June 2, 2023


Just Do Travel

Tampa tour operator: Travel biz recovery moves beyond the ‘green shoots’ phase

The travel business has long been on standby. 

While much of Europe remains closed to U.S. travelers, Tampa-based tour company Exeter International has begun booking trips to Croatia and Montenegro, selling roughly five trips per week, its CEO Greg Tepper told the Tampa Bay Business Journal. That’s way down from the 20-a-day pace it should be selling, but it’s encouraging. 

“As a business owner, just to have money coming through the system is enormous.” It signals recovery is beyond a ‘green shoots’ phase and at a “solid trickle,” Tepper said. 

Exeter sells luxury, custom-tailored leisure trips based on personal interests, often heritage. It specializes in Eastern Europe but has units that service Latin America and the African safari business. It rarely interfaces with consumers. It primarily acts as a wholesale tour operator that designs tours for travel agents and their clients. 

Exeter formed almost accidentally. It is named for Phillips Exeter Academy, a New Hampshire boarding school where Tepper took Russian on a whim and became a Russian speaker. After a stint in banking, he got an international finance MBA and had jobs with Procter & Gamble and Noxzema. But he “threw it all out the window” and moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, when the travel business in Eastern Europe was fast evolving. Five-star hotels were opening, but legacy travel businesses were ignoring the trends, Tepper said.

“I came in with a message that you can travel at a level that hasn’t existed since the Russian Revolution,” he said.

The pandemic has devastated the industry. Exeter was not immune. It employed 21 people pre-pandemic. It dropped to 11 and now is back up to 13. Tepper said he’s learned to anticipate recession — and that had him more prepared for Covid than his peers. Many tour companies like his laid off 90 percent of their people and went into hibernation, he said of his observations of the competitive landscape. 

“I don’t know of anyone else who held onto so many people,” Tepper said. Exeter took two $200,000 rounds of Paycheck Protection Program help. He pumped in $300,000 of his own cash in the past year.

“I would never spend 27 years building something and let it go,” he said. “I’m very fiscally conservative, I carry no debt and I own my own office building.” 

Tepper has confidence the pent-up demand is high. 

“We just looked at it as a market share grab,” he said.