“We have to spark travellers’ curiosity and open their minds to new destinations”
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Eric La Bonnardière, one of the co-founders of Evaneos. Our conversation explored the company’s pioneering business model, the role of local agencies in the travel industry, the value of keeping a company’s culture intact amid rapid growth, and upcoming challenges and trends in the tourism industry.
About Eric La Bonnardière: After beginning his career in consulting, Eric La Bonnardière decided to start a business in 2009 together with Yvan Wibaux, a fellow graduate of the French business school HEC. Travel enthusiasts, they first carefully assessed the industry before opting to launch a new concept: a marketplace that enables travellers to connect with local inbound travel agencies offering a range of bespoke services.
About Evaneos: Present in ten countries, chief among them European markets, Evaneos is a platform that gives travellers access to a network of local travel agencies in more than 160 destinations. By cutting out the intermediaries, customers have the freedom to liaise directly with local experts in order to create the holiday of their dreams – all facilitated by Evaneos, its staff and its state-of-the-art technology.
To begin with, tell us a little bit about yourself. What inspired you to go into the travel industry and how did you wind up co-founding Evaneos?
It all started when Yvan Wibaux contacted me via the HEC Alumni Network to discuss business ideas in the travel sector. As a travel enthusiast, it immediately piqued my interest.
I quickly decided to get involved and to quit my job as a consultant. We then spent the first year trying to understand how the travel industry works and how we could break into it. We sought to do so by offering something more digital and technology-driven but, above all, by helping travellers to have more memorable, non-standardised experiences.
After deep-diving into the industry, we realised that there are numerous intermediaries who tend to standardise what’s on offer. We discovered the role of local agencies who, since they are on site and make the actual arrangements for trips, ultimately provide a lion’s share of the added value when you travel. They’re the ones who source and contract the various local services, from hotels to transport, activities and guides. It occurred to us that we could offer to sell their trips directly B2C, so as to make their local expertise directly available to travellers. This appeals to travellers because it allows them to craft genuinely bespoke holidays.
Were you alone in this niche at first?
Yes, because we came up with the concept!
You draw heavily on new technologies. What are the pillars of Evaneos’s business model?
In our segment, we deal in complex products, with medium- and long-haul trips averaging 13 days in length. Our customers move around a lot rather than staying in one place – they tend to go on tours, which obviously entail lots of services and different components.
At Evaneos, we first enable travellers and local agencies to communicate and then facilitate a complex transaction between two parties who are often an extremely long way away from one another. Our mission is to bring people together and our business model hinges on the human touch and expertise.
We also develop software for local agencies that helps them to communicate with travellers, exchange information and produce tailor-made itineraries. These local players are small organisations who lack the resources to invest in new technologies and our aim is to empower them , increasing their clout by creating a community of destination management companies (DMCs).
You mentioned being alone in the niche at the beginning, but that’s no longer the case, is it? What’s more, you’re growing internationally and you have major ambitions for the North American market. What is your expansion plan? Do you have competitors on the international stage?
Our development across a number of markets is still recent, so I won’t go into detail on that subject.
As for competition, other companies have obviously followed in our footsteps. All over Europe and on other continents too, businesses are springing up based on the same model. However, we’re lucky enough to have come up with the idea first, giving us first-mover advantage, and to have invested in new technologies and in building up a quality network of local agencies, whom we’ve been working with for a long time and who are loyal to us.
To start with, the emergence of competitors with the same model is a frightening prospect, but over the years, we’ve realised that we’ve got solid foundations in place and we have cemented our leadership. These days, we look favourably upon our competitors because they enable us to further evangelise the market, to explain how local agencies work and spread the idea that made-to-measure travel is within everyone’s reach. Lastly, it’s an enormous market, so the new players in our segment needn’t hinder our growth.
Your model is therefore based on a mixture of sophisticated technology and an extensive network of local agencies. In your opinion, which is the more important driver for Evaneos: the technological dimension or the human dimension?
At Evaneos, the two are complementary. Our network of loyal incoming agencies and DMCs in more than 160 destinations and our technology, which is informed by a thorough knowledge of the work these agencies do, go hand in hand to help ensure our development. We have an in-depth knowledge of the day-to-day issues faced by local agencies, having spent time in the field, and our technologies address these difficulties – in turn enabling agencies to please travellers.
You hit the ground running in Europe and quickly set up shop in several countries, including Spain and the United Kingdom. What sort of reception have you had? Have you had to adapt to local cultures and restructure your organisation for each market?
Broadly speaking, our international expansion has been smooth. Over half of our travellers now come from outside France. Our offering is tailored to every market, as Italian travellers, for instance, don’t go to exactly the same destinations as French or British ones and aren’t looking for the same things in a holiday.
Accordingly, we have put together specialised native teams, which allow us to forge a strong local presence, build our brand and establish our leadership in every market that we target. Indeed, we are the leading platform in our segment in every European market that we have positioned ourselves in.
On the other hand, our business model, platform and technology don’t have to be developed anew for every market; they are a mainstay that we draw strength from.
Evaneos has grown enormously in under ten years. How do you manage that growth with respect to the company’s culture?
We have doubled our headcount in the last 18 months and currently have 170 employees. Culture and working methodologies are key in such circumstances. My co-founder and I see it as imperative to maintain that culture, which includes a passion for travel throughout the company – this, in turn, creates a very strong sense of belonging. In order to grow fast while performing effectively and innovating, it’s our job to delegate rather than hogging all the decisions. Indeed, that’s what characterises a start-up, in my view.
Over the years, we’ve made a point of bringing in new managers and setting up independent teams who are empowered to make quick decisions. The culture we have created fills us with confidence, because your organisation has got to keep pace with your growth.
The culture you speak of, and your emphasis on delegating by spreading decision-making authority throughout the company, often aren’t top of mind in the travel industry.
We’ve strived to develop an agile, ‘hyperactive’ structure at Evaneos so that we can quickly scale up initiatives that are working, but that also means learning to live with making mistakes.
The organisation of our workforce is constantly evolving. We reorganise practically the entire company every six months to meet new challenges and cater to new projects. If one thing’s for sure, it’s that if you join Evaneos, you’ve got to be flexible. In fact, that’s one of our recruitment criteria.
How do staff react to this reorganisation?
It’s a mutually agreed process; staff members volunteer for changes and take ownership. Agility is our modus operandi to the extent that it’s now second nature for us.
Some tour operators are concerned by the rise of platforms like yours – which foster disintermediation – and question how much responsibility Evaneos takes with regard to the quality of the service provided to travellers. What do you make of that stance? Are the financial and quality guarantees that Evaneos offers the same as those offered by a traditional TO?
Risks arise when things are done badly. However, since we got up and running nine years ago, we have proven our ability to deliver to an extremely high standard. Addressing travellers’ concerns is a cornerstone of our business strategy and our customer satisfaction rate is 97%, which puts us up there among the best in the industry.
It’s up to us to give travellers peace of mind throughout the booking process. On that note, we have developed insurance products and guarantees so that, for example, if a local agency goes bust, customers get a free replacement trip. Moreover, as is the legal requirement for all travel operators in France, we have a travel agency licence and we respect all the associated stipulations. That is obviously not the case for all platforms, many of which operate without a licence.
We are powered by Kantox, so we always ask a question about one of the major challenges in the travel industry: currency management. How do the fluctuations in currency markets affect your business and is this something that you actively manage?
Firstly, currency fluctuations affect the competitiveness of certain destinations – we see the prices in destinations rise and fall every year as a result. This is a matter that we are mindful of.
On the other hand, we try to develop tools that allow our local agencies to work more effectively in every area and FX management is no exception. We have a suite of relevant tools, such as a 35-currency hedging feature that enables them to lock in the exchange rate at the moment when customers pay the deposit for a trip. This avoids them running major risks regarding any changes in the rate in the period between customers making the purchase, when the agencies have to pay for the services booked, and travellers actually going on the trip and paying the outstanding balance. In that way, both the deposit and the full balance are protected.
Lastly, in general (and this is a question we’re asking all of our interviewees), what do you see as the biggest challenge facing tourism today? And what do you think are the main trends that will shape the travel industry in the coming years?
The increasing number of tourists around the world, and particularly from the Asian market, is something that we have to pay careful attention to. In 20 years’ time, the number of tourists will have almost doubled. The challenge lies in being able to receive this rising volume of tourists while looking after the environment, local populations and places of interest.
Our solution revolves around trying to spark travellers’ curiosity and open their minds to new destinations, and the emergence of new, easily accessible tourist sights in every destination. If we take France as a case in point, Asian travellers are largely fixated on Paris and we need to find a way to boost the appeal of destinations across the country.
It’s incumbent on tourism professionals such as ourselves to ponder this issue.
As for trends on the horizon, beyond the growing importance of personalisation, travellers increasingly want to be surprised and to have access to extra services during their holidays. More last-minute options have to be made available. A parallel can be drawn with what I was saying about the challenges in the coming years: we’ve got to be able to satisfy these demands and not just settle for bog-standard tours, activities and accommodation, but rather go beyond that and offer a far wider range of things to far more people. Mobile phones are a tool enabling access to new types of products on the spot and this technology could, therefore, provide the way forward on this front.