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10 tips for travel startups to survive a crisis

8 Mar 2021

Brought to you by TravelPerk, the #1 business travel platform.

10 tips for travel startups to survive a crisis

In case you missed our CEO Avi Meir’s debut on Clubhouse last Tuesday, here’s a quick recap of his top tips for startups to survive a crisis. Special thanks to tech.eu and our host Andrii Degeler!

It’s March 2021. That marks a full year since the COVID-19 crisis turned the world on its head. There are a few moments in life that you will never forget. Your last leisure, business, or bleisure trip before the pandemic hit will be one of them. 

Startups in the travel sector are facing unprecedented challenges. Here at TravelPerk, for example, we had never had a better quarter than January-March 2020. Then in March, it all changed. We’re beyond proud not just that we’re still standing, but that we managed to emerge from this crisis stronger. 

How did we brave the winter? Our CEO Avi always likes to say that we were like “that badass bear that didn’t go into hibernation in the winter. Instead, s/he waited outside, faced the elements, and got a massive 6-pack because of it.” So, we decided to give startups in the travel industry a few tips on how to create a “survival 6-pack” in times of crisis. 

1. Go into “war-mode”

Cinema sign the world is closed

Most good war movies always have a scene where the main characters gather around an oak table in a dark room to plot their next move. Maps are everywhere. The room is full of smoke. There’s whiskey swishing from glass to glass.

You might not necessarily need that exact set-up, but the principle is sound. Gather your generals and buckle down to make a survival plan. Forget about all the priorities you had for the year so far. Say goodbye to your ambitious plans. Your #1 goal is to find a way to make it through the crisis. Realize that you need to adapt to the situation, and start planning the year from scratch in your new reality.

2. Adapt your product

Digital adapting to change

Travel is a uniquely “human” industry. Why something like business travel even exists is because of our innate need to form connections with others. For a travel startup to survive a crisis where no one is traveling, you need to understand this basic fact. Travel fills our fundamental need to connect. Once you get that, all you have to do is adapt your product to facilitate that in this environment

At TravelPerk, we thought about what products were working and what our customers would need in the future. Then, we looked at what we were offering and made improvements to suit the current situation. We realized that the ability to change or cancel trips would be key at this time. So, we took FlexiPerk, made it better, and made it available to more markets. We anticipated that people would need real-time access to information on travel restrictions both at home and at their destinations. So, we created TravelCare that gives our customers exactly this information at the point of booking.    

3. Adapt the way you do business

Hybrid work from home and office model

Remember that your people are also your product. Treat them right, treat them fairly, and give them a voice. The whole “management knows best” philosophy doesn’t work in a situation like this. Ask your people what they want, and what they’re comfortable with.

Flexibility in the way we work is the new normal. We went from being a 100% office-based company to a fully flexible one. Our team sees flexibility as a benefit—it makes them happier, and ultimately more productive. We’ve seen that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to running a company. The sooner you realize that being open to new ways of doing things is your friend, the better your business will be.

4. Be quick

Lights moving quickly through tunnel

Sure, it’s not a race. But it’s also not a marathon. Things move quickly in a crisis like this one. Just think about it—business travel alone was a $1.5 trillion industry pre-pandemic. That’s all being redesigned now from the ground up! Don’t be left behind.

Survival and success in these conditions are all about changing your roadmap at a high-speed. You need to match your customers’ needs and offer them a solution. In 2020, we had 268 significant product releases. In a normal year, we would probably have around 100. That’s not a coincidence, it’s resilience and adjusting to new patterns of travel. 

Data has a better idea in lights

Information is your best friend. Talk to your customers, analyze what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it. If they’re canceling trips—find out why. If they’re starting to book again—figure out what’s made them do so. Track which of your services they’re using, and interpret that to fit your new strategy.

We noticed a 60% uptick in our customer base in 2020 because of FlexiPerk. What does that mean? Business travelers need more flexibility when booking trips. They need the peace of mind that comes with knowing that if they need to change or cancel any aspect of a trip, they can. And they can get their money back. We also noticed other patterns, like business trips are now being taken to bring teams together for work, socializing, and team building. People are traveling domestically now more so than internationally. You can use information like this to inform and shape your strategic decision-making. 

6. Do things that have a direct impact

Car traveling through forest

Things like CSR, social impact, and sustainability aren’t just “nice-to-have” anymore. What you do matters. The world is changing and we can do something about it. At TravelPerk, we try to have a direct, positive impact on the environment. Why? It’s a pretty obvious answer. Let’s zoom out of COVID-19 for a second, and look into a hopefully not-so-distant future when COVID is a bad memory. What issues will prevail? Climate change.

The reason for that is also simple. Climate change is not a new challenge. It was something we needed to tackle before the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis did bring on a kind of “collective consciousness” about sustainability around the world and across different industries. We launched GreenPerk in March 2020, where our customers offset their carbon footprint for business trips, and have seen a growing demand for it ever since. With Texas totally snowed under this winter, and with last summer being one of the hottest on record, it’s time that we all realized the extent of this issue.  

7. Use the opportunity that’s been given

Storm trooper taking on a lamp

Now, it’s not about being opportunistic or a profiteer. It’s obviously not the ideal way to win by taking advantage of a difficult situation. That being said, it’s silly not to try to use an opportunity that has presented itself for your business. Yes, we are all going through a difficult time. We still have people on furlough. A way to get through that is to react to what’s going on in the market around you, and use it to create something good.

We acquired Albatross in 2020 to create TravelSafe API. It’s an open API that we offer to our customers and our competitors to provide point-to-point travel restriction information to travelers and travel managers. Then, we acquired NexTravel—a great team out of Silicon Valley. We got great talent, great customers, and a great product out of it. This was a good moment to take these opportunities seriously, and accelerate.

Don’t forget though, that you should only take opportunities where they make sense to your strategy. Don’t jump on something that’ll make you change direction completely. We had opportunities to acquire a book of business in China, for example, but we didn’t do that. We’re focused on the US and Europe because we have the best product in those markets. That’s not necessarily true in China, so our growth there didn’t make sense when the opportunity arose. Be smart and considerate in how you seize the day.

8. Think long-term

The world from a different perspective

It’s a really rare thing to have the chance to hit pause and think in a scaling business. Last year from about mid-April through to the end of May, we had that opportunity. We had gone through a huge surge in cancelations in March and were going through a quiet time in terms of customer activity and growth. So, we took this as a moment to reflect.

We asked ourselves “what new needs will our customers have in the years to come?”, and “what will the new business travel experience need to be like?”. We thought about our entire product strategy and evaluated what should stick, what we should change, and what would be relevant in a post-COVID world. That’s how we concluded that flexibility and sustainability would be our two core pillars.

9. Don’t be afraid of what you’re not used to

Don't panic pink background

The stereotypical idea of a business trip is a guy in a suit and a gal in a pencil skirt going to close a major deal. Well, just because that’s what we think we’re used to doesn’t mean it’s a reality. In 2020, the TravelPerk customer that by far traveled the most was a company that does industrial cleaning for offices. The second was a company that dug tunnels for metro lines.

What does that mean? It means that business travel goes a lot further than what you’re used to. There are a ton of jobs that just cannot be done virtually, they need a personal presence to get it done. The lesson here is that you need to understand your industry, 360°—in and out. You need to provide a killer service for them all, and understand that business is like an onion. Peel the layers to get to the good stuff.

10. Take “100% virtual” with a pinch of salt

G'day mate sign

OK yeah, we’ve all used Zoom this year. We all know it works. Bill Gates thinks business travel will reduce by 50% as a result. Needless to say, we think he’s wrong. But here’s the thing about being 100% virtual—it doesn’t satisfy our yearning for social contact. And that social side is welling up to explode at any moment. Any travel sector startup needs to see that and find a way to ride that wave.

There are two more reasons why the world won’t be 100% virtual. The moment anyone’s competitor sends a salesperson to a face-to-face client meeting, and they win that account—everyone is going to get back out there. It’s a competitive advantage. Meeting in person adds a relational dimension that can’t be replicated on Zoom. Secondly, until we manage to create the Star Trek holodeck, virtual experiences just won’t be the same as physical ones. Would you rather watch someone skiing on YouTube, or do it yourself? Thought so.

Final thoughts

And there you have it. Our secret recipe with all the ingredients to successfully making it out of a crisis like COVID-19. There’s still a long way to go, and we’re still working on rebuilding our path. There may even be more ingredients we need to throw into this strategy. The important thing is to learn to be adaptable. Find a way to live with the unexpected, and a modus operandi for when things go belly up. 

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