After spending almost two decades at Booking.com in various senior roles, Andrea D'Amico decided it was time for a change.
He landed at group travel startup WeRoad as CEO earlier this year and now wants to apply some of his experience of working at the online travel agency to helping it accelerate its growth across Europe and beyond.
In an interview with PhocusWire, D'Amico discusses what he brings to the startup, remaining pressures of the pandemic and plans for the future.
Why did you join WeRoad?
I worked at Booking.com for 18 years. It has been an amazing experience. When I started I think there was around 100 people and we got to 20,000. Then COVID came and that was a painful time. I had to let go of around 400 people in my organization and I thought that after 18 years it was a good time to have a career break.
Booking.com gave parents the opportunity to take five months off for each child so I took a year because I’ve been working back to back for 23 years and I’d never had time to just have a break and do other stuff. I cleared my mind to what I wanted to do next and Booking.com was not what was motivating me the most.
I thought about when I had had the best time in the company which was in the early stages when we were building the company, shaping the model, we were hiring the people and setting the foundation for future growth. I thought what I wanted to do next was to find a company that is in that stage and that is giving me back those vibes and at the same time could benefit from my experience in scaling up organizations from startup to multinational business.
I got in touch with WeRoad through a connection and decided to work for them for two or three months as an adviser working on a strategic plan for international scale up. The more I dived into the business, the more I got to know the team, the more I fell in love with WeRoad and they liked my approach and the value I was adding.
I started as CEO in February and with WeRoad we have the founder who started everything but doesn’t have the experience in scaling up or the experience or willingness to look after daily operations so it was a very good match. He can keep his mind completely open and fresh on the vision for the next few years and how should the product be developed. We work well together because we are looking at the business in different ways and we challenge each other.
What experience do you bring from booking.com that you can apply to WeRoad?
The first thing is scaling up multiple markets at the same time. I think we have learned if you just do it one-by-one it is going to take forever, so as long as you have a very good playbook and you have people in leadership who can support local managers, you hire the people and just try to go as fast as you can. I’m trying to move that to WeRoad. We opened in Italy and then Spain, then the U.K. and now France and Germany in parallel and if they go well we’re going to start other markets.
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The second thing is scaling up the organization by bringing the knowledge of potential issues you might have down the road, of course not everything is going to be the same, there will be mistakes and learnings but maybe because I’ve experienced quite a lot in the past I can already foresee potential issues of going from 100 people to 20,000. I don’t know if we’ll get there but let’s say there will be less mistakes by applying the experience I have there.
What have been your priorities in the first six months in the job?
The first thing is a lot of learning from my side. The second is to set up the new markets so France and Germany at the same time as going faster in the U.K. We opened six/seven months ago so it’s quite new to us and there's still a lot we need to do so I really put France, Germany and the U.K. in the same bucket. They're kind of startup markets and the focus is to get the ball rolling as fast as we can.
For the other markets, Italy and Spain where we already have very good traction, it’s about understanding the future bottle necks of our model, how we can grow with no limits. We always use Italy as an example, a stress test for our model and with those learnings look at what we have to do in the other market.
We also want to complete the leadership team. We had a very important vacancy for a chief product and technology officer and we’ve found the person, a British guy, which will be announced in a couple of weeks.
In the pandemic you were using gift cards as a revenue stream, how have group travel bookings recovered?
During the pandemic we used the gift cards when it was not possible to travel. It gave a sense of how strong our community and our brand was because in three days we raised around €750,000 worth of gift cards at a time when people didn’t know when they would be able to use them. Now, luckily, as of March, business is back to normal and we hope it will stay like this.
In terms of COVID restrictions the situation is pretty normalized, we still have some issues with some countries but the main issue we see today is the increasing flight costs because in our model, we want to send people to every corner of the world and if for them going to Peru cost €1400 instead of costing €800 of course it’s going to impact the choice and the spend and the overall wallet.
We try to be as competitive as possible and avoid making it more difficult for them but nevertheless saw that there was shift to more short-haul so we have more groups staying in Europe or the Middle East.
What’s your strategy for growth?
It's opening the new markets. If you look at Europe considering we want to achieve European leadership you need to be either leader or relevant in the top five markets so now with the opening of Germany and France we'll be in the top five, so international expansion will contribute to our growth.
In markets where we are already more mature, like Italy and Spain, we still see opportunity to grow so there may be a bit less focus there in terms of investment but making sure we still add new customers and keep the ones we have will be very important.
We also want to explore a few things and go a bit out of our comfort zone in the future. The first is WeRoad X, that might not be the name, but it will give the opportunity for our coordinators, our tour leaders, to create and arrange the itineraries themselves and sell them through our platform. If you look at our core model, today we define the itineraries and then ask local operators to arrange and execute them with our support.
I thought about when I had had the best time in the company which was in the early stages when we were building the company, shaping the model, we were hiring the people and setting the foundation for future growth.
In this other model the coordinator will do everything, where to go, what to do and arrange everything and sell through our platform. That will make the traveler's experience even more unique and give coordinators the possibility to use WeRoad as their job whereas today it's in their spare time. It also enables our product to scale but with less involvement in the operation.
Then, if you look at the future, there is much more out there even within Europe. There's the Nordics and Benelux and once we're done with Europe there are other geographies like the Americas and APAC. We also feel there is interest from different age groups. Today our groups are either 25 to 35 or 35 to 49 but the needs of these age groups are also relevant for other age groups - travel, making new friends, having unique adventures - is something people 50 or over might want to experience. We're evaluating if we need to adjust the product to make it a bit more upscale but at some point we want to explore that territory.
If you do go down the route of having coordinators put the trips together themselves, what would the revenue model be?
They would tell us what they expect and we would put a mark-up on top.
What's your view on current automation in the tours market?
The main automation we would like to see is in how we develop the touristic product. Today we have end-to-end control of it but we need to ask local operators to support us. It's done through discussion, negotiation between our tour operator teams and local operators and it will be important in the future to have a more automated process where we still have unique itineraries but we don't have to do most of it over the phone and via emails.
I don't think we'll get to the point where we'll just sell packages that destination management companies are preparing because we don't want to do that but maybe once we have defined what we want to see, we'd love to find a way for local operators to upload everything in an automated way.
What did WeRoad learn from the pandemic?
It came at the quite early stages for us. The first thing is that travel is very resilient so people booked as soon as there was a possibility to book anything even if it was around the corner.
The second thing is that of course destination is important but that sense of traveling and meeting new people is an essential part so even if people would have preferred to travel to Thailand, it wasn't possible so we developed local itineraries which were still unique and interesting and people were booking.
Did the pandemic highlight any areas in the adventure market that are broken?
There were quite a lot of issues on cancellations and consumer rights and the industry overall should find ways to be more consumer-friendly and make customers more comfortable. Currently there are many parties involved it's a bit more complicated. if you book a trip, there's the airline, the DMC, there's us and if you want to have your money back or have a guarantee you have to deal with several parties which is going to make you a bit less comfortable.
What's your current funding position?
So far we've had around €19 million in investments that mainly came from leading Italian family offices and we've been able to build the business with not much money. Today, we're doing more of a proper round and we're looking for investment of around €15 million, this is what we think is going to help us bridge to 2024 when we want to become EBITDA positive. We want to use the €15 million to go faster in the U.K., to open Germany and France in the right way and make more investment on the tech side, to strengthen the foundations and improve our customer proposition.