“The vacation rental market is booming”: Interview with Johannes Siebers, co-founder of fast-growing traveltech Holidu

The travel market is experiencing turbulences with the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing many countries to impose travel restrictions. However, the traveltech scene has seen some positive signs lately. 

Holidu, one of the fastest growing traveltech companies worldwide is scaling up its solutions for vacation rentals. Now it operates in 21 countries globally. The company is headquartered in Munich, and has a 200+ person strong team of travel and tech enthusiasts from over 40 nations.

Interested in the traveltech scene, how the pandemic has impacted it, the future of travel and remote working? Johannes Siebers, one of the two founders gave us some insights into these topics. 

Hello Johannes, thank you for joining us. Could you please give us a short overview about your journey as an entrepreneur and why you decided to co-found Holidu?

I co-founded Holidu with my brother, Michael, back in 2014. We had always cherished the idea of starting our own business together, and during a surfing trip to Portugal, we realised that there was no go-to website to check and compare the prices of vacation rentals. Instead, it was a very complicated process of browsing many websites, all of which were showing different prices and availability. That’s how Holidu was born: with the aim of building a search engine to finally make the search and booking of vacation rentals easy.

Before Holidu, I studied International Business at university, followed by working in the area of venture capital at Siemens. Michael – today Holidu’s CTO – has a technical background, so our two different backgrounds complemented each other well when forming the foundations of a new travel tech startup business.

Travelling today has become quite difficult. How are you dealing with the challenge of being a travel tech company in the midst of a pandemic?

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, borders were closed and lockdowns imposed – the corona crisis hit travel companies particularly hard. We felt this impact massively on Holidu, receiving hardly any bookings of vacation rentals at the end of March and in April. This was an ice age like we had never seen before: bookings and revenues plummeted from one week to the next by -98%. All plans were turned upside down overnight.

When the Europe-wide lockdowns were loosened or lifted at the end of June, we were able to see a bounce-back in bookings immediately. Vacation rentals are a fairly safe way to travel during a pandemic, so the vacation rental market is booming, which is a great advantage for Holidu. This is especially relevant for destinations which can be reached by car. We could clearly see that this summer Germans travelled in Germany, Dutch people in The Netherlands and British people in the United Kingdom. We have specialized in this market for more than six years now and since Holidu offers its platform in 21 countries, we were able to cover domestic travelers worldwide.

The traveltech scene has been booming in recent years and despite the pandemic we’re seeing significant growth for some companies. Could you tell us more about your vision of the travel industry and where Holidu can bring added value?

We believe that travel will continue to be a megatrend. Startups have the advantage that they are much more agile and can react faster and thus remain successful in the long term. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated certain trends, such as the digitalization of the industry and people’s much higher affinity for online shopping and bookings, both of which are a huge benefit for startups. The vacation rental market is still ten years behind other digital markets in terms of technology, so there are enormous opportunities here, particularly for our company.

Even though the crisis is certainly not over yet, we remain optimistic. This is because we see clearly in our data that people will travel again as soon as they can, both at home and internationally. We are therefore confident that startups will not only be able to survive the crisis but will also be more successful in the long term.

People’s travelling behaviour has clearly changed in the last months, how do you see the future of travel in the next few years?

I do not believe that the pandemic will completely change the way we travel. My personal assessment is that COVID-19 is a catalyst for many trends that have been emerging for a long time: vacations in one’s own country, individual travel, the demand for a trip close to nature and also more of a focus on sustainability. In addition, digitization and online business have made an enormous leap – also in the tourism industry.

Vacation rentals were already very popular before the pandemic. This trend has also accelerated and we have gained new customer groups who turned to vacation rentals as a safe option of travel. People who booked a vacation rental for the first time this year due to the pandemic have acquired a taste for it – this gives the vacation rental market a lasting boost.

Since 2014 Holidu has grown to a 200+ international team, how have you been dealing with the recent events in terms of work organisation?

One of the most important company values at Holidu is “we win as a team”. During the crisis, special attention was paid to internal communication. At regular intervals, the team of more than 200 people was informed about the strategy and the next, even smaller steps. Thanks to a high level of transparency, all employees had a good understanding of how the situation changed in each case and the ways in which we had to adapt our strategy. It is impossible to steer a company out of a crisis without the commitment of the team.

In order to maintain the team spirit despite being in home office, rituals should continue to take place. For example, there were virtual ‘coffee breaks’, a karaoke video challenge and joint participation in hackathons. In a crisis, the importance of a foundation of lived corporate values becomes apparent. With teams in many different locations due to our Bookiply offices in focus regions, we already had a good technical infrastructure as well as experience with establishing an international team spirit.

After gradually returning from short-time work, we are now back to our pre-corona hours again. An internal survey during the corona crisis showed that employees felt that they were in good hands thanks to the speed of action as well as the care and empathy they received, despite the uncertainties.

We recently covered the news that the former Booking.com CEO is investing €4 million in Holidu. Could you tell us a bit more about the next steps in Holidu’s growth?

In order to better serve the significantly increased demand for domestic travel, we have worked hard to add even more regional booking portals to the Holidu portfolio. We will continue to work on this, as this trend will not flatten out any time soon. Bookiply is already the market leader in various European destinations, and we are looking forward to expanding into more markets in the future.

What is the main lesson you have learned from the COVID-19 crisis as an entrepreneur and founder?

With the COVID-19 crisis, all of our plans were turned upside down from one day to the next. We knew we had to react quickly – but nobody knew how the situation would develop. There is no playbook for such a situation.

Together with the management team, we sat down and developed plans for various bad scenarios. When we decided on a strategy, it was much easier from then on. Everyone knew which direction we were going in and that we would get out of it at some point. We had the hypothesis that the market would come back. And that’s exactly what happened.

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