Apr 15, 2024

The Journal


Why Fora

Fora at 3: A Serious Travel Business

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Fora Author Evan Frank


Evan Frank

    Back in the summer of 2021, when we were getting Fora off the ground, Henley, Jake and I spent considerable time thinking about the traditional barriers to becoming a travel agent, and how we planned to address these barriers while building Fora.

    It seemed to us, given all of these factors:

    • the fun and fulfilling career Henley and many others had built as travel agents

    • the increased desire for more flexible ways of working

    • the rise of cohort-based online learning models, which the travel industry was embracing to train and engage agents

    • the isolation and longing for community following a year of staying at home

    That there was room in the industry for a completely new, thoroughly modern travel agency.

    During this time we also heard so many stories of traditional agents leaving the industry entirely — switching careers, retiring, winding down. And among those outside the industry, there seemed to be few straightforward ways to get inside the industry — or even an awareness in the first place that this was a potential career option. It seemed to us the industry faced an onboarding and replenishment problem.

    Three years after the pivotal coffee that Henley and I had at Laughing Man, where we first started exploring what ultimately became Fora, I thought it was a good opportunity to report back on these initial barriers and the progress we're making in attempting to overcome them.

    And speak to how — even though our brand speaks to the fun of the work – we are also a serious travel business. I’ll touch on our approaches to training, community, technology, inclusivity — and the results.

    Serious training

    a computer screen displaying an orange home page with separate modules

    Fora's training in Portal, our integrated travel advisor platform

    How do you learn how to be a travel agent in the first place?

    Prior to Fora, training programs were available — although they tended to be monolithic and cost-prohibitive for most.

    So we decided to dramatically lower the cost of training — it’s included in our standard membership fee — while leveraging new learning models to deliver best-in-class training designed to meet advisors wherever they are in their learning journey.

    For brand-new advisors, we offer both a comprehensive digital training program and live Zoom-based hands-on labs, all led by members of Fora HQ, including the three co-founders.

    For our entire community we have weekly (often two or three) live partner trainings and a weekly training on a specific destination.

    We also host numerous office hours sessions, hosted both by HQ and our key travel partners.

    All told, we are running over 80 live online training and office hours sessions over the course of any month.

    And all of these training sessions are edited and stored in a searchable training portal.

    In March alone, our community completed over 31,689 modules in our training portal across 350 lessons.

    The learning curve of travel advising is steep — and ongoing. So a few months ago we also launched our AI chatbot, Sidekick, to provide even quicker answers to our community. Since its late Feb 2024 launch, over 23,000 questions have been answered by Sidekick.

    Serious community support

    a group of people with name badges stand side by side and smile

    Launching our LA Chapter

    Traditionally, being an 'IC' at a host agency can be pretty lonely. The remote nature of the work means you're not based in an office, making it easy for the social aspect of work to be missing.

    At Fora, we believe we can all go further together, and have instilled a highly collaborative approach within our community. After all, only 8% of overall hotel distribution currently happens through leisure agents, vs 34% for OTAs. There’s plenty of business to go around.

    And we believe that travel advising is more fun when a few of your friends are doing it too. In a recent survey 82% of our more tenured advisors have made meaningful connections in the Fora community.

    Our community app, Forum, has become a hive of travel advisor activity, with over 1,500 daily active users averaging 100 new posts and ~18,000 comments as of last month.

    All of this community management takes time and resources. So last month we launched a revamped Ambassador program, working with our most experienced advisors from the community to help out. These ambassadors have since responded with over 3,500 comments, and flagged 2,700 posts that were outdated, ensuring this shared resource stays relevant and up-to-date.

    Through some of our live events — site visits, FAM trips, our annual Live Forum — we observed the power of in-person experiences. So earlier this year we decided to take this one step further and launch our local Chapter program, with four pilot chapters in LA, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas — each with its own local Chapter lead from the community. Approximately 15% of all advisors are now part of a Chapter program, with further roll-outs planned for 2024. Each Chapter has also organized site visits, partner happy hours, coffee meetups — a holistic advisor experience.

    Serious technology

    a computer screen with a pinkish home page and white cards showing hotels

    Fora's hotel booking platform

    Modern technology is notably absent from the standard agency experience. Typically, as an advisor, if you'd like to book preferred partner and direct contracted rates at hotels from a single environment, you still need to deal directly with the Global Distribution System (GDS).

    Software tools for the travel agent industry are a maze of disparate systems that do not communicate with each other.

    Thus, we built our Advisor Portal — an all-in-one platform experience encompassing bookings & client data management, CRM, marketing tools and templates, and our entire training curriculum. Since our advisors are often on-the-go, the Portal was designed to work just as well from mobile phones as it does a laptop web browser.

    This past September, we launched our hotel booking platform, featuring all of our preferred partners (and several thousand other hotels) — so far, advisors have booked more than 22,000 times through it. The benefits of booking in our own platform include our ability to display bookings data (e.g. how many times a property has been booked, property reviews coming soon), show accurate perks information, expose commission levels and commission payment timelines at the property level, and integrate with advisor client data for secure client credit card payments all in one checkout flow. We are also working on a long list of direct integrations with other travel partners to search and book unique kinds of hotel inventory, and eventually other types of supply as well.

    Getting paid quickly and reliably is a huge pain point in the industry. So we’re using technology to automate the invoicing, tracking and reconciliation of payments — the result of which is better payment data and faster advisor payments, as well as removing the burden of back office management from the advisor. We want to enable our community to focus all of their energies on building their businesses and succeeding as travel advisors — not invoicing and chasing commission checks.

    Serious inclusivity

    Due to the didactic nature of traditional agency training, historically agency owners have had to be quite disciplined about whom to take on as a new agent. This has typically meant that the expected commitment is full-time, with a subsequent sales quota to ensure limited resources were only allocated to major producers.

    New Fora clients are often surprised to learn that their advisor is also a partner at a law firm, a CPA, a nurse practitioner, a food writer, TV producer or an elementary school teacher.

    Serious professionals — and Fora Advisors.

    For most people, leaving a full time job with bills to pay for an entirely new commission-based career simply isn't realistic — and this excludes the vast majority of potential travel agents.

    Empowering and supporting this profile has created an enormous wellspring of new faces and personalities in the travel industry, making travel advising more accessible, modern, and relevant to clients and partners.

    But does this diversity also create good travel agents?

    The answer appears to be a clear yes — one need only browse our 4,800+ 4.99 star advisor reviews to have a sense of the diversity of our community and the quality of client experience this has enabled — nearly all from new-to-the-industry advisors and new-to-the-industry clients.

    Serious production

    Since our very beginning, we've been blessed by hotel and other travel partners in the industry who believed in us and the work that we were doing.

    Many of these same partners were surprised to then see Fora near the top of their agency league tables at the end of last year.

    Our hotel partners have also noted a diversity in bookings across multiple brands — far more than the typical high-end booking profile — and to more exotic destinations. From this perspective, we look more like a single channel of distribution akin to an OTA or American Express.

    We have over 5,500 hotels in our preferred partner program — bookings to these programs were up nearly 400% in Q1 2024 vs Q1 2023.

    Many hotel groups are too small to invest in their own preferred partner programs. So last year we created Fora Reserve to offer independent hotels we loved a way of simulating the benefits of a larger brand preferred partner program, in turn extending enhanced commission and client benefits to our community. Free to join, Reserve is on track to deliver well over 10,000 room nights to these independent hotels this year.

    This past quarter, Q1 2024, our community booked over 190,000 room nights across just under 16,000 hotels and other travel providers in 193 different countries — a testament to the breadth and scope of our community.

    A serious opportunity

    We believe we have entered a new phase in the history of the travel agency.

    In phase 1, it was all humans and no technology, facilitating and executing booking transactions offline. This was the so-called “golden age” of the travel agency.

    During phase 2, the booking transaction moved online. OTAs captured huge percentages of market share — and currently enjoy 4x the market share of agencies. The agency model needed to regroup and retool to stay relevant.

    Phase 3 begins now. Humans armed with technology, fueled by passion, operating in unison as an orchestrated elite unit to rebalance the scales. And creating a better equation for all stakeholders: advisor, client and travel provider. Creating a new golden age.

    We have a unique opportunity in history — to grow the number of travel agents, to empower thousands of travel passionate people to discover work they love and can maintain throughout their work lives and into retirement, to become the obvious choice for any consumer planning a trip, to enable travel providers to focus on delivering hospitality and exceptional client experiences rather than the complexities of distribution.

    To guarantee the relevance of this industry that we love in 20 years, in 50 years time.

    We take this mission very seriously and will continue to tirelessly pursue it.

    Are you the go-to person for travel tips?

    Transform your passion for travel into your dream job. We'll set you up with everything you need to succeed as a travel advisor. From training to top-notch tech, marketing assets, community, commission tracking & payments (and more), we've got you.

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