Opa! My Internship in Greece

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The International MBA program at Schulich requires its students to undertake an internship in a country where they haven't previously lived or worked. This past summer I completed my internship in beautiful Greece and fulfilled the program's requirement. More importantly, the experience met all my requirements - experience in an international setting, experience at a startup and experience in the travel industry. 

 

The company

The internship was with Exclusivi, a travel-based startup founded by Babis Kourtzis and based in Athens, Greece. Exclusivi is a platform that allows hotels the ability to better engage with guests through intuitive front-end interfaces like TV & mobile apps, real-time PMS & CRM integration, guest analytics and marketing automation. These allow the hotel to enhance every aspect of a guest's stay resulting in increased overall satisfaction by driving revenue, reviews and repeat purchases.

The application leverages our everyday thirst for connectivity by providing guests a unique code to log onto the hotel's WiFi network. The code is then fed to the app where guests can perform actions like making restaurant reservations, ordering room service, booking a spa appointment and so on. The idea is that reducing guest friction will drive purchases and improve satisfaction.

The images below are screen grabs from the application and show how guests can easily and intuitively control different aspects of their stay. The information is laid out with striking visuals complete with descriptions and prices, allowing guests to make informed decisions without ever having to seek assistance from hotel staff.

Besides the application, Exclusivi also includes an online dashboard that pulls information from the hotel's Property Management System (PMS), allowing staff easy access to relevant information at a quick glance.

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The above is from the dashboard for a particular hotel and includes all important information like guest first and last name (hidden in the above to protect privacy), room#, NPS, NPS Time, NPS Shown and comments. Other entries (not shown) include arrival and departure dates, personal code to access WiFi, guest language (the app supports 9 languages), destination management company (DMC), # of adults and children per room and more.

NPS stands for net promoter score and is a customer loyalty metric scored on a scale of 1 to 10. Guests are prompted the question shown below on day 3 of their stay and again prior to their departure. A score below a certain minimum - say 6 - automatically triggers an email to the Guest Relations team who can then take appropriate measures and rectify the situation. Guests who provide positive scores can be asked to leave their feedback on the appropriate review websites (TripAdvisor, Holidaycheck, TopHotels etc.)

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The dashboard also includes inputs for TV and WiFi campaigns. TV campaigns work by displaying content on Smart TVs located around the hotel and in guest rooms. WiFi campaigns work by means of a push notification displayed right on guests' phones. These are powerful tools that help the hotel promote special offers; the app has download rate of 35% and a 90% reach with WiFi promos. 

Other features include the ability for guests relaxing by the pool to order food and beverage right to their umbrella and for server staff to use the application as a point-of-sale system (think TouchBistro). 

The video below provides a demo of the Exclusivi interface. 

 

The WORK experience

I spent my internship at Amilia Mare, a 5-star resort part of Aldemar Resorts. Aldemar is one of the leading hotel chains in Greece with a portfolio of 8 deluxe resorts spread across Crete, Rhodes and the west Peloponnese. Amilia Mare is an all-inclusive resort which, together with adjacent Paradise Village, comprises over 600 rooms, 4 thematic restaurants, 4 bars, a main restaurant and lots more, offering guests plenty of options for rest, relaxation and fun.

My responsibility included deploying Exclusivi at both Amilia Mare & Paradise Village which involved creating content for the application, among other tasks. Content included restaurant menus, item descriptions, images etc. and was managed through a comprehensive Google Sheets document. Images were stored using Cloudinary as a database. Features to enhance the application's usefulness were also incorporated via a hotel directory created with Adobe Spark and an interactive hotel map created with Google Maps. I also set up Smart TVs in the hotels and was responsible for their daily feeds, a sample of which can be viewed here. The feeds were used to highlight the thematic restaurant of the day, nearby attractions, daily specials and "animation activities". Animation refers to a daily roster of activities like beach volleyball, table tennis, yoga, zumba and other activities designed to engage and entertain guests.

I was also involved in training hotel staff on navigating the app and online dashboard, conducting guest interviews to generate typical personas for better targeting, troubleshooting issues as they arose, working to integrate the app's restaurant booking engine with the software currently being used at the hotel (Protel) and training my replacement towards the end of my internship. I also assisted with the app's deployment at nearby Eden Roc which involved its own unique set of challenges. With everything I was involved in, I am most proud of the following: 

  • I compiled a comprehensive list of questions and answers to be used for a hotel chatbot. The chatbot will automate frequent guest queries, thereby allowing the hotel to divert precious resources elsewhere

  • I used a web scraping tool (Import.io) to gather data from website houseofwines.gr for an exhaustive (1500+) list of wines, complete with product name, estate, product URL and description. The database will be used for Exclusivi's "Wine Genius" feature that recommends guests a list of wines based on their answers to a set of predetermined questions

  • I discovered the amazing tool that is Google Data Studio which I used to visualize data collected at a partner hotel after running some guest questionnaires for feedback. The report can be viewed here

 

The ECONOMIC CRISIS

Mention Greece and images of picturesque beaches, islands and turquoise waters are sure to flash through one's mind. Mention Greece and internship and people can't help but bring up its economic state. "Isn't Greece broke?", "What's there to do in Greece, anyway? I thought the economy was a mess." 

Indeed, Greece is only now slowly recovering from the crisis that crippled its economy; 20% of the workforce is still unemployed, two-fifths of young people are unemployed, 300,000 people have emigrated - the list goes on. An observation on the consequence of the economic crisis hit home when I noted that most retail outlets are required to put up a sign saying "Customer is not obligated to pay if receipt is not provided.", an attempt by the government to prevent businesses from keeping transactions off the books and avoid taxes, echoing the sentiments in this article from the Wall Street Journal on high taxation in Greece. 

But necessity breeds innovation, an example of which is Exclusivi where the founder saw an opportunity and capitalized on it. For context, this is a Princeton-educated, Fullbright Scholar and former Marketing Manager for Procter & Gamble who could have simply packed up and left. Greece is, after all, part of the EU that allows the free movement of people. But speaking to people on why they choose to stick around, the answer almost always was that they wanted to stay in their country, among their people and contribute. That leaving would not solve the issue. There is a resilience to the people that is admirable. 

 

THE CULTURE and the people

Culture and cultural differences are (obviously) a huge topic in an international program and a tool we're often taught is the Hofstede model. The model scores countries on 6 dimensions of Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term Orientation and Indulgence.

Rather than looking up Canada vs. Greece beforehand and having some preset notion on expected cultural difference (as I've become accustomed to in the program), I decided to experience the culture for myself and return to the model to compare any observed differences.

The below shows how the two countries compare. Dimensions with significant differences include Power Distance (21 points), Individualism (45 points) and Uncertainty Avoidance (52 points).

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Power Distance - This is defined as "the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally." In this context Canada is defined as egalitarian, a society with the lack of overt status or class distinctions. Greece, on the other hand, is a society that believes hierarchy should be respected and inequalities among people are acceptable. 

How true! In Canada I don't hesitate to address people by their first name, regardless of their position. In Greece, however, I found myself addressing higher-ups with a Mr. or Ms. <insert last name>. What's more, the hotel employees' emails reflect their position and not their name. For instance, if you held the position of IT Assistant your email would be something like itasst@company.com; something I haven't come across before!

 

Individualism - This is "the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members, a measure of whether people's self-image is defined in terms of I or We." Canada scores high, indicating a loosely-knit society where people look after themselves and their immediate families and where employees are expected to be self-reliant and display initiative. Greece is a collectivist culture where people are integrated into the strong, cohesive group represented by the extended family. 

My observations confirm this. A lot of people I met still live with their families (and I'm talking grandparents, uncles, cousins etc.) Not only that, some workers also financially support more than just their immediate families. A subtle observation of the collectivism in Greece was at the hotel's staff restaurant where I noticed that people don't simply grab a plate of dessert for themselves. Rather, they make sure to grab an entire plate of dessert to share with those seated at their tables.

 

Uncertainty Avoidance - This is the "extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these." Canada is uncertainty accepting with easy acceptance of new ideas, innovative products and a willingness to try something new or different and a culture that is not rules-oriented. Canadians are also tolerant of ideas or opinions from anyone and allow the freedom of expression. Greece, by contrast, scores a perfect 100 indicating that society is not at all comfortable in ambiguous situations where bureaucracy, laws and rules are very important to make the world a safer place to live in. 

While Canada and Greece differ the most on this dimension, I didn't necessarily observe any of these supposed differences. There were instances where I had to seek approval from the higher-ups before displaying content on any guest-facing media, and some hotels were more particular than others, but none of these struck me as particularly out of what I'm used to in Canada. I suppose there was that one time I had to borrow a pair of scissors from a hotel employee who only lent it to me after assurance (and reassurance) that I'd return them, but I'd debate how much you could chalk that up to culture versus the individual. 

 

MBA models aside, Greeks are incredibly warm and hospitable and I never once felt unwelcome. My other (general) observations were that Greek people are BIG on greetings with frequent expressions of kali mera (good morning), kali spera (good evening), yassas/yassou (hello). They even have greetings to wish people a good month (kalo mina) and a good week (kali evdomada). I also found Greek people to be incredibly hard-working with regular 10-12 hour days (including weekends) and few, if any, days off. 

 

THE LESSONS

One of my favourite pastimes at school is playing charades (seriously, I am always down for a game of charades). My friends don't seem to share the same passion, but boy did charades come in handy in Greece where I fully employed my skills in trying to get my point across given the language barrier. To be sure, this was ignorance and a failure on my part as I made no effort to learn the language prior to my arrival. The extent of my "research" (if you can call it that) was re-watching this video on YouTube. Here I was, a stranger, not only visiting but working and living in a foreign country for 3 months.. and I couldn't even learn a few basic phrases, especially given the numerous resources available. I've come to since appreciate that expressing yourself in someone's language, however broken, goes a long way.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from my time in Greece is that vacationing somewhere is very, very different from working there. There is something romantic about moving to a foreign land, immersing yourself in its culture and working in a new environment - at least to me. While Greece is every bit as beautiful as described, the reality of working there (or anywhere, I would figure) is quite different. The novelty of being someplace new and exciting quickly wears away when you're hit with its everyday realities. If nothing else, Greece has taught me that I was naive to think that starting your life somewhere new was as easy as just showing up.

I recently came across a post on LinkedIn that rang true with me that said that "distance and difference really are the secret tonic to creativity." The distance is obvious as I was miles away from everything and everyone I am accustomed to. Differences, too, were aplenty (for instance, floors are numbered differently with the first floor in Canada really being the second floor in Greece.) The creativity, I like to think, resulted in this website that was born out of a need to create something of my own - that and an abundance of spare time. 

Working at a startup surrounded by folk who are passionate about their work is infectious and has reaffirmed my passion for this industry. I've been able to expand my network, build fond memories and make some incredible friendships. Looking back, my internship did indeed fulfill all my requirements - experience in an international setting, experience at a startup and experience in the travel industry - and I am incredibly grateful to those who made my experience every bit as memorable and worthwhile. 

Freedoms of the Air (with Sh*tty Animations)

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The freedoms of the air are a fascinating topic on aviation law that I first came across thanks to this informative video on YouTube. The following is my attempt at explaining the freedoms of the air complete with sh*tty animations created using Powerpoint. Flight paths mapped using Great Circle Mapper.

 

BACKGROUND

The freedoms of the air are a set of aviation rights that govern scheduled international air services. According to the book Foundations of Aviation Law by Michael W. Pearson and Daniel S. Riley, the US urged delegates at the 1944 Chicago Convention to adopt the freedoms of the air but other countries, wary that the dominant US aviation industry would monopolize world air travel if such broad aviation rights were enacted, declined to incorporate these rights into the Convention on International Civil Aviation. Instead, the freedoms of the air were placed in two separate agreements called the International Air Services Transit Agreement and the International Air Transport Agreement

The International Air Services Transit Agreement, also called the Two Freedoms Agreement, provides for the multilateral exchange of rights of overflight and non-traffic stop for scheduled air services among its Contracting States. The International Air Transport Agreement, also known as the Five Freedoms Agreement, establishes five freedoms of the air for scheduled international air services but includes no provisions on fair competition or for the regulation of capacity or fares and rates. 

I go over the nine freedoms of the air in the following examples. The country mentioned is really just another way of meaning an airline registered in that country. For example, Canada would mean an airline registered in the country (Air Canada, Westjet etc.) Australia would represent an airline like Qantas, and so on.

 

First freedom

The first freedom is the right granted by one country to another to overfly its territory without landing. Think of a flight from Canada to Mexico that would have to cross US airspace. The first freedom thereby grants Canada the right to overfly American airspace on route to Mexico without landing in the US. 

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Second freedom

The second freedom is the right to land in a country for technical reasons, such as refueling or maintenance, but not for commercial reasons. Second-freedom rights are not utilized as much as they used to be. Prior to the advent of long-range jetliners, airports such as Anchorage, Alaska, Shannon, Ireland and Reykjavik, Iceland were commonly used as refueling airports.  

Consider a flight from Canada to Germany that stops in Shannon for refueling. The second freedom would grant Canada the right to stop in Ireland on its way to Germany. 

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Third freedom

The third freedom of the air is the right for one country to land for the purposes of disembarking passengers who boarded in the originating country. Put another way, this covers the majority of international commercial aviation. Australia granting Canada the third freedom would allow for passengers to board a flight from Canada bound for Australia. 

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FOURTH FREEDOM

The fourth freedom is the flip-side of the third freedom, allowing an airline from one country to land in another for the purposes of enplaning passengers to return to the airline's country of origin. The same flight we looked at under the third freedom would be allowed to pick up passengers in Australia and fly them to Canada. 

To be clear, Air Canada flying passengers from Canada to Australia is covered by Australia granting Canada the third freedom. That same Air Canada flight flying passengers from Australia to Canada is covered by Australia granting Canada the fourth freedom.

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FIFTH FREEDOM

From here on out is where things get a little tricky. The fifth freedom allows one country to land in a second country, pick up new passengers in the second country, and take them to a third country. 

For example, Singapore Airlines flight 26 from Singapore to New York-JFK has a stop in Frankfurt. Singapore Airlines has the right to transport passengers solely between Frankfurt and New York-JFK, meaning passengers can book the Frankfurt-JFK sector only without continuing to Singapore. A great compilation of fifth freedom flights can be found here.

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SIXTH FREEDOM

The sixth freedom is the right to carry passengers from one country to another, with a stop in the airline’s home country. A great example is Icelandair carrying passengers between North America and Europe through its Keflavik hub in Iceland. The ME3 carriers (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar) also operate sixth freedom flights by routing passengers through their hubs at Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. 

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SEVENTH FREEDOM

The seventh freedom of the air is similar to the sixth, except that there is
no stop in the airline's home country; in other words, an airline of country A could pick up passengers in country B and disembark them in country C.

I couldn't find examples of this freedom outside the EU's single aviation market. A seventh freedom flight would be Ryanair, which is an Irish carrier, operating a flight from Cologne, Germany to Barcelona, Spain.

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EIGHTH FREEDOM

The eighth and ninth freedoms of the air protect the right of cabotage and are less commonly accepted than the sixth and seventh freedoms. Cabotage is the carriage of goods or passengers within a single country by an airline of a foreign country. The eighth freedom of the air guarantees the right of an airline from country A to stop at two locations in country B before returning to country A.

A hypothetical example would be a Qantas flight that flies between Melbourne, Vancouver and Toronto. The eighth freedom would allow Qantas to pick up passengers in Vancouver on their way to Toronto. 

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NINTH FREEDOM

Finally, the ninth freedom, also known as stand alone cabotage, guarantees the right of an airline to conduct domestic operations within a foreign country without connecting to the country of origin. For example, Ryanair operates flights between Seville and Barcelona in Spain while being an airline registered in Ireland. 

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FINAL THOUGHTS

The freedoms of the air and the accompanying transport agreements provide some great perspective on the regulations that dictate the routes airlines are allowed to fly. They make sense, given that governments try to protect their aviation sector. Agreements on capacity and frequency are covered under individual air transport agreements between countries. For example, the agreement between Canada and the UAE can be found on the Canadian Transport Agency's (CTA) website here. The agreement allows for each country to operate six weekly flights regardless of aircraft size. Both Emirates and Etihad each operate 3 weekly flights to Toronto while Air Canada operates a thrice-weekly flight between Toronto and Dubai. 

It's interesting to learn about the rules that go behind determining who can operate certain routes and I have a better understanding of the politics of aviation thanks to the freedoms of the air. 

The Case for Vacation Fund

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I first came across Vacation Fund via a TravelTechTO event back in May which, unfortunately, I could not attend; however, I did watch the company's pitch on YouTube. More recently, I was able to participate in an online Canadian Demo Day hosted by The Founder Institute that included Erica Pearson, Co-founder & CEO of Vacation Fund.

I've been following Vacation Fund ever since that first TravelTechTO event. The idea behind the company is extremely appealing to me and I wanted to take a deeper look into Vacation Fund and the following highlights why I believe it makes sense in today's workplace. 

 

THE IDEA

I like to think of Vacation Fund as a kind of RRSP for vacations. More specifically, it is an employee benefit that allows employees to direct a portion of their paycheque towards a separate account (the vacation fund) with employers matching a portion. Specifics around how much the employer matches, how long employees need to be with the company and whether the saved amount can be carried forward depends on individual employers. Erica mentioned most employers match up to $500 for employees that have been with the company at least 6-months-to-a-year and with no carry-forward, thereby ensuring employees are incentivized to take a yearly vacation. 

The idea for the company came to Erica while working in Capital Markets in downtown Toronto. While the pay was great and Erica could see a clear path to career growth, the job came with long hours, weekends and always being on-call with the added expectation of being reachable during vacations. It's unclear to me whether Erica quit her job to start Vacation Fund or because the job took its toll but regardless, Erica saw a way to help employees take a break from their busy work lives by helping them save for a vacation. The initial idea was a B2C play, but feedback from company CEOs that Erica pitched to suggested a B2B made more sense as employers wanted to offer this benefit to their employees. Vacation Fund launched its website in December of 2017 and has already secured an impressive pipeline of interested employers. The following are slides from Erica's pitch. 

THE CUSTOMERS

Vacation Fund currently has 5 companies signed onto its pilot program, 13 with which it's having ongoing discussions and a further 46 on the wait list. The table below outlines the companies at their respective stages along with number of employees. Employee size was determined using either Angel.co, LinkedIn or the company's website. While 46 companies are on the wait list, Vacation Fund's slides only outlined 15 out of the 46 companies.

Also included is a pie chart showing the breakdown of the interested companies by employee size. A majority (approximately 81%) of the interested companies fall in the under 200 employee count. Of course, companies like MNP, BDC and Indigo that might make up a smaller percentage of Vacation Fund's customer list will inevitably account for a larger share of revenue simply because of their employee counts. 

THE NEED

The need for Vacation Fund and the value it brings employers and employees can be summarized below. Vacation Fund helps:  

1. Increase employee satisfaction and productivity (by helping reduce employee burnout)
2. Clarify company messaging around vacations (by encouraging employees to take vacations)
3. Retain talent (by offering a benefit that is attractive to the modern workforce)
4. Give employees the gift of travel (by automating savings with employer contributions)
 

1. Increase employee satisfaction and productivity - The rationale here is that job stressors contribute to physical, psychological and behavioural strains, which in turn affect employee satisfaction. Unsatisfied employees are unhappy and therefore unproductive employees. A respite from workplace stressors (in the form of a vacation) should contribute to a reduction in the aforementioned strains, thereby leading to an increase in employee satisfaction and productivity. Straightforward, sure, but Vacation Fund cites its program as a research-backed benefit, so I decided to look at existing research on the effect between vacations and employee burnout.

I came across a study by Mina Westman and Dalia Etzion titled "The Impact of Vacation and Job Stress on Burnout and Absenteeism" published back in 2001. The research's main focus was on the effect that vacations have on burnout and absenteeism, the hypothesis being that "an organizational vacation, which affords employees the opportunity of distancing themselves from the job’s stressors, ought to bring relief, at least temporarily, from chronic job stress and, consequently, from psychological and behavioral strain." 

The study focused on 87 employees in a food company in Israel during the 10-day Passover vacation shutdown. The employees completed stress and burnout questionnaires on 3 separate occasions - 10 days before the vacation, 3 days after the vacation and 4 weeks after the vacation.  Absenteeism was measured objectively by accessing the organization's database and a distinction was made between absenteeism for health reasons and absenteeism for other reasons. 

The results are shown below. Plotted values are the mean recordings across the 3 occasions. We clearly see a drop in job stress, burnout and absenteeism (with the exception of absenteeism associated with health reasons) for the Postvacation 1 period which is defined as the 3 days after returning from vacation. 

  Source : Etzion, D. and Westman, M. 2001. The impact of vacation and job stress on burnout and absenteeism.  Psychology and Healt  h , Vol.0, pp. 95-106

Source: Etzion, D. and Westman, M. 2001. The impact of vacation and job stress on burnout and absenteeism. Psychology and Health, Vol.0, pp. 95-106

The study concluded that:

  • Vacations alleviated perceived job stress and burnout as predicted, replicating findings that a respite from work diminishes levels of strain to lower than chronic, on-the-job levels, and 
  • Vacations contributed to a decline in burnout immediately after and a return to prevacation levels four weeks later, and a similar pattern with regard to absenteeism.

The benefits of taking a vacation in reducing stress and burnout are indeed backed by research.

 

2. Clarify company messaging around vacations - Speaking from personal experience, a barrier to taking vacations is the misconception that employees who take time off are not as dedicated to their work. Indeed, Project:Time Off's State of American Vacation 2018 found that "while Americans are increasingly realizing the value of vacation time, challenges remain particularly when it comes to workplace optics." A total of 52% of employees in America reported having unused vacation days at the end of the year. Of those with unused vacation days, 61% cited the fear of appearing less dedicated or even replaceable as a barrier to taking vacations. Employers with a dedicated benefit program that funds employee vacations will clear any misconceptions around vacation policy. 

  Source : Project:Time Off,  State of American Vacation 2018

Source: Project:Time Off, State of American Vacation 2018

3. Retain talent - The premise here is that Millennials make up a larger portion of both the existing and available workforce. If travel and work-life balance are things Millennials value, it follows that a benefit like Vacation Fund will help employers attract and retain Millennial talent. 

The Pew Research Center found that Millennials are already the largest generation in the US labour force, overtaking Gen Xers in 2016. As of 2017, Millennials made up 35% of the workforce compared to Gen Xers at 33% and Boomers at 25%. 

Millennials became the largest generation in the labor force in 2016

On travel, a survey of 1,000 Millennials by Airbnb found that travel is deeply important to Millennials, more so than purchasing a home, paying off debt or purchasing a car. Millennials also feel that travel is core to their identity with 70% saying that "travel is an important part of who I am as a person," and over 65% saying that "regular travel is an important part of my life." 

In looking at what it takes to attract and retain Millennial professionals, Robert Walters, a recruitment agency, conducted a survey of 302 hiring managers and 228 working professionals. The study found that while Millennials place the lowest importance on improved work-life balance when considering a new job compared to other generations, it is not to say that Millennials do not value work-life balance. Indeed, 90% of the surveyed regard policies that encourage a good work-life balance as one of the best things about their jobs. The study concluded that while a good work-life balance is important to ensure job satisfaction among Millennials once they are employed, it is not an effective strategy to recruit them. 

Millennials prioritize travel, value work-life balance and already make up the largest workforce compared to other generations. An employee benefit like Vacation Fund directly aligns with what Millennials value.

 

4. Give employees the gift of travel - Much has been written about the financial state of Millennials. A 2017 GoBankingRates survey found 46% of Millennials had $0 in their savings account. Another survey of Millennials by Abacus Data found 40% who thought their generation is mostly or much worse off compared to their parents, 30% who said they didn't have any savings and 22% who had less than $5,000. Going back to the Project:Time Off study, 56% stated a lack of coverage at work as a hindrance to taking a vacation with another 53% citing the cost of travel as a barrier. 

I've read a lot of books on personal financial management and one of the most important lessons is the concept of paying yourself first which means directing a portion of your paycheque towards savings. The key is to automate this process so you're forced to live off what's leftover. RRSPs work this way where contributions are automatically deducted from your paycheque. Vacation Fund, too, automates the saving process with the added benefit of matched employer contributions, helping employees save towards their vacation goals. 

 

THE COMPETITION

In her pitch, Erica mentioned a couple of direct competitors that have popped up recently, one in Toronto and another in Orlando. No names were mentioned and a Google search turned up empty, however, I did come across Adestinn and 401(play). The former is based in Minneapolis and the latter in Tucson. 

 

Adestinn

Founded in 2009, Adestinn is a wellness program that guarantees employees a 50% matched credit through its Vacation Savings Match Program. The credits can only be spent at Adestinn's partner hotels and resorts which include Hilton, Hyatt, DoubleTree etc. Employees can contribute a maximum of $400 a week with employers paying "as little as $1 per employee per month." I'm curious to know how Adestinn can offer to boost employee contributions by 50% while charging employers so little. My guess is that the company has cut a deal with its hotel and resort partners, even though its website states it does not charge hotels any commissions. Adestinn has also partnered with insurance companies and benefits brokers, so it could be that the employer, hotel and insurance company are all in part contributing to the 50% additional credit. 

The limitations with this program are that the accumulated credits can only be applied towards a limited number of hotel or resort (no plane tickets, for example). Destinations are also limited based on Adestinn's hotel partners (see map below). Finally, should employees want to withdraw their saved funds, any matched credits are non-refundable. 

  Figure 4 : List of Available Destinations - Adestinn

Figure 4: List of Available Destinations - Adestinn

401(Play)

401(Play) was founded in 2013 as a program to encourage employees to save for their vacations by setting aside a portion of their paycheque. While I love the name, I fail to see the value this provides to either employer or employee; there is no employee matching - from what I can tell - so this seems like nothing more than a simple savings account with the only benefit being the ability to make automated payroll deductions.  

The following table highlights the differences between the 3 providers. I wouldn't classify either Adestinn or 401(Play) as direct competitors, although they both offer services claiming to help manage employee stress, burnout etc.  

  Figure 5 : Table comparing the 3 Providers

Figure 5: Table comparing the 3 Providers

THE WAY AHEAD AND FINAL THOUGHTS

Vacation Fund aims to grow its users by the numbers shown in the figure below, fulfilling 1 million travel dreams by 2021 in the process. The company expects to expand to the US this year and be cash flow positive within 24 months. It also expects to grow its current team from 4 to between 8 and 12. Side note - If someone from Vacation Fund is reading this, I know a great guy who will be graduating right around the time you'll need to expand the team.

  Figure 6 : Vacation Fund's Goals

Figure 6: Vacation Fund's Goals

Vacation Fund is an innovative benefit that helps increase employee satisfaction and productivity, clarify company messaging around vacations, retain talent and give employees the gift of travel. It will be interesting to see how successful the company can be in differentiating itself from other wellness programs. My previous employer, through our benefits provider, allowed employees a set amount of funds to spend on a predetermined list of wellness programs (golf clubs, yoga classes, gym memberships etc.) How much value a dedicated vacation fund brings to justify a separate program remains to be seen, but I believe there's a case. Erica also mentioned interest from travel companies on targeted, unpublished offers through Vacation Fund's platform, so I'm curious to see how the company monetizes all the data it collects as it onboards more users. Regardless, the company has an exciting future and I wish it all the best.