For our Viewpoint series, Skift invites thought leaders, some from the less obvious corners of travel, to join in the conversation. We know that these independent voices are important to the dialogue within the industry. Our guest columnists will identify and shape what global trends and through lines will define the future of travel.
What a surreal time this is.
The world is under siege from an invisible assailant, and as I write this, the U.S. now leads the world in confirmed Covid-19 cases. Those who are sick or could be sick are expected to isolate immediately from those who love them most and want to care for them as they battle a virus that has killed at least 1,000 Americans and 20,000 people worldwide.
The economy is reeling, with 3.3 million Americans filing for unemployment in the prior week, the most single-week filings in U.S. history.
And it’s especially bad if you are in the travel business.
My name is Rena Pacheco-Theard, and I’m the CEO of Boutiq, a Techstars-backed travel startup that is using machine learning to buy vacation rental homes that we own and operate under the Boutiq brand.
Also, I’m in my ninth month of pregnancy, and my husband is my co-founder, so we are truly “all in” together on all fronts.
In the midst of the Covid-19 health pandemic and economic distress, this may not seem like the best time to be launching a business —let alone a travel industry startup — or to be bringing a kid into the world (and balancing new motherhood with leading a business).
I’ll admit it is not ideal, but in a weird way things are OK.
Let’s start with what is not great: I have a pregnancy-compromised immune system making me more vulnerable to the disease, my parents are unable to travel for their grandchild’s birth, I may not be able to have my husband with me during delivery (hospital protocol continues to evolve), and I’m navigating this in the uncertain environment of a startup after forgoing four generous months of paid maternity leave when I left my prior employer.
Then there are the obvious challenges of raising funds for a startup — let alone a travel startup — in today’s economy, especially given the thrashing that many hospitality and travel companies have experienced in the past few weeks.
On the bright side, I am working on business I am passionate about and we are building something great. My whole life I have believed strongly in the idea of nothing ventured, nothing gained, and this is about taking calculated risks to live the life you want.
And while these are uncertain times, our particular business niche is a counter-cyclical one on the better side of recent travel trends related to the current environment, as well as historical recessions.
In troubled economic times, these travel trends emerge:
- Substitution of “fly to” with “drive to” destinations.
- Preference for private residences, rather than hotels (plus reduced food expenditures by increasing purchase of groceries to be cooked in kitchens that most hotels do not offer).
- Preference for more remote locations, rather than urban.
And if you can appreciate those observations, it may not surprise you that our revenue is actually up from this same time last year.
Yes, a pair of bookings were canceled at our prototype property due to Covid-19, but those cancellations were immediately replaced with new bookings. In fact, we are booked every night for at least the next month.
Our team switched to remote work immediately following Techstars Austin’s capstone demo day event in early March, and we’ve found that we are more than capable of collaborating remotely and in real-time, and we seem to be getting more done than before because we don’t sit in traffic for an hour each way between our homes and office.
Spouse, Mentors, community
Spending every minute of every foreseeable day with my life-and-work partner isn’t without its challenges, but it also means we’ve been able to tackle the baby prep activities like properly installing an infant car seat, setting up the diaper changing area, assembling the safe sleep bassinet etc. We put a lot of these tasks on hold while we were going through the intense three-month Techstars program.
We’re also tapping into our networks, both our mentors for Boutiq, and our personal friends and family.
Business mentors are helping us to navigate the changing environment and think about what it means for our company. And when friends have offered to chat or drop off supplies, we are taking them up on their offers. We are going through all of this as a community, and helping each other or needing help is not a sign of weakness, but a testament to the strength of our networks.
I am proud to be building a business, while also starting a family. This isn’t without stress, but it is exactly what I want to be doing.
I think it is an important message to share: It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game when it comes to family and professional life.
Real freedom means having a choice, and finding the balance that works for you. I want my experience to be the example we set for the Boutiq team at large, whether it’s our small team now or a much larger one in the future.
These are uncharted times and the only certainty is change.
I am confident that as individuals and as professionals, Americans will continue to adapt, persist and succeed.
I’m confident the travel industry will come back “with a vengeance” as everyone’s pent-up energies from shelter-in-place protocols are suddenly channeled into a need to go somewhere and have an adventure … or a relaxing nap on a beach chair.
Hang in there, let’s support each other, and we’ve got this.
Rena Pacheco-Theard is cofounder and CEO of Boutiq.