Holidu books $45M after growing its vacation rentals business ~50% YoY during COVID-19

Vacation rental startup Holidu has tucked $45 million in Series D funding into its suitcase — bringing its total raised since being founded back in 2014 to more than $120M.

The latest funding round is led by 83North with participation from existing investors Prime Ventures, EQT ventures, Coparion, Senovo, Kees Koolen, Lios Ventures and Chris Hitchen. Also participating, with both equity and debt, is Claret Capital (formerly Harbert European Growth Capital).

The financing will be ploughed into product development; doubling the size of the tech team; and on building out partnerships to keep expanding supply, Holidu said.

While the global pandemic clearly hasn’t been kind to much of the travel industry, the Munich-headquartered startup has been able to benefit from coronavirus-induced shifts in traveller behavior.

People who may have booked city breaks or hotels pre-COVID-19 are turning to private holiday accommodation in greater numbers than before — so they can feel safer about going on holiday and perhaps enjoy more space and fresh air than they’ve had at home during coronavirus lockdowns.

Having flexible cancelation options is also now clearly front of mind for travellers — and Holidu credits moving quickly to build in flexible cancellation and payment solutions with helping fuel its growth during the pandemic.

Holidu’s meta search engine compares listings on sites like Airbnb, Booking.com, HomeAway and Vrbo and provides holidaymakers with tools to zoom in on relevant rentals — offering granular filters for property amenities; property type; and distances to the beach/lake etc.

It can also be used to search only for listings with a free cancelation policy.

“We see that many travellers have chosen vacation rentals in rural destinations over hotels or cities,” confirms CEO and co-founder Johannes Siebers. “In spite of this shift in preference, the overall European vacation rental market declined in 2020 due to the strong travel restrictions in many months. Holidu managed to grow against this trend by responding very quickly to the increased demand for domestic lodging and for flexible cancellation options.”

The startup saw year-over-year growth of circa 50% in 2020 — and greater than 2x growth in its contribution margin, per Siebers.

“[That] enabled us to become profitable with our search business,” he adds. “Revenues for 2021 are still difficult to forecast due to the uncertain pandemic and political outlook but we expect a significantly higher growth rate compared to 2020.”

Holidu is active in 21 countries with its search engine — which now combines more than 15M vacation rental offers from over a thousand travel sites and property managers. In July 2020 alone, it said that more than 27M travellers used the product.

Its search engine business has a mixed business model, with Holidu taking a commission per click with a minority of its partners and earning a commission for each booking generated with the majority.

In another strand of its business, under the Bookiply brand, it works directly with property owners to help them maximize bookings via a software-and-service solution — offering to take the digital management strain in exchange for a cut of (successful) bookings.

Back in 2019 it was managing 5,000 properties via Bookiply. Now Siebers says it’s “on track” to grow to more than 10,000 properties by the end of this year.

Bookiply has become the largest supplier of vacation rentals in what it described as “important leisure destinations” such as the Balearic Islands, Canary Islands and Sardinia (which are all very popular holiday destinations with German travellers).

Part of the Series D funding will go on opening more Bookiply offices across Europe so it can grow its service offering for regional vacation rental owners.

The division aims to reach property owners whose properties are not yet online, as well as optimizing digital listings that aren’t doing as well as they might, so having physical service locations is a strategy to help with onboarding owners who may be newbies to digital listing.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Laurel Bowden, partner at 83North said: “Vacation rentals are a very competitive market and Holidu’s growth throughout the pandemic has been highly impressive. We are attracted by their strong operating efficiency and proven ability to grow market by market.”

Last year Holidu was among scores of startups in the travel, accommodation and jobs sectors that signed a letter to the European Commission urging antitrust action against Google.

The coalition accused the tech giant of unfairly leveraging its dominant position in search in order to elbow into other markets via tactics like self-preferencing, warning EU lawmakers that homegrown businesses were at risk without swift enforcement to rein in abusive behaviors.

Although in Holidu’s case it’s managed to grow despite the pandemic — and despite Google.

Asked how much of an ongoing concern Google’s behavior is for the growth of its business, Siebers told TechCrunch: “Given its size and market position, we believe Google carries a special responsibility in the search market. Furthermore, we believe in merit based competition to drive innovation and provide users with the best products. We have joined the letter to the EC as in our view, Google does not fully live up to its responsibilities in all areas of its product.

“The way Google displays specialized search products in many travel verticals does, in our view, not comply with the principle of fair, merit based competition. It gives Google’s own product eyeballs which no other player could attract in the same way.”

“We have not yet seen noticeable changes in Google’s search box integration but we are confident that Google will eventually provide a level playing field. Even if this would take some time and is important, we are not overly worried as we have a very diversified business. Among others, with Bookiply we have a strongly growing offering towards homeowners which is independent of Google’s activities in the market,” he added.

Since the coalition wrote the letter the Commission has unveiled a legislative proposal to apply ex ante regulations to so called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms — a designation that looks highly likely to apply to Google, although the Digital Markets Act (DMA) is still a long way off becoming pan-EU law.

Siebers said Holidu supports this plan for a set of ‘dos and don’ts’ that the most powerful platforms must abide by.

“We are supportive of the commission’s proposal and believe not only the act itself but also enforcement will drive innovation and better products for customers,” he added. “Enabling free and fair competition is a core deliverable for a regulator in a market place and we have high expectations towards the EU in this regard. If we achieve this, I am certain we will  see an  increase in innovation, investments and activities in areas which are currently impacted by gatekeeper’s activities.”

Persona lands $50M for identity verification after seeing 10x YoY revenue growth

The identity verification space has been heating up for a while and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated demand with more people transacting online.

Persona, a startup focused on creating a personalized identity verification experience “for any use case,” aims to differentiate itself in an increasingly crowded space. And investors are banking on the San Francisco-based company’s ability to help businesses customize the identity verification process — and beyond — via its no-code platform in the form of a $50 million Series B funding round. 

Index Ventures led the financing, which also included participation from existing backer Coatue Management. In late January 2020, Persona raised $17.5 million in a Series A round. The company declined to reveal at which valuation this latest round was raised.

Businesses and organizations can access Persona’s platform by way of an API, which lets them use a variety of documents, from government-issued IDs through to biometrics, to verify that customers are who they say they are. The company wants to make it easier for organizations to implement more watertight methods based on third-party documentation, real-time evaluation such as live selfie checks and AI to verify users.

Persona’s platform also collects passive signals such as a user’s device, location, and behavioral signals to provide a more holistic view of a user’s risk profile. It offers a low code and no code option depending on the needs of the customer.

The company’s momentum is reflected in its growth numbers. The startup’s revenue has surged by “more than 10 times” while its customer base has climbed by five times over the past year, according to co-founder and CEO Rick Song, who did not provide hard revenue numbers. Meanwhile, Persona’s headcount has more than tripled to just over 50 people.

When we look back at the space five to 10 years ago, AI was the next differentiation and every identity verification company is doing AI and machine learning,” Song told TechCrunch. “We believe the next big differentiator is more about tailoring and personalizing the experience for individuals.”

As such, Song believes that growth can be directly tied to Persona’s ability to help companies with “unique” use cases with a SaaS platform that requires little to no code and not as much heavy lifting from their engineering teams. Its end goal, ultimately, is to help businesses deter fraud, stay compliant and build trust and safety while making it easier for them to customize the verification process to their needs. Customers span a variety of industries, and include Square, Robinhood, Sonder, Brex, Udemy, Gusto, BlockFi and AngelList, among others.

“The strategy your business needs for identity verification and management is going to be completely different if you’re a travel company verifying guests versus a delivery service onboarding new couriers versus a crypto company granting access to user funds,” Song added. “Even businesses within the same industry should tailor the identity verification experience to each customer if they want to stand out.”

Image Credits: Persona

For Song, another thing that helps Persona stand out is its ability to help customers beyond the sign-on and verification process. 

“We’ve built an identity infrastructure because we don’t just help businesses at a single point in time, but rather throughout the entire lifecycle of a relationship,” he told TechCrunch.

In fact, much of the company’s growth last year came in the form of existing customers finding new use cases within the platform in addition to new customers signing on, Song said.

“We’ve been watching existing customers discover more ways to use Persona. For example, we were working with some of our customer base on a single use case and now we might be working with them on 10 different problems — anywhere from account opening to a bad actor investigation to account recovery and anything in between,” he added. “So that has probably been the biggest driver of our growth.”

Index Ventures Partner Mark Goldberg, who is taking a seat on Persona’s board as part of the financing, said he was impressed by the number of companies in Index’s own portfolio that raved about Persona.

“We’ve had our antennas up for a long time in this space,” he told TechCrunch. “We started to see really rapid adoption of Persona within the Index portfolio and there was the sense of a very powerful and very user friendly tool, which hadn’t really existed in the category before.”

Its personalization capabilities and building block-based approach too, Goldberg said, makes it appealing to a broader pool of users.

“The reality is there’s so many ways to verify a user is who they say they are or not on the internet, and if you give people the flexibility to design the right path to get to a yes or no, you can just get to a much better outcome,” he said. “That was one of the things we heard — that the use cases were not like off the rack, and I think that has really resonated in a time where people want and expect the ability to customize.”

Persona plans to use its new capital to grow its team another twofold by year’s end to support its growth and continue scaling the business.

In recent months, other companies in the space that have raised big rounds include Socure and Sift.

Bandwango raises $3.1M to power tourism- and experience-focused deals

You might think that a startup whose primary customers are tourism bureaus would have had a pretty rough 2020, but CEO Monir Parikh said Bandwango‘s customer base more than doubled in the past year,  growing from 75 to 200.

In Parikh’s words, the Murray, Utah-based startup has built a platform called the Destination Experience Engine and designed for “connecting businesses with communities.” That means bringing together offers from local restaurants, retailers, wineries, breweries, state parks and more into package deals — such as the Newport Beach Dine Pass and the Travel Iowa State Passport — which are then sold by tourism bureaus.

Obviously, the pandemic dealt a big blow to tourism, but in response, many of these organizations shifted focus to deals that could entice locals to support nearby businesses and attractions. Parikh predicted that even after the pandemic, tourism bureaus will continue to understand that “local-focused tourism is going to be part of the mix of what we do — locals are your ambassadors, they are the best organic marketing channel.”

Plus, Parikh said that as new privacy regulations make it harder to collect data about online visitors, it’s becoming more challenging for tourism bureaus to “to prove to their funders that they’re having an economic impact.” So where bureaus were content in the past to advertise deals and then link out to other sites where customers could make the actual purchases, selling the deals themselves has become a new way to prove their worth.

Bandwango founder and CEO Monir Parikh

Bandwango founder and CEO Monir Parikh

With last year’s growth, Bandwango has raised $3.1 million in seed funding led by Next Frontier Capital, with participation from Kickstart, Signal Peak Ventures, SaaS Ventures, and Ocean Azul Partners. (The startup had previously raised only $700,000 in funding.)

Parikh said that until now, Bandwango has been a largely full service option. The selling point, after all, is that the tourism bureaus already “have great relationships with these local businesses,” but the startup can handle the hard work of “trying to wrangle 200 of their local businesses” to offer deals and accept those deals in-store.

“Our mantra is: We become your back office,” he added. But with the new funding, he wants the startup to build a self-serve product as well. “What I say to my team is that a 90-year-old grandmother, as well as 12-year-old teenager, should be able to come into our platform and say, ‘I want to create a local savings program or an ale trail’ and do it end-to-end, without our assistance.”

And while Bandwango is currently focused on providing a white-label solution to its customers (rather than building a consumer deal destination of its own), Parikh said it eventually distribute these deals more broadly by creating its own “private label brands.”

Collaborative iOS app Craft Docs secures $8M, led by Creandum and a ‘Skyscanner Mafia’

Launched in only November last year, the Craft Docs app — which was built from the ground up as an iOS app for collaborative documents — has secured an $8 million Series A round led by Creandum. Also participating was InReach Ventures, Gareth Williams, former CEO and co-founder of Skyscanner, and a number of other tech entrepreneurs, many of whom are ex-Skyscanner.

Currently available on iOS, iPadOS and MacOS, Craft now plans to launch APIs, extended integrations, and a browser-based editor in 2021. It has aspirations to become a similar product to Notion, and the founder and CEO Balint Grosz told me over a Zoom call that “Notion is very much focused around writing and wikis and all that sort of stuff. We have a lot of users coming from Notion, but we believe we have a better solution for people, mainly for written content. Notion is very strong with its databases and structural content. People just happen to use it for other stuff. So we are viewed as a very strong competitor by our users, because of the similarities in the product. I don’t believe our markets overlap much, but right now from the outside people do switch from Notion to us, and they do perceive us as being competitors.”

He told me this was less down to the app experience than “the hierarchical content. We have this structure where you can create notes within notes, so with every chunk of text you add content and navigate style, and add inside of that – and notion has that as well. And that is a feature which not many products have, so that is the primary reason why people tend to compare us.”

Craft says it’s main advantages over Notion are UX; Data storage and privacy (Craft is offline first, with real-time sync and collaboration; you can use 3rd party cloud services (i.e. iCloud); and integrations with other tools.

Orosz was previously responsible for Skyscanner’s mobile strategy after the company acquired his previous company, Distinction.

Fredrik Cassel, General Partner at Creandum, said in a statement: “Since our first discussions we’ve been impressed by both the amount of love users have for Craft, as well as the team’s unique ability to create a product that is beautiful and powerful at the same time. The upcoming features around connectivity and data accessibility truly set Craft apart from the competition.”

Craft ipad app

Craft ipad app

Roberto Bonazinga, Co-founder at InReach Ventures, added: “We invested in Craft on day zero because we were fascinated by the clarity and the boldness of Balint’s vision – to reinvent how millions of people can structure their thoughts and write them down in the most effective and beautiful way.”

The launch and funding of the Craft startup suggests there is something of a “Skyscanner Mafia” emerging, after its acquisition by Trip.com Group (formerly Ctrip), the largest travel firm in China, $1.75 billion in 2016.

Other backers of the company include Carlos Gonzalez (former CPO at Skyscanner, CTPO at GoCardless), Filip Filipov (former VP Strategy at Skyscanner), Ross McNairn (former CEO at Dorsai, CPO at TravelPerk), Stefan Lesser (former Technology and Partnership Manager at Apple) and Akos Kapui (Former Head of Technology at Skyscanner, VP of Engineering at Shapr3D).

Luxury air travel startup Aero raises $20M

Aero, a startup backed by Garrett Camp’s startup studio Expa, has raised $20 million in Series A funding — right as CEO Uma Subramanian said demand for air travel is returning “with a vengeance.”

I last wrote about Aero in 2019, when it announced Subramanian’s appointment as CEO, along with the fact that it had raised a total of $16 million in funding. Subramanian told me that after the announcement, the startup (which had already run test flights between Mykonos and Ibiza) spent the next few months buying and retrofitting planes, with plans for a summer 2020 launch.

Obviously, the pandemic threw a wrench into those plans, but a smaller wrench than you might think. Subramanian said that as borders re-opened and travel resumed in a limited capacity, Aero began to offer flights.

“We had a great summer,” she said. “We sold a lot of seats, and we were gross margin positive in July and August.”

The startup describes its offering as “semi-private” air travel — you fly out of private terminals, on small and spacious planes (Subramanian said the company has taken vehicles with 37 seats and retrofitted them to hold only 16), with a personalized, first-class experience delivered by its concierge team. Aero currently offers a single route between Los Angeles and Aspen, with one-way tickets costing $1,250.

Subramanian was previously CEO of Airbus’ helicopter service Voom, and she said she approached the company “very skeptically,” since the conventional wisdom in the aviation industry is that the business is all about “putting as many people into a finite amount of square footage” as possible. But she claimed that early demand showed her that “the thesis is real.”

“There is a set of people who want this,” she said. “Air travel used to be aspirational, something people got dressed up for. We want to bring back the magical part of the travel experience.”

After all, if you’re the kind of “premium traveler” who might already spend “thousands of dollars a night” on a vacation in Amangiri, Utah, it seems a little silly to be “spending hours trying to find the a low-cost flight out of Salt Lake City.”

Aero interior

Image Credits: Aero

Subramanian suggested that while demand for business travel may be slow to return (it sounds like she enjoyed the ability to fundraise without getting on a plane), the demand for leisure travel is already back, and will only grow as the pandemic ends. Plus, the steps that Aero took to create a luxury experience also meant that it’s well-suited for social distancing.

Speaking of fundraising, the Series A was led by Keyframe Capital, with Keyframe’s chief investment officer John Rapaport joining the Aero board. Cyrus Capital Partners and Expa also participated.

The new funding will allow Aero to grow its team and to add more flights, Subramanian said. Next up is a route between Los Angeles and Cabo San Lucas scheduled to launch in April, and she added that the company will be returning to Europe this year.

“It’s a horrendous time to be Lufthansa, but counterintuitively, it’s best time to start something from scratch,” she said — in large part because it’s been incredibly affordable to buy planes and other assets.

 

Travel startup GetYourGuide secures $97M revolving credit facility

Many countries hit hard by Covid-19 are beginning to see a glimmer of optimism from the arrival of vaccinations. Now, a promising travel startup that saw its growth arrested by the arrival and persistence of the pandemic is announcing a $97 million financing facility to help it stay the course until it can finally resume normal business.

GetYourGuide, the Berlin startup that curates, organizes and lets travelers and others book tours and other experiences, has secured a revolving credit facility of €80 million ($97 million at current rates). The financing is being led by UniCredit, with CitiGroup, Silicon Valley Bank, Deutsche Bank and KfW also participating.

CFO Nils Chrestin said in an interview that the funding will let GetYourGuide come “sprinting out of the gates” when consumers are in a better position to enjoy travel experiences again.

The capital could be used potentially for normal business expenses, for acquisitions or investments, or other strategic initiatives, such as more investment into the company’s in-house Originals tour operations or new services to book last-minute experiences, he added.

And even if a lot of tourism has really slowed down, there are still people taking short-distance trips or buying activities in the cities where they live (and are not leaving). While some metro areas like London are essentially only open for booking well in advance (when the hope is lockdown restrictions might be eased), other cities like Rome or Amsterdam have activities available for booking today.

GetYourGuide’s latest financing news underscores how some startups — specifically those whose business models have not lended themselves well to pandemic living — are getting more creative with their approaches to staying afloat.

GetYourGuide has raised more than $600 million in equity capital since 2009, with its Series E of $484 million in 2019 (before the pandemic) valuing it at well over $1 billion.

But more recently, the startup backed by the likes of SoftBank, Temasek, Lakestar, and others has been shoring up its position with alternative forms of finance.

In October, GetYourGuide closed a convertible note of $133 million. While it has yet to raise the equity round that would covert that note — it could be up to 18 months before another equity round is closed, CEO and co-founder Johannes Reck told me at the time — this latest revolving debt facility is giving the startup another efficient route to accessing money.

Unlike equity rounds (or notes that can convert into equity), revolving debt facilities are non-dilutive, flexible lines of credit, where companies can quickly draw down funds as needed up to the full value of the facility. After repaying with interest, they can re-draw up to the same limit again.

In that regard, revolving debt facilities are not unlike credit cards for consumers, and similarly, they are a sign of how banks rate GetYourGuide, and perhaps the travel industry more generally, as strong candidates for paying back, and eventually bouncing back.

“We are very happy to help GetYourGuide continue its growth trajectory during this extraordinary situation that we find ourselves in”, says Jan Kupfer, head of corporate and investment banking, Germany, at UniCredit, in a statement. “The successful financing also shows once again our unique tech advisory approach, where we combine our deep tech expertise with the broad product range of a pan-European commercial bank.”

“Extraordinary situation” is perhaps an understatement for the rough year that travel businesses have had.

There do remain parts of the industry that have yet to make the leap to digital platforms — experiences, the focus of GetYourGuide, is very much one of them — and that makes for very interesting and potentially big businesses.

But between government-imposed travel restrictions, and people reluctant to venture far, or mix and mingle with others, startups like GetYourGuide have essentially found themselves treading water until things get moving again.

Last October, GetYourGuide said it had passed 45 million ticket sales in aggregate on its platform, but that figure was only up by 5 million in 10 months. As we pointed out at the time, that speaks both to a major slowdown in growth and to the struggles that companies like it are facing, and it is very likely far from the projections the startup had originally made for its expansion before the pandemic hit.

It’s not the only one: air travel, hotels, and other sectors that fall into the travel and tourism industries have largely been stagnating or in freefall or decline this year. Many believe that those who will be left standing after all of this will have to collectively brace themselves for potentially years of financial turmoil to come back from it.

Interestingly, Airbnb presents an alternative reality, at least for the moment. It appears to have captured investors’ attention and since going public in December has been on a steady upswing.

Analysts may say that there hasn’t been a lot of news coming out about the company to merit that rise, but one explanation has been that the optimism has more to do with its longer-term potential and for how tech-savvy routes to filling travel needs will indeed be the services that people will use before the rest.

That could be part of the pitch for GetYouGuide, too. Chrestin said that the company believes that travel in the U.S. market, a key region for the startup, is looking like it might rebound in Q2 or Q3. Yet even if it doesn’t, the company has the runway to wait longer.

Chrestin noted that GetYourGuide has “reinvented internal processes” and is operating much more efficiently now. “If it weren’t for the global hardship this crisis is causing, we would look back and say it was quite transformational,” he said.

“The company is very well capitalized and fully funded to profitability. Even if the current travel volume stayed like this for three years, we would not run out of capital,” he continued. “We have sufficient capital even for that scenario, but we don’t think that will happen.”

Airbnb cancels all bookings for DC during Inauguration week

Airbnb won’t be hosting anyone in Washington DC during the week of the Presidential Inauguration, the company said in a statement.

Brian Chesky took to Twitter to confirm the company’s move on Wednesday even as lawmakers in the nation’s Capitol were moving ahead with a historic vote to impeach President Donald Trump for a second time.

The move to make the blanket ban and effectively shutter Airbnb’s in and around DC ahead of the Inauguration came after the company had committed to review guest bookings in an attempt to ensure that no one associated with last week’s riot at the Capitol used the service to return during the lead up to the Inauguration.

“Today, in response to various local, state and federal officials asking people not to travel to Washington, D.C., we are announcing that Airbnb will cancel reservations in the Washington, D.C. metro area during the Inauguration week,” the company said in a statement. “Additionally, we will prevent any new reservations in the Washington, D.C. area from being booked during that time by blocking such reservations.”

Guests whose reservations had been canceled are receiving a full refund, and the company said it would reimburse hosts for the money they would have earned from the canceled reservations. The company said that HotelTonight reservations also will be canceled.

“Airbnb’s work continues to be informed by inputs from our local host community as well as Washington, D.C. officials, Metro Police and Members of Congress throughout this week. In particular, Mayor Bowser, Governor Hogan and Governor Northam have been clear that visitors should not travel to the D.C. Metro area for the Inauguration,” the company said. “Additionally, we are aware of reports emerging yesterday afternoon regarding armed militias and known hate groups that are attempting to travel and disrupt the Inauguration.”

Airbnb has also been assisting the law enforcement in their investigations into what happened at the Capitol last week.

“As we’ve learned through media or law enforcement sources the names of individuals confirmed to have been responsible for the violent criminal activity at the United States Capitol on January 6, we’ve investigated whether the named individuals have an account on Airbnb,” the company said. “Through this work, we have identified numerous individuals who are either associated with known hate groups or otherwise involved in the criminal activity at the Capitol Building, and they have been banned from Airbnb’s platform.”

Ahead of inauguration, Airbnb pledges bans for anyone involved in Capitol riot

Building on a policy that the company said has been in place since the Charlottesville protests back in 2017, Airbnb said it will take additional steps to beef up community protections for the DC metro area ahead of the presidential inauguration.

Airbnb already removes people from the platform who are associated with violent hate groups ahead of specific events, the company said.

And ahead of the inauguration, the company said it would use a seven-step plan to ensure that the DC metro-area isn’t overwhelmed with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or “western chauvinists.”

Airbnb said it would ban individuals identified as involved in criminal activity around the Capitol at last week’s riot. “When we learn through media or law enforcement sources the names of individuals confirmed to have been responsible for the violent criminal activity at the United States Capitol on January 6, we investigate whether the named individuals have an account on Airbnb,” the company said. “This includes cross-referencing the January 6 arrest logs of D.C. Metro Police. If the individuals have an Airbnb account, we take action, which includes banning them from using Airbnb.”

That’s in addition to another sweep of existing reservations at locations around the Capitol in the days leading up to the inauguration to ensure that no one associated with hate groups slips through its dragnet.

The company will also tighten up booking requirements, with additional identity verification measures and other security checks to ensure that background checks are up-to-date.

As final steps, the company said that it is communicating with booking guests to inform them that if they’re bringing people who are associated with hate groups then they could face legal action from Airbnb. Hosts are also being told by the company that if they suspect anything about individuals staying on their properties that they should contact the company’s Urgent Safety Line.

Unicorn travel startup Hopper is facing a pandemic-fueled customer service nightmare

Mobile travel app Hopper has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as consumers canceled their trips and airlines dropped their flights. But the complications around getting airline credits and refunds have since turned into a customer service crisis for the airfare prediction and ticket booking startup, which had been valued at $750 million back in 2018 before reaching unicorn status thanks to an undisclosed round it closed amid COVID lockdowns this year. Currently, hundreds of Hopper customers are trashing the app in their app store reviews, calling Hopper a scam, threatening legal action, and warning others to stay away.

The key complaint among many of these users was not only how their flight was canceled by an airline and that they couldn’t get a refund, but that there was no way to get in touch with someone at Hopper for any help. There wasn’t even a phone number to call, the user reviews said.

These complaints on the app stores have been harsh and a PR disaster for Hopper’s brand.

To give you an idea of what’s being said, here’s a small sampling:

  • No phone number to reach and takes a week or more to get back to an email.”
  • “No way to contact customer service no [one] has responded to my inquiries at all. The help tab just sends you in a constant loop.”
  • “Warning. This company will take your money. They give zero refunds and there is no one to talk to.”
  • “Customer service continues to be an absolute joke. We…put support requests in a week ago, zero response.”
  • “Hopper is great if you want your flight cancelled and money never refunded. There is LITERALLY no customer support.”
  • “I understand there is a lot of traffic on the app due to COVID, but having to post a review in order to receive any sort of attention and being unable to reach out through the app for my issue was very frustrating.”
  • “There is no way to contact anyone. The Contact Us page is just a Q&A page.”
  • “I was never refunded and when I reached out to their ‘need help’ I received the generic email which stated someone will get back with me. I waited a week and sent another message and I still have not heard anything. Hopper took my money on a flight that was cancelled by the airline and never notified me.”
  • “Not [sic] existing customer support. If you need help your [sic] only option is ‘read a post.’ Buyer beware. It’s a total scam.”
  • “I’ve reached out multiple times regarding a flight a credit from April of 2020 and they have yet to provide me with any details or help me with using the credit.”
  • “This company is a fraud! Do not use Hopper! I will be getting a lawyer!”
  • “Can’t say enough bad things about this service…Have to wait 15 days for response. Unbelievable.”
  • “I booked a flight back in June that I still haven’t been refunded for because the airline will only refund the agent directly. Non-existent customer service.”
  • “I spent over 3K and 3 months later, still no refund.”
  • “I have been waiting seven months for a refund.”

To date, users have left over 550 one-star reviews on iOS and 302 on Android, per Sensor Tower data. Hundreds of these are visible when you sort by “Most Recent” reviews on iOS, which is damaging to what had been, before the pandemic, a trusted and respected travel brand.

@.sp2020##hopper is getting trashed — no customer support? Can’t get refund? ##covid ##travel♬ Trouble’s Coming – Royal Blood

Hopper, to its credit, openly admitted to TechCrunch it’s been massively struggling with what it referred to as “unprecedented volumes of customer support inquiries since the start of the pandemic began,” or 2.5X its normal rate.

The company says it’s currently receiving over 100,000 inbound support requests per month, as consumers and airlines alike changed and canceled their flights. Since April, it’s seen over 980,000 inbound customer service requests.

A number of the inquiries are from customers are asking for refunds due to COVID-related cancellations. Typically, airlines offer a modified flight when they make a schedule change, and many consumers will take this modification. Some customers, however, will want a refund so they can rebook a different flight or because they’ve chosen to cancel their travel plans entirely. The pandemic has exacerbated this problem, driving cancelation rates around five times higher than usual, Hopper says.

Another point of confusion is who should handle these refunds. Hopper says customers can either reach out to the airline directly for a refund for help rebooking or they can ask Hopper to handle it. It also noted a small number of airlines don’t allow refunds, only travel credit. The airlines dictate these policies, which means Hopper can’t just offer to refund everyone — it would have lost too much money to survive, if it did so.

“We would have had to put out about half a billion dollars,” explains Hopper CEO Frederic Lalonde, describing the situation to TechCrunch. We had reached out to understand the situation, given the sizable customer backlash against the previously popular app.

“The way the airline system works is if I refund you as a customer who booked from us, I’m not going to get that money back. We would have put ourselves out of business,” Lalonde saus.

In addition, Hopper doesn’t generally received the refunds itself. They go directly from the airline to the customer. And many customers had to wait on refunds this year due to COVID issues. But there are some exceptions. For a few low-cost carriers, like Frontier, Spirit and others, Hopper does have to process the refund from the airline and then return these to the customers. So in these cases, Hopper’s non-responses to customer support inquiries left customers without options. (We’re documenting how the airlines are responding to our inquires about Hopper refunds here. It’s confusing to say the least.)

But the root of Hopper’s customer service nightmare wasn’t the chaos caused by the pandemic and the airlines’ cancellations themselves. It was how Hopper approached handling the situation.

“We failed our customers,” Lalonde admits. “We had a bunch of people that trusted us.”

He said Hopper has now addressed many of the customer complaints and issues. But many more than still remain. “There’s no universe where that’s what we set out to do,” he adds.

During the course of the year as the customer service crisis escalated, Lalonde says his personal email and mobile phone was published on the web. He’s since opened up several thousands — or maybe even tens of thousands — of emails and voicemails of customers in need of assistance.

In hindsight, one misstep Hopper made is that it didn’t hire more customer service agents to deal with what the pandemic would bring. In fact, Hopper did the opposite — the company furloughed agents in an effort to cut costs and stay in business. At the time, Lalonde explains, there was just too much uncertainty to hire. Stores were out of toilet paper. The Western world had closed for travel. Vaccines had typically taken years to create. This was looking like a long-term, worst-case scenario.

“We had to build an operational plan of zero dollars of revenue for four years. That’s what I gave my board,” Lalonde says.

When lockdowns lifted and travel started to come back, so did some of Hopper’s agents. But the customer service issues, by then, had skyrocketed as airlines canceled and changed schedules at high rates, and began to issue Future Travel Credits (FTC). Instead of adding more agents to help solve customer service problems, Hopper decided to apply automation, with a goal of allowing customers to solve more themselves. During the course of 2020, Hopper automated exchanging flights in the app, redeeming FTC issued by airlines, managing schedule changes, adding self-serve cancellations, and it rolled out follow-up emails to customers after they requested a cancellation.

Lalonde had believed automation would ultimately be more critical to long-term survival than hiring more agents.

“Would it have made a big difference [to add more agents]? Honestly, I don’t really think so. I think it would maybe have gotten 10% more done,” says Lalonde. “Could you find thousands of customers that would have gotten [help] sooner? Yes. But would it really have moved the need on the millionth inbound request we got? No.”

Another area where Hopper fell short was on customer communication.

This is most apparent from the App Store complaints.

Customers may be expressing frustration over refunds, but they’re even angrier that they can’t get in touch with anyone. And Hopper didn’t necessarily do itself any favors here by sending out emails which said it was aiming to get back to customers within 24 hours — an entirely unrealistic promise. (See below)

 

Image Credits: Hopper email (provided by customer) / Hopper email (provided by customer)

Hopper also chose to shut down its phone line when it realized that 80% of customers were waiting on hold for 45 minutes, even though, arguably, some customers would have preferred that to nothing at all. Instead, it rolled out an online structured triage system that helped prioritize incoming complaints. It even had a button to push if users were stuck at the airport so they could get more urgent assistance.

The problem was customers couldn’t find Hopper’s help features.

“Was our communication strategy broken? Yes,” admits Lalonde.

He says he decided to put the team on actually dealing with the FTC and the refunds, and not talking to people. “That made us look a hell of a lot worse, optically, but we got through a lot of work…because at the end of the day, after the fifth repetitive email, people got just as angry [as when they were ignored].”

Hopper has since apologized to customers and sent out an additional $1.5M in travel credits to its customers, in addition to the refunds it has now processed, to help make up for its issues. It’s still working through the backlog of customer service issues. And it expects another good six months of chaos as the vaccines shipping now aren’t immediately going to solve the airlines’ travel problem.

Over the next two months, Hopper also says it will be increasing its support team by 75% now that future looks more certain. It also plans to roll out in-app updates including a resolution center, escalation path, status check to prevent duplicate requests, and add in-app structured requests, in addition to more communication updates involving email campaigns, better in-app messaging, and website access to check on booking status.

It’s a wonder how a company in this nightmare situation could even survive, much less raise funds, when its brand is being dragged through the mud and hundreds — or even thousands of customers — have been unsatisfied.

As it turns out, Montreal-headquared Hopper will survive, at least in the near-term, thanks to a Canadian government bailout.

In early May, Hopper raised $70 million from both institutional and private investors. The Canadian government chose to save promising tech business impacted by the pandemic with direct financial support. The largest portion of the $70 million round (more than half, but not, say, 99%) included funds from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and Investissement Quebec. In addition, all of Hopper’s existing investors returned, joined by new investors Inovia and WestCap.

The Canadian government — which Lalonde describes as “more like socialists than you would think” — helped by de-risking the other investors by leading venture rounds into tech businesses that had been doing well pre-pandemic.

“They did this at a very large scale and it’s stabilized the tech sector in Canada,” he says. The new funds now value Hopper “right at unicorn level” in U.S. dollars, Lalonde adds, meaning the business is valued around $1 billion.

One reason why Hopper may have struggled with how to proceed during the pandemic was the sizable uncertainty around the U.S. market, which Lalonde says was “very scary.”

“We never knew what was going to happen. If there had been a better plan there, we probably would have been able to provision a bit more. But we had no idea. The lockdowns were at the state level,” he explains. “If you’re trying to figure out how aggressive you want to be on investing, spending, emergency injections, or how things are going to recover, the more predictability there is at the government level, the easier it is to make a decision. The U.S. wasn’t the most predictable environment,” Lalonde says.

While Hopper’s business is saved for now, the app’s brand reputation has taken a huge hit.

The question now is whether that, too, is recoverable?

“I don’t know,” says Lalonde. “I’ll tell you this, the only way that the only right way to approach that is just keep doing the right thing, one customer at a time.”

The VC and founder winners in Airbnb’s IPO

After a tumultuous year for the travel industry, Airbnb’s long-awaited IPO filing just dropped. One thing is clear: there is still plenty of juice left in the home-sharing platform, and a smattering of VCs and the company’s founders are positioned to receive some serious returns.

My colleague Alex Wilhelm has an overview article on Airbnb’s financial picture and overall metrics. It’s a mixed bag, but perhaps stronger than might otherwise be expected, given the global collapse of tourism due to the pandemic. Revenues are stabilizing, growth is up and bookings aren’t catastrophic.

So let’s get to the most fun question with these big startup IPO offerings, who made the money?

First and foremost, Airbnb’s founders — Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia — managed to hold together a whopping 41.95% of the company based on data offere in its S-1 filing, with Chesky owning slightly more than his two co-founders.