Q & A with Dr. Tom Pfeiffer, Founder, VolcanoDiscovery – St. Wendel, Germany
“An educational tour company led by volcanologists and photographers.”
YOU’RE A SCIENTIST - HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN THE TOURISM BUSINESS?
Back in 1997, I worked as a guide for a few months in Santorini, Greece, leading geology-themed walking tours. So as I continued my education at university pursuing a master’s and then a PhD degree, I continued to organize occasional tours and traveled to other volcano locations. Gradually all this organizing, photographing, and writing about volcanoes became the core of my life. By the time I finished my PhD, I knew that this was what I wanted to do – sharing my fascination and knowledge about volcanoes with others and taking them on journeys because that’s what I enjoyed the most.
HOW HAS YOUR COMPANY DEVELOPED SINCE YOUR FIRST YEAR?
When I started out, it was not clear to me whether this venture would provide a sustainable income - but my confidence grew after a few years. As things got more stable, I added several new destinations and types of services (website, photo calendars, app with interactive features). Now the business is run with two persons working in the home office plus a small number of team members out in the field. The operation is a lot more organized now.
Because volcanic activity speaks to our senses. It represents a basic element of nature - fire and earth - to which we instinctively have an attraction. It’s similar to how we feel when we look at the sky, the ocean, and other primordial elements. Also, each volcano has its own character; no two are exactly alike, and that’s interesting. Volcanoes influence people - they contribute to local culture, myths and legends. Last but not least, many volcanoes are simply beautiful to look at - take Mt. Fuji in Japan. Of course, volcanic eruptions can be dangerous and cause destruction, but in reality that doesn’t happen as often as the media suggests.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR RANGE OF GUESTS?
They vary, but most have some sort of interest in nature in general and active holidays, like walking or hiking. Most like the idea of some sort of adventure, something they don’t do every day. Some do have an interest in geology. Many are keen photographers. A certain group could be called volcano lovers: they’re sort of like storm chasers, they follow volcano eruptions and special tours designed for this. They come from all over the world, I’d say they tend to be in the 40 – 60 age range, and mostly they are single travelers or couples with grown children.
DO YOUR GUESTS HAVE TO HAVE A CERTAIN LEVEL OF FITNESS?
We offer a large variety of tours – from easy excursions to more strenuous climbs. So at least most people can do and enjoy the easy ones. On the other side, for the Guatemala tour for example, we climb more than 1500 m to camp at a 3700 m elevation – so you need to be fit for that one. However, we don't do extreme tours, we stay well below an elevation of 4000 m, so for most people an average level of fitness is enough.
English is our default language, but all our guides speak at least one more language. Depending on the group, we can offer tours in German, French, Italian, and Spanish.
DO YOU PROVIDE ALL THE NECESSARY GEAR?
This varies. Normally, we provide camping gear if needed and guests only bring their own sleeping bag. We also provide special equipment where necessary (rope, safety helmets etc).
WHAT KIND OF HIKING SHOES ARE BEST?
Shoes should cover your ankles (to prevent twisting) and be of good quality. You don’t want them to rip open easily when walking over blocky lava, for instance.
HOW CAN GUESTS BEST PROTECT THEIR CAMERA WHILE TREKKING UP AN ACTIVE VOLCANO?
We say keep your cameras in a camera bag when not using them. Use a dust blower to clean them regularly, and cover most of the camera with plastic bags if the air is ashy. We do try to avoid being in the direction of any blowing ash, however.
We pride ourselves in being able to offer high quality meals that reflect the local cuisine of wherever we’re touring. What is available is hugely dependent on location. On a tour in Italy, for example, you can expect some delicious Sicilian menus. In other places, the guides and cooks will be the ones preparing the meals often cooked over a camp fire outside. Either way, our guests will probably be surprised how great the food can be.
ONE OF YOUR DESTINATIONS IS THE SOUTH PACIFIC ISLAND NATION OF VANUATU - BUT THEY EXPERIENCED A HORRIFIC CYCLONE EARLIER THIS YEAR. SO IS THAT TOUR ON HOLD?
The damage caused by the typhoon has been repaired mostly by now. The major infrastructure is back in place. The people of Vanuatu are very hospitable and welcoming, and it’s a great trip. Tourism is very important to their local economy, so by all means join us for a trip there and help support the local people.
YOU OFFER DISCOUNTS TO REPEAT GUESTS. PLEASE EXPLAIN.
Returning customers receive a 5% discount on most tours. They get an 8% discount if they have traveled four or more times with us before.
IN SUMMARY, WHAT DO YOU HOPE TRAVELERS GAIN FROM YOUR TOURS?
I want them to have the feeling of having spent an interesting, fun and wonderful time with like-minded people. I hope they have learned something about certain volcanoes and locations, and that it was such a good experience that they want to travel with us again. In short, we hope someone comes as a guest and leaves as a friend.
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