The curators of curiosity, we dive into experiential travel and the quest to see the world differently with Tom Marchant, co-Founder of tailor-made travel company, Black Tomato.
Have you ever felt a desire to get truly lost in a remote wilderness and test yourself by navigating your escape? How about to curate your own exclusive glamping experience in a far-flung corner of the world, or to completely disconnect from digital distraction while staying with a nomadic family on the wild plains of Mongolia?
These are just some of the myriad experiences created by Black Tomato – the innovators of bespoke travel. Catering to purveyors of luxury or the outright intrepid in equal measure, all travel experiences tailor-made by Black Tomato are bound by one common thread – curiosity.
“Ultimately, we are a very curious bunch of people who are fascinated with the world and helping people to see it in the right way,” opens Black Tomato co-Founder, Tom Marchant.
Alongside James Merrett and Matt Smith, Marchant is one third of the founding team behind Black Tomato – university friends and seasoned travellers united by a love for exploration.
“We all worked double jobs during term time at university to spend our summers travelling. We wanted to travel every spare minute that we had,” he recalls fondly, as the travel-hungry trio sowed the seeds of an idea that would marry their shared love of exploration with a viable profession.
After diving into the rat race of the corporate world post-university, both Merrett and Marchant would regularly cross paths with people who had wanderlust in abundance, but neither the time nor the know-how to put together the kind of trips they were looking for.
“These were people who didn’t know of a company that really understood them or wanted to help them make the most of this world,” Marchant says. “That experience just reaffirmed everything that we had been thinking.”
Shortly after, in 2005, Black Tomato was born, taking its unusual name from an encounter in Eastern Europe where the item appeared on a menu, and Marchant was encouraged to try the distinct fruit by a fiercely proud local. Today, the name embodies the rare and unbeatable experiences that the company seeks to provide.
BY THE CURIOUS, FOR THE CURIOUS
From its origins in Marchant’s bedroom, Black Tomato has blossomed into a name of renown with offices in both London and the US, an ever-growing team of fanatic travellers, and thousands of clients from across the world.
“When we launched Black Tomato, everyone reacted to it in the way that we hoped they would and it took off from there,” he says.
Yet despite continually keeping its finger on the pulse of travel innovation, Black Tomato’s core values remain unchanged since day one.
“At the heart of it, our three values are being curious, thoughtful and humble. That’s the bedrock upon which the business was built and drives everything we do,” Marchant affirms.
“That applies to how we research destinations and craft experiences, but also the way that we talk about those places and introduce them to clients – all of our people have that attitude and passion from the start.”
Despite this steadfast approach, Black Tomato has witnessed a major shift as the global travel market has adjusted to ever-evolving consumer demands and behaviours. In the past decade, this has largely been defined by the advent of experiential travel – a demand which Black Tomato has met since day one.
“I’m not saying we were the forefathers of it, but we were certainly early adopters of the word ‘experience’. Now, everyone talks about travelling for an experience, but that wasn’t the case back then,” he says.
“We started by categorising travel according to the feeling it would give you, as opposed to listing it by destination.”
As the ‘experience’ buzzword has risen in prominence across the travel industry, Black Tomato has continually raised its game.
“Our level of bespoke creation just gets better every year. We are a bespoke company, but we’re always driven to do more, be better, and to really understand the customer and to be as intuitive as possible.”
In truly understanding the customer, and avoiding the predetermined approach often favoured by market competitors, Black Tomato channels an equal sense of curiosity in both the clients themselves, and the places they intend to visit.
“We want to understand what makes them tick, not just when they travel, but when they’re at home and take that information and feed that into creating the trip,” Marchant adds. “We also challenge ourselves and the customer to see, experience and feel the place in a way that isn’t the most obvious or done by everyone else.”
This outside-the-box approach manifests itself in the trips that Black Tomato creates, how the company markets itself, and also in how it builds relationships with local suppliers. The latter translates into a level of access in destinations that is often unmatched by other travel operators.
“Black Tomato is very good at getting access and that’s because our partners recognise us as a kindred curious spirit. They like the way we think about travel, and how we’re very sensitive to cultures, communities, and the kind of clients who travel with us.”
Innovation is an integral facet of Black Tomato’s modus operandi, with an in-house Innovation Council that meets regularly to create new product lines based on how people are travelling, or indeed should be travelling.
In recent years, such new products have included Get Lost – an experience where people are taken to the ends of the Earth in an unknown destination and are challenged both physically and mentally to escape – the ‘design your own’ pop up accommodation experience, Blink, and Field Trip, as a fun take on educational travel for families.
Further developing its family offering, Black Tomato recently launched Take Me On a Story in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic period, driven by insight from families that had been stuck at home reading stories and fuelling their travel dreams, without being able to act on them.
“We took six classic children’s literature novels and turned them into immersive experiences. That was a real joy,” shares Marchant. “I think that says to our customers that Black Tomato is always thinking about how to get the most out of this planet of ours and enjoy it in a new way – not for the sake of being new, but for the sake of being better.”
A similar idea but reimagined for adults, Black Tomato recently curated a set of travel experiences in collaboration with Agatha Christie Limited in honour of the centenary of Christie’s Grand Tour – a trip which inspired many of her novels. These kinds of journeys celebrate the connections between travel and our own personal motivations or interests.
“I’m a big believer that you ultimately travel, even if it’s subconsciously, as a manifestation of your other passions. Whether it’s a love of art, literature, music, film or fashion, these things creep into the conscious when you’re planning travel,” he observes.
Following on from the Grand Tour’s success, Black Tomato is on the cusp of a legendary partnership and creative collaboration due to launch at the end of this month.
“We have been approached by Eon Productions – the custodians of the world of James Bond – to create bespoke itineraries that will bring Bond’s world to life,” Marchant tells us excitedly.
“We are designing unique experiences that promise to take people into the world of Bond and haven’t been done by anyone else before. It’s been a real honour to work with such an iconic British brand.”
ON THE RADAR
Aside from the hotly-anticipated Bond launch, Marchant counts several destinations as top of the radar for travel in 2023. These locations largely reflect new behaviours born from the COVID-19 pandemic, as a challenging period that became a catalyst to rekindle cravings for escapism and reconnection – either with people or nature.
These include Madagascar, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the Northwestern territories of Canada and the Yukon, and Chile. The latter is a personal favourite for Marchant, and top of the Black Tomato agenda.
“We have been working with Chile for a number of years, but certain areas of the southern Patagonia National Park have just opened up in terms of being able to access it,” he tells us, with particular reference to the areas of land originally bought by American entrepreneur and conservationist Doug Tompkins – the founder of brands including North Face and Esprit. Since his death, the Tompkins Foundation has worked with the Chilean government to protect and conserve the land while also making it accessible to the public.
Having visited in November, staying in the Explora Lodge funded by the Tompkins Foundation, it was a trip that Marchant is unlikely forget.
“It was a mind-blowing experience. It’s very underdeveloped and it’s practically just you and these landscapes that take your breath away.”
Drawing to a close, Marchant returns to the evocative call for adventure, one that sees you break away from the daily grind, even temporarily, in pursuit of your own curiosity.
“Since coming out of COVID-19, we know that people are interested in finding a genuine sense of escape. Whether it’s Chile, the Canadian Northwest and the Yukon, or Madagascar – all of them will do that for you.”