Hugo Oliveira of Indie Campers tells us about how they turn road trips into an unforgettable experience.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Hugo Oliveira: Thankfully, my family and I are healthy and lucky enough not to have been personally affected by the pandemic. I mean, all things considered, life is still going forward, even if isolated from our loved ones for such long periods, but it is an easy sacrifice to ensure everyone stays safe. At the end of the day, people and society’s health always comes first.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Indie Campers.
Hugo Oliveira: The business idea behind Indie Campers originated from a trip I had in Australia, where I observed the success and freedom of hiring a campervan there. This idea later developed into my master thesis project at NOVA SBE, which played the foundation for building the Indie Campers with a couple of my closest friends.
The idea behind the start-up was aimed at putting Portugal on the map for having international success, with the concept of campervans rental targeted at youth travel, based on three main opportunity pillars: the lack of specific and segmented alternatives for itinerant tourism in Portugal, the unexplored potential of the Youth and Backpacker tourist market and new relevant world trends and innovations in tourism.
From there, it was a bottom-up approach. I started out by purchasing and renovating a van before offering it for rental. From day one, all earnings were reinvested to expand the business. The company was brought to reality with friends and family’s help, creating a dedicated, tight-knit team.
Within 3 years, we were the leading campervan rental company in Iberia, with almost 100 vehicles circulating the road and 20 employees. In 5 years, we were present in 9 different European countries, with more than 100 employees and 650 vehicles. This year we have over 2000 vehicles across 40 EU locations in 15 countries. We have just launched the first version of our integrated campervan marketplace, which incorporates private campervan owners and other professional rentals along with our own feet in one integrated platform. We have just set foot in the US, with our first vans arriving there this summer. And are in the phase of building the largest road trip platform in the world that combines all the offerings and resources you need to go on the ultimate road trip (from places to stay, where to stop by, activities along the way, etc.)
What has been crucial in developing this so far is putting people first and incentivizing them to grow with the company. Until today, I still interview every candidate to integrate well, and the company’s culture remains strong and run by a young, humble, and entrepreneurial-minded team with more than 20 different nationalities. Teamwork comes above all and, by working together as a unit, we overcome short and long-term challenges. Regardless of where we are today, the mindset of investing resources internally and our agile thinking are still rooted in our daily operations today.
How does Indie Campers innovate?
Hugo Oliveira: Never settling on the status quo is key for our operations, as well as making solutions happen fast, get them out there and test the response. Accelerated growth and success have since the first years been embedded in our DNA, allowing us to be highly agile in quick innovation to implement improvements in our offerings, user experience, or the customer journey. Our team of entrepreneurs, and solution-driven approach, are the main pillars of our growth. Thanks to a highly motivated but humble team and agile technology, we are able to simplify and optimize the operational efficiency of all our areas of activity in an innovative way.
This is highly emphasized by the launch of our current marketplace, based on a phased launched to learn from customers, owners, and internal stakeholders along the way.
We are also concerned with employing the right people, with the right mindset, integrity about the job, and ambitiousness for what the brand and the companies goals. I mean, personally, I am always setting high goals and expect nothing less of everyone else, and we hire people who are aligned with this ambitiousness as well as having the weight in terms of experiences and competencies to get us on top.
In addition, our light business model, based on outsourcing ownership through close relationships with key partners (e.g., Knaus and LeasePlan), allows us to focus our core resources on enhancing the customers’ experience.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Hugo Oliveira: We have obviously had to pay much more attention to spendings and costs and making full use of the resources available at all times, especially during the toughest weeks early this year. However, throughout this difficult period, which by far has been the biggest challenge we have been facing, we are proud to say that through the crisis, we still stood strong in our belief in putting people first. Both in terms of our employees and the communities in which we operate. The effort from the team has been tremendous, and we made a promise not to cut in headcount and through a lot of hard work.
The crisis is indeed a massive test for the tourism industry. It questions our core values and agility in terms of making the most of the current situation, enhance work efficiency and work output of everything we do in order to make it through this as strong as possible. Those who manage to utilize that opportunity will get out on the other side with more knowledge, mindfulness, pragmatism, experience, and a stronger moral than ever. So yes, if you manage to use your time to the fullest by being agile in testing, pivoting offerings, and be pragmatic, there is definitely an opportunity.
On the other hand, we are lucky enough to be in a bitter-sweet spot in everything. We have been massively impacted in some months but also have picked up demand as soon as some travel restrictions are lifted, due to the nature of our product as a self-contained means of travel. In which the latter leads us to have a record-breaking summer, in which we unlocked totally new customer segments. We have worked extensively to position ourselves and being able to offer the first means of travel locally, which are showing strong results. In addition, I do think this crisis at large will change people’s habits and attitudes towards travel. I think there be a shift towards more local, authentic, individual, and longer-term travel options (2+ weeks) in the next month or even years. This is not to say that people will not travel abroad; however, the travelers’ objective might differ in terms of seeking out a unique experience that is more safe and fitting with the current climate.
In addition, we spent a significant amount of time planning new features, improving website content and our offerings – in order for us to be fully ready when the market opens. We believe in total that this time really posed as a test to our core value and our ability to be agile and turn around quickly. The huge pick-up in orders and morale in the past week is starting to suggest that we might get through this stronger than ever.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Hugo Oliveira: One of the biggest challenges has been acting and adapting quickly, rightfully with the right ethos to the changes in society daily with operations in 40 different regions. This has most of all affected the phase of implementing changes and the way we work, as we need to be more agile and implement quicker than ever before while keeping the same customer satisfaction in our delivery.
Our main adjustment, along with many other companies in the industry, has been to improvise our offerings, costs, and products to enhance flexibility by offering both economic and competitive products to our customers without sacrificing our quality and our equity. Our solution to this is diverse. For instance, we have included more premium features as prime extras in order to also offer low-cost solutions to our customers. We have also become increasingly more agile in monitoring local and societal regulations to anticipate demand and react quickly by redistributing our fleet accordingly. One example is the fact that we promptly moved large proportions of our fleet to Germany when Germans were advised to spend summer at home. This way, we managed to still serve one of our largest customer groups domestically, which already has proven to be effective with last June and July, resulting in our biggest month of german orders to date. In addition, we have worked on setting up a B2B offering, with solutions and packages for companies in need of flexible housing / integrated travel vehicles or isolation pods.
Based on numbers from summer in addition to a slight change in consumer patterns as a result of more remote work and longer travel times due to restrictions, we pivoted this autumn by launching a campervan subscription model that allows customers to travel months at a time at a lower fixed rate. These are the sort of projects that are being developed and implemented quickly based on industry trends.
More recently, changing our offering to better match consumer needs in an increasingly unpredictable status quo has been a huge accelerator in the development of our marketplace this year. As increased demand for campervan holiday also demands higher diversification in terms of price points, quality, and trip intent, we want to be able to also provide this as well as our own fleet. With the large boom in interest in campervans, the number of new campervans owners is increasing, and we would love to help them monetize their vehicles and contribute to the sharing economy by joining our platform.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Hugo Oliveira: More frequent communications internally and externally have definitely become key in navigating this crisis. In terms of management, timely communication about the right topics in line with restrictions has been key, and understanding when to push and when there is time to think in new directions. We were also quick to realize and were how to utilize our time in lockdown, to build strong pipelines both in terms of new products and market communication for when restrictions ease.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Hugo Oliveira: Peer-to-peer marketplaces in the likes of Yescapa, Camptoo, Camplify have traditionally been our main competitors in terms of market share; however, operating in a different league without holding their own fleet. Although we have recently noticed more fleet providers emerging in Europe, however, we are always looking for ways to expand our offering and accommodate our customers with a one-stop solution for road trips.
This has led us to launch a range of new features that make us unique in the campervan rental industry with the launch of our new marketplace, making us the only provider offering owned fleet, peer-to-peer rental, and other professional rentals in one platform. We will also be the first European provider to embark on the US market. We are also currently working on expanding our horizons beyond purely campervan rental and into other areas, such as a re-selling second-hand campervan platform to quicker update our fleet while providing people with the opportunity to buy a beloved Indie van. We are expanding the go-to website for anything road trip-related where travelers can also find a marketplace of places to stay and activities to do on the road.
To stay in the game, this is the only way to survive: keep innovating and finding new ways to satisfy customers. This way, your offering becomes the standard design of the experience the customer expects by staying ahead of the curve and implementing new features fast, making it this will be almost impossible for competitors to replicate without it being outdated.