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The middle of a pandemic may seem like an odd time to launch a travel-themed business. But don’t tell that to the co-founders of a new online club focused on family travel.
Sara Clemence and Ryan Sager believe the crisis has intensified many parents’ desires for travel. Stay-at-home restrictions have fueled interest in planning vacations for a time when societies will have tamed the pandemic. So Clemence and Sager have launched The Expedition, a family travel content site and social network of sorts.
“Family travel is an area where parents do a lot of trial-and-error and are often looking for answers,” Clemence said. “But it’s a space that’s been pretty blank.”
The company, based in Brooklyn, aims to capitalize on a few 2020 trends. One is that consumers are growing more comfortable with paying for subscription services — a megatrend Skift pinpointed earlier this year.
The Expedition is also betting on the growing popularity of “indie social media.” More and more people are said to be seeking out online communities that are formed around narrowly defined topics.
“There’s been this movement away from one central social firehouse to much more specialized forms of social engagement,” Sager said. “Subscription and community are among the two most promising places to be in media right now.”
These “long-tail social networks” offer shelter from the politics and clickbait of broad social platforms like Facebook. Some of the networks are as informal as group text chats. Others are more formal, with themes like women business leaders (Little Black Desk Society), baking (BakeSpace), or movie watching (Letterboxd).
“When it comes to focused communities, we have platforms now to create these much more easily than we did before,” Clemence said. “You don’t have to custom-build something expensive that’s potentially cumbersome and then worry about the user experience.”
A case in point is Mighty Networks, a service that provides the tech to run subscription-based, gated communities. It’s what Clemence and Sager use to power The Expedition.
Clemence and Sager argued that the trends of subscriptions and private socializing can reinforce each other. Members are self-selecting as positive contributors if they are willing to pay to join, the co-founders argued. The self-selection helps to ensure that users will keep discussions worthwhile, rather than become spammy or troll-like.
“One of our members was a backcountry guide for many years, and he literally does backcountry skiing with his two-year-old in a backpack,” Clemence said. “Another is a designer, and she knows how to mix grown-up style travel experiences with ones to entertain a young child.”
Applying a Media Model to Family Travel
The co-founders said that their media backgrounds would help them kickstart this project. Clemence, former travel editor for the Wall Street Journal and Travel and Leisure, and Sager, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal and Time, said they would use their journalistic instincts to shine spotlights on community members with genuine insights.
The formats are in flux. But the general idea is that there will be threads of conversation, such as “first flight since coronavirus” or “LGBT+ parents.” Hosts with relevant expertise will help lead each thread, such as by offering journalistic-like summaries of practical advice or providing first-person accounts of inspiration. Conversations will build off of that, and hosts will find ways to bring to the surface and shine a spotlight on content that’s worthwhile and relevant to users.
Clemence has young children, and Sager has a young child, and their perspectives as parents in separate families gives them insights into what their community members need, they said. They plan to enhance the value of membership to The Expedition by adding access to discounts for services and gear elsewhere. Exhibit A: Ciao Bambino, a family travel planning company, intends to offer users a discount off of its professional services.
Journalists as Founders
Clemence and Sager are following a path blazed by other journalists who have started travel businesses. One example is Ralph Bartel, a print and TV journalist who launched deals site Travelzoo in 2000. Another is Robert Niles, who left traditional journalism to run Theme Park Insider, which has had a nearly two-decade run. George Hobica left travel writing to create Airfarewatchog, a fare-watching service that Tripadvisor later bought and sold. Darren Burn jumped from being an ITV broadcast news reporter to creating Out of Office and other LGBT+ travel brands.
The concept of niche-focused travel communities isn’t entirely new, of course. Perhaps most relevantly, Gogobot (later called Trip.com) — which aimed to be a way for travelers to split into tribes like “family travelers” and share relevant tips — faded away after its purchase by Trip.com Group’s Skyscanner.
Other people have also attempted to build communities, such as Where Are You Now? (WAYN), which sold for about $1.6 million in 2016 and later lost its sense of direction, despite having raised $11 million in funding. Other adjacent attempts to focus on specific niches of travel include TravelNoire, which Zim Ugochukwu created a few years ago with an original focus on Black travel, and Travelfish, which has brought together guides primarily to Southeast Asian destinations for years.
But the founders of The Expedition believe they can take advantage of new opportunities that weren’t available in the past thanks to changed consumer expectations and technology.
“In the online world, community is premium and connection is premium, meaning they’re something people will pay for,” Sager said. “People want a membership to something that speaks to their identity. The opportunities are amazing.”