One DMC’s Remarkable COVID-19 Survival Story
When I first met Christopher De Pew it was November of 2020. COVID-19’s third wave was just beginning to swell and many tourism proprietors had gone months with no income as the pandemic raged. But as founder and president of ITA Global, De Pew had a very different story to tell.
ITA Global is an international destination management company (DMC) with an emphasis on Latin America and the Caribbean. De Pew grew the business out of a local adventure tour company he established in his adopted home of Nicaragua.
When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, De Pew and his team were bowled over by it just like everyone else. He says, “watching the cruise ships shut down, seeing the hotels shut down, seeing main boulevards [with] rows and rows of hotels boarded up and completely closed (and still some of them to this day not open), it’s been a very discouraging thing to see for our industry.”
But De Pew knew they couldn’t just sit back and take their lumps.
“We’ve always figured out ways to be creative and do things differently than others and be proactive, and change during times of change.
“So when we got over the initial shock factor of our industry being completely in the tank and very grim... we realized that we needed to find some way to keep things moving."
And so they did, and in spectacular fashion. Not only did ITA Global find a way to survive one of the greatest catastrophes ever to hit the travel industry, they thrived. In May of 2020—at a time when travel restrictions were changing by the week and airlines were practically grounded—ITA Global generated twice the sales volume of their entire 2019 fiscal year!
How’d they do it? I had to ask. Here’s what he told me.
Leaning into partnerships
De Pew credits ITA Global’s partnership mentality for much of their success.
“ITA [stands for] International Tours Alliance. From the very beginning we never had an attitude that we were going to do it all...So many people take on a philosophy that they can do it better so they're going to do it themselves. And that philosophy will really hinder their growth.”
In particular, ITA Global leaned into their partnerships with leaders/influencers with whom they’d worked before.
“We’ve worked with different types of group leaders over the last few years. Some of them being influencers, some of them being just the leader of their own circle of friends, others being figures of fame.”
In a very short time, ITA Global was able to design trips specifically for these partners.
“We made sure that they had everything that they needed in order to feel that the trip would be implemented and executed by a team of professionals so that they don't have to worry. They just need to encourage their friends, family or colleagues to join them on an amazing trip.”
To pull off these trips in the middle of a pandemic, ITA Global chose destinations to which travel was still flowing freely (such as Belize, Colombia, and Panama). They made a limited number of tickets available and priced them very attractively. Then, they relied on the group leader to promote the tour.
And the trips sold out. Fast. One within just two hours of launch.
“We were completely surprised that the trip was flying off the shelf the way it was...I think it really rallied around our relationships with existing customers, people [for whom] we knew we could execute and pull off exactly what they wanted.”
In addition to their partnerships with influencers, De Pew praises ITA Global’s alliances with local tour operators. He says these partnerships are what allow his team to provide authentic experiences for guests while maintaining a high level of service.
Being a DMC, he says, “gives us the ability to team with the local companies, run by the local people who specialize in the local tourism, showcasing their country. And we as the international DMC act as a customer service overlay.”
“That ability for us to work with other people has completely helped us to advance in the times when we want to grow.”
A focus on customer service
Service was a theme De Pew returned to again and again throughout our conversation.
“We've created a reputation for our brand and for our company, and we've taught that same standard of customer service to our local operational teams in each country. So, whether someone is dealing with us pre-sales on the phone, or they're dealing with us during the trip, or after the trip, it really doesn't matter. They’re getting the same level of customer service that is above and beyond what they’re accustomed to."
De Pew believes it’s this commitment to service that has helped them earn the trust of people who are willing to work with them, to recommend them, and to travel with them again and again (even during a pandemic).
“That helps us attract the types of customers that we want. We want a customer who's willing to spend a little extra. Who wants an extra personalized touch, who wants that concierge added value. And those are the types of people we've been able to attract.”
Adapting to the customer
ITA Global also demonstrates an astounding adaptability that helps them win customers by catering to their individual whims.
For example, “on our last trip to Cartagena, we had four or five girls during that trip talk about how badly they wanted to go to Belize. And so a Belize trip was basically formed while in the middle of the Cartagena trip. And that happens all the time.” It’s part of ITA Global’s sales strategy. They make a calculated effort to get customers planning their next vacation while still experiencing the euphoric mindset of the current trip.
This adaptability also helped them shift gears from international to domestic tourism amidst the travel restrictions of the pandemic. Leaning into yet another partnership—this time with Panama Yacht Adventures—they launched Sea Breeze Champagne Adventure, a one-hour boat tour which promises locals the opportunity to “escape the city and get some sun, fun, and celebrate life with a champagne toast.” The response has been overwhelming with sold-out trips every week.
Finally, policies and pricing adaptations helped ITA Global make sales amidst the uncertain COVID-19 landscape. For instance, De Pew says that selling out their influencer-led trips “was just a matter of getting the offer to the right price points so people would make a quick decision. And being able to accept multiple payments for the package was another huge factor. We also introduced a flexible cancellation policy which allowed people to modify or change the reservation, if they needed to, with a much lesser penalty than usual. So all of those factors together really helped us with a lot of sales.”
Advice for building a recession-proof travel brand
When I asked De Pew what advice he has for those in tourism who are struggling right now, he stressed the importance of taking the long view and focusing on building a strong brand.
“If a company is only a couple years in, you probably don't have that strong of a brand presence. No matter how popular you think you are, the brand really doesn't gain strength until it's been around for a chunk of time. I'll even go to the extent of saying a decade. When a brand’s been around for a decade there's a certain solidity behind it and people feel more comfortable choosing that brand and continuing to go back to that brand.
“Wait a decade for the success of the brand. Tough moments usually don't last a full decade. So you'll probably experience multiple tough moments in that chunk of time. And that's what’ll tell the true tale. If a business can withstand multiple blows that are catastrophic to its industry and to its finances, and continue to move forward, then you’ll probably be around through most conditions.”
So how do you go about building a strong brand?
“I would say by being very clear in your message. A lot of people in tourism have a lot of things they do, including us. How that message is communicated so that people understand your full scope—without confusing them—is a tricky one that I see a lot of people do incorrectly. And we have done incorrectly over the past years. It's a busy world and sometimes it's tough to do it right. And it’s easy to cut corners. But don’t cut corners. Spend the time, do it the right way.”De Pew had this last encouraging piece of advice to offer.
“Most of all you have to give yourself congratulations if you’re still in the game and you survived. You have to be real with yourself, that it’s pretty amazing if you have the will to pursue it further. If you’ve actually kept a good attitude this whole time and you haven’t kicked everything to the curb, then you're already winning. You've already won.”
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