Profiting from the dark side of the moon
An eclipse lasts just minutes, but planning tours for enthusiasts of the dark is a full-time, multimillion-dollar business.
(Fortune Small Business) -- For a few suspenseful minutes on Aug. 1, complete darkness will engulf the midday sun in northern Canada, Russia, Mongolia and China. It's the next complete solar eclipse, and there's one small business owner who really, really wants to take you there.
Aram Kaprielian, 49, is the founder and president of TravelQuest International, an astronomy-themed tour operator in Prescott, Ariz. When he talks, you can tell that solar eclipses are his passion.
"Just imagine," he says excitedly. "The moon's shadow is moving across the earth at 1,000 miles an hour and you're standing in the light. You can see the darkness approaching. Then, all of a sudden, you're standing in the darkness. You turn around, and then you can see the darkness going off in the opposite direction.
"It's an amazing phenomena. The stars come out in the middle of the day. And here you are, standing with all these people who traveled to be part of this three- or four-minute spectacle. It's amazing."
Solar eclipses typically last no more than four or five minutes, but they're so sought after by astronomy enthusiasts that some will shell out more than $2,000, not including airfare, for a prime viewing experience. It's certainly a niche market, Kaprielian says, but it's in high demand: TravelQuest, which is staffed by a mere three permanent employees (additional staffers are hired on as trip guides), brings in about $6 million in revenue a year - provided there's a solar eclipse.
As for years like 2007, when there wasn't a total eclipse, Kaprielian concedes it makes for soft business. Sometimes, he'll fill the downtime with tours to see the aurora borealis or annular eclipses (where the Sun appears as a bright ring around the Moon); other years, he simply focuses on planning and booking tours for the next total eclipse.
This year's destinations include China, Russia and the North Pole. TravelQuest's packages range from $2,295 for a 4-day tour in Novosibirsk, Russia, to $59,800 for suite-style, single-occupancy cabin on a 17-day cruise to the North Pole. TravelQuest partners with Sky & Telescope magazine to create the itineraries, which include cultural travel to various landmarks and culminate in watching the solar eclipse at a spot chosen for optimal viewing.
While other competitors offer similar travels, TravelQuest goes to extremes: It's the only company to offer a flight to the North Pole that will follow August's solar eclipse. It's the company's second polar flight - the first was over Antarctica to see the 2003 eclipse. This year, $5,000 buys a window seat on the eclipse side of the plane.
For retired neurologist and amateur astronomer Michael Smith, the North Pole tour will be his 17th eclipse trip.
"Once you've seen one of these, many people get hooked," he says. "I don't know if it's the prettiest thing I've ever seen, but I'm willing to bet it's in the top three."
Smith and his wife, who live in Tucson, Ariz., have traveled to India, Egypt, Siberia and South Africa to see the eclipses. They were also on TravelQuest's Antarctica tour in 2003.
"Many say that traveling a long distance for a couple of minutes of totality is not worth the effort," he says. "But the time from start to totality is about an hour and a half, and excitement builds during that interval. It's similar to a sporting event that lasts two hours and has an exciting finish."
Kaprielian started TravelQuest in 1996, after working in the travel industry since the early 1980s. Like many entrepreneurs, he relied on plastic to get his labor of love off the ground: He ran up $20,000 in credit-card debt for startup costs before leading his first TravelQuest tour in 1998.
Ten years later, he's booked 700 travelers on solar-eclipse tours for this August, and he's already selling trips for 2009 and 2010. He's also fired up about his next big project: a flight to outer space. He's hoping for a 2010 launch, through a partnership with Virgin Galactic. The carrier aircraft, White Knight Two, is expected to begin flight-testing later in 2008, while spaceliner SpaceShipTwo is about 60% complete.
That trip will probably cost about $200,000 per person, Kaprielian says, but he's confident he can find six paying passengers to fill the seats.
"You'll get to experience space and weightlessness! You'll actually get to see the curvature of the earth," he says. "It sounds like a tough sell, but it's not such a stretch for some of our travelers."
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