INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
German B2b Travel Startup Turns the Pandemic Crisis into an Opportunity
Moritz Engler, CEO, and Founder of Inflight VR tells us about a technology platform that enables safe usage of VR in a travel context.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Moritz Engler: Thank you very much for this question. We are doing well given the circumstances. COVID-19 has obviously impacted us all, and we are trying to deal with this “new reality.”
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Inflight VR.
Moritz Engler: I started a tech company builder back in 2014 while studying at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. With this company builder, we focused on emerging technologies such as AI or Virtual Reality. Inflight VR was one of the first companies that were incubated and then spun off after the first external funding was achieved. After the spin-off, I joined Inflight VR as CEO in 2016.
How does Inflight VR innovate?
Moritz Engler: Inflight VR originally tackled the problem of idle time during travelling. Think about the time that is wasted during a transatlantic flight. Inflight VR offers a solution that entertains the passenger through an immersive experience while at the same time generating ancillary revenues for the travel company (e.g., the airline). With our expert team consisting of several developers who hold a PhD in VR, we have developed a technology platform that enables a safe usage of VR in the travel context. One example is that the company has built a patented communication system between the crew and the immersed passenger.
During COVID, we started branching out into different fields to apply VR technology in the broader B2B but also B2C context. For enterprise clients, we launched VR Works, which offers proven and working use cases for businesses. VR Works supports enterprises that want to get started with VR by delivering end-to-end solutions (including VR content production, VR hardware, project management, and logistics). In terms of B2C, we launched Firstrow, which is the first on-demand VR home delivery service for cultural content (similar to the early Netflix DVD rental model) in Europe.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Moritz Engler: Our core Inflight VR travel business unit has seen a dramatic negative impact. Most of our clients (we have served more than 15 clients around the world pre-pandemic) either stopped operating altogether or simply went into firefighting survival mode. This meant that our product stopped being offered from one day to the other. On the flip side, VR Works and Firstrow started gaining significant momentum.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Moritz Engler: In the first few weeks after the pandemic started, we implemented a number of cost-saving programs. Those entailed short-term work for the employees, termination of freelance contracts, and unfortunately, also a few layoffs. What we learned was that transparent communication to the team was essential in keeping the remaining workforce confident and motivated. Also, for those of the employees that we needed to let go, we tried to find suitable positions in our broader network.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Moritz Engler: We had direct and open communication with all customers from day one of the pandemic. We also agreed to put active contracts on hold. With most of the (former) clients, we have kept an ongoing communication and regularly check in to see how the situation evolves.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Moritz Engler: Fortunately, we received several grants and aids from the Government in Germany as well as in Spain (where our two main offices are located). Especially in Germany, the process was quite fast and straightforward. In addition, we also received a Government-sponsored loan in the course of a successful internal financing round.
Your final thoughts?
Moritz Engler: The pandemic hit us really hard. However, I am very proud of our team and the way we handled the fallout. As a result, we now have 2 healthy business units (VR Works for B2B and Firstrow for B2C) and a dedicated and skilful core team in place and are preparing for a growth phase.
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