We talked to Luke Verbeek on how Homefans provides the ultimate sports experience, and this is what he had to say about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Luke Verbeek: Thanks for asking. We are doing well, fortunately. It has been a very different year from the personal and professional standpoint but at the same time a year that has created new opportunities on multiple fronts.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Homefans?
Luke Verbeek: We saw a gap in the market, as the official players in football travel only stuck to the transactional packages (match ticket + hotel + flights), and there was an untapped need we wanted to address. The experience or everything else beyond the game. And for that, the locals were the critical element. Fortunately, our hunch was right, and we created a new type of football travel where the experience is as relevant (or even more) than the game itself. We had a simple mission: to help fans tick off their bucket list. And after taking over 3500 travelers in the past years, we also found out that we contributed to something very relevant: to bring like-minded people from all over the world to our trips and activities, creating a sense of belonging within a community of people who love the beautiful game. We also realized that there was a way bigger potential in the overall sports experiences arena. That is why since 2020, we decided to shift our business model from a purely travel operator to a sports experience marketplace – think of an ‘Airbnb for sports experiences.’ While the pandemic is still in our daily lives, we have managed to grow the marketplace, onboard hundreds of new local hosts in 4 continents worldwide, and create innovative products like live virtual tours.
How does Homefans innovate?
Luke Verbeek: We contributed to incorporate the experiential element into the usual football/sports travel industry. Since day one and even nowadays, there is no global player who centers its value proposition on the experience as the critical element when offering sports tourism activities and has managed to standardize it and replicate it globally in more than 100 cities worldwide. There is an immense opportunity in the intersection between the experience economy and the sports travel vertical that nobody has exploited yet. We aim to be the first ones to do it on a global scale. And what is the experience? It’s a combination of different elements with one thing in common: the localhost. The key USP of Homefans is that if you take part in our trips or activities, you will not be a tourist – you will do what locals do around their preferred sporting events. And that knowledge only comes from the local hosts themselves – sports fans or professional tour guides who want to share their knowledge and love for their club and city with like-minded visitors. Be it on-site or virtually. They enable the experience to be unique, contribute with their inside knowledge, and make it more human – it’s always about bringing people together and connecting. All the platform experiences are unique and go beyond the usual objective of getting your hands on a ticket. At the same time and given the ongoing pandemic, we decided to adjust ourselves and start innovating with these local-led experiences by partnering with clubs and putting together a unique product: the online experiences. The virtual tours have proven to be an immersive experience where attendees feel they are there in the destination, thanks to the host’s unique touch, from their home’s comfort.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Luke Verbeek: Being part of the travel and live sports industry, it’s inevitable to state that the pandemic affected us. When all football games were canceled in March, we had ongoing tours and activities in different cities and continents and had sales for even the 2020-21 season. We implemented a crisis plan based on direct and transparent communication first, explaining to all our customers how we were preparing for the next months or so – given the uncertainty that reigned and still reigns in the world -, and what our position was. Fortunately, 98% of our customers were grateful that we acted quickly and were transparent, and understood the situation. Trust and a close relationship has always been a critical element of how we operate. Another example of that is that we managed to raise our latest seed round during the pandemic. In March 2020, we decided to go for our second crowdfunding round, and the pandemic broke out in the middle of the campaign. Regardless of that, our investors were confident in the new proposition to shift into a sports experience marketplace and managed to overfund. Right after securing the funds and given the massive uncertainty and disruption the travel industry was facing, we had two options: a) to keep quiet and almost hibernate and wait until things would be better; or b) to push against the current and try to seize this new opportunity and grow. We went to the second one, and it was worth it. We not only embarked on the company’s most strategic and complex project until now, but we also can say now that it allowed us to grow and prepare everything for when travel resumes, given the more positive outlooks with the vaccination plan in different countries. In a short period, we created our new brand identity, built a marketplace platform from scratch, hired senior talents that were, unfortunately, let go by crucial companies in the hospitality and travel industries. We also managed to onboard around 300 fully vetted and verified local hosts to our platform, who have developed a product inventory of more than 350 unique sports tours and activities – no one else in the world has this amount of specialized local led sports experiences. And there are plans to grow further!
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Luke Verbeek: Definitely. This year has all been about resilience. About making choices and focusing on what matters. Taking risks but calculated risks, because in the end, what matters is the sustainability of the company in the long run. And these times are hard, but we believe that it is better to act rather than wait. We are deeply moved by the disruption the pandemic has created in the overall economy and travel, but we also believe it opens up opportunities. And we want to give it a shot, and as of now, the outcome has been satisfactory. But we can’t wait for travel to come back. The demand will be far beyond what we’ve experienced until now as there is an appetite to travel, discover, and connect with other people.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Luke Verbeek: It’s undeniable that this year has tested us regarding our mental health and daily habits. There is no unique formula, and leading a business can sometimes add to stress and anxiety. We both agree that both of us are responsible, especially for taking care of our team, who have contributed for the past months and years. What has worked for us is to have a clear strategy for the business and try to focus on that and nothing else. Keeping us focused has helped us not be negatively influenced by the constant information flow nowadays. On the personal level, although sometimes we wish we could be more disciplined, it’s the right combination of breaks (we tend to switch off on the weekends), exercise, and leisure.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Luke Verbeek: We have no direct competitors in the specific vertical of sports experiences and travel. We have indirect competitors and companies we look up to in both the sports travel vertical and the experience economy. The critical company that comes to mind is Airbnb, which is huge but also, given the immense size, they haven’t managed to specialize in a specific vertical. On top of that, we have relationships secured with clubs to guarantee tickets and other activities (on top of the local host network), which gives us a competitive advantage. To provide you with an example, many sports travel companies that operate in the space also have access to tickets but lack experiential elements. We believe we are in a comfortable middle ground and plan to grow in the industry based on this privileged position.
Your final thoughts?
Luke Verbeek: The pandemic has tested our resilience. Covid 19 changed our way of life and stopped the clock. Whilst we cannot fully operate as we used to in the past, we believe that the opportunities seized during this period will define the years’ profile to come. We are fully convinced with our vision, and whilst 2021 won’t be the easiest of years, it will be the start of better times, and we have worked our hardest to be prepared for what is to come.