Always giving greater value. For travelers, a good price for the trip is important. Quite often, there is a forced compromise between getting a lower price and receiving customer support and good client service. In our view, there should never be a compromise. Giving a greater value to the clients by delivering affordable, uncompromising quality of service and care is hugely important. It creates client loyalty. We are aiming at this and constantly improving our business to be the best in the industry.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ivan Saprov.
Ivan Saprov is a tech entrepreneur with a strong background in sales, deep interest in business strategy, and proven leadership skills. A travel nerd with ten years of experience in the industry and CEO & Founder of Voyagu — a San Francisco-based travel tech startup that connects U.S. premium travelers with travel experts for better and easier planning, booking, and managing of their trips.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started my career while studying at university and freelancing as a journalist for a business newspaper. Learning the insider’s perspective, investigating successful business models, and analyzing fiasco cases was my real-life business school. At some point, I decided to sidestep my journalistic career and dive full-time into business.
I moved to Ukraine. Ukraine is one of the global tech-resource hubs with many young tech professionals and talented engineers. I already had some experience in the travel industry, and it was no coincidence that the founders of a young travel company from San Francisco with an office in Kyiv invited me to join as a Managing Partner.
As soon as I joined, I had a vision of turning our travel company into a tech-driven agency at scale by building a strong engineering team, creating a brand, and investing consistently in our self-developed technology. Keeping a sharp focus on sales performance, we delivered 200 percent growth to support all our ideas financially. This was until COVID-19 disrupted the travel industry. We could have had a sad ending.
In the summer of 2020, I bought out the company from its co-founders to take leadership and make decisions that would keep the business on track.
In 2021, we pivoted to focus on the new market niche that was created by the pandemic: Many U.S. travel agencies cut their staff, so there was a growing number of independent travel agents who needed more clients and tools to increase their efficiency.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It was the stuff of romance novels: I met her at the bar and never let her go. Except “her” wasn’t a girl, it was the travel industry.
A very good friend of mine was a trendy bartender, and one of his regular clients, who came to the bar every Wednesday, was the owner of a small travel agency. He regularly shared exciting travel stories and actively recruited my friend — and at some point, he succeeded. I was at a crossroads at that time, deciding whether to continue with journalism or move to do business. So, I decided to join my friend and this travel agency. Looking back, I never regret that decision. Travel became my passion, and that start led to greater ambitions.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
At the start of my career, I was producing “silver bullets.” A “silver bullet “ is believing that there is a specific detail of the idea’s implementation that can magically change the status quo. Together with my friend, we had our small local travel business. There were no sales. We were convinced that if we did an amazing, beautiful banner ad for Facebook, it would spark word of mouth and our network would grow like a snowball. We would make referrals and get thousands of clients. The preparation of the perfect banner took one month! We asked for feedback from everyone we knew. The day the banner went live, we got 3 likes, 0 shares, and 0 leads. It took me a while to understand that a single “silver bullet” never works. You need to take a broader look and get a fully loaded toolbox with the necessary instruments and skills to use them, so you will never miss a target.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am very grateful to my father for many things, but to name one, would be his idea for me to play sports. My father saw my interest in computers and analytics, but he also wanted me to have strong physical training and character development. He insisted that I should do more challenging sports and took me to a martial arts school. I did wrestling and participated in a number of competitions. I was winning a lot, but there were defeats as well and I learned how to get back on my feet. There is a strong analogy between sports and business, Sports definitely helped me to sharpen my focus, increase my competitiveness, and improve endurance and consistency. I know my father would’ve been very proud, but, sadly, we lost him to COVID in 2021.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
The demand for travel agents’ support is higher than before. At the same time, the travel agents lack the tools and technologies to compete with the big tech travel platforms and OTAs. The interaction between the airlines and travel agents has not changed much in the past 20 years. We are bringing the breakthrough change by developing the Voyagu platform for travel agents to create offers, sell tourist packages, and do travel management and support. This solution will create a happy triangle between the client, the travel agent, and the travel suppliers.
The personalized offering is a huge part of our product. The traditional travel agent, by knowing the client profile and all travel requirements, is already making the personalized offering by searching flight options using more inputs than any existing online searching tools. But it is done manually and therefore takes much time to look through literally a thousand search results. Such searches also rely on the travel agent’s hard skills in using the GDS (Global Distribution System). By using our AI-backed search engine that takes all of the client’s requirements and preferences into consideration, the agent will be able to get the most relevant, accurate, and best-priced flight options faster, and make a good impression on their clients.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
The “pain points” are ineffective interactions and engagement between the travelers, the travel agents, and the travel suppliers. The inefficiency results in travelers overpaying and not getting the essential customer care. The travel agents are surviving on a low revenue, and travel suppliers are trying to solve the pricing dilemma by finding the balance between flight rates, unutilized inventory, and plane occupancy. Our mission is to improve the travel industry, and we are confident we can solve this problem. We focus on clients and give travel agents the technology to deliver the best travel offers and the ability to elevate the overall travel experience.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
There is definitely a significant post-COVID shift in traveler attitude. While giving more business to the industry by traveling, the clients demand more support and customer care from the travel providers and travel agencies. Pre-COVID, the industry was able to cope with the demand. Now, after being disrupted, the industry drops the ball too often. Flights are constantly canceled or delayed. Check-in is taking hours and the luggage crisis is in full swing because of the lack of ground personnel and airline staff resources. Currently, the travel and hospitality industries are unable to perform effectively under the pressure of growing demand. The client experience is becoming worse than ever before. Travelers are willing to endure some inconveniences out of sympathy for the providers. However, they want a positive experience and empathy in return for their patience, and this is what’s missing. The industry should change the paradigm of maximizing profits to simply being client-centric. There are many travel companies still focusing solely on profit, and we don’t believe they will last. The companies that adjust and invest in client experience will stay around.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
I am an all-around traveler, so my ideal vacation would be a ski trip to the Alps, surfing in Bali, or an expedition to Africa. However, there are certain elements that make a vacation “perfect” in my eyes, such as an immersion in local culture, some adventurous activity, and, of course, good travel infrastructure. My advice for planning a vacation is to experiment with formats. If your last trip was to Paris to enjoy the city and visit the Louvre, plan your next expedition to Peru or go diving in Australia. The world is full of things and places to explore.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
We will. For now, we are focusing on delivering our tech vision. Our main priority is the Voyagu platform with integrated travel tech products. The growth of the platform will enable us to tap into new travel segments, study them better, and create exciting new travel products. It might be in wellness or self-improvement or specific retreat formats.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Always giving greater value. For travelers, a good price for the trip is important. Quite often, there is a forced compromise between getting a lower price and receiving customer support and good client service. In our view, there should never be a compromise. Giving a greater value to the clients by delivering affordable, uncompromising quality of service and care is hugely important. It creates client loyalty. We are aiming at this and constantly improving our business to be the best in the industry.
- Personalization from A to Z. Annoying telemarketing, emails, disturbing irrelevant offers, useless merchandise, and gifts. This is a common practice, and it happens because there is no personalization. It is cheaper and easier to do a “one-size-fits-all” campaign and see if some customers will react. That’s not where the future lies. The client should get personalization from A to Z, be it calls, emails, or text messages, and only personalized offerings and personal attention from the support and client care team. It has a direct impact on growing one-on-one relationships, loyalty, and referrals. The industry is not doing enough, and we are confident that using technology at every step of the way will increase the agents’ ability to make only the offers that clients will love, equip them with post-booking and customer support, and provide impeccable client care delivered by experienced, dedicated travel agents.
- Be an excellent problem solver. We all know disruptions are possible even in the most meticulously planned trip. Who wants to get stuck at an airport, miss a connection, or lose their luggage? Such events might kill the trip that took months to plan. Unfortunately, this is happening more and more often, and, this season, the travel industry is in a state of a major collapse. Our philosophy is to do everything possible to solve the problems or to minimize the impact if there is some disruption related to the trip and make our clients happy. We have a team of urgent operational support to help our clients with solutions to the most complex problems. And I want to assure you that so far we’ve been really good at it.
- Empathy. Empathy is very important. There is a lack of empathy in travel, and everything is built on procedures and policies. The customer support is mumbling something repeatedly, reading from a written script. But travel is about emotions, adventures, exploration, and something positive, and interactions with clients should be done in the same way. By investing in our corporate culture and people development, we ensure that our travel agents working with the clients show maximum empathy, hear them well, and focus on their experiences. We want to help and make our clients feel happy.
- WOW-effect. Last but not least is the WOW-effect. Creating a WOW-effect is an exciting opportunity to differentiate from your competitors and sail in the blue ocean rather than swim with the sharks in a bleeding price fight.
To achieve this WOW-effect, it is vital to look in the mirror and be critical of your offerings and service, constantly explore customer insights, and study competition. We are aiming to deliver WOW-effect to our clients with WOW prices, WOW client care, and WOW client experience. And we are happy to go the extra mile for it. More and more happy clients will be fueling our growth, and we will also make a WOW-effect for the whole travel industry.
I am glad that we have a passionate team, sharing our spirit to go the extra mile and the talent to develop the technology.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We participate in different projects and initiatives worldwide.
Historically our company has roots in Ukraine and had a big office in Kyiv. For our team who decided to stay in Ukraine, we give all our support and solidarity. We are making donations to different international and local Ukrainian humanitarian charities. One of our recent donations helped 430 families with humanitarian aid.
We also engage in volunteering and provide individual assistance to refugees around the world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would start the No bullshit movement! The No BS culture is about adopting honesty, zero tolerance for double standards, efficiency, and focus as guiding principles in life and business and living by these principles at all times. I think that cutting BS from our lives would provide people with amazing opportunities.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!