Inside Fora, the startup igniting a possible renaissance for travel agents
Somewhere in between travel lockdowns during the first year of the pandemic and the current chaos plaguing airports around the world, a bevy of new travel startups launched with promises of a better experience.
The latest entry is Fora, self-described as a tech-forward travel agency that essentially serves as a hub for experienced travelers looking for a launchpad to run a side gig (or more) as a travel agent.
Since launching in August just one year ago, Fora now boasts nearly 500 travel advisers worldwide (97% of whom have never worked in the sector before), operating within its network, with more than 30,000 people on the wait list.
And this week, the New York–based company announced $13.5 million in Series A funding, which will help advance the development of the travel agency’s technology for advisers.
Fortune recently spoke with cofounders Henley Vazquez, Evan Frank, and Jake Peters, who shared more about what it‘s like to run a travel business right now.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Could you share a bit about your professional backgrounds before launching Fora?
Vazquez: Each of us are repeat founders who have worked in the travel industry for decades. I originally caught the travel bug in college when I took a gap year, and have been a travel adviser for more than 15 years. I was on the founding team at Indagare, which is where I learned all about being a travel adviser and working with hotels. Then, I founded Passported, a Virtuoso travel agency.
My cofounder, Evan Frank, started in corporate finance, then venture capital, and has spent the last 10-plus years building new disrupters in the travel and hospitality space. He’s a three-time founder or CEO of travel and hospitality marketplace startups, including Onefinestay, which was bought by Accor Hotels.
Jake Peters, Fora’s cofounder and chief product and technology officer, is our tech genius. He’s a self-taught programmer and tech entrepreneur with more than two decades in the industry. With his passions rooted in tech, data, and travel, Jake wanted to make dramatic shifts within the travel agency industry alongside Evan and I.
The three of us make up a dynamic team, each with very different specialties and interests, which is what makes it work so well. We cofounded Fora in order to create a new type of travel agency that welcomes everyone with the interest or passion—the go-to person for travel tips in their networks—to sell travel in a way that was previously reserved for pro travel agents. Our mission is to build the next-generation brand in travel, empowering a network of travel entrepreneurs along the way.
What inspired the launch of Fora?
Frank: When we first started Fora, we actually looked at the real estate industry and drew some inspiration. Compass had just IPOed, and we read that there were 3 million real estate license holders in the U.S., the majority of whom were not full-timers. Yet, there were only 100,000 travel agents. We asked ourselves why there was such a disconnect, especially considering how fun a full-time career in travel could be, as I observed in my cofounder Henley. Having our kids in the same school, Henley and I were constantly surrounded by other moms and parents who were planning trips for their families all around the world, but they had no idea that they could be monetizing those bookings by being a travel adviser.
That said, traditional travel advisers had to hit a certain amount of sales in order to be successful and work in the industry, so there was never room to sell travel as a side gig. We wanted to change that and began brainstorming over the pandemic, when travel had come to a screeching halt. Henley and I both had the same idea: Travel is coming back and remote work isn’t disappearing, so why can’t more people do this job, and how can we build a more viable organization? Even though travel was on hold, we knew the current travel industry was dominated by big online booking sites and big agencies, but people craved human connection and experiences they’d receive with a traditional travel agency for when we’d start to travel again.
There were also 1.5 million women who left the workforce due to the pandemic, and we knew these people would have the time and interest in a side hustle or new career. Plus, much of education and training was forced to move online due to the pandemic, and this created the first opportunity to train up a remote labor force at no real disadvantage to being based in an office. The creator economy and cohort-based courses also really exploded due to being stuck at home with a computer.
From there, we decided we wanted to enable entrepreneurs to transform their passion for travel into revenue, and to do it by curating the most incredible experiences for travelers. By empowering the long tail of who could sell travel for a living and building tools to make the work easier and efficient, we created Fora that has the technology of an online booking site, but human touch like a traditional travel agency.
Being a travel agent as a career significantly changed as consumers were able to book travel themselves via the internet, causing a decline for the profession since the 1990s. Why do you think there might be a comeback now?
Vazquez: The market for travel agents is at an all-time high with all things COVID as it relates to cancellations, last-minute changes, and stress-free travel in the midst of a pandemic. It’s our job to stay on top of the current travel advisories, trends, and restrictions so you don’t have to worry about it.
The internet is also uncurated and uncontrolled, with endless possibilities but no one to sort through the noise for you. That’s where our agents step in. Plus, they’re there to support when things go wrong.
On top of that, travel advisers are able to set you up with perks and added benefits that you can’t get when booking with an online booking site. Because of their direct relationships with the property, people using travel advisers are more likely to get an upgrade, dining and spa credits, and added amenities. Plus, we’ll make sure the special occasions that you’re traveling for are celebrated because we’re in constant contact with the properties and their team. Think: wine in-room upon arrival, a romantic turndown, or a surprise treat for the kids.
The travel industry is certainly rebounding, even as airports suffer from record delays, cancellations, losses of luggage, and meltdowns (in some cases, literally). But inflation and a looming recession have some people nervous about spending on travel. What do you think will be some of the top travel trends this fall and holiday season?
Vazquez: The looming recession hasn’t stopped travel from happening, but we do continue to see last-minute travel planning as the trend that won’t quit, and we suspect that has to do with confidence in spending. We recently saw one-third of a record week of bookings all with departure dates for the following week. If there’s uncertainty in the markets, what we’re seeing is a hesitation to plan much further into the future (rather than a hesitation to not travel at all).
That said, what’s unique is that everything is so much more expensive in travel right now, but people are still booking their dream trips regardless of the cost. After being stuck at home for two years, they are eager to see the world again.
In terms of trends, there’s also less of a focus on action-packed itineraries. Fewer people are asking for tickets to the Louvre or museums; most don’t want to plan a back-to-back itinerary. Instead, they’re wanting to wander and explore the cities they’re in, eat great meals, and feel immersed in places they’ve missed. We’ve also seen a major rise in adventure and outdoors-focused travel. I lived in Costa Rica for part of the pandemic, driven in large part by the need to do things again and not be stuck indoors. From national parks to tropical rain forests, we’re seeing the same trend in trip planning—let’s get active!
In terms of airfare, now there are more travelers than there are seats available. For people who haven’t thought about your flights this holiday season, you have to get on it now, although we do know from our data that last-minute remains the name of the game. The big thing is that people are adjusting their behavior to the unpredictability of flights, building in buffer days or flying in earlier versus later to safeguard against delays and cancellations. We’ve all gotten pretty good at the “go with the flow” approach, even if we don’t like it. Working with a travel agent means that you have a friend in the industry who can help you navigate the ever-changing nature of travel right now.
How is the company funded? Is it self-funded or have you reached out to investors? What has the financing process been like?
Frank: In order to innovate in the travel agent industry—historically very fragmented with lots of small owner-operators, and as a result generally too low margin to build technology and many of the capabilities typically seen only at OTAs [online travel agencies]—we needed to raise capital early. Agents have been left behind in the online booking revolution in travel; we want to put the power back in their hands and build something that feels halfway between a traditional agency and an OTA. An OTA that’s powered by humans.
As a result, we’ve been VC-backed since early days. We closed a $5 million seed round in fall 2021 and just announced our Series A funding for $13.5 million that was co-led by Heartcore Capital and Forerunner. This Series A funding will be used to accelerate the next evolution of our platform: an innovative client and booking management system—the first of its kind in the industry—exclusively for our community of travel advisers.
We’re an experienced team with exits under our belts and diverse backgrounds—agency, travel supplier, building technology products—which has helped attract this equity capital.
Looking forward five years, how do you want to Fora to grow? What kind of services do you want to add in the future?
Peters: Travel advising can really be the best job in the world. However, in order for this to be true, and in order to welcome thousands of travel-passionate people into this industry, a lot needs to be rethought: from payments to marketing to enabling different ways of working to community—and to simplify the planning and booking process.
We have grand visions and many ideas for things we can build; piecing our platform together thoughtfully is the work we are undertaking now. At the moment, our focus is laying foundations both from a product and underlying tech perspective, but also more importantly from a process perspective—how we build, how we listen to and support our advisers, and how we interact with the travel tech and supplier community at large.
And we’re doing this all with a laser focus on enabling our advisers to be productive and enjoy the work of selling travel and serving their clients. I enjoy looking ahead a few years and thinking about how we will have a product that weaves together all of the necessary components; this includes booking tools, client management tools, payments, supplier information, training, and community, and more into a single offering that is powerful and a joy to use.
I know I speak for everyone on the team when I say that we’re very committed to growing Fora and getting it to a much larger scale than today. We want to bring new people into the industry and empower them to transform their passion for travel into a meaningful career, side hustle or full-time. We want to support travel advisers as best we can with technology and community. The travel agent industry has roughly 100,000 agents. Our mission at Fora is to bring in the next 100,000 agents, or more, with a more progressive approach to training, labor, and technology. We want to make being a Fora adviser the best job in the world.
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.