A little under 18 months ago, still very much in the fog of the pandemic, I met up with my friend Henley at Laughing Man, the local coffee shop in the neighborhood where we both lived in Tribeca.
Through my own experiences running onefinestay and Context Travel, I had observed the fun, flexibility and vocational fulfillment Henley, and many others, had experienced as a travel agent.
So I came to our coffee with a simple question in mind: why don’t way more people do what you do?
There are three million real estate agents in the United States (the majority of whom are part-time), but only roughly 100,000 travel agents in the US. It’s not like it’s a market size problem – worldwide hotel spend alone is more than $700 billion every year.
Particularly given the content of a travel agent’s work lies at the intersection of so many people’s passions – travel, cultural exploration, discovery – why aren’t there 200,000 travel agents in the States? 1 million travel agents?
What environment would we need to create the conditions to empower thousands – hundreds of thousands – of people to participate in the travel industry in a way not previously was not possible? To create an army of travel entrepreneurs?
Those questions kicked off a journey of exploration that has grown to what now exists as Fora Travel, and where today we are announcing our Series A investment co-led by Heartcore Capital and Forerunner Ventures.
So, how’s it going?
We’re learning every day what we believe to be the key ingredients to make being a travel agent with Fora the best job in the modern world: the ultimate side hustle, a passion-aligned career change, or anything in between. We’re firm believers in the power of flexible work, and our company exists to provide passionate individuals with a purpose-driven career in travel on their own terms.
Our current ‘business in a box’ currently includes:
Travel content publication tools, email and social marketing templates + customizable, seasonally-appropriate content
Live and asynchronous training to accommodate all types of schedules
A professionally managed online community experience to connect, celebrate wins, and access live trip support
A platform with commission tracking and our growing database of over 3,000 hotels that are already part of our preferred partner program – e.g. clients pay the same, and get priority perks
Super-fast commission payments, within five business days of check-out (industry standard is 30-90 days)
And of course, the nitty-gritty legal stuff – IATA numbers, insurance, etc.
Traditional agencies often insist upon total full-time commitment – they tell agents to give up their day job or freelance career – plus pay high joining & training fees.
We’re meeting agents where they’re at in their lives, and allowing people to engage in travel however their schedules allow.
When we announced our Series Seed investment in September 2021, we set out to validate two key hypotheses:
There are lots of people – thousands, tens of thousands – that are at least notionally interested in a new career as a travel agent
We can support these people – through training, tools, brand and community – and transform them into successful travel agents
Nine months in, we’ve been humbled by the overwhelming demand to become a new-style travel agent with Fora. Our waitlist currently sits at around 30,000 – and indeed the challenge for us in many ways shifted to operationally working through this waitlist without overwhelming our (still relatively nascent) community, infrastructure, and operational teams.
What started out as a handful of Henley’s former clients who agreed to try out working as travel agents with us (three in October 2021) has blossomed into a thriving community of hundreds of Fora Advisors today - around 97% of whom had never sold travel before we gave them the tools, training and community support to do so.
Where we’re headed
Around 25 years ago, Expedia entered the travel distribution landscape, heralding a new technological revolution in travel. These days, nearly any hotel and any airfare anywhere in the world is bookable in minutes.
These so-called ‘online travel agencies’, or OTAs, like Expedia and Booking.com are incredible businesses, creating frictionless booking experiences for consumers. Booking.com generates billions of dollars of free cash flow every year.
But now, online technology and hotel websites have more or less caught up with the OTAs. Booking a hotel in Italy – or a flight to India – is pretty straightforward across channels.
The challenge for the consumer booking travel has shifted from the transaction to the curation of the experience – choices are infinite, but what’s the right place to stay, the right vacation to go on, and how can it be tailored for me and my specific circumstances?
OTAs served a valuable and necessary role in travel in the 'Web 1.0' era of travel. And now that era is over.
And the thing is – traveling with an agent is not more expensive. Online travel agencies and traditional travel agencies have the same business model – rate parity to other channels for the consumer, with fees paid by the travel providers themselves. Just as someone would not expect to pay more when booking through an OTA, the same goes for booking through an agent.
We also don't hear any of hotels and other travel partners telling us they love their OTA or Amex relationships, or that paid acquisition is really working for them.
In general, versus other channels travel agent clients are better customers: know more about a hotel prior to arrival, are more likely to be repeat customers, book higher room categories, and spend more on hotel food & beverage. At Fora we want to deliver the these clients to our hotels and other partners at a scale previously only possible through OTAs.
We believe it’s time to put the power back in the hands of the people.
We’re building the platform that combines the modern marketing tools and the technology of an OTA with the human touch of a travel agent, all while providing a cheaper and better channel of distribution for hotels and other travel providers.
And in doing so, enabling amazing work and vocational fulfillment for hundreds of thousands of passionate people.
For the team at Fora, as we celebrate what we’ve accomplished over the past year, we are humbled that we are also at the foot of our mountain. There’s much to build technologically and operationally, and so much more to learn.
Yet, one other thing that we feel we’ve validated over the past year – that we've found a worthy cause to dedicate ourselves to.