The Interview: Bespoke Travel with Trufflepig
By Everett Potter
In the late 1990’s, I traveled through Morocco with Butterfield & Robinson, the Canadian biking and walking company. On this trip, I met an engaging young guide named Greg Sacks. Shortly thereafter, I met another bright, adventurous B&R guide named Charlie Scott. After they spent years taking well-heeled travelers around the world on myriad adventures, they left B&R to do their own thing. They called it Trufflepig and simply put, it’s custom travel taken to its logical conclusion: nothing is off the shelf, everything is meticulously planned, in destinations that would try the patience of Job. To get you jazzed, this Toronto-based company (with an outpost in Paris) has one of the most beautiful and understated travel websites I’ve ever seen. I sat down to chat with Charlie Scott at breakfast at New York’s Balthazar restaurant not long ago before he was off to parts unknown.
Everett Potter: Charlie, let’s start with obvious question: why do you call it Trufflepig?
Charlie Scott: It just seemed the perfect metaphor to explain what we do. A truffle pig is a passionate beast with an instinctive nose for finding precious things that are difficult to find. The pig leads the hunter deep into the woods, they sniff around, and figure out exactly where the hunter needs to dig in order to unearth a truffle (the fungal variety, not the chocolates) hidden deep in the dirt. We do the same thing. But instead of the forest, it’s an overload of options. And instead of a truffle, it’s a meaningful and memorable travel experience.
EP: Am I correct in saying that the origins of Truffle Pig lie in Butterfield & Robinson?
CS: Very much so. The three of us who started Trufflepig (Jack Dancy, Greg Sacks and myself) all cut our travel teeth at B&R. We guided, we researched, we trip planned, we took photos, we got completely and irreversibly hooked on exploring the world. It was a remarkable place to learn and a great place develop our own sense of travel. If you strip away the trips, the brochures, the bikes and walking sticks, B&R is simply an approach to travel. We share a similar spirit.
EP: How large is Trufflepig, the company? I get the sense that the “office” is virtual and that you’re all on your smart phones in two-seater aircraft on different continents, seeking remote spots for your clients.
CS: There are nine of us who work full time at Trufflepig–most on the ‘Farm’ (yes, we actually call it that) in Toronto, and a couple at our tiny outpost in Paris. And then there are a number of Pigs (independent guides, writers, photographers, and friends) in the field, who help us with our digging and delivery. All of us travel often (sometimes in small planes), keeping our research fresh and growing our relationships.
EP: How would you characterize the Trufflepig approach to adventure travel and how does it differ from the competition?
CS: Are you sure you want to get me started on this? Our approach is to genuinely know what we’re talking about, treat our clients like friends, and not shy away from having an opinion. When it comes to putting trips together, we select ingredients that have an extra measure of character and offer an extra shot of quality. While our trips tend to be somewhat to very high-end, we don’t choose hotels, restaurants, guides (or anything) on price. We pick the people and places that we personally like, and that we feel will deliver a true sense of the place. Sometimes those things cost a fortune, other times they don’t. I don’t feel I can fairly comment on the competition–it’s so hard to separate the steak from the sizzle.
EP: Is this strictly bespoke travel we’re talking about?
EP: Give me an example or two of trips you’ve done for Truffle Pig clients?
CS: Our trips are literally all over the map. Since every trip is made from scratch, we never quite know what’s going to happen when the phone rings. About this time last year, I got a call from a Scottish guy living in Germany. He wanted to take his family (including a 5-year old daughter) on a no-holds-barred trip around the world. Two months later they were on a plane to Hong Kong, and for the next six months we arranged every inch of their adventure–every hotel, every transfer, every everything. Because there was so much planning involved (they ended up visiting something like 18 countries), and they wanted to keep things flexible, the itinerary was rarely finalized more than a few weeks ahead. It was like fighting a forest fire. But they were incredibly game for anything and trusted us to make decisions. It was silky smooth and they had an amazing time. On another recent call, we had a client ask if we could arrange a mountain biking trip in Guatemala. He was supporting an archaeological dig of an ancient Maya city deep in the jungle and wanted to spend a couple of nights there with a dozen friends. There are no hotels in that neck of the woods so we built them a luxury tented camp, with proper beds, private toilets and solar showers (in their tents). We had the canvas safari tents custom-made in New Hampshire, scouted new bike routes by helicopter, found a shaman to conduct rituals in the jungle, and basically went half-mad trying to pull it off. But we did. These are two extreme examples of what we’ve done. The reality is that most of our trips are 1-3 week journeys for regular people looking for a smart itinerary with a thoughtful, creative twist.
EP: You’ve been in this business for some time. How do you see adventure travel changing, in an increasingly frenetic world dealing with recession worries and lack of free time?
CS: I guided my first trip in 1994. In those days – did I just say that? — scheduled departure, group trips were the norm for tour operators. People weren’t really thinking of custom trips as an option. But now, everyone wants their trip, their way, on their dates. Why wouldn’t you? The world is only going to become more bespoke, and I suspect travel companies and everyone else will get better and more efficient at delivering in this way. In turn, that’ll make things more affordable and time-efficient for travelers–just as we find out we have and even less time.
EP: Any new destinations for Truffle Pig this coming year?
CS: Always. We’ve got some research planned for Israel, Syria and Zambia. And I’ve just stated working on a ridiculously uncivilized winter trip in the Yukon.
EP: What places remain on your personal travel wish list?
CS: Don’t laugh. Chicago — I know, it’s borderline fraud. And Newfoundland, Argentina, and Myanmar.
EP: When you’re not working, where do you find your center of gravity?
CS: Neck deep in antique markets. The scruffier the better.