Bookaway CEO: We have the potential to grow into a $10 billion company
Noam Toister tells CTech how his honeymoon inspired the founding of his company, and how you bounce back from downsizing 40% of the staff
The traditional high-holiday exodus out of Ben Gurion Airport will come to a close next week as many of those who braved the global pandemic and a possible quarantine will return home. Ever since the Covid-19 vaccine became a reality, it seems more and more people, not just in Israel, are adamant to travel, and no sectors are more pleased to get back to business than travel and hospitality who suffered, perhaps most of all, this past 18 months or so.
“Before Covid we had a terrific growth pace, but then Corona came and we were quick to realize it will not be a short or simple event,” Bookaway.com co-founder and CEO Noam Toister told CTech. “Our sales dropped, and we had to let go of almost half the company in early March, which was extremely hard but also turned out to be the right move because by the end of that month our sales fell to almost zero.”
Bookaway CEO, Noam Toister. Photo: Irad Netzer
Toister described that period as one of the worst in his life, as the company he founded in 2017 had to release about 40% of its employees. Bookaway specializes in booking for land and naval travel. “If you travel across a country instead of say, staying in one city, depending on where you are, it can be extremely difficult to secure your travel plans online,” he said. “It can be pretty complicated to book your ticket sometimes, and what people end up doing is booking through their hotel or physically going to the bus station or ferry and buying their ticket in advance.” An experience such as this during his honeymoon brought Toister to create Bookaway.
“We were in Manila, and we wanted to see the rice terraces in the north, it is a world heritage site and all the tourists go there. So, what people do, is take a cab to the bus station to buy their tickets, and it is an hour and a half each way because of traffic. Meaning, all the tourists on the bus wasted a day in Manila,” he said. “So after returning to Israel, I got a hold of an Israeli tourist agent there and I told him I will send you reservations, you will go to the bus station and buy the tickets and email them to the clients. It was clear we were on to something so I grew it, first in the Philippines, then to other countries, and continents.”
“We have a potential to grow into a $10 billion company,” Toister said with confidence. “Today, 7% of a tourist’s expenses are for traveling by land or sea, not including rental cars. It is perhaps the last untapped travel vertical, and our platform is essentially Booking.com for transportation. And the challenge is working with these local, mostly offline companies, and promoting them through us, with all the accurate information.”
The company’s growth potential was clear until early 2020 when the pandemic forced it to yield. However, despite the grim reality and initial shock of losing half its staff, Bookaway managed to remain on track. “Fortunately, at the time Aleph was backing us, so we were able to hold on with half the company and focus on our infrastructure, so we can hit the ground running as soon as tourism returns. It worked, and in fact, during Covid, we doubled the number of providers we work with worldwide.”
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Bookaway was also able to secure $35 million in a Series B round in July, purchase three companies, and is in the process of concluding a fourth deal. “After six, seven months, it was clear the coronavirus was not going to disappear just one morning, and we had to decide if, as a company, we are going to just wait or take initiative. So we reached out to our competition and saw an opportunity to buy some of it,” Toister explained
Today, the company offers booking services for more than 100 countries, and has about 160 employees worldwide, including about 60 in Israel, working to achieve Toister’s goal of becoming the Booking.com of land and naval travel, especially in the current and future Covid reality. “My assumption is that one outcome of the coronavirus will be clients staying away from crowded locations and will look for alternatives,” he said. “You can see companies really trying to create safe experiences, but there is still no one clear solution. We see a rising demand for private commuting, which is a service we offer - rent a car and a driver, and more people are interested than before.”