Five Questions with Tietse Stelma, co-founder, 50 Degrees North
How long has 50 Degrees North been in business and where are its offices?
50 Degrees North has been in business since 2010. It maintains offices in Norway, near Lillehammer, as well as in Melbourne, Australia and Vancouver. The Vancouver office opened in January 2018 and has a staff of five consultants. The staff is almost exclusively Scandinavian, and they love to develop beautiful itineraries to the Nordic countries. The Melbourne office is like a home away from home for me. The consultants there are close to the Asian time zones, so they work with our Asian clients. The Vancouver office is the most convenient for North American clients. All the contracting with the land operators takes place at the Norway office, and the consultants there are the advisors for our European clients. As Scandinavians, we have a strong relationship with local suppliers and hoteliers. We contract directly with local guides, hoteliers and transport companies.
What regions of the world are the specialty destinations for 50 Degrees North?
50 Degrees North specializes in holiday travel to Scandinavia, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, the Arctic, the Baltics, Russia, Mongolia, and Kamchatka. We specialize regionally, because we know that it is not possible to have quality, in-depth knowledge about the entire world. We have a wide selection of land products, including self-drive, coach, train and cruise ships. We have also started to market programs to Antarctica. We have a great variety of accommodation products, but they are more like boutique lodgings, not five-star hotels. So in Sweden, for instance, we offer an ice hotel, glass igloos, a tree hotel and even fisherman shack accommodations.
Has interest in travel to these destinations been growing?
Interest has been growing like crazy. We noticed that it really took off after the “Land of the Northern Lights” series by Joanna Lumley. Most bookings are coming from Europe, given their proximity to our destinations. Second in numbers is Australia, but we are seeing a great interest in our products from North America, where the economy is staying strong. There are two peak seasons – one is June, July and August, when visits to the Nordic country capitals and to Iceland, and Norway cruises, are a big focus. We have a winter peak season during December, January and February, when clients come for the Northern Lights, for winter activities and Christmas. This season is popular with customers who are coming from warmer countries.
What relationship does 50 Degrees North maintain with travel agents?
Most of our bookings are by travel agents in Australia and North America. The percentage of clients using agents for bookings as compared to purely online transactions is about 70% for agents and 30% for online. It’s different in Europe, where clients do more of their own web bookings rather than use agents. That’s to be expected because they are closer to our destinations and more knowledgeable about them. The agents that we deal with are very professional. Commissions are paid and rates vary, starting from 10% on up. For instance, we have a good working relationship with Virtuoso.
How is demand for Iceland trending?
Iceland has been extremely popular, especially with the cheap flights offered by WOW Air in 2018. But then the airline went out of business, and that may actually be a good thing for Iceland in terms of reducing the large number of tourists who were going there. They had 2.3 million visitors, and only 350,000 people live there! Demand has softened a little, and it’s easier to find hotel vacancies now. Iceland is very good at tourism marketing. They have won a lot of awards for their destination marketing work.