“I’ve been traveling internationally since I was a little girl,” said Emily Bernard, Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer at PlacePass. “My first trip overseas was to France when I was six years old. I have a strong memory of waiting in line at a local bakery with my mom and stepping up to the counter to order a baguette. That simple action of ordering bread in another language – albeit with terrible grammar – unlocked the whole world for me.”
Bernard’s passion and interest in travel are shared with PlacePass Co-Founder and CEO Ethan Hawkes. During college (and following graduation from Cornell), Hawkes traveled to countries like Zambia, Jamaica, and Lebanon as a volunteer. He helped tour operators and local hospitality providers set up websites in order to reach global audiences.
The two met through a central figure – Hawkes’ wife – who was Bernard’s roommate at Harvard (as well as a close friend). She knew that both were exploring opportunities in the experiential travel space, and suggested that the two should consider pursuing a venture together.
The A-ha Moment
The initial idea for PlacePass was ignited during a trip that Hawkes took with his father along the coast of Maine.
“I was out kayaking with my dad, reflecting on life and personal long-term aspirations, and we started talking about how fun it would be to spend a day shadowing someone with a unique career, like a Maine lobsterman. He said, ‘I always wish I could’ve gone out with one of those lobstermen to do a tour,’ and I thought it was weird that such an experience was so hard to find.”
Hawkes started to dig into the industry and realized that, despite growing consumer interest in experiential travel, there was still a lot of friction around the research and booking process. Consumers were spending their time researching options across multiple websites. Not only was this inconvenient, but the tour options available from most travel websites were repetitive and stale.
After discussing further with Bernard, the duo saw an opportunity to bring it all together in one website – a marketplace where you could not only book well-publicized tours and classic attractions but also discover unknown, hard to find, guided experiences from locals.
After raising initial seed funding, the company was fully launched in February 2016.
A Destination Experience Marketplace
Today, PlacePass is a marketplace that helps people find and book a broad range of activities at most major destinations. Travelers can find everything from skip-the-line tickets at major attractions to custom walking tours crafted by a local expert. Want to take a hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley? Mountain bike past the famed temples of Angkor Wat? Perfect your pasta-making skills at a Tuscan farmhouse with a local chef? It’s all available on PlacePass.
The number of activities varies by location; Boston has around 300 different activities, while Paris offers over 1,000. As a booking marketplace, it allows travelers to filter and compare activities by popularity, reviews, and pricing.
“When you’re traveling, it’s hard to know where everything is or what the schedule is, and often you can’t even buy tickets online. You have to stand in line and wait to get a ticket. Think about doing that in an international market, where you might have currency conversion, language barriers, and trust issues,” Hawkes pointed out.
“We felt there was room to create a one-stop-shop,” Bernard added. “Instead of spending time going to ten different websites, you can go to one, see all of your activity options, and filter and compare based on all of these different variables. We’re taking some of the friction out of the researching and booking process.”
With PlacePass, there are no conversion or language barriers to worry about. According to Hawkes, this is a game-changer for independent experience operators at smaller destinations.
“Some of the operators I worked with in Zambia were amazing people, but they found it challenging to reach the global traveler because they lacked the technology infrastructure and marketing funds. We’re providing that platform for entrepreneurs to succeed.”
According to Bernard, PlacePass features approximately 100,000 experiences in 180 countries. Many of the experiences are operated by small, independent local operators. Hawkes and Bernard also have a vision for the future that corresponds with today’s gig economy where anyone could become a local tour guide, just like how (almost) anyone with a car can become an Uber driver.
PlacePass secured a $12M Series A investment in March, led by Marriott International. The hotel giant is also working with PlacePass to power a tour and activity booking solution for its guests, and enable loyalty members to earn points on in-destination experiences.
Travelers access the website, called Marriott Moments, through many Marriott digital channels, including pre-stay communications. Marriott and PlacePass will also be piloting on-property initiatives to reach guests during their time in-destination.
The partnership with PlacePass complements Marriott’s existing loyalty-based experiential travel programs, which enable members to redeem points for exclusive opportunities like backstage passes, celebrity meet-ups and more.
“They’re the biggest hospitality company in the world, with a strong history of connecting people to local destinations. Through our partnership we’re able to further enhance the guest experience and offer a broader array of things to do,” Hawkes explained.
Although the company raised money from Marriott as a strategic investor, PlacePass is still on a mission to build its own global brand with consumers.
“They’re encouraging us to make the most of Marriott and grow beyond,” added Hawkes.
A Place to Call Home
PlacePass may have one of the more interesting offices in the Boston tech scene, as it is quite literally a house near Harvard University. It has three main floors, a basement complete with foosball, and a kitchen stocked with snacks for late-night coding sessions.
Bernard says that the home goes a long way to add a sense of community to the company culture.
“When you work with a small group of talented people, you become a family. And so it makes sense that we have a small house together. We have barbecues out back, we have foosball in the basement, people can take their shoes off, and they can sit wherever they want,” Bernard explained.
When Hawkes and Bernard were choosing where to locate the company, they chose Boston for its funding landscape, the dense population of travel companies, and talent – especially talent.
“We have had outstanding interns, fellows, and co-ops from MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, Yale, Dartmouth, and Tufts, and it’s all right here. That’s priceless. To be able to hop across the river and recruit as easily as we can is wonderful,” said Bernard.
PlacePass is hiring in several key roles, with a priority on engineers. They’re looking for a VP of Engineering, several engineers, and a Director of Digital Marketing and Customer Acquisition to handle the demand side of PlacePass’ business. “We want people to know we’re hiring!” Bernard emphasized.
As they grow, Bernard and Hawkes are focused on building a responsible business and to pursue their mission to enrich lives through travel.
“Ethan and I have felt from the very beginning that travel has an important role to play in building local communities. Travel can be a critical engine for growth in local economies, and we wanted to do our part to support that.”
PlacePass currently has a partnership with Cambodian nonprofit educational center EGBOK, where PlacePass makes donations per booking to help train at-risk youth who are interested in pursuing careers in hospitality.
These donations go toward curriculum development, teachers, school supplies, housing, food, and anything else they might need. After going through the school’s program, Bernard says that graduates can get positions at top hotels. PlacePass has already made a number of significant donations, and a classroom at the school has been named after the company.
“That will continue to be a part of our future moving forward.”