“The power of travel is strong”: Interview with TourRadar’s CEO Travis Pittman

TourRadar's co-founder Travis Pittman

Travis Pittman co-founded TourRadar, alongside his brother Shawn Pittman, with a mission to connect people to life-enriching travel experiences. Under his leadership, TourRadar has grown into one of the largest online travel agencies for multi-day tours in the world, with tour offerings in over 200 countries and office locations across Europe, North America and Australia.

Having come from Australia to Austria, we grabbed some time to ask Travis about how their global travel company is surviving during coronavirus, how TourRadar works, his tips for recruiting well and the importance of engaging your customers even if they’re not purchasing right now.

Hi Travis, thanks for joining us! To get started, could you tell us how you came up with the idea for TourRadar?

As it is with a lot of startups, the idea came about due to a problem that we faced ourselves. Years ago, my brother Shawn and I were looking to book a one-week sailing tour in Croatia online through a US based company. The process was incredibly cumbersome and risky. We had to wire over money to this tour company who we weren’t even sure existed, figure out transportation to and from the airport, and wander around a foreign town to find the small office of the operator. 

That’s when we realized that there could be a better, safer solution for this and we decided to create TourRadar.

At what point did it become a full-time project, and how did you make the leap into full-time entrepreneur? How did you find work/life balance?

It started becoming real, and exciting, after we secured our first angel investment in 2012, although it felt like a full-time project long before then. Finding work/life balance as an entrepreneur is not easy. I always thought by being in travel I would have more time to do exactly that, travel, but it has been hard especially since I have a family with two young daughters. Occasionally I need to take a timeout, especially after a busy period. I did this last year by taking a week off to get my dive certification in Egypt. These breaks help me recharge, refocus, and remind myself why I fell in love with travel in the first place. 

How does TourRadar work, exactly?

Our platform helps travellers find, book and rate multi-day travel experiences from all over the world. As a marketplace, we have over 40,000 different tours to choose from and you can narrow down your selection based on location, travel style, tour reviews, and several other factors. Once you book through our platform, we give you everything you need to know about your upcoming trip and we keep your money secure throughout the process. The tour operator doesn’t get paid until you’re on your trip.

You’ve raised a fair bit of funding from different venture capital firms! At what point did you decide to go hunting for funds, how did you decide it was the right time, and how did you use the money for growth?

Our experience creating Bugbitten, a photosharing site for travellers where at its peak had 20,000 uploads a day, in 2004 taught us a lot. We found out that even if you think you’re onto something great, you won’t get very far trying to compete with the giants (Facebook, in Bugbitten’s case) without funding. When we started selling multi-day tours online through TourRadar, we wanted to make sure we were ahead of the competition and future competition by acquiring the funding we needed. In 2012 we realized bootstrapping wouldn’t get us where we needed to go so we pursued an angel round of funding. From that point forward, right up to our most recent series C round of funding, we have sought out investment to get us to the next level.

You’ve grown TourRadar into a business with 40,000 multi-day tours and more than 2,500 tour operators. What can you attribute to this level of success?

I think you need to continue to have a growth mindset at every stage of your business and that’s what we try to instill in everyone here. Market dynamics will continue to shift and the only thing constant is change. We’re seeing that now more than ever in the current global climate. But we don’t get overwhelmed. We embrace the challenges ahead and move forward so we can continue to grow. 

With the obvious restrictions due to coronavirus, the tourism and travel industries are suffering. How is TourRadar managing? What do you see coming in the medium-term?

The coronavirus has been a big setback for the entire industry. Our focus right now is helping our tour operator partners add flexible booking date capabilities to lessen the loss of tour cancellations. As a customer, you can keep your money as credit and re-book later with the same tour operator. As a marketplace, we feel this is both operator and customer friendly.

There is a lot of uncertainty right now as to when this will all be over. No one knows for sure but we are starting to see some positive signs. The power of travel is strong and we know people are going to want to get out and experience the world, once it’s safe to do so again, after being contained indoors for so long.

What practical tips do you have to share on survival for other travel or tourism startups out there?

Most startups already have to be creative and nimble with limited resources and those traits are more important now than ever before. Don’t be afraid to pivot, try new things, and do your best to keep your audience engaged even when they might not be purchasing your product. This type of brand building will pay off once the world opens back up and your custumers are ready to use your service again. 

How have you managed to scale up your team to 200+ people, and maintain company culture?

It starts with our recruitment. We aim to bring on smart, diverse people who all have a passion for travel. You have to know your customers and love what you do to be in this business and I think we have built a team that understands that. One of our core values is to keep travelling because we want to ensure that the same tours that we offer our customers can also be enjoyed by our own team. When you recruit well, I think a good work culture comes naturally, no matter how big you get. 

Originally being from Australia, and starting up in Austria, what differences can you notice most between the European (or Austrian) business culture? What tips would you give to any European founders hoping to hop across the pond?

Regarding business culture, it is difficult to say as I have spent most of my working career in Europe. When I arrived in Europe, first in London, I was amazed at the different cultures and the open-mindedness that I didn’t necessarily experience as a young boy growing up in Darwin and Cairns, Australia. Europe has such an intriguing mix of cultures and ideas and it is always such an asset to have a variety of nations making up your team. As for hopping across the pond, as Australia and North America are young countries, the sense of entrepreneurialism and pioneer spirit are so strong. European founders have to be prepared to compete in a “we can do anything” environment.

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