INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
“Your destination is a surprise!”
We talked to Lillian Rafson of Pack Up + Go about how they plan a getaway.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Pack Up + Go.
Lillian Rafson: I founded Pack Up + Go when I was 23 years old and had no experience working in the travel industry. After quitting my job at a startup in New York, I went on a solo backpacking trip to clear my head and figure out what I wanted to do next! I was in Riga, Latvia when I met two women in my hostel who were there on a surprise vacation with a European surprise travel agency. That concept of surprise travel didn’t exist in the U.S. yet, and I was immediately intrigued.
I also realized that I had been fortunate enough to travel to so many amazing countries around the world, but had hardly traveled around the States. It occurred to me that Americans don’t necessarily think of the United States as a destination for a vacation, even though the country is so huge and has so many different types of cultures and sightseeing opportunities! I decided on a whim to move back to my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and started building Pack Up + Go.
How does Pack Up + Go innovate?
Lillian Rafson: Pack Up + Go innovates by incorporating the element of surprise to the traditional travel agency model to heighten the travel experience. Travelers often tell us that they need a vacation from their vacation when they’re the ones planning – it can be exhausting and stressful to coordinate travel! By making the destination a surprise, we alleviate that anxiety and make vacation fun and exciting.
We know that excellent customer service can make all the difference in any experience, especially travel. We offer 24/7 in-house traveler support just in case anything comes up! While we love surprises, we value safety and trust more than anything, and we want our travelers to know they are in good hands.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Lillian Rafson: The travel industry was one of the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic, and is only now starting to recover. My team and I always try to see the silver linings in every situation. As soon as we got past the rush of trip cancellations in March, we got to work thinking about all of the long-term projects we talk about doing but never have the time for. While our business was at a standstill, we decided to migrate our tech stack, rebrand our traveler-facing materials, and word on a number of internal projects.
Luckily, we knew that domestic travel would rebound more quickly than international travel, and we already offered road trips before the pandemic. We decided that we needed to diversify our trip offerings to attract as much business as possible, so we launched Staycations and Outdoors getaways, as well. So far, both of these new trip types are gaining a lot of traction, with Outdoors getaways continuing to grow steadily.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Lillian Rafson: The first thing my advisors told me to do when the pandemic struck was to cut costs, and quickly. We’re a really close, small team, so letting members of our staff go was an awful decision to make. We reduced our team size in March and cut staff salaries to make our runway last as long as possible.
I’ve always been financially conservative with the company, but the biggest lesson I learned is that we are not pandemic-proof, and it will be important for us to have more of a safety net at all times moving forward.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Pack Up + Go in the future?
Lillian Rafson: As the owner of a small business, you feel every bit of stress and anxiety that your customers and your team experience. The hardest part is not having any outlet for that stress yourself, which is something I’ve struggled with over the past six months. I’ve kept a journal and have tried to stay as active as possible!
The pandemic has forced our team to innovate more than ever, and I think that we will come out of it stronger than before. It may be another year or two before domestic travel rebounds completely, and we anticipate higher demand for socially-distant road trips for the foreseeable future. As long as we continue to listen to our travelers and hold their experience above all else, I am confident our company will survive!
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Lillian Rafson: There are now a few other surprise travel agencies in the United States, but we are the only agency that focuses solely on domestic travel and road trips. We plan to stay in the game by always keeping our travelers’ wants and needs as our highest priority. Listening to how our customers and adapting to their requests has helped us grow thus far, and we hope to continue growing and gaining their trust!
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