The travel industry has had a disastrous 2020, with a number of long-standing firms going out of business due to the pandemic, including coach travel company Shearings, round-the-world specialists STA Travel and tour operator Cities Direct.
So you may be surprised to hear that there is good news from a brand new travel firm close to home. Dublin-based company TripAdmit, who specialise in online bookings for tourist activities, managed to raise more than half a million euros of investment during those bleak spring months, at a time when the entire industry was on hold.
CEO John Maguire, who founded the company last year with CTO Andrew Kelly, says that they had planned to launch the brand at Easter this year, but with things looking grave in January and February as the virus spread from China towards Europe, they were left with a decision to make.
“Airlines were already beginning to be grounded and international tourism was beginning to dry up,” John recalls. “So we said, ‘Look, we can either wait it out for 12 or 18 months and hope for the best, or we can go for it’. We’re a start-up and we have a very low cost base, so we said, ‘Okay, let’s go for it’.”
With a combined 40 years’ experience in the industry, it’s perhaps no surprise that John and Andrew were so willing to back themselves. Their big idea is to get people booking their holiday activities – things like boat tours, sightseeing visits and museums – online. There are one million activity providers worldwide, and 800,000 of them are currently unable to take online bookings – instead they rely on walk-ups and phone sales.
TripAdmit’s system is targeted both at small providers with limited tech skills, who can install a simple widget on their websites, and on connecting activity providers with airlines, hotels, online travel agents and so on, opening them up to a wider market.
“The hotel industry went online 20 or 25 years ago, so did the airlines, and even the B&Bs have gone online,” says John. “The tourism activity sector is worth €150 billion a year. It’s the third largest sector in the travel industry – bigger than car hire, package holidays and cruises combined. But it was difficult to digitise.
“Essentially, we’ve joined up all the dots. And that’s what makes us different.”
In the early part of the year, TripAdmit embarked on a major push for investment, both in Ireland and in the United States. John credits the NDRC (National Digital Research Centre) Accelerator Programme, which they joined in May 2019, with helping them to get “investment-ready” by honing their ideas and strategy, and he was also pleased to discover that investors were willing to back them with serious money.
“Professional investors look beyond the pandemic and say, ‘This will end some day’,” says John. “Ultimately, they’re betting that the travel industry will come back, but for now they’re betting on the team and the technology, and the business strategy.
“They see the ambition in it and then they look at the numbers. They’re not evaluating based on how much revenue you will generate in 2020, or 2021 for that matter.
“We took one piece of advice that still stands to us to this day – ‘Start looking at America for investment’ – because you need to go where there’s an appetite for risk. I’m not saying we’re a risk, but you need to cast your net further to attract investment. And that’s how we how we raised it.”
Much of John’s time now is spent talking to current and prospective clients around the world – firms in the UK, Dubai, Canada and the Maldives are already signed up, as well as here at home, and the company has doubled its staff numbers since the pandemic started too – all while working remotely.
“Ultimately, this is about being ready for international tourism to return, and ensuring that the tour and activity providers have the digital tools they need to be able to capture that business,” John says, adding that the potential for TripAdmit is “gigantic”.
This brings us on to the million dollar question – what is international travel going to look like in 2021, and further into the future?
“None of us have a crystal ball,” John says, “but with regard to the vaccines – that’s good news. You can feel that element of positivity creeping in.
“I don’t think anyone expects 2021 to be anywhere near what 2019 was, but I think what people are hoping for – and whether it’s Easter or whether it’s summer – is that some form of international travel will return.
“The clients that we’re looking at, their main focus at the moment is on domestic markets, then the focus will be about being ready for short haul international travel, and then long haul potentially returning in 2022.
“One thing that is pretty certain is that there is a lot of pent-up demand out there. It’s just a case of how many people will follow up on it. I think the next six months will tell us a lot.”