Justin Francis - CEO


Justin Francis is CEO and co-founder of Responsible Travel, but that’s not how he would describe himself. “I’m an entrepreneur, an idealist, an activist, a dreamer – the kind of things CEOs are not supposed to be!”

Justin in Zambia
Justin in Zambia
That entrepreneurial spirit was perhaps hereditary. His father was a toy inventor. “His business went well to start with, then not that well after a while,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of money.” Justin grew up in a village outside Bath and free time was spent roaming the woods and fields, feeding an obsession with nature that exists today, and devouring adventure stories. “I went to the local comprehensive, which didn’t really run overseas school trips, but we went away for two weeks each summer, to Frinton-on-Sea in Essex.”

Justin studied physics at Exeter University – “because it had the best hockey team and playing hockey was my passion” – before working in advertising at prestigious agency J. Walter Thompson. “It was a dream job, but the desire to travel was so great, I quit. That was the first time I’d had enough money to travel. I had travelled very little until I did this one humongous trip around Africa. That was the foundation of it all.”

In total, Justin spent nine months traveling, with time in Namibia, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Zaire, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi and South Africa. “I didn’t have much money so I camped for probably 200 nights, and all my travel was either walking, bikes, buses. It was the most local, immersive experience you could imagine. So much of my sensibility was formed out of that – awareness of local poverty and conservation issues, the idea of traveling with respect and the rewards that could bring as a travel experience.”

Justin in Zambia / Body Shop campaign / Justin profile
Justin in Zambia / Body Shop campaign / Justin profile
He returned to advertising, with time working in New York, but felt increasingly restless. “I was working on some really ugly stuff. Roll up tobacco, chocolates, getting kids to pester their mums to buy sugary cereal.” Then Justin spotted an ad for a job at The Body Shop, “at that time the school of ethical business”, and began working with Anita Roddick there in 1997. “She taught me that a business should judge itself by how it treats the poor and the weak. I wanted to take this mantra to tourism.” Anita also helped him pin down his ideas for a responsible alternative to mainstream tourism, armed with marker pens and huge sheets of paper. “The genesis of Responsible Travel was simple: I wanted to launch an ethical business born out of my experience at The Body Shop, and my great passion was travel, so I started to think about creating a values driven business in travel.”

Body Shop campaign
Body Shop campaign
Justin took himself back to university, earning a Masters in Tourism, Conservation and Sustainable Development at The University of Greenwich and launched Responsible Travel with one of the professors on the course, Harold Goodwin, in April 2001. Paper brochures and traditional tourism business models were rejected; Responsible Travel was only ever going to be online. “One of the reasons I left advertising was because I knew everything was going to change. I was utterly convinced by the internet,” says Justin. “But when we first launched the website it was all dial up modems. It took five minutes to load a page.”

Justin believes tenacity, more than any other skill, is at the heart of Responsible Travel’s success. “You make no money for years, you can’t pay yourself for a while. That was hard. We just fought and battled, with faith in the purpose and overall ambition of the company. It’s a conviction. I think if the business had had no wider social purpose I would have quit.”

Described by environmental journalist Lucy Siegle as ‘the great activist traveler’, Justin has never seen himself as a business man. “Responsible Travel was launched because if it became successful, others would want to copy it. The tourism industry needed to change its behaviour. What influences a business most? I think it’s the success of another business. Anita Roddick told me, ‘never underestimate the threat of a good example’, and she was right. In 2000, I could have got all the leaders in responsible tourism in one small room, and we still would have had extra space. Now there are thousands and thousands of people working in responsible tourism in one form or another. That gives me heart.”

World Responsible Tourism Awards
World Responsible Tourism Awards
Justin is now enjoying renewed health after a kidney transplant in December 2017. “I haven’t been able to travel for more than two years, but I’ve now got a second chance at life. I’m more driven than ever. There’s no sense of me even having achieved a thousandth of what I want to achieve. That’s what drives me on. It’s about purpose, not about profits.”

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