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An Interview with Tom Bodkin of Secret Compass

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Secret Compass is a specialist expedition and adventure travel company, operating in some of the world’s wildest and remotest places. We speak with its founder and CEO, Tom Bodkin.

You’re a former officer in the Parachute Regiment. How does one go from serving in the Forces to setting up and operating a business?

I set up Secret Compass in the last year of serving. I wanted to develop something that gave me flexibility and allowed me to work in something I was interested in, as well as still being able to have fun and run around. Part of it was a lifestyle choice.

There’s a huge amount to learn when setting up a business, and there’s stuff you’ve never done before. The Forces provides you with the ability to plan and think things through, and then action that plan. You can apply those tools to anything in life then, including business. 

Tom Bodkin


To what extent has your military career been helpful or relevant in the success of Secret Compass?

It’s been super relevant for us because obviously we’re running expeditions and risk management is a key element. There are templates and frameworks that can be brought across into adventure travel.

When working on the ground with journalists and film crews, it’s comparable to running a military operation.

How difficult is it to create a fully functioning expedition team?

That’s an interesting one because everyone meets at the airport for the first time. We’ve got a team of different people coming off planes from all over the world who haven’t met each other before, and then four days later they’re all climbing a mountain or rafting down a river. I think the key thing is ensuring that everyone has the same aim.

People may have different motivations, whether it be wanting to see a new country, whether they’re going through something, want a challenge, or even to just get away from work. Our aim is to bring these diverse motivations together around a central focus. 

Of all the expeditions you offer, do you have a personal favourite?

That’s a good question, as we’ve got such a diverse choice of expeditions. I think our Madagascar one is my favourite due to the variety. There’s varied environments including big granite mountains, jungle, and rivers.

The activities are varied too, with trekking to rafting being offered throughout the trip. It’s also super remote, so it’s culturally and geographically totally different to most other places on Earth.

Is there a stand-out favourite expedition you’ve been on since day one of Secret Compass? Contrary to that, what has been the toughest expedition you’ve been on?

I think the same expedition answers both questions! I did a mountain biking trip to the Wakhan in Afghanistan a few years ago with a couple of pro riders, a film crew, and journalists. It was pretty epic - as no-one had ever mountain biked in the area - and equally as tough.

There were some interesting river crossings, and some real terrain challenges, where on one occasion we got up to a ridge and we couldn’t get the pack animals over, so we had to come back down and do a 35km detour. In terms of where it was, and the challenge that came with it, it’s definitely one of my favourite trips.

Can you remember the first expedition you ran? How different was it from today?

One of the earliest trips we ran as a fully operating company was to South Sudan. In terms of how we organised and ran it, it wasn’t actually that different to how we do things today. 

I guess it isn’t rocket science organising expeditions, but the thing that has changed the most is the management side - the office based stuff. But in terms of the expeditions themselves, it’s very similar.

What has been the toughest aspect that you’ve overcome in starting Secret Compass?

It’s the initial period when you start a company and you don’t know if it’s going to work or not, or even where that pay cheque is going to be coming from. Coming from the army where I never needed to think about whether I would be paid at the end of the month made the transition to business difficult. That sort of financial stress has definitely been the toughest aspect.

How do you find the balance between providing challenging and memorable wilderness experiences with the necessity for customer safety?

We try not to use the word ‘safety’ but focus on the term ‘risk’ instead. Expeditions are inherently risky. The bottom line is that if you’re going to go away travelling to different places they’re going to come with inherent risks. Being aware of those risks is important. What we try and do is mitigate the risks we have influence over and reduce them to the lowest level possible.

Ultimately people who sign up need to be aware of these risks, and then accept them. There are things in remote places that we can’t change, like getting an ambulance to you and then to a hospital in under an hour. The reality is that the local infrastructure and resources dictate to a large extent.

We can make sure that our vehicles are in a good condition, but we can’t control other drivers on the road, so these kinds of inherent risks come hand in hand with expeditions. 

What makes Secret Compass different to other expedition providers? 

The places that we go are different and we take a team-focussed approach, so anyone who comes along becomes part of a team. Working together to achieve the aim is very important to us. We’re lucky in the quality of guides that we have, and also the support team in the office, which makes sure that customers get a very professional experience throughout.

Being the Director of Secret Compass, do you still find the time to get out there and explore?

Occasionally! I try and get out on expeditions three or four times a year. I’ve just been mountain biking in Northern Iraq, so yes, I definitely still get out there every now and again!

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