Skift Take

A couple more U.S.-based startups — El Camino Travel and Regenerative Travel — have recently announced subscription-based products. What's noteworthy is how they're using subscriptions to build communities.

A dozen or so travel companies have tested subscription-based products and services in the past two years. The goals have been to diversify revenue streams and tap into emerging consumer preferences. 

Highlighting the momentum of the subscription travel megatrend, two more U.S.-based startups — El Camino Travel and Regenerative Travel — have recently announced subscription products. Unlike most others, these startups have focused on the potential of subscriptions to build communities of like-minded travelers.

Super-serving Women Travelers

El Camino began nearly seven years ago as a U.S.-based tour operator focusing on the criteria of women travelers.

Its success has led to a partnership with Conde Nast Traveler’s Women Who Travel group, which tapped it to organize a series of small group trips to Colombia, Mexico, and Cuba. The demographic has a sweet spot among “elder millennials.”

The company recently launched a $100 a year subscription product where the real benefit of membership is joining a community of like-minded women travelers exchanging honest advice. The community then helps the brand sell offline tours, an underexplored lever that the subscription travel model can impact.

El Camino Travel has about 550 paying subscribers. Members can ask questions about trip plans of other members and expert advisors who help keep threads on track.

“If a new member wants to plan a trip to a certain destination, a community manager basically jumps in and directs them to our travel guide to Istanbul,” said Katalina Mayorga, co-founder and CEO of El Camino Travel. “Then the community manager tags our travel experts, who start jumping in to give the new member relevant recommendations in response to questions.”

Another subscriber-exclusive perk is access to “trip drops,” or enticing, “destination unknown” vacations planned for by the operator.

“I came from the fashion world, and one of the things I always loved was seeing the hype and virality around a sneaker drop or some sort of new collection hit,” said Justin Bridges, co-founder and chief brand officer of El Camino Travel. 

“So we decided to put together what we call a trip drop, where El Camino figures out an extraordinary trip, and we drop it out of nowhere,” Bridges said. “We’ve done two of these so far and sold them both out in just a couple of days.”

Catering to a New Traveler Consciousness

Regenerative Travel provides marketing services to more than 35 independently owned ecologically-minded hotels. The concept got a major boost when The New York Times profiled emerging demand for regenerative travel.

The startup, founded three years ago, tries to avoid accusations of “greenwashing,” where luxury properties make gestures at being sustainable while not stopping destructive habits.

The New York-based company does this by vetting hotels on 29 measurable metrics, such as how a property takes care of wastewater and whether it sources supplies from local businesses. 

Subtler criteria include whether the owners are hands-on in overseeing a property. 

“We believe that everything flows from the owners and what practices and expectations and attitudes they instill in operations,” said co-founder and brand director Amanda Ho.

The company faces other players, such as Faircations, Green Pearls, and Fora Travel, who have some overlapping services.

Using Subscriptions to Build Communities

Last week, Regenerative Travel launched a $99 a year subscription product to engage its traveler audience. Membership includes a one-time $99 discount on the cost of a stay with a minimum of three nights at a participating property.

Regenerative Travel uses a subscription model to create a community forum with travel guides, similar to El Camino Travel.

“If you’re a conscious consumer in the, say, 25- to 35-year-old demographic, you might not be using a travel agent, but you might find it hard to sift through search engines to find the true gems that fit your values,” Ho said. “Our travel guides and forums help you find the signal in the noise, too, when it comes to recommendations beyond the property. We help them find out where the best farm-to-table restaurant is nearby, which local designers are worth knowing, and information.

The subscription revenue helps to fund solidifying the knowledge base of members-only content.

In March, Regenerative Travel plans to unveil an online community for travel agents interested in learning more about the inventory in this segment. The project is a follow-on to a virtual trade show with 18 exhibitors that the company ran earlier this year. 

The company aims to help agents, too, by educating them on the product and helping them gain commissionable inventory.

“But to be clear, we’re not working directly with the agents in terms of facilitating any bookings,” Ho said.

On the supply side, hotels have to get approved to qualify as a Regenerative Resort. Besides meeting strict criteria, hotels pay membership dues on a sliding scale based on the number of rooms at a property and their average daily rate.

Is There Demand?

The audience demanding regenerative travel may remain small compared to the hordes just wanting a cruise ship vacation of any kind. But there are signs that a segment of travelers is seeking out more thoughtful offerings. 

The need to educate the sector and thread together networks burden upstart companies such as Regenerative Travel and El Camino Travel.

They’re tiny in a market dominated by the best-capitalized online travel resellers, who are skilled at capturing and converting demand from travelers who already know what they want.

The smaller players have to instead “create” demand before they can scale up their direct booking platforms.

But the entrepreneurs are hopeful that the demand for more thoughtful travel is out there and reachable. (For more context, see Skift’s recent article: “A Marketing Blueprint for Responsible Travel Emerges for Tackling the Outdoor Tourism Boom.”)

“We want to be able to facilitate the type of experience that is essentially guilt-free,” Ho said. “When you take this specific trip, you’ll know your vacation is supporting the local community through the right suppliers and that your money is encouraging operators who are eco-conscious.”

The subscription model may help amplify the size of that audience. Other examples of community-building via subscription include the family travel brand The Expeditioner (profiled, here) and the local insiders’ network Localeur.

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Tags: subscription travel, subscriptions, tour operators

Photo credit: A group tour of Oaxaca, Mexico, organized by the startup El Camino Travel. Source: Alí Zárate for El Camino Travel.

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