After spending almost two decades at Booking.com in various senior positions, Andrea D’Amico decided it was time for a change.

It landed on the launch of group travel WeRoad as CEO earlier this year and now wants to apply some of his experience working at the online travel agency to help it accelerate its growth in Europe and beyond.

In an interview with PhocusWire, D’Amico discusses what he brings to the startup, some remaining pressures from the pandemic and plans for the future.

Why did you join WeRoad?

I worked at Booking.com for 18 years. It was an amazing experience. When I started I think there were about 100 people and we got to 20,000. Then came COVID and it was a painful time. I had to lay off about 400 people in my organization and I thought after 18 years it was a good time to end my career.

Booking.com allowed parents to take five months of leave for each child, so I took a year because I’ve been working consistently for 23 years and I’ve never had time to just rest and do other things. I cleared my mind about what I wanted to do next and Booking.com was not what motivated me the most.

I thought about when I had the best time at the company, which was in the early stages when we were building the company, shaping the model, hiring people, and laying the groundwork for future growth. I thought that what I want to do next is to find a company that is at that stage and that gives me back those vibes and at the same time can benefit from my experience in scaling organizations from start-ups to multinational businesses.

I contacted WeRoad through a link and decided to work for them for two or three months as an advisor working on a strategic plan for international scaling. The more I immersed myself in 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 it all, but he doesn’t have the experience of scaling or the experience or desire to take care of the day-to-day operations, so it was a very good match. He can keep his mind completely open and fresh about the vision for the next few years and how the product should be developed. We work well together because we look at business in different ways and challenge each other.

What experience do you bring from booking.com that you can apply to WeRoad?

The first thing is to increase multiple markets at the same time. I think we’ve learned that if you’re doing it one at a time, it’s going to take forever, so as long as you have a very good book and you have people in management who can support the local managers, you hire the people and just try to go as fast as you can. as much as you can. I am trying to move it to WeRoad. We opened in Italy and then Spain, then the UK and now France and Germany in parallel and if they go well we will launch other markets.

The second thing is scaling up the organization by bringing the knowledge of potential problems you might have along the way, of course not everything will be the same, there will be mistakes and learning, but maybe because I’ve been through a lot in the past already I can foresee potential problems with going from 100 people to 20,000. I don’t know if we’ll get there, but let’s say there will be less bugs by applying the experience I have there.

What were your priorities in the first six months on the job?

The first thing is a lot of learning on my part. The second is to create the new markets, so France and Germany at the same time as the faster development in the UK. We opened six/seven months ago, so it’s quite new for us and there’s still a lot to do, so I’m really putting France, Germany and the UK in the same bucket. They are sort of startup markets and the focus is to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible.

For the other markets, Italy and Spain, where we already have very good traction, it is about understanding the future difficulties of our model, how we can grow without limitations. We always use Italy as an example, a stress test for our model, and with these lessons we look at what we need to do in the other market.

We are also looking to fill out the leadership team. We had a very important vacancy for a Chief Product and Technology Officer and we found the person, a British person, who will be announced in a few weeks.

During the pandemic you used gift cards as a source of income, how have group travel bookings recovered?

During the pandemic, we used the gift cards when it was not possible to travel. It gave an idea of ​​how strong our community and our brand is because in three days we collected around €750,000 worth of gift cards at a time when people didn’t know when they would be able to use them. Now, fortunately, since March, work has returned to normal and we hope it will stay that way.

In terms of the COVID restrictions, the situation is quite normalized, we still have some problems with some countries, but the main problem we see today is the rising cost of flights, because in our model we want to send people to every corner of the world and if for their going to Peru costs 1400 euros instead of 800 euros, of course this will affect the choice and costs and the overall wallet.

We try to be as competitive as possible and avoid making it difficult for them, but we’ve seen a shift to shorter distances though, so we have more groups staying in Europe or the Middle East.

What is your growth strategy?

It opens up new markets. If you look at Europe, bearing in mind that we want to achieve European leadership, you have to be either a leader or relevant in the top five markets, so now with the opening of Germany and France we will be in the top five, so international expansion will contribute to our growth.

In markets where we’re already more mature, like Italy and Spain, we still see an opportunity for growth, so there might be a little less focus there in terms of investment, but making sure we’re still adding new customers and preserving the ones we have will be very important.

We also want to explore a few things and step out of our comfort zone a bit in the future. The first one is WeRoadies, that might not be the name, but it will enable our coordinators, our tour leaders, to create and organize the itineraries themselves and sell them through our platform. If you look at our basic model, today we define the routes and then ask the local operators to organize and execute them with our support.

I thought about when I had the best time at the company, which was in the early stages when we were building the company, shaping the model, hiring people, and laying the groundwork for future growth.

Andrea D’Amico

In this other model, the coordinator will do everything, where to go, what to do and organize everything and sell through our platform. This will make the passenger experience even more unique and enable coordinators to use WeRoad as their job, whereas today it is in their spare time. This also allows our product to scale, but with less involvement in the operation.

Then, if you look into the future, there is much more even in Europe. There are the Scandinavian countries and the Benelux, and once we are done with Europe, there are other geographies such as the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region. Also, we think there is interest from different age groups. Today, our groups are either 25 to 35 or 35 to 49, but the needs of those age groups are relevant to other age groups as well – travel, making new friends, unique adventures – is something that people 50 and over they may want to survive. We’re evaluating whether we need to tweak the product to make it a little more premium, but we want to explore that territory at some point.

If you go the route of having the coordinators organize the trips themselves, what would the revenue model be?

They’ll tell us what they expect and we’ll put a markup on top.

What is your view on the current automation in the tour market?

The main automation we would like to see is in how we develop the travel product. Today we have full control over it, but we have to ask the local operators to support us. It is through discussion, negotiation between our tour operator teams and the 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 them over the phone and through emails.

I don’t think we’re going to get to the point where we’re just going to sell packages that the destination management companies are putting together because we don’t want to do that, but maybe once we’ve determined what we want to see, we’d be happy to find a way local operators to upload everything in an automated way.

What has WeRoad learned from the pandemic?

It came pretty early on for us. The first thing is that travel is very sustainable, so people booked as soon as there was an opportunity to book something, even if it was around the corner.

The second thing is that of course the destination is important, but the feeling 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 that they were still unique and interesting and people booked.

Has the pandemic highlighted some areas of the adventure market that have been damaged?

There have been quite a few issues around cancellations and consumer rights, and the industry as a whole needs to find ways to be more user-friendly and make customers more comfortable. Now there are many countries involved, it’s a bit more complicated. if you book a trip, there’s an airline, a DMC, there’s us, and if you want to get your money back or have a guarantee, you have to deal with several countries, which makes you a bit more – uncomfortable.

What is your current financial position?

So far we have had about 9 million euros of investment, which mainly came from leading Italian family offices, and we were able to build the business with little money. Today we are doing more than a qualifying round and we are looking for investments of around €15 million, which is what we think will help us move into 2024 when we want to become EBITDA positive. We want to use the €15 million to work faster in the UK, open up Germany and France in the right way and make more investments on the technology side, strengthen the foundations and improve our customer proposition.

https://www.phocuswire.com/weroad-ceo-booking-com-learnings-growth-strategy

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