Francesco Galli Zugaro

Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO & Founder of Aqua Expeditions
After working in sales and marketing in the Galapagos for a few years, Francesco decided there was a need in the market for luxurious river boats, in untapped locations. He explored some various options, and settled on the untouched Peruvian Amazon and the Pacaya Samiria Reserve out of Iquitos Peru.

MailPound: What is your professional background?

Francesco: Prior to founding Aqua Expeditions, I was VP of Marketing and Sales for a luxury cruise operator in the Galapagos. It was there that I fell in love with small ship cruising and the luxury expedition industry.

MailPound: Why did you choose to work in the travel industry?

Francesco: I have been a traveler since a young age, and it has always been an integral part of my life. I have lived in fourteen countries and speak four languages. Now, Singapore is home and the travel bug has stuck with me.

MailPound: How did you begin your career?

Francesco: I was an analyst for the Italian Trade Commission in New York, right after finishing college and this experience opened my eyes to the luxury consumer goods industry.

MailPound: What inspired you to start your own company, Aqua Expeditions?

Francesco: After working in sales and marketing in the Galapagos for a few years, I decided there was a need in the market for luxurious river boats, in untapped locations. I explored some various options, and settled on the untouched Peruvian Amazon and the Pacaya Samiria Reserve out of Iquitos Peru.

MailPound: Could you tell us a bit about your tours in the Amazon and the Mekong?

Francesco: The tours on the Amazon start in the inland port city of Iquitos, the biggest city in the world disconnected by roads, and venture into the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve—the vast region of flooded forests, black water river estuaries and small local communities. The 16-suite Aria Amazon explores the heart of the Amazon region, seeing the wide variety of birds, river and land animals including the pink river dolphin. It’s the closest thing to an African Safari experience in South America, an immersive nature experience coupled with luxury accommodations and world-class cuisine, designed by executive Peruvian chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino.

The Aqua Mekong travels from Siem Reap to Phnom Phen in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The 20-cabin luxury cruiser offers twice daily excursions on the water or visits to local communities, temples, artisans and markets, giving the guests an opportunity to explore the cultural life that thrives alongside the river. Daily adventures here vary by a fleet of private tenders, bikes, kayaks or tuk tuks.

MailPound: What’s coming next?

Francesco: I did not move to Asia just for one cruiser. The future for Aqua holds a lot of excitement I hope. I am looking at several new areas to launch boats that are not necessarily river-based. We are looking at locations in South East Asia and another in South America.

MailPound: What do you enjoy about the river cruises that you have set up?

Francesco: I spend a lot of time onboard for quality control and I genuinely enjoy going on all the excursions. However, most exciting to me is the guests that are onboard. We attract the most well travelled and adventurous individuals and that makes for the best adventure possible. The excursions change daily, and this allows for our guests to really get out and explore and in very small groups with world-class guides immerse themselves in local culture with a high degree of interpretation.

It’s the authentic experiences that differentiate our itineraries from others in the field, whether it be piranha fishing in the Amazon, having a pick-up game of soccer in a local community; visiting a silk-making community in Cambodia, or buying goods at a local market in Vietnam. I’ve tried to create activities that allow our guests to have enriching moments that create lasting memories.

MailPound: How has your professional experiences changed your perspective on river cruises?

Francesco: There is a common misconception that river cruising is for the retired and non-active. I would only build own and operate cruisers that provide “Soft Adventures” in exotic destinations. Our clients are actually not the traditional cruising clientele. They love African safaris, Antarctica, Galapagos etc. We spend a lot of time and resources educating both the trade and consumers not to make that confusion.

MailPound: What trends in the travel industry do you foresee in the near future? What about the long term?

Francesco: I think multigenerational travel will continue to grow as well as experiential travel. People want to create memories, and connect with their experiences. I consider myself a very good example of our clients, with three teenage kids. All I look forward to is spending quality time with them and experiencing those “wow” moments that will define them as global citizens as they enter this competitive world.

The sort of trips that open the mind and create more awareness of global issues and make us more sensitive to pressing issues while enjoying this amazing planet we live in is what we look for. Of course, all of this we want in beautiful settings with world-class service and without sacrificing any creature comforts we have come to expect.

MailPound: What do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment in your career?

Francesco: Most of all I am proud to have built a brand. Today, AQUA EXPEDITIONS is a small yet recognized player in the Small Ship Expeditions business. Secondly, I am proud to have a global footprint. Having moved the company and family to Singapore to build and launch the Aqua Mekong was a serious challenge and accomplishment.

I basically had to start from scratch in Asia. Having to make personal contacts and creating a business in Vietnam and Cambodia presented language and cultural barriers that I was able to overcome but it took a lot out of me. I could not have done it without the support of an amazing wife and three amazing children.

MailPound: Are you a member of any professional associations?

Francesco: I am a member of the Singapore Chapter of The Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and very engaged with it.

MailPound: What about this organization do you find yourself most passionate about?

Francesco: YPO is a life-enriching network of the world’s leading CEO and entrepreneurs. It’s like having an honorary board of the world’s best businesspeople.

MailPound: In the classic saying, “I wish I knew what I know now, when I was younger,” what are some things that you wish you had known ahead of time?

Francesco: That doing what makes you happy is the key and success will come naturally. Making money should never be the driving force. Do what you love. I consider myself very lucky as I knew what I wanted to do and what I loved doing at the age of 30. I am drilling into my kids to really follow their passions and persevere in it.

MailPound: Lastly, what are some fun facts about yourself?

Francesco: I have friends and family in just about every country I travel to. I am hyperactive and love being on the go all the time. I consider myself a risk taker, but I take calculated risks. I love a challenge and particular in business. I love my Negronis. I wish for the sake of my wife I was a better Salsa dancer. Oh, and I have been told I am an awful driver and with no dance rhythm, but I don’t care.