The Business of Wanderlust – The story of John Anderson, Founder of Contiki Holidays {Part 1}

Posted on January 22, 2013




[mass noun]

  • a strong desire to travel:a man consumed by wanderlust

John Anderson Contiki

John Anderson took a particular liking towards Geography when he was in school. The maps tantalized him, called out to him. Little did he know, that many years later he would change the way people travel world over, making young travelers’ dreams to traverse across countries a reality, at a cost, that was unheard-of before.

When I first heard John speak at a conference, I was spellbound. He spoke about his life-story with tremendous fervour and passion, clearly a life well-lived. He talked about the genesis behind Contiki Holidays, an inspiring concoction of wanderlust, entrepreneurism and brilliant marketing. He talked about Contiki’s growth, the organisational challenges of scaling, the myriad complexities of currency, the numerous love stories and beautiful memories that made the journey worthwhile.

I want to learn more about this inspiring man, I told myself. I wanted to hear more about his journey of life. The power of the internet is sometimes mesmerising. I cold-emailed John, requesting him for a conversation, inviting him for an interview. And as luck would have it, in a couple of days, he gladly obliged.

The conversation that followed was a potent mix of entreprenuership, adventure, passion, travel that transcended over several decades. A truly inspiring life story, one that should be told and must be told! Grab a cuppa and read on, you never know this is a conversation that might change your life for good!

The Business of Wanderlust – The story of John Anderson, Founder – Contiki Holidays {Part 1}

Me : John, lets start from the start, your childhood. What is a memory from back then that you really cherish even today?

John : Well, I suppose I do not know when childhood really finishes off. Does it ever? ( Laughs) But I do recall that my parents separated when I was 5 and I did not see my father again until I was 8. I was very young then and reuniting with my father was a special event that still stands out in my mind. He went overseas thereafter and I met him much later in life when I went to London.

Me : That is pretty special! London is it where it all started, isn’t it? But before we get to that part of the story, I want to ask you this – As someone who redefined the way young people holidayed in the sixties and seventies, how and when did you yourself get the travel bug?

John : I have always been very keen on Geography in school, I don’t know what they call it today ( laughs ) and I have always been fascinated with various parts of the world, the different people and cultures, their history, the small nuances and in my teens I constantly met older people who had already been overseas and they used to come back with these amazing tales. I developed a deep desire to do it myself one day, sooner rather than later. The inhibiting factors to this was that in those days you needed to have a career which people understood ( both laugh) and of-course you needed to have money. So I went for a career first and started saving money so that I could make my dream a reality. I finally saved enough and started traveling when I was twenty-three years old. Mind you, twenty-three was very young those days, and in the sixties, it was very unusual for someone to go overseas at that age. It would be the equivalent to a sixteen year old of today.

Me : I can relate to that deeply. I became a mother very young and I have never done the travel but when you are young thing, but when I was still in my teens, I kept hearing these stories of people’s experiences and the travel bug bites you hard then. It is truly wonderful that you gave wings to your dream and defied conventions.

John : It’s never too late. Moreover, It was worth it (Smiles).

Me : Right! Lets get to the summer of 1962 then. You are twenty three. You were in London. Is that right John?

John : Absolutely! I arrived in London having traveled the East (Europe) a bit already with just twenty-five pounds in my pocket. Twenty Five dollars would be equivalent to five hundred US dollars today. Simply put, I was broke. But I had to find a way to see Europe in all its grandeur. That is when I had this idea – if I could put together a group of other young travelers, who would share accommodation and travel costs and cook their own meals – we could all probably travel at a very reasonable cost. So I put together an itinerary and advertised the tour, and I got eleven people to join me!At that stage, I had no money, no bus, no other passengers, and once I had one passenger booked, two more followed, and in no-time, I had eleven!

At that stage, I had no money, no bus, no other passengers, and once I had one passenger booked, two more followed, and in no-time, I had eleven!

Me : You did that little plug of ‘only two seats’ left to promote it a little bit, didn’t you? That was marketing genius!

John : (Laughs) Yes, I put this tour together and I gave the impression that that it was close to being fully booked with only two seats left. It’s amazing, and I have learnt this through various experiences in my life, if you make something hard for people to get, they often go on to wanting it really badly. I created this artificial scarcity, and advertised it nicely – There were only two seats left. Reading that note, someone came and asked – ‘Can I have one of the last seats please?’ This was a girl from Adelaide and I convinced her to book on the tour. At that stage, I had no money, no bus, no other passengers, and once I had one passenger booked, two more followed, and in no-time, I had eleven!

Me : This is just fascinating. This is the part where I heard you at the conference and thought , boy, this is an example of such pure hustle and ingenious marketing. In today’s day and age, we call such events going viral !

John : Oh yeah ! ( Smiles )

Me : John, there is a story amongst one of those first tours – and I remember you mentioning this as well elsewhere – you thought there wouldn’t be any money left, or enough money left to get the travel party to Spain, which was the next destination. So you decided to take a calculated risk there, didn’t you?

John : Yes, it was the second tour in the first year. I took one tour around, and then I took another, but on the second tour, I was close to running out of money ten days before the trip was supposed to end. I had to find a way around it. That is when I decided to try my luck at a local casino!  Of-course, the story had a happy ending, I had just about enough money to get my passengers back to London, but with my casino earnings, I made it sure the trip would be completed in its entirety. It is wonderful story and looks double interesting in hindsight ! I always recommend people to give things a try ( not necessarily at a casino though, ha ), if you do not, you will never know. If I had lost at the casino, I would have had to tell everybody and maybe something else positive would have transpired from there. Its important to keep pushing the envelope.

Me: That is such a great message for people out there you are looking at taking something forward but are not able to because of various reasons – “Give something a go” and you never know what happens next.

John: Moreover, if you have an idea, do not research it to death. If you do, you might end up  never doing it,  because then you come up with all the downsides. I often would judge things by listing down the positives and the negatives and then if my gut feel says its worth it, then l say lets give it a try, and If it doesn’t work, try something else. If you read my book, you will see I tried all sorts of things that did not work out, but I did try, and a lot of things I tried, did work out brilliantly of-course.

If we believe we ought to do something, we figure out a way to do it. It is this inner confidence that entrepreneurs have pushes them forward. Infact I think that entrepreneurs are born and leaders are made.

Me: Fantastic! John, I am sure the first few months of your European sojourns were all fun and travel, but what was that one moment when you realised that Contiki could be huge and you really want to pursue this for long?

John: Well, I am an entrepreneur and entrepreneurs are funny beasts, we don’t have a negative thought, we can often be quite dangerous because we get carried away playing with our fertile minds. If we believe we ought to do something, we figure out a way to do it. It is this inner confidence that entrepreneurs have pushes them forward. Infact I think that entrepreneurs are born and leaders are made. I have met lots of entrepreneurs and they all have a natural sort of attitude to life. Things kept happening while I was building Contiki and I just kept going with the flow. I am still doing crazy things actually, traveling across South America at my age!

Me: John, when you grow a brand you face a myriad of challenges, what sort of difficulties did you face , how did you rise above competition and what do you think was an advantage?

John: I learnt early on that in business honesty and integrity is fundamental. I knew I had a product that a lot of young Australians and New Zealanders coming over to Europe in the sixties wanted strongly. Beyond that, the secret behind why the brand has lasted really comes down to a number of things, I am a great believer in Quality and I established a high level of quality  across all functions of Contiki, the product itself was uniquely positioned and personalized heavily, we also had a good pulse on the details of what different customers wanted, we were good at selling our product and we were constantly innovating. Just because a tour worked this year, we never automatically assumed that it would work next year as well. All these factors contributed in Contiki growing as a business and a brand. When I look at Contiki today, the product is in essence the same, but they have fine tuned it to what the market wants today. In the sixties, people wanted to go for around three months to travel around Europe, but now they won’t go for six weeks. So yes, you need a product that is strong and you need to know how to sell it well.  Its no good having one without the other.

Me: So you put a lot of emphasis on Sales and Marketing right from the get go of the venture?

John: Absolutely. Moreover, on the marketing side, its a very data driven approach these days. We do a huge amount of research, constantly. The travel agents actually log what the customers are coming in and looking for, we research passengers that we did not get, we research why did they not go on our tours, we research why they went on our competitors’ tours, and we also research people who are on tour, get their feedback on what would they want us to do differently, what are the things that worked from them. We are constantly monitoring the satisfaction or dissatisfaction levels of our customers, and all this data is channeled back into our marketing campaigns, as well as decisions around the product. Also, social media plays a big part in the building of a brand these days,  not only do potential customers interact with us on channels like Twitter and Facebook, they can also meet their potential tour partners on these channels and the Contiki website, a month before they are actually going on tour!

Me: I totally agree. It is a completely different world out there these days, the pace of innovation around human communication is breathtaking to watch.

John: Yes absolutely, It’s all about having the right information before you decide and having a more satisfying experience in the process.


I would have never found my wife If I had not taken that tour.

Me: I have never been on a Contiki tour myself, but I have spoken to so many people who have been on one including Mumchic readers, and everyone recounted their time touring with Contiki with such fondness. They talk about friendships that have lasted years and decades, and countless people including yourself have found their life partners while on tour. Do you recollect any special story that totally stands out amidst the box of life-changing experiences?

John: I would have never found my wife If I had not taken that tour (laughs)! Its amazing Sabeen, how many people it has touched. Its amazing how many times it changed their lives. You mention about meetups, there are still reunions going on forty years on!

How romantic.. John met his wife on a Contiki Tour! I bet you are hooked by now !

And that is a wrap of Part 1 of my interview with John Anderson. In the next and final part, John and I delve further into the Business Of Wanderlust and  what inspired him to write an autobiography, now a published book,  “Only Two Seats Left”.


So far, what is your best takeaway from John Anderson’s interview?

{Stay Tuned for Part 2!}

Linking up with Essentially Jess for IBOT

Disclaimer :This article is NOT a paid endorsement for either John Anderson or Contiki Holidays. John agreed to be interviewed for the article after I contacted him and requested him share his story with us.

Posted in: Musings