Walsh notes, exploration gives great pleasure. Tapping into and fulfilling a person’s desires to better understand the world is one way to maintain and nurture curiosity.

There has recently been an acceleration of travel products that seem specifically designed to share experiences that were, until recently, reserved for pioneers daring to go where none had preceded them.

Earlier on the day that Walsh spoke, I had Zoomed with Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate Expeditions. OceanGate has three five-person submarines that blend tourism and research, bringing the curious below the waves in what Rush characterizes as “a life-changing experience.” He referenced “the overview effect” — the profound insights experienced by people who travel to space — and said an undersea journey produces “10 times” the impact.

And, similar to how some companies that bring visitors to space prefer the term “private astronaut” to “space tourist,” Rush calls his paying passengers “mission specialists.” And in his case, it’s not merely semantics. A researcher is on every trip, and each dive has a scientific goal. “We don’t just want butts in seats,” he said.

While he initially thought the ocean’s natural attractions would be the main draw, he soon discovered “everyone wants to go to the Titanic.” Research on the wreck has become his company’s primary focus — “there are still plenty of unknowns” — but serendipity also comes into play.

“We’ve been really focusing on the biology of the wreck as an artificial reef but then found a natural reef within 25 miles of the Titanic last summer,” he said. “That was a big eye-opener for everyone on the ship; most didn’t know about cold corals and that there are more cold corals on the planet than tropical corals.”

A trip below the waves cost $250,000 and lasts eight days — and pays 10% commission. In addition to the Titanic trip, OceanGate will bring a sub to clients wherever they may be in the world to explore what’s under the water’s surface at that location. “I hope we get to the point where a travel advisor might say, ‘Hey, you’re going to be in Croatia next year. Wouldn’t you like to explore a plane wreck that’s 500 feet under the water?'”

Though the experience is pricey, Stockton said he wanted to be clear about what OceanGate can and cannot deliver: “This is not a luxury outing.”

On the other hand, Space Perspective, which hopes next year to bring eight passengers — “explorers” in its nomenclature — 100,000 feet above Earth in a capsule suspended beneath a high-altitude balloon, promotes luxury as a central component, with comfortable furniture, a bar, fine dining and high-speed WiFi to complement the view. The company had a presence at CES earlier this month at the Siemens pavilion, where attendees lined up to sit in a 360-degree theater to watch a simulation of the experience. (Siemens is a partner in building the capsule.)

Seats in the actual capsule are being sold for $125,000 each, and the company, which also pays travel advisors 10% commission, has preferred relationships in place with Global Travel Collection, Cruise Planners and Signature.

Global Travel Collection president Angie Licea said she sees additional opportunity for advisors in pre- and post-trips, particularly because launches are subject to weather-related delays, and there’s a possibility that private astronauts may spend a few days on the ground. (OceanGate is talking with Space Perspective competitor Worldview to assess the possibility of “fly/dive” packages, but the uncertainty of liftoff timing is still a challenge they’re trying to work out.)

The bottom line for advisors is, well, the bottom line. The ability to motivate clients to put curiosity into action with an excursion to high altitudes or fathoms deep could also help you set a record: your best revenue year. Are you curious about your ability to do so? 

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