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Creating custom vacations is a trip for Solana Beach man

SOLANA BEACH — When Solana Beach resident John Spence entered the workforce he had one objective.

“My goal was never to make money,” he said. “I wanted to have a job that I was passionate about.”

A “farmer’s boy” born and raised in England, Spence said he always liked the outdoors so he moved to Cape Town, South Africa, at 22. To supplement his income from tending bar, he served as a “guide,” showing visitors the local scenery.

“I love that frontier spirit, just packing up and driving into the bush to look for animals,” he said. “I didn’t know it then but a lot of people would fly from all around the world to go on safaris.

“To get paid to canoe people down the Zambezi River or drive a land rover packed with goodies to the middle of the Okavango Delta and Botswana is pretty cool,” he added.

One of his clients was an investor from La Jolla. “He told me if I came up with a decent business plan he might be interested.”

In 1999 Spence founded Aardvark Safaris, with offices in the United Kingdom, offering customized vacations in African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zanzibar.

After making presentations to promote the company in San Diego, Spence knew he wanted to someday expand the business here.

“I was arrogantly confident I had a good following of clients in the area who knew me,” he said. “And no one in the area was providing custom safaris, which is often a bucket list item.”

In 2009 he moved his family — wife and vice president of operations, Emma, and children, Jack and Lily — to Del Mar and opened an office on Cedros Avenue.

A few months ago Spence announced the sale of Aardvark to Scott Dunn, a London-based high-end travel company considered a favorite by readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine.

The business was looking to expand its operations to the United States and chose Solana Beach for its location and Spence as president of Scott Dunn USA.

“It was flattering to have Scott Dunn pick San Diego,” Spence said. “It’s a sexy opportunity for the high-end traveler.”

With about 80 percent of his business coming by word-of-mouth from previous clients, he contacted about 750 people who had traveled through Aardvark to let them know about the change.

With access to Scott Dunn resources, Spence is now beginning to offer customized vacations throughout the world. He is looking to increase his staff by Christmas and find a larger office space in Solana Beach, where he and his family recently moved.

To plan a trip, Spence said he first conducts an in-depth interview with potential clients. He said he wants to know when, where and why people want to travel, if anyone has special needs such as health or dietary issues and what they want to see and do.

For example, he can tell people when and where the best time to see elephants in the wild is. If clients want to visit Italy, he wants to know if they want to focus on food, wine, historic landmarks or all of the above.

“We customize everything around who you are traveling with,” he said. “I want to know the best and worst holiday you’ve ever had and why. Do you want to camp? Or do you prefer Cadillac camping and want someone to put up the tent and make sure your gin and tonic has ice in it?”

Spence said he then creates a “turnkey” vacation.

“We hold your hand, from the planning process to you getting on the airplane,” he said. “And from the moment you’re there we pay someone to hold your hand.”

A 24/7 phone answering service is also available should something go wrong, such as getting stuck at the airport, to provide “peace of mind,” Spence said.

He said a two-week personalized African safari costs about $10,000 per person, plus airfare and tips. But the cost varies depending on the destination, with Europe and Asia likely to be a little less expensive.

Spence said contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessarily cheaper to travel in a group or better to use a travel agency.

His employees are required to visit and familiarize themselves with each destination so they can make recommendations. Each agent specializes in a particular area.

“They get paid to go on holiday,” he said, noting that travel agents “can’t possibly go everywhere in the world.”

Many of the vacations Spence plans are “normally a bucket-list thing,” he said. “But they’re not just all rich people.

“I had a lovely lady that had terminal cancer who wanted to take her grandchild on a trip,” he added. “The Make-A-Wish Foundation called us up and said they had a child who wanted to see a cheetah so we came up with a trip that could accommodate his health limitations.”

Despite his many travels, Spence said he doesn’t have a favorite location. But the acquisition by Scott Dunn allows him to check off a few destinations on his bucket list, such as “Galapagos to see the wildlife there and Patagonia because it sounds wild and wonderful and India.”

“Back in the day I was sort of winging it, making it up as I went along and got away with it,” he said. “And here I am now, making a living out of it. So it’s worked out pretty well for me.”