Like many other startups, SeaBookings had a very humble beginning but it was just the first step down a long road of adventure for a business that aspires to help tourists discover and experience the best that sea has to offer.
“We were selling tickets for dolphin watching, cave tours, and BBQ cruise in Lagos where we grew up. We were standing on the streets, selling tickets for these tours,” says Dutch-born Bo Irik, who co-founded SeaBookings with her sister Femke in 2014.
One day when they were “bothering” tourists under a scorching sun, Femke dreamed up the idea of moving their summer job online. To make it more fun for themselves but also to give more visibility to small local tour operators.
They soon started their journey of entrepreneurship and invited Fábio Neves to join them as chief technology officer.
SeaBookings promises travelers the best and most authentic sea experiences in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Croatia. Undeterred by the coronavirus pandemic, they are passionately pursuing their ambition of expanding to more destinations in the world.
In an interview with Via News, Bo said she hopes the COVID-19 experience will encourage tourists to think outside the box and get more creative.
“I truly hope that now people will look for more original ways to experience the city instead of going on a hop-on hop-off bus full of other tourists.”
Bo, who in hindsight considers her parents’ decision to relocate to Portugal as “the best thing that could happen to us”, takes every opportunity to share her love for Portugal with others.
In her opinion, the health and safety measures taken by the Portuguese government to contain the spread of the virus are adequate. Logistical reasons such as ease of access and huge beaches that allow for social distancing are exciting enough to put the country on the bucket list of travel fans worldwide— especially during this summer.
Here are excerpts of the interview, in which Bo talks about a wide range of issues, including how domestic tourism can help kick-start the economies after the coronavirus.
Q: As you know the tourism sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. How has it affected your business, especially your revenues and expansion plans?
These are tough times for us. At the beginning of March when the virus hit southern Europe more strongly, we immediately knew this would have consequences for us.
Our business is rather seasonal. Of course, we want to remove this seasonality by expanding to the Southern Hemisphere soon, but for now, we are only more present in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that we are very dependent on the summer months.
We are currently operating in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Croatia, and all those countries were more or less affected by the virus and all had their lockdowns. So we had almost three months with no revenue at all.
Also, we had some booking requests for maybe September and August, but we were still very uncertain about how things were going to evolve. So we decided to stay in contact with those customers and check closer to the dates instead of immediately accepting the bookings.
Q: What is your strategy to survive this phase? Are you making any changes to your company?
Yes. First of all, we, unfortunately, had to lay off our team in Portugal. We immediately applied for help from the government.
The second measure will be just to keep going. I mean we cannot stop even if we don’t have a lot of revenue coming in. We want to keep our business growing. We want to do as much as we can for our customers and partners.
We are trying to focus more on internal tourism. For example, we believe that the Portuguese people this summer will travel more within the borders. Previously, we were doing most of our communication in English and, at the moment, we are trying to have more of our communication in Portuguese too because we truly believe that the Portuguese people will be our target this season.
Q: What needs to be done to revive the tourism sector in Portugal?
We need customers. We need tourists to come because we believe that most of the Portuguese will travel and do their holidays in Portugal. But it’s a different kind of traveler. Usually, they choose to see experiences with a little more limited budget.
If we look at the American or English customers, they usually go for more luxurious experiences like yacht charters. These are the kind of services where profit can be maximized.
The good side is that these services are a very cool idea for social distancing because you can charter a boat for your group of friends or family and you won’t need to be careful with social distancing. So this is also one of the things we’re doing. We’re trying to bet more on private experiences rather than shared boat tours.
Q: In your view, how long will it take for the tourism industry in Portugal to recover?
To fully recover, I think it’s very hard to say. We are now living the new normal with masks, social distancing, and washing our hands more often.
We believe this new normal will stay for long. We don’t know for how long. But maybe next summer it will still be the same and will be more focused on internal tourism and outdoor experiences. I think to fully recover, it can take many years. It’s still very early to evaluate the impact of the coronavirus on travel in Portugal and on our business.
We can have a second phase of the virus in October or autumn. We don’t know yet so it depends on how the virus will evolve and how we will be able to get used to this new normal.
Q: In a recent blog post you mentioned several reasons to visit Portugal this summer. Why do you think Portugal is a great destination for tourists?
At the moment, people will be more careful about selecting their holiday destination. There are several factors to have in mind.
The first one is the flights. Maybe you would prefer shorter flights rather than longer flights. Within Europe, you can reach Portugal within three hours or two and a half hours. It’s a very short flight, which is one of the reasons why I think it’s very good to choose Portugal.
Another reason is that everything seems to be very under control in Portugal at the moment. People are getting back to their normal lives, restaurants have reopened and the beaches are open. There are some restrictions of course both at restaurants and beaches. There is kind of a capacity control, but we are pretty back to normal.
I think this is what people look for when they go on holiday. They want to go to a destination where they don’t need to think about facemasks or social distancing.
Also, we have very big beaches. I recently went to the beach myself for the first time after the lockdown, and we chose a huge beach a little less than one hour’s drive from Lisbon. The beach was very packed, more busy than normal, but still, there was so much space.
Q: What lessons should the tourism industry learn from the coronavirus experience?
I think it’s still pretty early to evaluate this. But, for example, in the city of Lisbon, those packed buses full of tourists look like sardines in a can. I don’t think this is a nice way to travel or enjoy a new country.
I truly hope that now people will look for more original ways to experience the city instead of going on a hop-on hop-off bus full of other tourists.
They might want to go on foot or by bike for example and look for healthier and outdoor ways to experience a new destination.
Q: What message do you have for startups in the tourism industry?
Don’t give up. We had a tough time and believe that it’s all a matter of sticking together with your team, being clear with your team.
When the coronavirus arrived in Portugal, we immediately had a team call where we explained the situation. Everybody was super understanding. We believe that SeaBookings will get out of this stronger than before.
And you need to have the right partners. Maybe look for a mentor who can help you change your business slightly and be able to adapt to the new normal and take care of your stakeholders
We are very dependent on our local tour providers, but they are also dependent on us. It’s very important to understand how they are living through the current situation.
We sent out several emails to our Portuguese and Spanish partners to understand what local tour operators are going through. Some of the emails were returned because they were giving up. We decided to call them just to let them know that we are all in the same situation and we will get over this.
Q: How do you see the prospects for investment in the tourism industry?
It’s early to say something about this, but I do believe that tourism will always be there. People will always want to travel, and, in Portugal at the moment, I think it’s quite an opportunity because small and medium companies need investments and need people to give maybe a different point of view on the current situation.
Things will come back to normal again and will be better. I don’t know if it’s going to happen next year or in two years. But as long as investors are patient, I truly believe Portugal is still a good bet.
Q: Is there any additional comment that you would like to make?
Yes. My additional comment would be “Keep traveling”. At the moment, some governments are still saying people should travel if necessary. But soon things will calm down even more and it will be safe to travel.
It’s important to keep our minds sane. Some destinations are very safe and prepared for receiving travelers. Keep traveling. The tourism business needs travelers, and nature has not been affected by the coronavirus. The opposite is true. The water is clearer than ever so come and visit and you won’t regret it.