Arksen is no ordinary yacht business. Here a fleet of robust vessels take members on grand expeditions accompanied by explorers and scientists, artists and filmmakers. The trade-off is that customers must dedicate a certain percentage of their vessel’s time to support vital marine research and conservation projects. Ultimately, Arksen’s mission is to inject purpose into luxury travel and to facilitate philanthropic adventures.
Jasper Smith is the brain behind Arksen. He is an explorer and an entrepreneur with a portfolio of highly successful businesses – PlayJam, The Fantastic Corporation and Optimistic Entertainment – all built and sold at a handsome profit. Smith now runs an investment firm which finances promising European start-ups. Having spoken with Smith following his company’s announcement last February, we reconnected to see how his venture is developing in light of the coronavirus pandemic and growing concern over the climate crisis.
Nargess Banks: This has been a devastating time for so many individuals and businesses. The pandemic must have also disrupted your plans, since you were in the midst of establishing Arksen.
Jasper Smith: The pandemic has been a tragedy for millions – you cannot ignore its economic, social and individual impact. However, for a business like Arksen, which offers the opportunity to get truly off the grid and escape the rat race, it has been remarkable.
NB: How so?
JS: Each of us has felt the effects of the pandemic in different ways, but one thing that shines through is our desire to set off on adventures and to feel the great outdoors. People have started to dream bigger, to plan further ahead, to commit to a different lifestyle. Arksen is an enabler of a new way of life that embraces adventure, science and philanthropy. We exist only to allow people to take the first step towards their greatest adventures.
NB: Arksen’s proposition certainly chimes with the times. What has been your experience though, running a business through the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown?
JS: More than anything we have learnt about the power and humility of our community and team. Locking the world up for a period of time was an emotional shock for everyone. For some people the experience was great, while for others it was perhaps the biggest ordeal they have ever been through.
NB: How did it impact on you?
JS: I was amazed at how the business of running a business became gentler and more team focused. It has become more socially geared. I have been encouraged to see investors become more supportive of our huge endeavor than ever before. Our customers are more engaged, our community more committed.
NB: Do you see this shift in attitude driving the future of your business?
JS: It was interesting to see the business thrive without much infrastructure. In that sense it has been very empowering because it took away the self-imposed boundaries that we had put around teams and businesses, to open up a more dynamic and global outlook. Our focus at Arksen has always been on building the very best machines that money can buy. What is liberating is that we now feel that we can do that on a bigger scale.
NB: Since we last spoke, you have teamed up with expedition experts Pelorus to form the “Rally Series”. These are voyages to some of the wildest oceans and designed to be, according to your website, “Narnia style adventures through awe inspiring parts of our world”. It all sounds rather intriguing…
JS: Running through the design of all our “explorers’ club” adventures is a desire to take people beyond the normal realms of experience and provide life-enhancing journeys. This led naturally into developing our own set of rallies which are open to all capable vessels as a way to extend our purpose beyond that of our own fleet of vessels and encourages others to alter the way they view exploration.
NB: How directed are these trips?
JS: These are a carefully curated set of itineraries focused on conservation and research activities as well as a menu of exciting adventure sports and cultural explorations at each of the locations. For instance, the “Viking Rally” – open to both private and charter vessels – starts from the West Highlands of Scotland, travel to Norway and onto Lofoten and the volcanic Jan Mayen island in the arctic ocean, continuing onto Iceland and Greenland, cruising the Labrador Coast, then mooring in Halifax.
NB: What has the reception been like?
JS: It seems like there is a real appetite for these of kind adventures! Marine rallies have been done before, but this blend of voyaging in company, with a mix of conservation and adventure sports on location, is alluring.
NB: You have also partnered with other ecological organizations including the Coral Reef Alliance and Yachts for Science, as well as initiated the “10% for the Ocean” campaign. Can you explain these initiatives?
JS: Yachts for Science gives scientists greater access to the oceans by matching them with vessels and routes to continue their research. This way we can encourage yacht owners to host vital ocean explorations while we are building our own research capable vessels. It also helps shift the existing paradigm of travel as well as improve the utilization of these vessels. You know currently less than 1% of philanthropic funding goes towards ocean related causes. Given that the ocean covers 71% of the earth’s surface and supports 94% of the planets’ species, we see this deficit as a systemic failing, posing a huge risk to a sustainable future.
NB: You are clearly deeply concerned about our environment. When did the fire start?
JS: Harking back to my days as a climber, I felt a connection to the world around me and I felt responsible for protecting the environment I love to explore. And I am noticing a stark change in the environment from one visit to the next. On a recent trip, looking across Greenland’s vast ice-covered landscapes, I could see the glaciers collapsing before my eyes! It is both humbling and frightening. How can I promise my children a safe future, if I’m not doing all I can?
NB: And you are in a position to make change…
JS: As an entrepreneur, with the means to operate in a different capacity and the influence to drive change, it is almost an obligation to do what is possible – be part of the solution.
NB: The world appears to be (mostly) waking up to the reality of the climate emergency and is talking more notice of the impending crisis. Are you optimistic?
JS: While I am optimistic about the current shift in environmental awareness and with some movement in governmental policy, I am anxiously aware of the remaining systemic changes required to genuinely make a difference. Governments must keep the balance of policy frameworks towards a lower carbon future, continue investment and incentives toward innovation and education in this sector to enable it to flourish.
NB: And how about progress in the traditional marine world?
JS: We are not blindsided that our journey ahead will be a smooth ride, but we are committed. We want to lead by example, provide the opportunities for others to change – be it though altering the distribution of philanthropic funding, granting greater access to the ocean for vital research, advocating for more adventures with purpose and conservation in mind.
NB: In the wake of this pandemic, I’m hearing an overwhelming push towards readdressing travel, especially in the luxury sphere, to be at the vanguard of progress, be responsive and responsible for the environment. Arksen, in many ways, embodies this ideal. How should we view and value the post-pandemic luxury landscape?
JS: The post-pandemic recovery presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset our relationship with business, consumerism and the planet. Capital drives change and so in the first instance, it is essential that all capital flows are linked to sustainable outcomes. We will not get a second chance. As Mark Carney said, whilst governor of the Bank of England: climate disclosure must become comprehensive, climate risk management must be transformed and sustainable investing must go mainstream.
NB: How do you relate this to luxury travel?
JS: This, more than the definition of luxury in a post-pandemic world, must be the mantra of recovery. Achieving positive momentum towards sustainability will enable us to redefine luxury as the opportunity to live comfortably today without depleting the resources that may be required by future generations. There is no perfect today – the carbon footprint of a boat or a car is huge. But what we can do now is invest in technologies, systems and processes that promote rapid change. We can design products that embrace the principals of a circular economy: design out waste, design for longevity, design for reuse, repair and recycling.
NB: How would you summarize this?
JS: The definition of a luxury product becomes one that is built with these principals, with heart and soul and with purpose… ideally, one that opens doors to a new world of experiences.
NB: Are you optimistic about the future?
JS: We spent so much time sailing when my children were young. I loved teaching them about the fragility of the oceans and its ecosystems, then watching them take it all in with eager eyes and open minds. I have only recently understood the full impact of exposing them to all this at a young age. I have been amazed by their passion and advocacy for the current environmental issues and their drive to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other young activists and make sure the message is heard loud and clear. It is the youth of today who are teaching those in positions of power and influence how we should all be more proactive in generating change – in taking responsibility for our own actions.
Learn more about the Arksen project here, read about an interesting transport initiatives through a collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Mercedes-Benz to rethink luxury car design and see the Lexus-sponsored building project which works with smart open-source planning to create affordable communities with sustainable clean water resources in Kenya.