Thursday, March 3, 2011

The North Pole: not just for Santa anymore

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Story Retrieval Date: 3/3/2011 8:16:21 AM CST

PolarExplorers/Marissa Oberlander/MEDILL
PolarExplorers' team members battle the elements to plant their feet at the top of the world.

The North Pole: not just for Santa anymore

March 02, 2011

Growing up in Wilmette, Rick Sweitzer’s mother told him he could do whatever he wanted.
After an outdoor education in the Boy Scouts and Outward Bound courses and a stint in
West Africa with the Peace Corps, Sweitzer returned to Chicago and was inspired to start
an adventure travel company.

With a typewriter, free advertising in local papers and some old canoes, The Northwest
Passage was born in 1984. Sweitzer said he took the name from a song by Stan Rogers,
a deceased Canadian folk singer.

“The lyrics are a metaphor, about modern people trying to find their way like the old
explorers tried to find the Northwest Passage,” Sweitzer said.

No other Chicago company offered adventure travel trips back then, and Sweitzer saw
immediate interest in his product. He ventured to the North Pole as a traveler and by
1993 he was guiding the company’s first expedition there. A group of 11 signed up at
$20,000 each. Soon, The Northwest Passage’s most unusual division, PolarExplorers,
was formed.

This year PolarExplorers is looking to grow its business as international excitement
builds around the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the South Pole. The company
has the opportunity to double its annual revenues and gross more than $1 million in a
10-day window this December.

Competition will be fierce and resources limited as the centennial approaches, since the
Norwegian and British royal families are already said to be attending the polar festivities.
The aristocrats will be using some of the charter air providers that serve the South Pole
and those same companies are hoping to cash in on the enthusiasm by offering
transportation services at reduced prices. That could cut into PolarExplorers’ market share.

“We’re dealing on the frontiers of the earth,” Sweitzer said. “With charter air providers,
there are no rules or laws governing what they do.”

Annie Aggens, director of PolarExplorers, said the division distinguishes itself from
logistics companies like the air providers by offering top-of-the-line training, equipment,
guides and office support. When she and Sweitzer are out on the ice, the company still
has a full staff in Wilmette to respond to inquiries and work with team members planning
future expeditions.

“We expect clients to be self-sufficient, but we do a lot of hand holding, encouraging and
support like good guides,” Aggens said.

PolarExplorers expeditions cost anywhere from $14,000 to $140,000 with the majority
of the money going to charter airplane operators. The company provides most of the gear,
but team members bring their own clothing to wear under the team anorak. Polar Explorers
has created DVDs about trip preparation that it ships to customers around the globe before
their departure.

Burt Meyer, a retired toy designer, went to the North Pole on a Sweitzer-led trip 15 years
ago. Now 84, he unofficially remains the oldest person to ever travel there at age 69. As a
lifelong traveler, Meyer said, “The trip was a great adventure, something to do that I could
enjoy because of how different it was.”

Despite this year’s polar craze, The Northwest Passage was hit hard by the recession as
people cut back on its international kayaking, cycling and hiking trips, Sweitzer said.

PolarExplorers actually had a good year in 2009 due to the centennial of the North Pole
discovery and one North Pole trip with more than 20 members of the Young Presidents’
Organization, a business leadership group. Each team member preregistered a year in
advance and paid more than $30,000.

PolarExplorers sent 44 clients on 10 polar expeditions in 2009 but numbers fell to 19
clients on five expeditions in 2010. With this year’s South Pole fever, the company
anticipates sending approximately 70 clients on 15 expeditions.

PolarExplorers puts together well-oiled expeditions to the polar regions with a focus
on safety, proper gear, attentive guiding and fun. A strong Internet presence has brought
the company clientele from across the globe, with high demand in emerging markets such
as China and India. The average client is male, age 40 to 60 and has substantial
discretionary income. Many are empty nesters with grown families and a flexible schedule.
Also, they are often Type-A risk-takers who started their own businesses.

International clientele make up 60 percent to 70 percent of PolarExplorers’ business,
with the highest volume from the United Kingdom and China.

According to an article published by the Association of Travel Marketing Executives,
Baby Boomers such as PolarExplorers’ clients are seeking adventure travel because
they have traveled more than their parents’ generation. Having done typical Europe trips
in college, Boomers are now looking for new destinations and adventures.

As Boomers age physically, they still consider themselves “adult teenagers” and are
willing to pay good money for a fun and interactive adventure travel experience.

Sweitzer was initially drawn to the poles because few people were traveling to the
remote frontiers and he has always liked “turning blind corners.”

“A lot of us love a secure life where we know where dinner is and what our next
day brings,” Sweitzer said. “I always somehow loved not knowing any of that.”

Aggens joined The Northwest Passage in 1998. She likes traveling to the polar regions
to get out of her comfort zone and to learn.

“You are going into an environment that is unlike anywhere else on the planet and
certainly anybody who goes there needs to be on their toes, whether you’re a guide
or a team member that’s going for the first time,” she said.

She appreciates the delicate beauty of the Arctic and Antarctic, using the trips to
educate people about climate change and the dangers it holds for the polar regions.
She hopes each team member returns home an ambassador to help protect those areas.

Sweitzer and Aggens are proud to have been on the front end of “the poles story.”
With logistical challenges involving chartered planes and the transport of sled dogs,
their early years of polar travel involved a lot of “turning a corner, going down a river
and finding whatever is there.”

These days, they are a lot more organized. PolarExplorers prepares each team
member for expeditions with its Polar Shakedown training trip. Team members put
down about a 10 percent deposit on total trip costs and travel to northern Minnesota
or Norway for a week to experience simulated North Pole conditions. Once faced
with the reality of the adventure, some call it quits. They don’t get their money back
but they don’t owe anything else.

Sweitzer says the training trips are invaluable tools that give a clear picture of some
of the brutalities of the polar regions. At their last training trip in Minnesota, team members flew in from the United Kingdom, Portugal and even Dubai to prepare.

Expeditions to the North Pole depart from a Norwegian island called Spitsbergen and
range from one-on-one trips to more than 20 people. The team flies in a Russian Antanov
aircraft to a runway on the ice and begins skiing or dog sledding north. Depending on
the position of the moving ice, the runway is located between 10 and 100 miles from the
North Pole. Expeditions range from one night to as long as 20 days.

Meyer said the most physically demanding aspect of the trip was the cross-country
skiing, but team members kept their energy up with a 6,000 calorie per day diet rich
in fat and protein. Surprisingly, Meyer still lost about a pound each day of the trip.

In an area of mostly ice and sub-zero temperatures, Meyer said snow proved to be a
useful tool to maintain personal hygiene.

“A snow ball is a better wipe than any papers around,” Meyer said.

Aggens said there are no landmarks to identify the North Pole and the guides have to
create excitement such as lighting flares and proposing champagne toasts around the

“Unlike a mountain where you reach a pinnacle, you’ve just reached a spot that looks
 like every spot you’ve been at for the last however many days, so it’s really about the
journey,” she said.

The South Pole is the kitschy one with a ceremonial barber pole with a globe on top.

As modern-day explorers worldwide look to retrace Roald Amundsen’s historic
journey to the South Pole in 1911, PolarExplorers will rely on its Internet presence,
reputation and 18 years of loyal clientele from North Pole expeditions, many of whom
are interested in going “bipolar.”

“We have the potential to do a huge piece of business in two weeks’ time that feeds
our passion,” Sweitzer said.

Marissa Oberlander/MEDILL
Annie Aggens and Rick Sweitzer lead Polar Shakedown Training Trips to prepare team
members for harsh conditions.
PolarExplorers/Marissa Oberlander/MEDILL
Burt Meyer said cross-country skiing was difficult, but team members stayed energized
with a 6,000 calorie daily diet.

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