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"Inspire, Educate, Raise Awareness, and Transform": Q&A with the Founders of Epic Road

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Mark Lakin and Marc Chafiian believe that travel can not only change a person, but the world. Longtime friends and world travelers, Lakin and Chafiian saw a major hole in the luxury travel market: High end packages that combine philanthropy with luxury. Together, they created Epic Road, a New York City-based luxury travel boutique that creates customized holidays combining adventure travel with charity and conservation work in Africa and the Arctic.

We sat down with the Lakin and Chafiian in their photography-filled gallery in Greenwich Village to talk about distributing solar powered lights to locals in Africa, transformative travel, and running from wild elephants.

What makes Epic Road different from other travel boutiques?
We try to blend experiences. Our clients will go on an incredible safari, and then on top of it they’ll have a humanitarian or conservation experience that’s meaningful for all parties. We find that people get very excited about it. Our real hope is that our clients' trips become a catalyst  for understanding, for empathy, and that we can create a movement for the issues we’re addressing when clients come home. Our thing is about positivity. It’s about going into a place and having fun, having an adventure.

Are most of your clients drawn towards the adventure side of travel or the humanitarian work?
We tread that line and appeal to both. If someone wants 100% luxury and adventure, we weave in one afternoon around ivory poaching. Our only requirement is that they’re curious and open. We find out what our clients care about. Do they want to do humanitarian work? Conservation? Do they care about animals and want to work with an organization that collars them? One of our projects distributes solar powered lights to villages in Africa. A Luci is a solar powered light guaranteed to last one year. You blow it up and charge it during the day, and we do distributions of them. They’re lightweight, you can fit several of them in a suitcase. It’s really a point of contact, our clients are able to have a conversation and learn about the context of someone else’s life. If someone doesn't have electricity they can’t do homework or work at night, they don’t have security. Lakin just got back from Namibia, where he took a client who had her first go at explaining a light (through an interpreter) to a Himba woman on the Angolan border. What’s interesting is that she’s giving a light to someone who doesn’t know what electricity is, who doesn’t know what solar is, or understand what inflating means. The video speaks for itself.

You plan itineraries ranging from polar bear safaris in the Arctic to humanitarian work with tribes in Ethiopia. What advice do you have for someone who has the budget and two weeks, but can’t decide where they want to go?
That’s really the custom part. We don’t do any fixed trips. Our only advice is to call us and work through it. We spend a lot of time finding out where our clients have been, finding out why it was special, and why that place grabbed them. A lot of times people don’t even know their tastes. They couldn’t tell you why they loved India or Patagonia, but we help them flush through it. If Patagonia was about the sunsets and the horizons they might love Namibia. If someone loved the tigers in India, then they’d love to be on the great plains of the Serengeti.

How do you choose which partners you work with?
Carefully. The conservation and humanitarian components were an afterthought with our competitors. A lot of them didn’t necessarily give you a great taste of the community. We vet all of our programs that we do in the humanitarian and conservation space. We want to inspire, educate, raise awareness, and transform. You can’t take someone on a five star experience to incredible lodges and then put them on a mediocre village tour. We rely on awesome partners to help us book locally within the country. We don’t go anywhere we don’t know well.

Any plans to expand outside of Africa and the Arctic?
We do. We established ourselves with Africa and the Arctic because we know them well. Our one rule about expansion is if we don’t feel that we can add value and do something special, we won’t do it. But the next place will be Asia.

What’s your favorite travel memory?
A day that I spent in Botswana was so packed. I went fishing during the day on the Okavango Delta, the same day I was chased by an elephant on foot. That evening we were stalking a huge pride of lions that were stalking buffalo. Just the excitement of the whole day was an incredible experience. When you’re in the delta you’re always reminded of conservation. I went for the adrenaline junky experience.

Watch: A YouTube video of Epic Road distributing Luci Solar Lights in Namibia.

Related: Guide to Planning an African Safari and Great Humanitarian Trips Around the World.

Photo by Mark Lakin, courtesy of Epic Road

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