Up Norway offers new views of the old country
Bespoke itineraries offer fresh perspectives
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
— Mark Twain
You thought Norway’s greatest export was scenery. That will always be important, but Torunn Tronsvang, founder of Up Norway, has developed a novel idea for a travel agency. Use Norway as the stage or prop to promote the culture and values inherent to the country.
About 10 years ago, Tronsvang was working in luxury tourism in Dubai, Switzerland, Bhutan, Thailand, and the Maldives.
“Norway was not really taken seriously as a travel destination,” said Tronsvang in a Zoom interview with Editor-in-Chief Lori Ann Reinhall and me when she was visiting Norway House in Minneapolis.
“What we were marketing abroad was really limited and very boring. I met many travelers who were super curious about Norway, but they never ended up going there. Then, I moved back to Norway, and I started working as a hospitality consultant. I traveled extensively all over the country. I realized that the best of what Norway has to offer is kept secret from international travelers. So with new digital marketing and sales channels on the horizons, it seemed quite obvious to me that someone should start a business to connect international travelers with the very best of what Norway has to offer.”
Why shouldn’t that someone be her?
“I didn’t have any capital,” she said. “I didn’t know how to start a business. I decided to go back to school, and I did my master’s thesis on Up Norway as a business idea. I basically remortgaged my apartment, got the money to do my college degree, and did just that. Around the same time, the Norwegian Research Council introduced a program where they said that they would give $100,000 each to one million Norwegian students who wanted to realize their own business ideas. I applied, scored the capital that I needed, quit my job, and I got started. That was in 2016.”
There are several Norwegian cultural attitudes that drive the company. One is to get travelers to slow down. Travel doesn’t have to involve being flustered or anxious, waiting in long lines, or rushing to make the next item on the tour group itinerary. This is connected to the concept of “kos.”
“Kos is equivalent to the Danish notion of hygge,” explained Tronsvang. “This is the sense or feeling that you have in Norway when you have the time to get immersed, like sitting in front of a crackling fire, seeing the sun set into the ocean from a nice cabin, or enjoying a good meal by just peeling cold shrimps, putting them on the white toast with mayo and lemon. It’s all these small things that are part of our culture that gives you this feeling of ‘I don’t want to be anywhere else than where I am exactly at this moment with these people.’ That’s kos. You can’t achieve kos if you do things fast. You need to be present in the moment.”
Can we fast-paced Americans achieve kos, when we might have only a couple of weeks of vacation?
“We tell them that, ‘no, you can’t do all these things within this short time span,’” she said. “We use technology to be able to get a closer dialogue with people, to be able to map out their interests, motivations, who they are, to match them with the right experience. So if people tell us, ‘we want to go here, here, here,’ we say, ‘tell me why you want to do that? What motivates you? What is your reason for doing this journey?’ By doing that mapping, we can easily say, okay, well, you shouldn’t go here, you should do this.”
Experiential cultural travel
What is experiential cultural travel? On the Up Norway website, Tronsvang writes, “I set out to create a company designed to fulfill the most thoughtful travelers’ interest in experiences off the beaten path—and closer to heart in terms of authenticity, involvement, and connection. I hoped to do so while creating better practices in ecotourism and responsible social impact. The more I looked at the challenges of traveling in responsible ways, the more I realized those I hoped to serve were already passionate about being part of a culture of global solutions.
“To my delight, it was clear that many of those answers could be found and exemplified in our Norwegian lifestyle. By recognizing this new traveler, less interested in jockeying for positions in line at crowded destinations, I knew I could present an authentic culture at its best.”
There is so much thought that has gone into the nature of the company and even the name Up Norway touches many spheres.
“I wanted to have a name that was easy and scalable if we decided to go to Scandinavia or the Nordics,” explained Tronsvang.
“I wanted to say a lot in little, so ‘Up.’ Most people have to go up north to get to Norway. Everything we do is upgraded. It should feel like you are on a priority ticket through Norway. When you travel with Up Norway, it’s also about Norway. It’s about getting up, about being active. It’s not about sitting or lying on the beach, it’s about getting up from the chair and out. At the time, I had just watched the Disney movie, Up, which is about an old man whose wife dies. Then, he puts hot air balloons on his house and goes out into the world to fulfill their dreams. We fulfill people’s dreams. For us, there’s a lot of meaning in those two letters.”
If you visit the Up Norway website, there are two ways to book travel, choose among their packages or have a journey tailor made for your interests. Choose from: New Views from the Old Country; Tracing Norway’s Super Women; Magical Northern Lights at 70 Degrees North; The Lofoten Islands and Manshausen Sea Cabins: Nature and Culture in Harmony; A Frozen Fairy Tale—Explore Northern Norway in Anna and Elsa’s Footsteps; Hop on the Arctic Circle Express Train; Ski Down the Fjords of the Sunnmøre Alps; Bergen, Ålesund, and Beyond—Heritage Awakened; Modern Luxury in the Realm of Norwegian Folklore; Norway for Foodies—A Journey through Trøndelag; Norway’s Arctic Circle Region: Myths and Marvels in Helgeland; The Discovery Route-Is this Norway’s Most Sustainable Journey?; Finding “Kos” by Traveling Slow; Far Out in Svalbard; Give Me Møre, and World’s Most Northernmost Roadtrip.
Clicking on a trip provides the itinerary, description, and sustainability impact.
To create a personalized journey, prospective travelers answer a series of questions: what kind of vacation interests you?(six choices); season traveling; what are you particularly interested in doing? (seven choices); type of accommodations desired (five categories).
Up Norway has developed a vast network of partners and will research new partners, depending on the request. About 72% of a client’s dollar goes to the partners. They also work closely with Visit Norway and Innovation Norway. Up Norway has developed its own proprietary software to store their travel experiences, images, provide digital itineraries to guests, and should something go wrong, the ability for the traveler to communicate with Up Norway staff.
Many people don’t realize how big geographically Norway is and that it takes a longer time to get to certain locations, especially in the north. Up Norway has a minimum of four nights, an additional three for journeys, say, to Svalbard well above the Arctic Circle. Up Norway doesn’t do much group travel but works with a lot of solo travelers, mainly women, from age 40 to 60.
“We explain that [a minimum of nights] is because of sustainability and [that] the carbon footprint travels longer and fewer times rather than shorter and many times,” said Tronsvang.
“We don’t want people to travel with us and just touch the surface. We want them to really get immersed so they gain new knowledge. We need to facilitate cross-cultural conversations that are meaningful.
“The sustainability goal that we identify the closest is to ‘the protect and strengthen the world’s natural and cultural heritage.’ Norway does a lot when it comes to culture by communicating what our traditions are, what our culture is, and bringing that culture back to life—not just showing it off at a museum but basically making people live that culture. We invest on behalf of every traveler in carbon compensation schemes. We encourage every traveler to combine using local, public, and private transportation, to do what the locals do, take part in the Nordic lifestyle. When we send people on an express boat that’s hybrid or book a rental car that’s hybrid or electric, we tell them why we do it. We’re focusing on small, independently owned businesses, and trying to distribute travelers all over the country. In a way, we’re contributing to keeping the districts alive, which is a big part of the Norwegian way of thinking.”
Tracing Norway’s Superwomen is a good example of accentuating Norway’s positives. It takes people on a journey to Oslo, Kongsvinger, and Steilneset in the north, and Fedje, outside of Bergen.
“We look at Norway’s strengths, try to develop concepts around that and portray it to international travelers,” said Tronsvang.
“We know Norway scores extremely high on gender equality. We wanted to take guests on a historic, geographic, and cultural journey through the development of those egalitarian values.
“Steilneset is this beautiful art monument, cost millions of Norwegian kroner to make, in the middle of nowhere. It tells this story about how women were burned at the stake as witches back in the 17th century when they challenged the local patriarchy.
“Then, we’re in Fedje, an island home to a collective of entrepreneurial spirited women. When I say spirited, I really mean it because they’re using whiskey as a force for good. They’re distilling what’s going to become the world’s best single malt. They have only women investors because more women need to learn how to take risk and invest because most of the world’s stock is still owned by men. Initiatives like this can help shift that balance. We still have a way to go, but this is the journey that women have gone through. We wanted to share that story.”
One of their favorite tailor-made trips was for United Therapuetics, who wanted to make a research trip to study mass timber structures. “They wanted to build the most environmentally friendly pharmaceutical production unit in the world,” said Tronsvang. “We set up a research trip where we took them to Mjøstårnet, which is the world’s tallest wooden building, near Lake Mjøsa. They met with the construction team and the suppliers of the different materials, and learned about fire safety.”
On the flip side, the most difficult experiences were specific athletes who came to Norway to run a marathon and requested a nurse who they expected to administer performance-enhancing drugs on race day, illegal in Norway.
Up Norway has also invented new travel terminology, such as travel curator and Head of Journeys.
“An art curator will curate an art collection by choosing different pieces of art that they’ll put together in one collection for a museum or a private collector,” explained Tronsvang. “That’s what we do for travel. We pick out all these different experiences and we curate them in one seamless journey, logistically sound and targeting exactly those specific interests of that person who is going on that journey. That’s why we call it travel curator, because what we do is really a profession. It’s not just pick and choose randomly.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day and Up Norway sees its impact taking one trip at a time.
“Why this drive, hard work to start a company when you don’t know how to do it, to continue to try to make it work, going through the pandemic when our complete market disappeared?” said Tronsvang.
“Why struggle so hard and make this my life? Norway has so many good values that we stand for. We continue to score among the highest in the world on the achievement of the sustainability goals, the Global Happiness Index, gender equality; we have built the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. If we can use travel to showcase the best of what Norway has to offer, maybe we can then slowly influence a few people a little bit, and then send them back to their own countries with this new inspiration, enrichment, and just being inspired to make positive change. Whether it’s for themselves, their business, their family, their friends, the world they live in. That’s what we want to achieve. I think that makes what we do really meaningful.”
All photos provided by Up Norway
This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.