Podcast: Chris Thompson | Audley Travel
What do you do if you’ve got a great degree, stacks of quality volunteer and intern experience in nature conservation but then spend over six months applying for jobs without a single interview?
Having left university, this is what faced our guest today, Chris Thompson. He decided to try a different approach and one which resulted in multiple interviews and job offers within a couple of weeks. Amazing.
Chris combined his passions for wildlife and travel and focused on the often-overlooked ecotourism sector. He now works happily at Audley Travel.
In this podcast Chris talks about his job hunt, what it’s like to work in the ecotourism or responsible tourism sector, and provides some great advice for finding ecotourism jobs.
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CHRIS: I’m Chris Thompson, I’m now currently at Audley Travel which is a fairly large tailor-made tour operator based in the UK, I specifically work for them now as Africa consultant but primarily as a specialist for South Africa and Madagascar, and I suppose my day-to-day basis on a result of that is preparing tailor-made holidays for people to visit those destinations.
NICK: Let’s talk about where your passion for wildlife and travel came from. You’re obviously really passionate about that, we spent time together in the past you know, having fun in exotic locations like Fiji but where did your early passion start?
CHRIS: I suppose it really started when I was a young kid. I’ve always grown up and lived in the countryside, I used to go to quite a lot of the local nature reserves, my grandfather was very, very keen particularly birdlife but also wildlife in general and when he was going he would drag me along as well so I got… I had a sort of an early introduction to wildlife and of course growing up in the countryside, we’d often have fantastic wildlife just in the garden and the surrounding areas. And it’s sort of something that continued all the way through my younger years and as I was sort of growing up as well. Prior to going to uni I was always going to take a gap year, I wanted to do something a bit different, didn’t want to do the usual what quite a lot of people seem to do in south east Asia sort of backpacking tour and I decided with the wildlife side of things that I enjoy that I’d rather do something linked to that and that’s why I went down the route of doing my safari guiding qualifications in South Africa, so I spent three months out there gaining those qualifications.
NICK: And what did that entail, Chris? Tell us a bit more about that. This is before you went to uni, right? So you spent three months doing guide training.
CHRIS: Exactly, so that was very much part classroom-based. So in South Africa there’s a qualification called the FGASA qualification and they have many, many different levels but I did the introductory level 1, because of my education background I was able to do an accelerated course, which is more intense as well as part classroom-based, part field-based in that regard so it’s very much learning a lot about local wildlife but as well as local wildlife there’s a lot of botany in there, there’s learning about sort of weather systems, geography, geology, being able to get a keener understanding of what the bush is like and how to read it as well as also learning people skills as well, very much learning how to interact with guests and having an appreciation and making sure that they get the best from their time out there. So I suppose that was sort of most of it, and so the qualification took about a month, a month and a half and I spent another month to a month and a half working in that industry sort of part-time also doing anti-poaching, because we were based on a concession, doing concession management so all sorts of things ranging from making sure anti-poaching was carrying on, fence lines were being repaired and things like that against the poaching element, just looking after the lodge, a variety of things really.
NICK: Did you do that course and have that experience as part of kind of working towards a particular career, or were you just exploring something that you enjoyed doing?
CHRIS: It’s probably more the latter, it was something I thought that it would be useful to have a skill but at the same time I did it knowing that I would very much enjoy it and it would be a relatively unique experience and satisfy my interest in wildlife and spending a lot of time in doing something I knew that I would enjoy, while at the same time I suppose having an additional qualification is never a bad thing from a CV perspective, and it did teach me relatively unique skillsets from sort of dealing with the general public and that side of things, being able to quickly develop and build rapport with people is a fairly important skillset when you are dealing with paying guests on a daily basis, to then… it led into sort of doing lodge management work in Zambia as well, I suppose it’s slightly different but similar sort of theme of customer services while in a slightly nicer setting; your average one being in the bush every day is obviously quite an attractive point for that.
NICK: So that was a big part of your gap year, building up that early experience, what did you go on to study and focus on at uni?
CHRIS: So I then went to Edinburgh, I went in on a sort of… you could enter in on a biosciences course which could then be specialised further down the line. I suppose if I’m being honest I went in with the view to probably go down the zoology route, to stay within that wildlife sector. A whole combination of factors along the way, sort of personal interests, general advice from a career perspective, I ended up going more down the biomedical route. It was something I suppose that took my interest quite a lot along the way, and the actual skillsets picked up doing that degree were probably more valid for a wider range of potential career opportunities coming out of that, so it was very much a view to try and broaden the horizons as well and keep as many options open as possible but throughout my time at uni I was doing voluntary work in the conservation sector, obviously when I met yourself in Fiji with Birdlife and then local nature reserves closer to myself as well, so trying to keep the foot in the door I suppose and sort of explore those avenues while still keeping options open at the other end by keeping something fairly general from a degree perspective with quite a broad skillset, I think anything science-based, because of the intensity of what you do, does tend to work out quite favourably from a career perspective.
NICK: So you were keeping your options open with the course that you chose, focusing on areas that you found particularly interesting and then outside of the course you were picking up some really good volunteering experience within wildlife conservation, you mentioned Birdlife in Fiji where we worked together for a while, Birdlife in Cambridge also came to follow as well, didn’t it? Did you do any other volunteering as well that you want to touch base on as well?
CHRIS: It was only sort of part-time stuff for example during summer breaks, when I wasn’t travelling I was doing stuff at a couple of local RSPB nature reserves in Hertfordshire, but nothing on a formal basis to the extent that, similar to the Birdlife stuff that I had done, but yeah, they were probably the biggest projects. Previously I had done stuff in that sector, but that was actually while I was still at school I suppose. I think it was with the University of Kent, I ran a project in South America in the Amazon doing wildlife surveys that I did for three weeks, and I suppose that’s the only other travel-related and also conservation-related stuff that I’d done.
NICK: And then coming out of university, finishing your degree, what was your career goal, if you like? You know, what was the job or the jobs that you were seeking to secure?
CHRIS: Coming out obviously with the affiliation that I had with Birdlife and I ended up going to the World Congress, which you’ll probably remember as well, over also in Canada so met quite a lot of people in the sector and that had encouraged me to certainly start by trying to go down that route. Did the six months voluntary stint at the Cambridge offices of Birdlife which was great fun, worked on quite a variety of projects during that time and all that time I was trying to apply within the sector for a variety of different positions really, anything from the more outdoorsy, sort of I suppose almost like warden positions on nature reserves, probably more in line with what I’d done in Africa, particularly from the guiding perspective and just that general outdoors and working outdoors a lot, right up to even going into the sort of… the more ecologist role within environmental consultancy firms as well, so quite a broad range of things. And I suppose in the middle was the more sort of general conservation within organisations such as Birdlife or the RSPB or anything like that that probably sits in the middle of those two extremes, I suppose. Unfortunately didn’t make a huge amount of progress in that sector, the consistent feedback I got was, you have loads of experience but you don’t have masters or a PhD, we only really interview people with masters or PhDs was broadly speaking the response I got and the sort of junior positions they said, oh you could potentially apply for this but it’s very competitive, were… they didn’t really take my fancy, I felt not necessarily over-qualified to do them but I felt that I could offer more than what I would have been doing in those situations, so they didn’t really appeal as much. So I felt like I was at a little bit of a dead end from that perspective.
NICK: Yeah. And how many applications would you say you put in over that six month period and what was the response rate in terms of interviews, or something like that?
CHRIS: You know, across six months I probably tried to do at least two or three applications a week, so it certainly would have been often more than that, so certainly more than 50, potentially as many as 100. Probably got responses from two thirds of those, maybe half, some literally no response at all. And then the majority of the responses were just no because you don’t have a masters or a PhD, won’t even do a phone interview. I had a couple of phone conversations but not interviews, it was more just to sort of follow up on the enquiry, and those seemed to be fairly short and again, sort of not enough of what we want from an experience and qualification perspective. So a little bit of a dead end unfortunately from that perspective. Now potentially that’s because I didn’t have the right advice or I wasn’t 100% sure what I was looking at, but it was a fairly broad approach so you’d hope that something might have fitted along the way. It didn’t go particularly far, I did consider doing medicine post-grad but if I’m honest… but then didn’t really want to spend another four or five years at uni, which was part of the reason why I wasn’t overly enamoured with trying to go and do a masters or a PhD, partly because of the cost of doing that these days, and also I’d done four years at uni, I wanted to get stuck into something. I had a chat with family, friends, thought about the sort of things that I’d enjoyed and someone suggested, oh have you thought about doing anything travel-related? You have travelled a lot, you’ve worked abroad quite a lot, you’re naturally pretty good with people, which is an important skill within the tourism sector and so thought, why not try going down that route, explored a few options, spoke to a few people, had a look around, and the more I read about the sector, the more I sort of thought well actually the skillset I have just from the degree, you don’t necessarily have to have anything specific but just being very, very literate, good at reading, good at maths, good English, being able to communicate with people is a big skill and being fairly driven I suppose, it was a big part of it and the big one obviously of having a passion for travel and enjoying other parts of the world and thought I had enough to certainly have a go at it, and fruitful within sort of… started sort of applying a few weeks after the beginning of the new year and within two or three weeks I’d spoken to quite a few companies and before I reached Audley, which is where I’m at now, I had a phone call, off the back of the phone call sent a CV, had a phone call two days later saying I’d have a phone interview within the week, had the phone interview and within a week of that had a face-to-face interview and within a week of that was offered the job. So it all changed pretty quickly, to be honest, from nothing to having a job offer within three weeks.
NICK: It’s black and white, isn’t it, really?
CHRIS: Yeah, very contrasting. And the big thing was actually I didn’t do anywhere near the sort of levels of applications, I probably only did 10? A few of them to companies, a lot of companies within the sector will say, if you think you’re suitable but we don’t currently have a position opening, please send us a CV anyway so I done that for a couple of companies and had responses just saying, we’ll keep you on the books, you look perfect but we don’t actually have an opportunity at the moment, and when I had a few conversations off the back of that with people but then there were obviously a few that were actively recruiting such as Audley as well as a few other companies, Nature Trek was one of them as well, and that was where I’d made more progress, Audley was pretty quick to turn around but I had a response from every single person.
NICK: And you’ve been at Audley for what, four, four and a half years? What’s Audley like as a company and what’s your role within the organisation?
CHRIS: Audley’s, I’ve been there for… yeah, it’ll be five years in March. Probably one of the more experienced members of our team now which is quite nice. The company’s pretty broad-reaching, do trips all over the world, personally I just work within the Africa sector, primarily, well only really doing trips for South Africa and Madagascar. Within the different teams, people do have different roles so there are specialists such as myself. We are I suppose the client-facing people, we’re the people that deal with people on a day-to-day basis, talking to people about the sort of holidays they’re looking for and creating those trips for people. There are product people, and those are the people that work with us to make sure that we have the right hotels to use, the best properties, the best excursions and the best tours, so they’ll deal with our suppliers as well as obviously fairly regularly speaking with ourselves to make sure we’ve got what we need. There’s also management positions within the teams as well ranging from team managers, so I’m part of a small team of 8 people within a much larger Africa team of sort of 60-odd people, so we have my own personal team manager who sort of looks after us on a day-to-day basis and there’s an Africa manager within my office and we also have an office within London as well, so there’s an Africa team over there as well. And then we as Africa are part of a larger team which is Hidden Beaches in Africa, and Hidden Beaches do beach trips all over the world, and then we have an overall programme manager at the top of that. So there’s sort of regional management structure and then of course as with any big company there’s marketing departments, IT, all sorts really so it’s pretty broad-ranging. I suppose the specialist positions are the ones that come with a lot of the perks, so I get one work trip a year, normally always to the destinations that I specialise in, so at the moment South Africa, Madagascar but that could be expanded, people do regularly get new countries to add to based on people feel they’re performing, and sort of could take on the workload of another country as well. So I get those, which is an obvious perk. As an office to be in, it’s a great company to work for, I think we’re regularly being in The Times top 100 if not The Times top 50 for medium-sized companies to work for in the UK, we do get looked after very well. There’s always good social events, good parties, generally feel like we’re pretty well listened to, from a work satisfaction perspective and you do feel it’s quite nice. Although the company’s grown, it’s still maintained a certain element of a small company feel, so yeah it’s good fun, we have all sorts of sports teams, so I run the cricket club, or have done for the last few years, someone is taking over that from next year, I’ve done my stint. And company sort of social events as well, so it’s really, really good fun.
NICK: It sounds great and it says a lot that you’re still there after five years and still singing their praises too. For someone that doesn’t have the experience that you have in the industry, you know, what does a typical week look like and what are your core responsibilities, you know, what is it you’re doing most of the time with regards to your role?
CHRIS: It does change slightly as you progress, even though I’m still in the same position technically, I suppose the core of my day-to-day job is the client-facing perspective, so we… people will enquire with us about trips around the world and depending on the countries they want to go to, they will be passed on to a relevant specialist, so obviously I spend quite a lot of time on the phone with people, that is the majority of it, a lot of it is telephone-based, speaking to people. It is a desk-based job, there’s no doubt about that, we have IT systems that we use to build the trips so I spend either time doing that or speaking to people, it’s probably the majority of it. As I’ve become more senior, I do take on a lot of mentoring roles, I do product training for new starters, help new people to get up to the role, whether that’s sales training, because it is a sales job at the end of the day as well, we are target-based and… not that they’re overly-strenuous targets but there are targets to adhere to and you are incentivised to hit those targets, but at the end of the day you’re also a big incentive, I think because of the way we run, we are service-based, and so you are incentivised based on the service you provide and the feedback you get from your clients as well, because that’s what we pride ourselves on and what we’ve got our reputation for is that service, so there’s that element too. But yeah, I suppose primarily that’s what I do on a day-to-day basis, which is why people skills is a pretty important skillset to have. Certainly having an affinity and being comfortable to chat to anyone from any sort of background or anything like that and being able to build a rapport quickly is a very advantageous skillset to have, without a doubt.
NICK: I guess that leads into my next question, which is what are the types of people you’re looking to attract into the industry, even if there aren’t roles available, you often welcome a CV or a chat with someone who might be looking for a job. What would be a gold standard application, if it came across your desk?
CHRIS: First and foremost, people… you have to be passionate about travel. Certainly I know that if I was chatting to someone about a trip, I would want them to be really passionate about the destination they’re talking about and have confidence that they know what they’re talking about. Of course if you’ve worked or have any form of experience in industry before, it’s certainly key, whether that’s having travelled to a destination or even having travelled with a specialist company, so you know their approach. Having experience in the destination that you feel that you would be able to be a specialist in, so obviously for me it might be a natural… the natural choice was to cover Africa because that’s where I did have my most experience but equally, someone might have travelled more in south east Asia or in the States or anything like that. And to give an example, we are just about to expand in, or just about to start doing Europe with Italy for the UK markets and having travelled within the country that you are looking to specialise in is often a key part of it. There’s no doubt about that. Previous sales experience is always very useful, as I said it is a sales job. If you don’t have that, an understanding of what that entails, so whether that’s targets or an understanding of sort of the language to use, appreciation of how the numbers work and all of that lot, whether that’s talking about profits or margins or anything like that. Those sort of things, I had absolutely no sales experience before I joined, it was something I thought I could do because I thought I could talk to people and that’s why Audley and I suppose the sector works quite nicely, because it’s not overly salesy, it is more about helping people get to what… get what they want and actually providing a service so I suppose it’s sales through service rather than sales, it’s probably a better description of it. Having an appreciation of a sales job is certainly key. I did a lot of reading around that before I applied, just because I knew I would be asked about it. So having an understanding about it was a big one as well. Those are probably the key points, I’d say.
NICK: And if there are people listening to this thinking, actually what Chris is doing sounds absolutely fantastic, you know, I’d love to follow in his footsteps, you know, what should they bear in mind, you know, what would be the next steps for them if they wanted to follow on behind you?
CHRIS: Certainly do some research, I mean I know our website has… do many… I mean we’re always advertising for new staff, we’re growing at quite a rate, we have, as I said we have offices both in London and in Whitney, where I’m based, which is near Oxford in the Cotswolds. So two different options, really. Have a read of the website, there’s lots of more detailed descriptions of those roles, not just sales but that could be management roles or marketing roles or anything like that, which are obviously less sales-based, you might say well actually I’ve done a lot of stuff in travel but maybe I’ve done more sort of representing for a conservation charity or something like that, that could also be applicable from a marketing perspective. So those sorts of things, have a read around. Also at the end of the day, pick up the phone. That was the big thing for me, I think that was the one biggest difference I noticed was that when I looked to go into the sector, I was able to pick up the phone and speak to an HR team, and if the skillsets I had were right and what I was interested in, rather than, there’s a… I think I got sucked into the sort of the danger of trawling through loads and loads of websites and loads and loads of online things, I used a couple which I found were quite useful and I ended up just using those but actually, at the end of the day, I think just picking up the phone and speaking to someone is very under-valued and very underrated and a lot of people don’t do that these days. And that for me was where I had my most success, just chatting to people and getting an appreciation for what it is they’re looking for and it may well be that off the back of that you realise, ok I’ll go and spend three months doing this. I’ve got a good friend that applied, got a face-to-face interview with a very similar background to myself, and then ended up not getting a position because they didn’t feel they could do the sales side of things, they went away and did a sort of three–month stint working in a… I can’t remember exactly what they did but it was more sales-related then came back and reapplied three months later and got a position, so if you’re really not sure, just call and ask and pick up a phone, because people are more than happy to hear from people.
NICK: That’s really reassuring, and I think not enough people do that actually nowadays, as you say it’s quite easy to sort of hide behind an email or you know behind a computer and not actually start to build that thing you’ve mentioned a few times actually, which is rapport. You know, and sort of by talking to people on the phone you become a real person and you can start to have a meaningful discussion and a relationship with them so that’s a really good piece of advice there. Thanks Chris.
CHRIS: If I hadn’t made the phone call to Audley and spoken to the HR person and got a direct email contact there, rather than just filling in the online application form, I wouldn’t have got the job because my CV wouldn’t have necessarily stood out from the crowd. There are so many people that are looking for jobs these days and it wouldn’t have stood out but because obviously I had that direct person that I could refer to the conversation, straightaway I was one step ahead and I think that’s the big difference.
NICK: Absolutely. And I think that’s good advice no matter what work area you’re actually looking to explore but certainly in the area you’re in, it’s very public-facing, it sort of shows that you can do the role, actually you can pick the phone up and start having a useful discussion with someone. Chris, thanks so much for your time, it’s been really nice to kind of catch up a little bit, to chat and to hear about where you are right now and how you got there. If people wanted to find out a little bit more about Audley Travel, where should they go?
CHRIS: First and foremost, I’d definitely say just to go to the website. We do have a very, very comprehensive website including a careers page on that, and there’s all sorts of contact information there. I’d certainly recommend picking up the phone, whether that’s speaking to anyone in the team really, you’d come through to the sales team but certainly have a chat with the HR guys, they’re brilliant, really, really friendly, always looking for people with different skillsets as well, that’s the one thing I would say. While a lot of us at Audley have a lot of things in common, primarily passion for the destinations that we cover, we are all very different and I think that’s one thing that is quite nice is that, even within my own direct team of 8 people, we’re all very different and we all work very differently. Yes we have the same end goal but we all come about it from a different perspective, and so not everyone has to be the same, you don’t have to have the same skillsets, and sometimes something a little bit different can make you stand out and really help.
NICK: And we’ll put links in the show notes as well so that people can just click straight through to Audley and the careers page and find out more that way. Chris, really nice to chat again, thanks again for your time. Keep enjoying your career and I look forward to seeing where you go in the future.
CHRIS: Thank you very much, Nick.
NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.