Expat Explore was founded over 12 years ago in London, United Kingdom. You’ve probably heard about the fascinating history or you may have read about the 15,000+ travellers who join us on our 50+ tours annually. But have you met Carl Cronje?
Since his first trip to Europe in 1997, Carl knew that it was his dream to start a travel company and so he did! Years later in a small office in Bromley, Carl set out to start Expat Explore Travel with colleague and friend, Jakes Maritz. They envisioned building a company that would make travel affordable and bring the thrill of exploring to anyone looking for an adventure. In the 12+ years since Expat Explore Travel first opened its door, Carl has designed tour itineraries, led tour groups and worked with suppliers across Europe and around the globe; he remains closely involved in the creative processes behind the scenes to this day.
In this exclusive interview, Carl shares more about his journey as an explorer, why he works hard to keep tour prices as low as possible, and his top tips for newbie Europe travellers.
Q: Did you grow up in a family that likes travelling?
A: Yes, absolutely. My mom and dad both come from families that love exploring! Time on the road with my family are some of my fondest childhood memories. To be honest, most of our holidays involved touring, more than “holidaying” in one place for too long. Those heavenly trips around South Africa are the reason I am a big explorer to this day!
My grandparents from both sides instilled a great passion for exploring in me. My grandfather was one of the railroad industry’s most prominent leaders and he took us on many unforgettable adventures. It’s quite ironic, they (my grandparents from my father’s side) went on a trip to Europe in the 1980s and brought back a Jungfrau railway calendar as a gift. I kept that calendar in my room for years and it was always open on this most beautiful photo of Interlaken, Switzerland, and the many lakes that surround it. Today I get to live in that photo!
Q: You and co-founder, Jakes Maritz, are South African. Do you think this plays a role in the fact that you’re both explorers by nature and does it influence how you design tours?
A: Jakes and I have roots that go way way back to the French Huguenots and Dutch adventurers. I always joke and say that I’m genetically inclined to go check if the grass is actually greener on the other side! But on a serious note, I think South Africans know how to stretch a budget, because in the past 15 years the currency has become steadily weaker against European currencies. Ever since I first started going to Europe, it was always a case of trying to crack the system by finding the recipe that allowed for the best possible value.
Q: Tell us about your first trip to Europe?
A: In 1997 I was lucky to win a return ticket with British Airways to any place in Europe. I chose Paris, France! I knew the city was big enough for me to explore to my heart’s content in a short space of time. We only had 8 days during our university break in September and explored Paris by foot for eight full days. Needless to say, by the end of the trip, I knew Paris like the back of my hand! Before long I returned to Paris, bringing two more friends and acting as their personal guide through the city. After this, I knew I had to to follow my number one passion – travel. (Read the full Expat Explore Story here)
Q: You designed the first ever Expat Explore tour (The Paris weekend tour) and it’s still the same itinerary included on many Expat Explore tours today. What is the secret to a great tour to Europe and why do you think Expat Explore tours are so popular?
A: The biggest secret is a lot of personal research. There are many agents in Europe who can do the work for you, but the reason why Expat Explore is so successful is that we really explore new destinations and hand-pick our suppliers. We work hard to find suppliers who share our core values. Ask any of our operational staff – we listen to the feedback of each and every guest and our tours are ever-evolving based on this feedback. I personally still try to meet every single supplier we use on a regular basis, whether it is hotel owners, activity providers or tourist boards.
Q: Why were you and Jakes such a good team from the start?
A: Ironically we did not really know each other in South Africa, but we were both fortunate to have had parents who worked really hard to give us a good education and encouraged us to follow our dreams. In a way, it felt like our paths were meant to cross eventually, but you can also argue that it helps that we’re both Capricorns!
Q: How do you generate new ideas for Expat Explore tours?
A: My best tour concepts happen while travelling on the road with Expat Explore guests. I really feed off the enthusiasm of people, especially when they are experiencing something for the first time. I also have a great team in our operations department that add and inspire new ideas. We try to do test-runs and trials of each tour program before we roll it out.
Q: Why do you think it is important that people travel?
A: I believe that most people have some “instinctive” desire to travel – the urge and desire to see what’s on the other side; if the grass is greener there. Perhaps it’s because of our genetic background – as if we’re “programmed” to travel! To my mind, one of the number one reasons people should travel is to learn and self-educate. Travel enriches your life tremendously. When you meet someone new, you can tell if they’ve travelled a lot in life or not at all. Travel expands our views – whether you want it to or not!
Q: Why make travel affordable?
A: I’m extremely passionate about travelling and exploring and believe that everyone should experience it for themselves. For most people, however, money is one of the biggest obstacles. That’s why Jakes and I wanted to build a company that offers affordable, comfortable tours that provide value for money. We are the industry leader when it comes to value-for-money tours, especially in Europe (by far!). Our tour itineraries are designed in such a way that we offer a balance of included sights, free time and optional excursions.
Q: After more than a decade of facilitating travel for people from around the world, what is the one thing that you’ve learned about the people and the world we live in?
A: After travelling with thousands of people, and meeting many more at the Alpenrose Hotel, I’ve seen that no matter our nationality, religion or race, we all share the same values, desires and needs in life! If only we can all realise that we are so similar in nature, then perhaps the world would be a much friendlier place.
Q: The Alpenrose, our flagship hotel in Wilderswil, is one of the most popular stops on Expat Explore tours. Why do you think this is?
A: We have created a home away from home with a touch of paradise! The hotel was built back in 1897, and was completely worn out by the time we started to refurbish in March 2015. After only 6 weeks of blood, sweat and tears, we managed to restore and polish the hotel back to its former glory. The heart of hospitality is very important to me, and I try to use my travel experience to create a place where people can truly feel at home, and have a memorable experience. I’m glad that since day one, Expat Explore guests loved the views and the gardens, as well as the friendly and helpful staff.
Q: You just came back from Malaysia, and we know you as the big explorer. What destinations would you love to explore more?
A: Currently I’ve been to 37 of the 50 European countries. My aim is to visit the remaining countries within the next 2 years. Did you know that Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia are also considered part of Europe?
Q: What is your favourite European country and why? (Impossible question, we know!)
A: Apart from Switzerland (which is my number one), I would have to say Italy. It’s always an unfair question because I have favourite places in every European country! Italy is, however, the country in Europe with the most variety by far! Culture, food, fashion, history, nature, people, architecture and unusual travel experiences. Italy has never ceased to surprise me!
Q: What do you like most about travelling?
A: Exploring and discovering! I know it’s a cliché, but I’m one of those people who cannot sit still. It’s my first love, and I will keep travelling the world for as long as I live.
Q: What are you curious about?
A: Space exploration! I look forward to a trip to space one day, as I want to experience how it feels to sleep in space!
Q: What advice would you give first-time travellers?
A: Don’t be scared to pack light!! Most people spoil their trip by over-packing. I’m the kind of person who only packs things that will be used! The lighter you travel the better your trip/tour will be! And the best carry-on luggage for travel? Suitcases – they have wheels!
Q: What Expat Explore tour have you joined lately?
A: I joined the Northern Explorer tour in July, which was super exciting! I designed the tour but did not have the time to experience it for myself until last month. It’s the most amazing value for money, you get to see 4 completely diverse parts of Europe in one tour – Scandinavia, Russia, the Baltics and Northern Europe. Everyone on tour, including me, could not wait to see Russia – it’s fantastic! I even got to taste a Swedish delicacy, Surströmming. It’s fermented Baltic sea herring, for those of you that don’t know. (Watch the video below to see Jakes and Carl give it a try!)
Q: What’s next for Expat Explore?
A: I’m dying to tell you, but I can’t say too much just yet! All I can say is that we’re getting excited about designing tours to incredible destinations outside of the European continent.
There you have it! An inside look into the life of our original explorer. When on tour with Expat Explore you can meet him at the Alpenrose Hotel and Gardens in Wilderswil, Switzerland. Click here to find a multi-country Europe tour or read more about our Ski Packages to Switzerland. If you want to get in touch with our team, send a mail to email@example.com.