Travel Companies That Are Thriving Amid the Pandemic

In January, the experiential travel platformPeek celebrated $1 billion in bookings since its founding in 2012. Then the novel coronavirus hit. Ruzwana Bashir, founder of the San Francisco-based startup, watched business vanish overnight. “By April, we were at zero,” she says. “With America in lockdown, people couldn’t experience anything. Things looked dire.”

Fast-forward through the turbulent spring and early summer months, which saw travel slow to a crawl, and now Bashir is telling a different story. Hers is one of the few nimble travel businesses that have found themselves booming; in July, Peek saw $50 million in bookings and has continued to break monthly sales records since, as travelers eagerly look for exciting ways to explore their own backyards.

The few thriving corners of the travel industry offer hope of a rebound andthe possibility of traveling safely, even during an uncertain period. They may stoke your wanderlust or allow you to explore safely and securely—but they’re also good reminders that the travel industry still means big business. 

 

Local Experiences, Wherever You’re Stuck

Peek is a two-sided marketplace that connects consumers to thousands of small business owners creating such travel experiences as cooking classes or kayak trips. “When our operators don’t get bookings, we don’t get bookings,” says Bashir, whose company takes a cut from each activity purchased on her site. Peek entered the pandemic fresh off a $23 million Series B funding.

Bashir used her newfound financial stability to advise clients on applying for disaster loans, implementing contactless payment, and creating Covid-19-safe tours. Bookings skyrocketed to $50 million in July as shelter-in-place orders began to lift—a figure that represents 5% of Peek’s all-time sales.

The bigger picture:Viator, a Tripadvisor company, also used small business relief to keep its vendors—and its own business—going. And Airbnb stayed afloat in the pandemic’s early days by launching 400-some virtual experiences, such as a Peloton-compatible “Cycling With an Olympian” class.

What you might book: Broadway may be closeduntil 2021, but you can still belt out showtunes with actors who serve as guides on Peek’s $40,two-hour theater district walking tour.

 

The Vacation Home You Don’t Actually Own

Members-only vacation clubs, which provide access to a collection of luxury homes with on-site concierges, are capitalizing on city dwellers who need long-term escapes and idyllic remote offices. Among them, Denver-basedExclusive Resorts says it saw its largest growth in membership sales since 2014 in this year’s third quarter—and has grown head count by almost 10% since March.

“Members are looking for a change of scenery, and now that many offices and schools are remote, they are taking full advantage,” says Chief Executive Officer James Henderson. Bookings for 14-plus-day vacations in 2021 have already doubled 2020 numbers, and new partnerships that offer private jet and medical evacuation transport are easing the anxieties of traveling during a pandemic.

The bigger picture: After shutting down most of its operations in the pandemic’s early days, vacation club Inspirato has also seen growth in memberships for its Inspirato Pass, which offers unlimited rental nights, free of taxes or fees, for a $2,500 monthly fee.

The same dynamics are driving up business for RV companies such as Kibbo, which creates RV parks with work spaces, clubhouses, and amenities.

What you might book:Real del Mar, a gated beach community just outside of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was voted Exclusive Resorts 2019 destination of the year, thanks to the club’s 12 cliffside, four- and five-bedroom homes, which share access to an infinity-edge pool and beach club.

 

Simple Shortcuts for Calculating Risk

DragonSlayer was born in December as an app that matches your travel personality (e.g., active, cultural) to fit experiences available around the world. By March, this was irrelevant. Founder Peter Wells relaunched the company in September as a subscription-based service that tells travelers about Covid-19-related restrictions in any state or country. Its proprietary, numeric SAFE-T scores (it stands for Smart Analytics for Educating Travelers) grade 124 countries and all U.S. states on everything from new case trends to local testing capacities.

Memberships start at $10 per month, with a free two-week free trial, or $70 for a year. The company experienced 55% growth in the first four weeks of the relaunch. Industry professionals drove the new business; Wells says he netted 200 annual subscriptions from agents in the first month. Looking ahead, he hopes the tools will help travel operators assess risks for a variety of global events and share those analytics directly through a white-label option.

The bigger picture: Tools with less comprehensive health insights than DragonSlayer include Kayak, which allows users to see the number of active cases in any global destination through the site’s “Explore” map, and Google, whose new booking features help users navigate the changing rules for hotels and airlines they are considering.

What you might book: On crunching the data, Wells deems Bermuda one of the safest bets for travel right now. “The island has done the absolute best job in protecting the local population, while welcoming back tourism,” he says.

 

Travel Insurance on Steroids

With serious limitations on all but the most expensive of policies—the ones with “cancel for any reason” clauses—travel insurance is often a skipped step in the travel booking process. 

EnterBerkshire Hathaway, whose travel protection products have historically included such consumer-friendly options as low-price-tag policies that specifically target flight delays. During the pandemic, it launched two new options for skittish travelers that are cumulatively making up 14% of the company’s total insurance sales. 

LuxuryCare, announced in June, grants 100% cancellation coverage on ultra-high-end trips that cost up to $100,000 per person; it also covers emergency medical treatment and evacuations that cost up to $1 million. ExactCare Lite, meanwhile, hits the opposite end of the spectrum, offering $500 in protection per person for road trips.

The latter, in particular, shows a company that is seizing on the moment. “In our industry, no one bought travel insurance for road trips,” says Berkshire Hathaway spokesperson Carol Mueller. “But we saw people worrying about losing money if for some reason they couldn’t go.”

The bigger picture: Success has been a commonality for almost anyone who can guarantee a vacation-escape plan. Take air-medical transport membership companyMedjet. It struggled at the pandemic’s onset, but reported year-over-year growth in October on the heels of a new service that transports Covid-19-infected members from many American-friendly destinations to their home hospital of choice.

What you might book: An over-the-top, bush plane adventure across Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia with bespoke outfitter Tin Trunk Safaris. You’ll stay in the most luxurious lodges, such as Singita Mara River and Giraffe Manor, while traveling like the continent’s early explorers.

 

Airfare Hawks That Minimize Your (Financial) Exposure

Hopper—an app that uses big data topredict how hotel and flight prices will fluctuate ahead of your next booking—once generated nearly all of its revenue from the sale of plane tickets. In 2019, that started to change with the addition of such popular new features as Price Drop Protection and Price Freeze, which offer payment protection at nominal cost. With their help, less than half of the company’s revenue now stems from airfare.

Covid-19 has accelerated that trajectory. Responding to the fact that economy and low-fare tickets are often exempt from flexible refund policies, Hopper created its own such assurance; since Oct. 13, it’s allowed customers to pay a premium of 5% to 20% on any fare to make it fully refundable. Couple that with a Flexible Dates upcharge for easy, last-minute rescheduling, and CEO Frederick Lalond is looking at a projected 100% increase in revenue in 2020.

“It’s stupefying,” says Lalond. “And I continue to be optimistic, as we’re seeing a lot of pent-up travel demand. Now that people realize travel can be taken away, they’re not going to put off trips like they used to.”

The bigger picture: Changing a flight used to mean facing penalties of up to $400, but the pandemic spurred Alaska, American, United, and Delta to waive change fees permanently on domestic flights. International flights, which carry the additional risk of border closures, remain harder to cancel, except those via Alaska.

What you might book: Easy cancellations and rescheduling under any circumstances can make the world feel like your oyster for the first time in months—so book anything, as long as it’s nota flight to nowhere.

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