INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Aashi Vel of Traveling Spoon Tells Us How the Pandemic Changed a Food and Travel Company
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Aashi Vel: I live in California, so in addition to COVID, we’ve been dealing with poor air quality for the past few weeks. We feel really fortunate, however, to have all our family and friends healthy and safe.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Traveling Spoon
Aashi Vel: I was in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, before starting business school and really struggled to find authentic Mexican food. The restaurants where I ate were crowded and touristy, and I simply couldn’t find what I was looking for. One day towards the end of my trip, I passed by this home on the street, and when I looked through the window, I saw a woman cooking. I wished I could eat at her home and hear her stories instead of at yet another touristy restaurant.
When I met my cofounder Steph in business school a few months later, we connected over a deep passion for authentic food and travel. Steph had a similar experience in China – she wanted to learn how to make dumplings from a Chinese grandmother and couldn’t find an experience like that. We wanted to make it easy for travelers to have the kinds of experiences we sought, learn to make dumplings from a Chinese grandmother, or enjoy the home-cooking of a mother-daughter team in Vietnam. We founded Traveling Spoon to connect travelers with private and authentic food experiences, from homemade meals to cooking classes, in people’s homes around the world. Our mission is to make travel meaningful.
How does Traveling Spoon innovate?
Aashi Vel: Traveling Spoon was founded to solve a pain point that I felt personally and by millions of travelers. This is how we innovate – by understanding people and solving their problems. At our company, we do this through research, understanding user needs, and translating the insights we find into product features. Testing solutions early on and frequently allows us to innovate more rapidly.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Aashi Vel: As travel came to a halt, it was really difficult to see our revenue drop and cancellations build in the spring. It was even more heartbreaking to see our hosts, many of whom were dependent on Traveling Spoon to support their families, lose their income source. We started a grant to support our hosts and were so grateful for the donations from former guests, investors, families, and friends. We also wanted to allow our hosts to continue doing what they loved – share their passion for their food and culture by teaching people how to cook and began to offer online cooking classes.
We now have 140+ private online cooking classes on our site. You can travel from your kitchen and learn to make anything from fresh Italian pasta to savory Argentinian empanadas to authentic Ethiopian injera with expert local home cooks. Our online classes are booked by guests keen on learning to cook by themselves or as a fun event they share with their families and friends. We also have several corporate clients booking our online classes for team building events. With regard to our in-person experiences, we have health and safety guidelines in place to protect our travelers and hosts. As travel has started up again, we find that our guests are more comfortable with Traveling Spoon experiences since they are private and always have been.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Aashi Vel: Not knowing how long it would take for travel to resume again made planning quite difficult. We implemented several cost-cutting measures to maintain our runway as long as possible while thinking about future growth. We quickly pivoted to offering online classes with our hosts, which I know has meant a lot to our hosts and guests. So many of our guests say that our online classes are a highlight of their quarantine time.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Traveling Spoon in the future?
Aashi Vel: I focus on the tasks I can control, work on being open to what life presents in circumstances I can’t control, and try to see the silver lining in every situation. Having a cofounder with a similar vision has been incredibly helpful to share my stress. Our goal has always been to become a leader in culinary tourism. Initially, we had focused only on in-person experiences. Due to the pandemic, we’ve launched online experiences that have reinvented how people think of food and travel. We are excited to offer both in-person and online food experiences
Your final thoughts?
Aashi Vel: I’m excited about the future of online classes. Even when travel returns to normal, online classes are still such a great way to connect with people from all over the world. I’ve always believed that the power of travel is in being able to meet someone from a completely different part of the world, and realize as you share a meal together that we are all humans and share the same values. Through online cooking classes, you get to learn about a region’s food, cuisine, people, and culture without worrying about leaving a large carbon footprint. Additionally, they are a window into the joy of travel for those who are not able to.
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