Way far down at the southernmost tip of South America, the small port city of Ushuaia covering 9 square miles serves as the jumping-off point for the large majority of expedition ships heading across the Drake Passage taking travellers to Antarctica.
Back in 2000, having raised her children and facing a less than stellar economy in the US, Alicia Petiet travelled to Tierra del Fuego and saw the need for someone to help backpackers and last minute travellers negotiate passage to Antarctica.
So she moved to Ushuaia and started on a journey that would lead her from working on ships, to becoming a one-woman agency, then growing into Ushuaia’s only all-female agency.
She has since moved away from last minute deals and now specializes in matching the right ship to the right passenger, while expanding her business in emerging markets such as Brazil and China.
I met Alicia on board an expedition ship in the Norwegian Arctic back in 2007 and we became fast friends. (Not surprisingly, considering she’s a grab-life-by-the-horns kind of a woman.)
I knew her story was one worth sharing – a little kick in the pants for anyone who’s been hiding behind excuses instead of going out and making things happen.
Check it out and share your thoughts in the comments:
How long have you been in business with Antarctica Travels?
I started the business as a solo agent in 2000. Since then I’ve been to Antarctica 16 times including extended voyages to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands four times, the Weddell Sea two times, and also around Cape Horn past the “lighthouse at the end of the world.”
What did you do before you got into this business?
I didn’t do anything! It was the 90’s in the US and the economy was terrible. There weren’t any jobs or anything I was interested in. Leading up to that I was in real estate for 6 years in the New York/New Jersey area and before that I was a wife and mother taking care of my kids. So in the late 90’s with no prospects I decided to move back to Argentina and see what I could find for myself.
Can you tell us about how and why you got into this business in the beginning?
I went to Ushuaia because I had a friend from NYC who went to Antarctica and told me there was a gap in the market. So I went down there and discovered that few people spoke English and that it was hard for any traveller who came through there unless they already had their ticket a year in advance.
I started to work in a hostel and saw the need for people who wanted to go to Antarctica at the last minute but the agents in Ushuaia didn’t want anything to do with them because they were backpackers. The agents assumed they couldn’t afford Antarctica.
So I negotiated with a small agency that I knew to help them match up last minute trips with under-serviced travellers and that’s how it started. And people liked the way I treated them. I treated them like they were paying $10,000 for their trip. (When the last minute deals were as low as $3000 per person) I gave them all the information they needed, explained everything to them – nobody in Ushuaia really knew how to do any of this.
Then the Lonely Planet got ahold of me and they wanted to interview me because they had heard from so many people about me and that’s how I ended up the recommended agent in Ushuaia.
So this is back in 2000. The other agents that were operating in Ushuaia at the time, were they just not doing this kind of work? What were they doing?
They were doing it but there were only two agents that were paying any attention to last minute passengers. First of all their English wasn’t so great. Second of all, they weren’t knowledgable enough with the details – they would only get top-line information from the ship companies such as price, departure date, and ship. And that’s all the info they would give the customers because they just didn’t know about the importance of all the other little customer service details that passengers really needed to know about.
And also, if travellers showed up as backpackers with not-so-great clothes, the agencies wouldn’t give them information! They would treat them badly, saying things like, “You have to pay for the trip right now and if you don’t pay we won’t give you any information because we can’t hold spaces.” Many of them would tell me, “We don’t like the way we get treated! We like the way you treat us and explain everything to us.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I envision that at the time this was a very male-dominated industry, and you going as a solo female doing this kind of work, was that unique?
Yes definitely – especially because I was specializing in Antarctica. I actually got a job with an expedition company originally doing inventory work on board and I began speaking with the staff and having conversations with the passengers, getting to know them and hearing about their experiences. I became really friendly with a lot of the people on the ships because I originally thought that I wanted to work on the ships! But it turns out that’s not what I really liked to do.
Nevertheless, every time a ship would come to port I would go on board, get to know the ship and talk to them. I still have a lot of these friendships 13 years later and it’s helped me a lot throughout these years. I got the education and the experience in this industry because I lived it, and that’s what made people trust that I knew what I was talking about. I wasn’t making it up, or reading it out of a book.
It sounds as though you essentially created your own job out of nothing.
Exactly. That’s what I did. Well, I always felt strongly that I wanted to treat passengers, people who are traveling to places that they’ve never been, or feel very exotic, I want to treat them and explain to them the way I want my grandkids or my kids to be treated when they’re planning to go somewhere. I always put myself in that position. That’s what has always fuelled the way I approach my business.
You have to have integrity around how you go about business and you have to love what you do. I know that at times I have lost some sales from being too honest, and I maybe would have gotten the sale if I had put a lot of pressure on them, but that was not my motive. My motive is that I’m going to sell you something and make sure that you really like what you get.
What has been your biggest challenge running this business on your own and in a small, competitive market?
Dealing with the big guys/agents and some of the people in Ushuaia who saw me as competition. They wanted to run me out because I was a woman, because I spoke English well, because I was prepared and everybody liked me…they wanted to run me out by making my life near impossible. But I always came back. They always figured if they made my life impossible then I wouldn’t come back the next season.
By this point people knew who I was and I had a lot of emotional support from the community. So that made my resolve really strong. When the big guys and competition saw that they couldn’t prevent me from continuing on, they more or less left me alone.
They still watch me closely to see if I’ll make a wrong move, and that’s been my biggest challenge. To survive in Ushuaia doing what I’m doing. And not just Ushuaia…some of the larger companies have tried to discredit me because they saw me as stepping on their toes. It’s really about staying alive and not getting eaten by big guys. The only way you stay alive is by having a great product and providing unparalleled service. It’s now been 13 years and I’m still going strong.
What are you most proud of?
First of all, personally what I have accomplished with this business, because I did it on my own despite the challenges. Not to mention, most people my age start to walk away from this kind of work and they don’t get along so well with younger people, which is who I deal with a lot. Also knowing I’ve made so many people happy and comfortable.
For a lot of people it’s very scary – they don’t know what to expect when they get to Antarctica. Not only when they get to Ushuaia are they able to meet me and talk to me in person because I am based there, but I’ll literally take them by the hand and take them to the ship and introduce them to some of the staff…and do all these little things that makes the process very comfortable. All these little details make all the difference. Many of my clients…the first thing they do when they get here and check into their hotel is call me and say “Hi, we’re here!” They really value that personal connection.
Find out more about Antarctica Travels here.
Alicia and I in Ushuaia – 2010