As pandemic restrictions waned, travel spend began to ramp back up. According to Phocuswright’s latest U.S. Travel Market Report, gross bookings in the United States grew 67% in 2021 to $272.6 billion and are expected to reach $461.7 billion by 2025 – 13% above 2019 levels.
But how consumers plan and book their trips looks different now than it did in 2019. According to the American Society of Travel Advisors, nearly half of travelers (44%) estimate they are more likely to use a travel advisor to plan and book travel when the pandemic ends.
The consumer interest in travel agents, coupled with the fact that women have lost 395,000 jobs since 2020, inspired travel tech startup Fora’s three co-founders to create a new type of travel agency that allows anyone with a passion for travel to earn income as an advisor.
Launched in 2021, Fora is a tech-powered travel agency that provides resources to entrepreneurs interested in a part- or full-time career as a travel advisor. Fora’s platform includes training for its community of advisors – 97% of Fora advisors had never sold travel previously – as well as access to a supplier hub, commission tracking and content creation and marketing tools.
Today, New York-based Fora is announcing a $13.5 million Series A round led by Heartcore Capital and Forerunner. The financing follows a seed funding round of $5 million in November 2021.
“People are traveling again, and there’s this real need for travel advisors to decipher the world of travel these days,” says Fora co-founder and travel advisor Henley Vazquez. “It’s complicated; everybody wants to get back out there. Plus there are so many women out of the job market … and [selling travel] seems like a fun, flexible, interesting job.”
But for women interested in a career as a travel advisor – particularly in a position that’s flexible – part-time work is hard to come by, Vazquez says. “Plus [the travel agent technology] is terrible, and the margins are small. But what if we could address that? That was really the genesis of the idea for Fora.”
Vazquez co-founded Fora alongside co-founder and CTO Jake Peters and co-founder Evan Frank, who previously co-founded home rental provider Onefinestay.
Fora’s platform for travel advisors comprises several elements: One is a training program to certify agents, while another powers bookings and commissions. Additional components include marketing tools to help advisors drive demand – Peters says Fora will feed advisors premade content to assist in marketing efforts – as well as a community function where advisors can collaborate and share ideas.
“Our philosophy is there’s enough travel spend out there that this doesn’t need to be a competitive situation between any of the travel advisors in the community,” Peters says.
It’s not like being an influencer.
Henley Vazquez – Fora
“We’re trying to make advisors’ jobs amazing and make this actually something that people can earn a living on in a reliable way.”
“It’s a business-in-a-box,” adds Frank. “It’s not just about the tech, the platform – though that’s a big part of it – but it’s also about how that integrates the training we provide and the tools that we give advisors, which are maybe outside of the platform.” For example, he continues, Fora enables content creation and publishing, allowing advisors to create their own travel guides.
Since launching, Fora counts nearly 500 advisors on its platform as well as a staggering 30,000 people on the waitlist.
Facebook marketing has been a primary tool to reach potential Fora travel advisors. The target customer is often “the go-to person for travel trips in their community or circle … the person you reach out to before you go somewhere,” Frank says.
“What we found is that is a very specific thing [people self-identify as] – people who are interested in sharing their travel knowledge one way or another. But some people want to share that knowledge without doing the work,” he says.
“It’s not like being an influencer … we really go against that,” Vazquez adds. “We are really focused on finding the people who want to be involved and actually dig into planning trips, not just talking about them.”
To assess those on the waitlist, Fora employs various surveys and scoring systems to determine who is actually interested in the work component.
So far, Fora is letting in between 50 and 100 advisors a month, but over the next six to 12 months, the startup intends on expanding its network to anyone with an interest and passion to participate.
“We see the future as being much more of a platform-type business than a host agency that restricts numbers greatly,” Frank says.
Peters says the latest round of funding has validated Fora’s hypothesis. “We didn’t know there were all these people that wanted to do this, and we didn’t know whether we could make a subset of those people successful. So we feel that we validated that to this point.
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“The next phase for us is turning this into a holistic experience for our advisors … building operations to support a so-called host agency at scale.”
In addition to boosting Fora’s marketing capabilities and enhancing its training programs, Fora will use the funding to refine its operations to support additional advisors and to build up supply.
“Connecting the supply is going to be, I think, the hardest part, because it’s kind of a mess,” Peters says. “Even if you talk to OTAs or anyone trying to enable bookings online, it’s quite complicated.”
Fora currently has exclusive partnerships with Four Seasons, Rosewood, Hilton, InterContinental Hotels Group, Hyatt and others, but the platform intends on moving into direct connectivity.
The ultimate goal is to “build something that combines the best bits of an OTA with the best bits of an agency,” Frank says. In other words, “a human-powered OTA.”