The Interview: Mike Fitzgerald Jr of Frontiers
Interview by Everett Potter
Long before the internet existed, before adventure travel and bespoke travel was the rage, there was Frontiers. It was a company that took well-heeled “sports” fishing and hunting around the world. Even if you weren’t much of a fly fishermen and had no interest in picking up a gun, their catalogs were gateways to exotic locales like Christmas Island off the coast of Australia or a remote estancias in Patagonia. Frontiers is still going strong and seems to exist somewhere between the big game world of a century ago and today’s top adventure travel outfitters. Give them credit, they’ve had some practice. I recently had a chance to talk with Mike Fitzgerald Jr, president of Frontiers.
Everett Potter: Mike I can remember getting Frontiers print catalog for years, long before the web. How did the company begin?
Mike Fitzgerald: My parents started Frontiers in 1969. My father was a dentist and my mother was a former flight attendant and a third grade school teacher. They loved to travel and thoroughly enjoyed the outdoors. There were very few firms in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s specializing in adventure travel. Their timing was perfect. My father was leaving the US Public Health Service and they thought they’d try something new together prior to Dad starting a private dental practice.
EP: So you grew up in an exciting world?
MF: I did indeed, as did my sister, Mollie. We were 5 and 7 years old respectively when my folks started the company. Many evenings Mollie and I would help my parents clean the office and stuff mass mailings to our then very small mailing list. We had the opportunity to travel from a very young age, which solidified our passion for travel and the outdoors. It gave us a great education in local cultures and we saw the unique flora and fauna available worldwide. We worked for the company part-time throughout high school and college. I also worked as a fly fishing guide on the Chalk Streams in England for a summer after my sophomore year. We both went to Duke University and came to Frontiers full time upon graduating 25 years ago.
EP: Who does Frontiers appeal to in 2011– primarily fishermen?
MF: We are a full service travel company that specializes in light-tackle fishing – primarily fly fishing — quality bird shooting, wildlife photographic safaris and customized luxury travel that we refer to as “Elegant Journeys.” About 50% of our business is fishing.
EP: Fly fishing seems even cooler than it did back in the early 1980’s, when I first remember seeing your catalogs. Have you watched the sport grow in popularity?
MF: We saw dramatic growth in the sport through the 80’s and 90’s. Not only did interest in the sport grow, but so did the demand for traveling with fly rods. At the same time, the equipment became more and more sophisticated – allowing anglers to pursue a myriad of species once hardly considered possible to catch with a fly. I was on the Board of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association for six years. Growth in the sport has slowed, but we still feel there is a very bright future for fly fishing. As the Baby Boomers head into their retirement years, we are seeing a lot of folks wanting to reconnect with the outdoors. Fly fishing is a logical activity to pursue. We are also witnessing a hip, younger generation of fly fishers emerging, which is exciting. Some of them are taking the sport to its extremes. It’s not too dissimilar to what has happened with skiing. As our culture becomes more environmentally aware, our resources are also being protected through diligent work by the conservation groups and the policy of catch and release. These efforts should preserve places for us to fish for generations to come.
EP: Hunting, on the other hand, seems as divisive as it ever did – you either don’t like or you’re a devotee, more dedicated to the sport than ever. How popular is it these days?
MF: From our perspective, hunting did not have the growth dynamics we experienced in fly fishing. In fact, most studies show the numbers declining substantially since the mid-90’s. Nonetheless, it’s still an important part of our business and accounts for 20 to 30 percent of our sales annually. We also see quite a large interest cross-over between our fly fishing and hunting clientele – particularly bird shooting. Many of our clients participate in both sports. We continue to have many outstanding hunting opportunities around the globe and these resources are also managed carefully, again ensuring a quality game population for the future. Our biggest concern is that these outdoor traditions are not being passed along to the younger generation. It’s incumbent for all of us who enjoy shooting and fishing to get kids outside interested and engaged in these sports.
EP: Since I’m a fly fisherman and like to dream of exotic waters, tell me about some of the more popular places that Frontiers can take me these days.
MF: Since fly fishing is our core business, our offerings run the gamut from trout fishing right here in our home state of Pennsylvania to exotic locales far abroad. Some of our long-time favorites that Frontiers pioneered many years ago continue to fish as good as or even better than ever before, including places like Christmas Island in the Central Pacific for bonefish; Atlantic salmon fishing on the Ponoi River on Russia’s Kola Peninsula; trout fishing on the mountain streams of Patagonia in Argentina/Chile; and off-shore fly fishing for billfish on the West Coast of Central America in Costa Rica, Panama and Guatemala. In addition to these “tried and true” classics, we have some exciting new programs that have emerged in recent seasons like freshwater dorado fishing in Bolivia, new saltwater flats and reef options in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, peacock bass and other species found in the Brazilian Amazon and trout fishing in the Julian Alps of Slovenia.
EP: What is a Frontiers fishing trip like – how many sports, how many guides, and what’s the accommodation like?
MF: As a full-service travel agency, one of the advantages of working with Frontiers is that we can handle all aspects of the trip, including the airline transportation, hotel overnights as required en route, ground transfers, the core fishing expedition and, of course, any itinerary extensions that a client might want to plan. Most of the fishing lodges we represent accommodate between 8 and 16 guests. There are some larger and a few smaller operations as well. Most of the guiding is based on one guide per two anglers. Single guides and single occupancy accommodations are also available at most locales on request. When we evaluate a destination or resource, we try to align ourselves with the outfitter/lodge that not only offers the best fishing in terms of access, guides and equipment/boats, but also with the operator that offers the very best accommodations, cuisine and service available in that particular region. We want our customers well looked after with their comfort and safety as primary objectives. That’s every bit as important as the fishing quality. Not all of our lodges can be described as ultra deluxe, but chances are that they are the best in that area.
EP: You’ve been involved with Frontiers for years. What sorts of changes have you seen in the travelers you bring around the globe?
MF: The market has indeed changed over the years. Through the Internet, we all have the world at our fingertips. I would say that the typical client calling us today is better educated as to his/her travel options. They have done their research and have their choices narrowed down before calling Frontiers. This has actually helped speed up our sales process, but it’s more important than ever for our staff to have unparalleled destination knowledge because it is clear that the clients are shopping around more than in the past. This trend has also forced us to change how we market. We still rely on direct mail, but it has gone from the only leg of our marketing stool to one of four or five. Obviously, electronic marketing tools (including a great website) are essential. Word of mouth referrals is still our biggest source of new travelers, but the Internet is quickly gaining ground and has surpassed all other traditional marketing initiatives such as print advertising and trade shows. The recent economic downturn has also changed the market a bit. In the last 24 months, we have seen unprecedented deals and specials being offered. There are some terrific savings and incentives out there, which make the whole experience even more affordable. Lately we have also noticed a trend where a number of our clients are looking for more family-friendly programs where some members of the family can still have a quality fishing or hunting experience, but there is also plenty to do for the non-sporting enthusiast.
EP: Tell me about the Elegant Journeys part of Frontiers. Is this aimed at sportsmen as well?
MF: Our Elegant Journeys Department emerged from our sporting programs and recently has been the fastest growing segment of our company. Many of our fishing and shooting trips encompass significant non-sporting travel arrangements. For example, a couple might travel to New Zealand for a trout fishing trip; but only want five or six days out of the fourteen actually on the water. We became very involved in researching alternate itinerary options for clients wanting to fill the rest of their trip. For the New Zealand example, options might include wine excursions, hiking the Milford Track, cruising Doubtful Sound, taking a garden tour in Christchurch, golf at Cape Kidnappers, general sightseeing, etc. Today, Elegant Journeys is a stand alone department that has received national and international accolades. Our folks there work very closely with our staff handling sporting programs since a number of our trips have elements of both in each itinerary. We have some really unique experiences across Elegant Journeys realms, ranging from photographic safaris to Africa, the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica to cultural tours in the Far East to golf trips in Ireland and Scotland. If you want to hike the Inca Trail, climb Kilimanjaro or whale watch in the Sea or Cortez, Frontiers is wonderfully capable of making these dreams a reality.
EP: OK, so let’s finish with three of your favorite places on earth, places where you’d gladly drop everything, grab a few favorite travel rods, and go this afternoon?
MF: Wow, only three fishing options? That’s tough. Ok, New Zealand. I love trophy trout fishing and the fact that so much of their angling Down Under is sight fishing to these monsters in crystal clear water, makes the experience amazing. Combine the trout resource with a clean, green, beautiful country with super nice people, great accommodations, fine wine and remarkable cuisine, and I just do not see how a fishing experience can get much better.
The second would be the Yucatan Peninsula.: Saltwater flats fishing is a passion, and after the long, gray, cold, wet winter we have had in western Pennsylvania, the thought of sand, flip flops and hard fighting game-fish is very appealing. This area of the western Caribbean is protected by the second largest barrier reef in the world and has wonderful resources for a wide range of species. While there are lots of places for bigger bonefish, I love the variety, giving me the opportunity to chase bones, tarpon, permit, snook and others all from the same lodge in shallow turquoise waters. With lots of flights to Cancun and Belize City from the US, the Yucatan is easy to access and the price is right. Plus, there’s diving and a myriad of other water sports, all of which I also enjoy. Did I mention the weather?
Finally, Iceland. Atlantic salmon angling is one of the most traditional forms of fly fishing with lots of history and lore. This treeless volcanic island in the North Atlantic is very special. Iceland is home to a number of world renowned Atlantic salmon rivers, and it’s where I learned to truly respect salmon fishing and the traditions surrounding the sport. I made many fishing trips there with my father and grandfather through my teenage years. Most of my fondest angling memories are from those trips. Not many kids have the opportunity to spend time with both their father and grandfather together in such a wonderful place. I miss the country, the people and the amazing rivers. And I would jump at the opportunity to hop on a plane to Reykjavik.
For more information, contact Frontiers