Jenny and I had the privilege to interview the Intrepid Travel’s Neil Coletta recently and can’t wait to share the phenomenal insights we captured from him in this latest “foodie features” piece. Neil is a food entrepreneur extraordinaire. Officially, he’s the Brand and Product Manager of Food Tours at Intrepid Travel. Unofficially, he gets paid to travel the world and eat!!
Intrepid Travel / Reflection Institute Partnership
Before we dive into Neil’s story, we wanted to share a little more about the organization behind him. Intrepid Travel is the global leader in small group adventure travel. Intrepid carries over 350,000 passengers around the world every year, practicing responsible travel on the 1,000+ itineraries they offer in 120+ countries. They are dedicated to promoting sustainable development in the communities they visit and are all about treading lightly to making a positive impact on the environment. The Reflection Institute is proud to announce a partnership with The Intrepid Foundation, their non-profit arm. During our April 4, 2020 Pause. On. Purpose. retreat (side note, be there), we will host a workshop for The Intrepid Foundation to help brainstorm and problem-solve challenges they face to access the U.S. marketplace and improve livelihoods through sustainable food and travel experiences. We are excited and humbled by the opportunity to partner with such a life-changing organization.
Now….back to Neil!
He oversees 40 food tour itineraries that Intrepid runs across the globe and is tasked with dreaming up the next best delicacy desired - a chocolate tour throughout South America anyone?! Neil is on it! Neil has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic’s Traveller Food Festival, and Barron’s Penta Magazine to name a few so we were decidedly delighted when he agreed to sit down with the Reflection Institute and share stories of global gobbling galivants! We met with Neil to understand everyday life in his world, what motivates him to do the work he does, and the learnings he has collected along his journey.
RI: What do you love the most about your career?
Neil: What I love the most is definitely the fact that I get to use all the areas of knowledge that I am passionate about and all of the skills that I’ve been developing over the years in different fields, and filter it through Intrepid where it translates to an experience for people to sign up for and participate in. I didn’t know my life up until to this point was going to lead to this, but it is all feeling very relevant now. When I read feedback about how a trip changed someone’s life or an unexpected food experience impacted someone so much that they are now going home and cooking it for friends and family….it is very meaningful to me. The fact that I played some part in creating those experiences; that I am facilitating those kinds of feelings and moments for people…That is extremely rewarding. That personal fulfillment is the best part of my career.
RI: Is there a typical work week for you?
Neil: There’s no typical, but we do have an annual cycle based on when people from our various markets are planning their travel, so timing is a big part of that and that then determines what I’m doing in any given month. That said, there is of course the un-plannable — world incidents, natural disasters, civil unrest…these things can drastically change what my week looks like! Things like that make the idea of a typical week something of a non-reality.
RI: How often do you travel with the Intrepid Travel Food Tours?
Neil: Typically, I’ll go three or four times a year. I’ll get to meet some of our actual customers who are on the food trips and they generally love it as it gives them a lot of faith in the company. They often say, “there is a manager who looks after this trip specifically that I’m on and that I paid for!” I think it gives them a sense that we are really passionate about the quality control and we want to be really close to the product that we are selling, which is absolutely the case.
RI: What don’t you like about your job?
Neil: I’m lucky, that’s a hard one to answer! I feel very grateful that I have meaningful perspective in the work I do. I’m not just typing away on a keyboard wondering, “what’s it all for?!” I suppose because it is a one-person job at this stage, the workload is quite intense.
RI: What’s your favorite Intrepid tour?
Neil. It’s really hard to pick favorites, when you love food, you love it all! Usually, my answer to that question is based on the last place I’ve traveled to, so in this case, I would say Russia. It is such an unusual and unexpected cuisine in so many ways and a lot of people know the classics, but they won’t necessarily realize all of the different ethnicities that are contributing to making the various cuisines you see throughout the country.
RI: What do you see as Intrepid Travel’s major differentiator in food travel today?
Neil: Recently, I traveled to Sri Lanka with our top selling food tour and I understand why it is our top-seller! It is absolutely incredible! The feedback is really remarkable. Our local operators in Sri Lanka are all huge foodies! They are as passionate as the customers and that energy really takes the experience to the next level. What makes Intrepid unique is that we own our operator network around the world. The managers in the offices that I work with have become friends. We care about one another outside of the business. You just can’t quantify that, but it does filter down to the products and to the experiences that customers are having. We focus on creating authentic, grass roots, local experiences - things that cannot be replicated by searching on TripAdvisor or AirBnb. For example, we often take tour groups to a family’s home for a meal. Those kinds of relationships with host families are forged over years so that the local family feels comfortable and trusts us enough to allow us to bring total strangers into their home and cook for them! That’s not the kind of experience that is accessible to most people on their own while traveling. For me, it comes down to the word “access”. I think that Intrepid has access to real life and real people. And we access them very carefully and very respectfully in a way that benefits the communities economically in several ways. I think that’s what makes what we do very special.
RI: Do you like to cook?
Neil: Yes! Every chance I get! Back in the day, I studied to become a chef and spent over 20 years going down that path…I absolutely loved that life, but thinking long-term, I found that with my background in academia, my love of food was not just limited to working with it, I wanted to know everything there is to know about it.
RI: What does the future hold for you?
Neil: I am really happy doing what I do at the moment. I have been in this role approximately a year and a half now and I feel like I haven’t yet hit my stride. I am pretty self-motivated, and I always like to be doing the best I can in anything I do. Right now, it is enough for me to make these tours the best they can possibly be by putting a lot of time and passion into creating the activities we’re putting into place on the tours, providing people with real, local, delicious, traditional food, and enabling people to take away an authentic experience of the places that they have visited…. The possibilities are really endless right now!
RI: If you could describe yourself a food, what would it be and why?
Neil: Wow! I can say I’ve never been asked that! Gut reaction…a simple bowl of pasta. My family is Italian by ancestry. The most meaningful comfort food in my life has been my grandmother’s homemade pasta with simple marinara sauce. It’s a sense of home and identity. It’s simple. Something that is just being what it is. Not trying to do too much, but tries to provide a sense of satisfaction in its simplicity. Anyone that is passionate about cooking for others tends to be someone who is high on the empathy scale and the love of cooking for others is intimately tied to the importance of sharing an experience through food.
RI: Where do you love to eat?
Neil: I do love the United States. It is so big and it’s so regionally diverse that there is really no such thing as American food. Most people’s association with American food is fast food and burger and fries, and yes, that is a part of our culture and I love that, but it’s only a tiny part. I am from New England, so the North Atlantic seafood is really special. Every single place throughout the United States is so diverse in terms of the cuisines that have developed and the ingredients that are focused on. I could happily spend the rest of my life eating around the U.S. and never get tired of it!
RI: What’s your favorite ingredient?
Neil: Salt. It has flavor enhancing properties. It is somewhat universal no matter which form you are getting it in…adding a note of salt to balance the food you are creating is something you find almost everywhere.
RI: What’s your least favorite ingredient?
Neil: Artificial sugar! For all of the obvious reasons. Yes, it can sometimes taste good, but nutritionally, it has a negative effect.
RI: What’s your favorite smell?
Neil: Oh, this is so cheesy and it’s not in any way food related, but it is what comes first to mind…. My cat’s head! I’m obsessed with my cats! I suppose if I had children… people say that the smell of a baby’s head is powerful. I guess I don’t have a human child so this is as close as I get!!!
A huge thank you to Neil for spending part of his day with us and for sharing a glimpse into the food tourism world and all that goes into creating meaningful, impactful, and inspirational experiences for others. As the old adage goes, food truly is the ingredient that binds us together.