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On the Scene in Patagonia: Exceptional Group Encounters With Lindblad Expeditions

Hiking to Bernal Glacier in Patagonian Chile

My most charmed journeys in 20 years covering the global meetings industry include familiarization trips to Australia, Lapland and Morocco. Never, though, have I so deeply “lived” a group experience as my recent 12-day exploration of Patagonia with Lindblad Expeditions

Invited by Lindblad, I fell in with a fam group of alumni engagement officers from leading American universities, along with other passengers. Bookended by stops in Santiago, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city on Earth, our November 2023 maritime voyage to “Fin Del Mundo,” or the end of the world, felt out of this world. Versatile opportunities for groups across Lindblad’s seven-continent portfolio are likewise in a league of their own. 

A Purposeful Pioneer

National Geographic Explorer, Zodiak boats heading to shore
National Geographic Explorer, Zodiac boats heading to shore. Credit: Jeff Heilman

In 1958, late Swedish-American explorer Lars-Eric Lindblad founded his eponymous expedition travel company in Connecticut. Viewing travel to Earth’s farthest reaches as “an incredible opportunity to expose people to the wonder of the world so that they might think differently about the planet and our role in protecting it,” he made history in 1966 with the first tourist trip to Antarctica. 

Lindblad’s pioneering expedition, aboard a chartered Argentinian Navy ship, launched the ecotourism industry and broke the gender barrier with 36 women among the 57 travelers. In 1967, he brought tourism to the Galápagos Islands before first visiting the Amazon in 1972 as a full-fledged expedition company. 

Lindblad, who passed away in 1994, subsequently opened one hard-to-visit destination after another to tourism. Revolutionary, too, was his immersive, multi-dimensional approach to group travel, combining onshore adventures with onboard learning from naturalists, conservationists and other experts.

In 1979, his son Sven-Olof Lindblad founded today’s Lindblad Expeditions. Established in 2004 and just renewed to 2040, the company’s partnership with National Geographic   includes seven world-class National Geographic-branded ships as part of Lindblad’s 17-vessel fleet, co-managed research and conservation initiatives, and National Geographic oceanographers, photographers and other experts joining Lindblad’s expedition leaders onboard.

[Related: Business Events Australia to Host Signature Incentive Showcase Under New Event Name]

An Extraordinary Expedition 

Early morning exploring in Zodiac boat
Early morning exploring in Zodiac boat. Credit: Jeff Heilman

One of 100-plus expertly crafted Lindblad itineraries to some 40 destinations around the globe, our Patagonia adventure began in Santiago, Chile, with guided daytime tours and an overnight stay at group-capable The Ritz-Carlton, Santiago. The next day, our 100-plus group took a three-hour chartered flight to Puerto Natales, Chile’s gateway to southern Patagonia. After sightseeing, we boarded our home at sea for the next eight days, the 81-cabin, 148-capacity, polar-capable National Geographic Explorer.

Elephant Seal on beach, Karukinka Nature Reserve, Chile
Elephant Seal on beach, Karukinka Nature Reserve, Chile. Credit: Javier Cotin, Lindblad Expeditions

Ahead was an exploration of southern Chile’s labyrinthine fjords and by special permission, Argentina's remote Staten Island. Following passages first charted by Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, Charles Darwin and other Age of Discovery legends centuries ago, each day was structured around guide-led excursions aboard Zodiac boats to hidden inlets, massive glaciers, ancient forests and remote islands.  

The sense of place, history and discovery was often overpowering. As an avid birder, engaging with expert ornithologists and wildlife photographers as they pointed out more than 70 native species was priceless. We chased rainbows, saw ice thunderously fall from a brilliant blue glacier, bagged washed-up plastic on a beach amid giant elephant seals, followed Magellanic penguins in open waters at dawn, stargazed at night—and bonded, passengers and crew all, in the spirit of our epic adventure. 

Afternoons and cocktail hours were for recaps and presentations in the Lounge’s “Circle of Truth” on wildlife photography, underwater ecology, conservation issues, glacier formation and more. Reflecting Lars-Eric Lindblad’s belief that “food is part of life,” breakfast, lunch and dinner were energetic affairs with entertaining service from the culinary team. 

Eye-opening and life-changing, our expedition ended with a museum tour and lunch in Ushuaia before a chartered flight to Buenos Aires and departures home.

Charting a Course for Group Success

Fam group celebration
Fam group celebration. Credit: Dave Katz, Lindblad Expeditions

Providing a master class in travel planning, organization and execution, Lindblad’s expertise in managing complex logistical and operational elements shone through in every phase of transporting, housing, feeding, educating and inspiring 100 people halfway around the world and back.

From airport transfers, boarding passes and luggage to guided tours and onboard activities, all arrangements were seamless. The freedom to immerse in every moment of our 1,300-nautical mile adventure without sweating a single detail was priceless. For the group market, which Lindblad has served since the late 1980s, this translates into uniquely rewarding agendas and outcomes.

Jeff Heilman and fellow passenger Jay Tayaban on beach clean-up on Karukinka Nature Reserve, Chile
Jeff Heilman and fellow passenger Jay Tayaban on beach clean-up on Karukinka Nature Reserve, Chile

“We welcome any group bonded by a like-minded interest or purpose,” said Karen Kuttner-Dimitry, Lindblad Expeditions’ vice president of affinity and charter sales, who hosted several lively private receptions and dinners for our fam group during the voyage. “Our affinity clients have included museum, conservation, yachting, birding, photography and gluten-free groups. We are also popular for corporate teambuilding programs, group and individual incentive rewards, and board retreats, along with reunion, family, religious and other gatherings.”

Private charters and full buyouts are available across the fleet and portfolio, with lead times between 18 and 24 months. Dedicated client teams work with groups to customize activities, learning, meals and other agenda requirements aligned with their objectives.

Fam attendees included Amy Wilson, who launched her travel industry career with Lindblad in 2001 and now serves as Assistant Director of the Lifelong Learning and Travel-Learn Program at leading Boston-area research university, Tufts. 

“For me, Lindblad stands apart for their history of exploring remote parts of the world, their relationship with National Geographic and the immersive learning from a deep reserve of naturalists and other experts,” Wilson said. “We have booked several Lindblad programs in recent years and look forward to bringing a 21-plus group to the Galápagos in 2024. Other positives include flexible venues and times for private gatherings, and crews that are dedicated to making the guest experience as pleasant and easy as possible.”

L.A.’s prestigious Claremont McKenna College (CMC) has partnered with Lindblad for nearly 30 years, booking annual alumni trips to destinations including the Arctic, Antarctica and Baja California. 

Making his first-ever Lindblad trip, Evan Rutter, assistant vice president for alumni and parent engagement, came knowing that “Lindblad has consistently provided exciting, unique, meaningful, high-touch opportunities for our community.” His first-hand experience exceeded every expectation. “From how the crew treated every guest with care and dignity to Lindblad’s expertise and professionalism in managing travel complexities with ease, I have even greater confidence in their trusted hands as we expand annual bookings to accommodate our eager alumni base.”

CMC has already sold out two back-to-back Lindblad sailings to the Galápagos for summer 2024, each for 48 people. 

“I’ve seen it consistently through the years,” Kuttner-Dimitry said. “Groups are transformed by their shared experiences aboard our intimate ships, which provide an ideal setting for developing and nurturing relationships, forging strong bonds and cultivating valuable networking opportunities."

[Related: More International Destination Reports]

A Planner’s Perspective With Lindblad Expeditions

With 36 years in incentive travel, including 33 years with Maritz, the nation’s largest incentive company, Kathy Fitzgibbons is director of sourcing and contracting for 3D Cruise Partners, a global leader in procuring group and charter cruises. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2024, the company offers a single source for matching group and charter customers with the right cruise partner based on history, budget and geographic interest. In this Q&A with Meetings Today senior contributor Jeff Heilman, Fitzgibbons shares the many positives of working with Lindblad Expeditions.

Kathy Fitzgibbons in Antarctica with Lindblad
Kathy Fitzgibbons in Antarctica with Lindblad

What is the company’s history with Lindblad?

We have had a strong relationship with Lindblad for many years. Their experiential travel programs are made to measure for our meeting and incentive clients, who want unique experiences that they could not organize on their own. Lindblad consistently delivers outstanding solutions with their exceptional ships, people, cuisine and other assets, including their remarkable partnership with National Geographic. 

What specific advantages does Lindblad bring to the table?

Where do I start? Lindblad always thinks outside of the box when offering unique ideas for customized itineraries and onboard programing. Their ships are sized for visiting locales and ports that are inaccessible to most other ships. You can get lost exploring the different programs and destinations on their website, which is one of the best in the business. No request—and we always have many—is too big to ask. They do all they can to be as accommodating as possible. 

From brainstorming the itinerary, sourcing the right ship and contracting to executing the program and final billing, they are consummate professionals that are fun and easy to work with. My personal experience sailing to Antarctica completely sold me on Lindblad and I confidently recommend them to our valuable corporate meeting and incentive clients.

Can you share a representative program with Lindblad?

Chartering the National Geographic Orion for a major financial services firm was among many exemplary successes. The destination, a region of coastal France and Spain, is reachable only by smaller ships.

Perfectly sized for a charter with 53 staterooms, the Orion provided the ideal space for networking, bonding and enjoying once-in-a-lifetime opportunities together. From meeting, collaborating and dining together to exploring onshore locations by day and socializing at night, our attendees unanimously loved the experience. I constantly communicate with my sales representative to develop new opportunities to book Lindblad and pair our clients with the right itinerary and ship.

Read this next: On the Scene: Destination Canada’s Legendary Winter Incentive Experience in Quebec City

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About the author
Jeff Heilman | Senior Contributor

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based independent journalist Jeff Heilman has been a Meetings Today contributor since 2004, including writing our annual Texas and Las Vegas supplements since inception. Jeff is also an accomplished ghostwriter specializing in legal, business and Diversity & Inclusion content.