Feeling the heat: travel businesses have asked the EU to develop a plan to save the summer season
Feeling the heat: travel businesses have asked the EU to develop a plan to save the summer season © Getty Images

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Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky told a tech industry conference in 2014 that his accommodation booking platform was “the eBay of space in the early days”.

Now a behemoth provider of both accommodation and experiences to travel-hungry customers, the 13-year-old platform has inspired hundreds of smaller travel businesses in its wake — many of which feature in the FT’s latest annual ranking of Europe’s fastest-growing companies.

Michele Matt, founder of MyCamper, a Swiss camper van-sharing start-up ranked 51st on the list by 2016-19 compound annual growth rate, says his business was entirely Airbnb inspired.

In fact, the very same year that Chesky was talking to tech executives in San Francisco, Matt was on holiday in his Volkswagen California camper van in Sardinia. “[The van] stands around a lot because we don’t use it to go to work, so we thought: ‘let’s think about Airbnb for leisure vehicles’,” he explains.

But the pandemic has not been kind to the travel sector— particularly fast-growing companies without the war chests to survive the closure of international borders and government exhortations to stay at home.

Analysts at S&P Global say 56 per cent of European travel companies they rate are now categorised “CCC”, meaning they are deemed to have an “unsustainable capital structure”. Anglo-German travel giant Tui has had to take out three state-backed loans of more than €1bn each, while several smaller cruise operators, travel agents and coach companies have collapsed.

Michele Matt, founder of MyCamper
‘As a travel start-up, we were not in the best area at that time’ - Michele Matt, founder of MyCamper

Italianway, which ranks 955th in the FT 1000, is a platform that offers vacant second homes to tourists. Since it was founded in 2014, it has become the largest short-term rental operator in Italy, it says. In 2019, revenues for Italianway, plus its ancillary businesses in property management and real estate, increased by 30 per cent year-on-year to €5.3m (at Italianway Spa alone, revenues were €4.1m).

Chief executive Marco Celani says the company had expected to double its turnover in 2020 but the onset of the pandemic last spring caused sales to fall almost 100 per cent. As a result, the company has cut its workforce by 25 per cent and revenues reached just €2.8m last year. Yet Celani is confident that 2019 revenue levels will return by 2022.

MyCamper’s Matt says his business has also suffered. A funding round last April that aimed to raise €2m collected only €1.1m. “As a travel start-up, we were not in the best area at that time,” he says.

But some have been hit harder than others. At A&D Holidays (ranked 864th), which trades as Holiday Architects — an online travel company running bespoke holidays from the UK to countries such as South Africa and Oman — revenues fell to zero.

“It will take us as a business two to three years to make up the lost ground and be back to our 2019 size,” says Andrew Hunt, the company’s founder.

Hotel owners, such as the 424th-ranked German company Tristar, which serves mainly airports and conference centres, have also felt the full force of lockdown.

Last month, a group of more than 60 European travel businesses called on EU leaders for a co-ordinated plan to restart travel in time for the crucial summer season, as countries met in Brussels to discuss the introduction of a bloc-wide health passport.

However, at the same time, Covid-19 has accelerated existing trends that will leave some companies potentially better placed.

Chief executive of Italianway, Marco Celani
Marco Celani, chief executive of Italianway © Cristina Casati

Marc de Vries, chief executive of Swapfiets, ranked ninth on the list, says the company’s success comes from customers wanting to enjoy “the service you get by using a bike” without the “hassle of owning” one.

Swapfiets rents out bikes via a monthly subscription that allows users of its app to hail engineers to change flat tyres, mend brakes or, if the issue is more serious, replace the bike.

Andreas Scriven, head of hospitality and leisure at Deloitte, says the sharing economy has become “a huge trend” in travel, adding that younger consumers are more likely to prioritise spending money on experiences than owning things. 

Italianway’s Celani says the pandemic has also prompted travellers to book self-catering lets over hotels, in order to stay “away from common areas”.

His company has benefited from “holiday working”, too, as video conferencing has enabled people to work from remote locations — lockdown rules permitting.

Driving holidays and more local pursuits have equally come to the fore. For Swapfiets in particular, people’s desire to burn off “corona kilos” and be greener has helped increase its membership by 40 per cent to 220,000 during the pandemic, de Vries says. Revenues increased from €23m in 2019 to €30m last year. It plans to launch in London, Barcelona, Vienna and four more cities in France this spring.

As travel resumes, MyCamper’s Matt expects greater competition. “Maybe during corona times, not everyone has the capital or courage to open [their] own company but I think there will be many more players coming into the space,” he says.

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