Alumni Spotlight: Q&A with Michael Bennett, Chief Adventure Officer at Explorer X
BY Managing News Editor
Michael Bennett is one of the founders and the Chief Adventure Officer of Explorer X, a company that “designs custom travel experiences and small group adventures,” according to its website.
Bennett graduated from the university in 2000 with a degree in business administration, though he focused on international marketing. He was also a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and spent time working at a charter school. His most influential experience, however, was studying abroad.
“At the end of the day, the most powerful experience I had at Delaware was the short-term study abroad to Costa Rica, which was in January and February of ‘99,” he said.
The Review talked with Bennett about how this experience impacted his business and life.
Why was studying abroad so powerful for you?
Going to Costa Rica for me was a really powerful experience because I wanted to explore other cultures. What I didn’t realize beforehand was how powerful and important it would be for me to really understand myself.
So this idea that we go on these outer journeys, if you will, to these destinations around the world, but as or even more importantly… we go on a really deep and meaningful inner journey and connect with who we are, better understand ourselves and really increase self-awareness.
What did you learn about yourself?
I think the key experience for me within that experience was when I got hit by a car [about two weeks into the trip]. I got away relatively unscathed … As I was recovering from that over the next few weeks, I had a lot of time to sit around with my journal and sort of reflect and write — I kept thinking to myself, I could have died here, maybe I should have died.
Now, here I am as a junior at Delaware: I’ve been floating through classes — enjoying them all, but not doing it intentionally. [I asked myself] What do I want to do? Where do I go with my education? Where do I want to go with my life? I’ve got to be more mindful — I can’t just float through because life is short …
What came out of this was I developed this intense and deep passion for helping others, education and travel. And so then, I really tried to focus all of my energy for the rest of my time at Delaware on all or some of those things in combination.
So then you graduate, and I understand you didn’t immediately start Explorer X.
Correct. When I graduated I started doing work for a small semiconductor factory company doing marketing. I realized after about a day and a half that it was a terrible job — maybe not for somebody else, but for me it was not a good fit … eventually I got fired.
Bennett explained that he got fired because a coworker was going to Europe, and Bennett would spend much of his work day helping that coworker plan his trip. He then began to do recruiting for a graduate school. In this job, he was able to travel and mentor students. He still has the thank you notes from students he helped. He then pursued his master’s degree and studied abroad in Copenhagen. During this time he learned about organizational business and leadership. He then decided to pursue a doctorate in education focused on organizational and personal leadership.
As I started getting closer to having to pick out what I wanted to do my dissertation on … I talked to my advisor and I said, ‘Hey, I think I want to study how travel, I think, is the ultimate tool for self-awareness, and how travel can then really create better cultural communication, can foster understanding and all of this other stuff.’
So, that’s what I studied, and I came up with these eight key findings of people — that when they go on a travel experience, they all sort of did and went through a similar process … and so then I said [let me] take this model and build my own travel company to support others who want to go and have a similar experience, but don’t really know how to do it.
Bennett then started Muddy Shoe, a travel company for small group tours. After meeting fellow entrepreneur Jake Haupert, who began EverGreen Escapes, a travel company that dealt with individual trips, the two decided to join forces, and Explorer X was born at the end of 2017.
What makes Explorer X different from other travel companies?
I think the core of what makes Explorer X [different] is that we look at travel very holistically … we want to customize the actual trip for you, the actual travel experience. We want to know what foods do you like, what foods do you not like, are you a morning person, are you an evening person. We really try to do a very deep dive into [getting to know the traveler].
We also look at it thinking back to the idea that travel should be a powerful and life-changing experience. We talk to the traveler before they leave — not just about where you want to go and what you want to do, but we talk about why you’re going and how you can make this a more meaningful experience. How do you travel more consciously? How do you travel with more intention and more purpose? How do you bring more mindfulness to this experience for yourself and for others [who are natives of your destination]. We try to bring this mindset — this traveler’s mindset if you will — to your experience and to help you prepare for it, and really hopefully help you engage with it in a deeper way.
[After the trip] we get into these really great conversations with people about not only was your guide okay and did you like your hotel, but much more importantly we talk about what [you learned], what surprised you, what challenged you, what parts of yourself [you reconnected] with on this trip. Maybe you traveled with a partner or with a friend — how did you guys connect in a meaningful way on this trip?
And, ultimately, as you’re asking all of these questions, it comes down to what are you going to change, what has changed for you, what will change for you, what will be different as a result of this trip, and we try to get them to really think about that.
Bennett used the example of one of his previous clients — a 30-year-old, recently divorced woman. He said she attributed a new sense of confidence from the trip. After returning she signed her divorce papers, which she had been putting off for years, asked for a promotion she had been wanting, got the promotion and bought a new home.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your college-aged self?
This may sound a little hokey but this is a time to really listen to your heart, which is not something a lot of college kids want to hear. Find out what you want to do, find out what you’re really passionate about, what would be really exciting for you to do for the next five or ten years.
I know I got really caught up with what do I want to do with my life, and that’s daunting. How about what do I want to do for the next five years or three years? Start thinking smaller, and know and trust that that’s going to evolve. You’re going to see things and meet people, you’re going to have crazy experiences — travel and otherwise — along the way. That’s going to really take you on this whole journey of where you might go next.
Listen to your heart. Don’t listen to what your parents have to say necessarily, don’t worry so much about what your friends might think or any of those things. Try to connect with your own passions, your own interests and don’t worry about money. I know it’s easy to say, but… Joseph Campbell says “follow your bliss.” Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.