Interviews

Why outdoor mega-brand Fjällräven believes in this new adventure company

15 min read

04 February 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Alex Middleton was an office-bound Londonder dreaming of the outdoors when he co-founded Vespucci Adventures, a UK only adventure company. Fast forward a few years, and with a cash injection from Swedish mega-brand Fjällräven, Vespucci now leads a team of adventurers who are out there devising your next easy-to-reach trip. All hail the staycation!

Alex Middleton’s experience of living and working in London was similar to many others, he tells me as we grab a morning coffee near Bank station.

The hours were long, free-time was short, and his leisure time was more boozy than restorative. But then Middleton did something that made his story a little more extraordinary than most…

“I’ve always been a fan of exploration,” says Middleton, who brings his warm and friendly persona to a meeting held on this, the iciest of mornings.

“During my first job in London, I saved up as much money as I could to get away,” he says.

These saved funds would be used to fulfil Middleton’s lust for adventure travel. His frequent sojourns included everything from mountain cycle rides in Europe, to North African desert treks. But this adventure junkie lifestyle wasn’t sustainable for a young office worker with 24 days of holiday a year. So, what’s a guy to do?

The answer was to co-found a business that would offer city-weary customers self-navigated adventure trips near London. They would, Middleton dreamed, be curated by a  team of expert adventurers, complete with a breakdown of the best pubs, accommodation and activity options (including prices) along the way.

– So, that’s what he did. Here’s his story…

The influence

Vespucci Adventures co-founder Alex Middleton (pictured) has a passion for exploration.

“I remember sitting back and thinking about what I wanted out of my spare time, and seeing what my friends were doing,” says Middleton.

“They were trapped in this cycle of hard work, and hard play.” Thing is, when Middleton says ‘play’, the polite and endearing founder that he is, he really means the heavy drinking party lifestyle that most London based professionals under thirty pursue.

“What if there was a way for young professionals to get a taste of nature and exploration within striking distance of London in a way that didn’t use up their entire weekends? What if it was provided by a company with the expert low-down on where to go and how best to get there?”

“Those were the very questions I asked myself,” says Middleton.

The market

“Afterall I was starting this business idea based on what I wanted out of my free time, namely to go on a trip where all the details were laid out for me and easy to follow,” he says.

So how did Middleton identify his target market? The answer? He was the target market!

Finding inspiration in himself

These thoughts soon came into fruition when Middleton and friend Peter Bristowe founded Vespucci Adventures named in the honour of the intrepid Italian adventurer of old.

“There is was small but crucial space in the adventure market for what we wanted to do,” says Middleton.

“Whilst there are loads of epic adventure companies out there, they are guided, expensive and often for longer periods of time. We were looking at the twentysomething market who didn’t want the expense of a tour, yet wanted more freedom to discover things themselves, that’s the market we wanted to tap into and we did,” he continues.

Undercutting the bloated tour guides market

“Our model works because busy professionals need to find quick and easy options to practice self-care, furthermore, our ‘short-form’ trips are something the tour guide market simply can’t do,” says Middleton.

“They are reliant on leading longer trips to make their money and cover their overheads, including health and safety. We are a day or two max, and are self-navigated,” he adds.

Vespucci Adventures acquired a high-level sponsor early on in their journey.

The overworked Londonder

Think about the young professional market, they are busy, demanding and short of time.

Because they demand fast results from their urban lives, the same high standards should apply when they want to take a break from it, surely?

“That’s it exactly,” says Middleton.

Think about a twentysomething Londoner who wakes up one Sunday morning and thinks, ‘I want to do something healthy and wholesome today’. They find a location they want to explore, but then they have to do their research, what’s the best route or where are the best pubs along the way? Or even where can I hire a bike or even a boat? How much do they cost?”

“When you’ve been working all week, you don’t necessarily want to spend your weekend mapping out a leisure activity like that.”

“You google stuff like this and you don’t always get very far,” he continues.

“We cut through all that at Vespucci Adventures by providing customers with curated adventures, including a detailed route guide with pub, accommodation and activity recommendations, including prices. Further to this, the routes and recommendations are mapped out by our team who select the best routes by putting boots on the ground to find the best trips out there,” he says.

What do these adventures look like?

“We started with the impulse adventures. These are free downloadable trips within striking distance of London,” says Middleton.

“These include all the insider tips of what’s on offer in the local area,” he continues.

Being the sustainable explorer

“The trip starts from when the adventurer departs London,” says Middleton.

“We promote routes that include no driving options, so from the moment you get on your train out to the countryside, you know that you’re going to be walking the entire time and that no car is needed,” he continues.

They also offer ‘signature adventures’, where for a fee, customers get a bespoke explorer package in the post, “it includes an adventure kit, a compass, and all the details of the adventure you’ve been subscribed to,” says Middleton.

“We wanted to ensure that the customer’s adventure starts when they receive the package, placing them at the centre of their own exploration story,” he adds.

The locations

For Londoners not wanting to venture too far, Vespucci Adventures offers a self-guided walking and canoeing experience down the river Thames in the Berkshire countryside, (see the video above for a snapshot of the trip).

No more than half-an-hour from London Paddington, this walk takes you from Maidenhead station, down a charming Thames-side towpath, which leads you on a canoe ride downstream, (details of canoe providers and prices are also provided).

The trip takes you past Cliveden House (the pre-wedding pit-stop for Meghan Markle) and eventually to the charming town of Windsor.

“Only lasting half a day, and easy and cheap to get to from London, trips like our Thameside canoe ride show that you don’t have to venture hours away to have a really different kind of adventure experience.”

Other trips include a condensed walk of Hadrian’s wall in the north of England, to canoeing along the South-West’s Jurassic Coat, and even a trek along parts of the Isle of Wight.

But Middleton and team are impact minded as well as commercial. They are passionate about promoting ‘brand Britain’ by encouraging adventurers to cut down on their carbon footprint by exploring the beauties of nature closer to home. This is evidenced via their collaboration with local councils…

Boosting “brand Britain”

“We’re already working on projects with council bodies in Sussex,” says Middleton.

“The goal is to build relationships with rural councils around Britain, we’re both trying to do the same thing, namely encourage people to enjoy the countryside we all live near to,” he continues.

So who helped fund Vespucci Adventures, and their dreams of exploration? Only one of the biggest clothing and accessories brands right now,– purveyors of scandi-cool, Fjällräven.

Fjällräven believes in Vespucci Adventures

What many on-trend millennials (and younger) might not know about Fjällräven is that it started life as an outdoor clothing and equipment company before it became a quasi-fashion brand.

Over the last decade, its now iconic Kanken backpack has become the staple item of every stubble trimmed hipster, and owl-rimmed hipsteress. So what’s the story here between this mega brand and Vespucci Adventures?

A brand match

“Their UK MD, Ralph White, found out about us, and he thought that both our brands held very similar values. That’s why they wanted to become the sponsors of our impulse adventures” says Middleton.

“At Fjallraven we’re passionate about inspiring more people to get out and enjoy nature. What the team at Vespucci Adventures is doing offers a fantastic fit with our approach. Their idea is fresh, imaginative and easy to access”. – Ralph White, Fjallraven

“They gave us a cash injection during our first year of operation, and it seems that they’re happy with the relationship as they’ve renewed the funding for next year too,” Middleton continues.

Creating a new band of travellers

Vespucci’s resident explorer researcher Will Purkhardt surveys the scene.

“By getting customers through the door for free via our impulse adventures we’re trying to convert ordinary Londoners into adventurers, we’re building a community,” says Middleton.

So what’s the next year looking like for Vespucci Adventures and their band of travellers?

New pathways

“We’re getting a lot of interest from the corporate world,” says Middleton.

“Employers are starting to realise that they have to pay more than lip-service to their workforce in terms of promoting a culture of wellbeing at work,” he continues.

“Bosses are coming to the conclusion that team building exercises don’t sound all that appealing to employees. But going on an adventure where you see the best the countryside has to offer, whilst bonding with others at your own pace both socially and physically is definitely a better option.”

“We offer corporate groups tailor made adventure experiences, in this case, the trips are guided by our team of experts who have walked that route many times to find the best one,” he says.

The international market

“We’re also partnering up with City Apartments, (a company that provides serviced accommodation to financial professionals) to provide our adventure services to professionals who are in London for a say, six-week work stint,” says Middleton.

“Often, these people want to see a bit more of the UK while they’re here, and especially, to discover what lies beyond London,” he continues.

Creating new explorers

Co-founder Alex Middleton puts boots to the ground.

“We’re not trying to target the hardcore adventurer market,” says Middleton.

“They’re already covered, it’s customers who want more from their leisure time, but who aren’t athletes. Nor do they have bags of time to take off on a two-week trip to the Himalayas, they’re the ones who are our target market,” he says.

“We’re bringing the excitement of far-flung trips to them and within easy reach, we’re bringing that feeling home,” –  and just like that our meeting is over, and Middleton is off to a travel event next-door, ready to convert some more people into explorers…