Tourism and the pandemic: the story of a company that saw closed borders as a new opportunity

by 15 min read upd on Aug 29, 2022

The tourism industry has still not fully recovered from the turmoil caused by the pandemic. Some people have given up and accepted what seems a hopeless situation, but not the CEO of Smartvel, Iñigo Valenzuela: to him, the pandemic was the perfect opportunity to create a service that is now used by one in three Europeans and 25% of American travellers.

“You don’t know you need my product yet”

Before creating the Smartvel agency, Iñigo spent 20 years as an employee. For 9 years, he was a managing director of one of the departments of a large international company, where he achieved great success. In 2012, he was laid off and decided it was time to start his own business. At the same time, the entrepreneur was helping companies improve their operational processes as a mentor and coach.

“I’m not a millennial who created a startup from scratch after coming up with a brilliant idea,” Iñigo says, discussing the start of his journey as an entrepreneur. “I had significant experience working as an employee. At one point, I saw the opportunity to create my own project. I must say, it’s much easier to organise a business when you know how to build operational processes and you have the funds. It’s much harder to start a business without the necessary knowledge and when you have to look for funding.”

Iñigo is convinced that entrepreneurship is something you can learn. You can master its basics in business courses available in any country. They will teach everyone how to legally register a company, sign contracts, look for employees, communicate with them, and manage them. However, without practice, this knowledge won’t transform into skills.

According to the businessman, in 2012, the Travel Tech sector had the same prospects it does in 2022. The industry was challenging, and it remains so: it’s hard to interest clients in services for travel content creation; besides, people don’t realise how such companies can make their life easier. The entrepreneur admits that it’s hard to sell a product when the client doesn’t know that they need it. That is why his company has worked under the slogan ‘You don’t know you need my product yet’ for almost 10 years.

“Derby Hotels, the chain of premium hotels, was Smartvel’s first client,” the CEO recalls. “We met their representative at an annual tourism expo in Spain, told him about our services, and he liked them. In the end, we started cooperating. It turned out we had similar values – for example, appreciation for innovation. We help the hotel chain implement them. Smartvel still works with Derby Hotels. They were brave enough to be our first customers – we appreciate it and value our long-term relationship. I think our cooperation will be everlasting.”

The close-knit Smartvel team

Doing business during the financial crisis and grave mistakes

Iñigo started his business at a challenging time: in 2008, the world faced an economic crisis, and the situation didn’t stabilise until 2012. At that time, the business was dealing with multiple problems. The entrepreneur admits that looking back, he is sometimes terrified by how reckless he was and how many mistakes he made.

“The tourism content niche is specific and narrow,” the entrepreneur shares. “There are very few players in this sphere since this business is amazingly complex. In the 20s, nobody was creating content for big travel agencies – we were the first in Spain. When I first started the company, I didn’t understand what I was getting myself into. If I had, I would probably have not created the company. I knew how to organise the technical part of the project and attract clients. However, my main mistake at that time was not knowing how social media marketing worked.”

The entrepreneur is convinced that one of the major mistakes he made when creating the company was his casual attitude toward UX design, or the interface of the product, its ‘face.’ The initial website was not well-designed. Iñigo was certain that the technical part was the most important. The Smartvel team had 9 developers and even a specialist in Data Science but no UX designers. Time has shown that one of the most important aspects of the product is how you present it and how the client sees it. They eventually had to spend significant time and funds fixing the interfaces. Now the company pays a great deal of attention to design and packaging.

The CEO’s second mistake was the hasty decision to gift company shares to all employees. He didn’t set any conditions and simply handed out shares to good employees. The businessman eventually realised that this strategy wasn’t motivating the team. He had to build a reward system from scratch and decide what to do with the shares if a staff member left the team.

“These two mistakes taught me a lot. I also realised I had to be closer to the client, develop customer service on various levels, and try to adjust my product so that it could be beneficial to the client and meet their needs. We work in two directions: B2B and B2C. Some customers buy our product or order our services, and some just use the Smartvel platform. We have conditionally combined the two directions into one and called this direction ‘B2B2C’ to make it more convenient to adjust the services and the website to both categories.

This is what the Smartvel website looks like now

Marketing for the В2В2С business

The primary goal of the Smartvel marketing department is to attract potential clients for consultation. They use all possible channels to achieve that. The СЕО is convinced that there is no magic wand, no guaranteed way to earn customers’ trust and attract users to the website. Different goals and objectives require different marketing tools.

“We use a number of channels and constantly test new ones. We actively promote our services through SEO and on social media. We have well-functioning newsletters. And we also sell through consultations. Two aspects need to be taken into consideration here: marketing strategy and client contact. The problem is that when you write or call a potential client for the first time, you don’t always know whether they are open to a dialogue.”

Iñigo considers himself too old for social media. He uses Instagram for personal purposes but doesn’t have expert knowledge of the platform. However, the CEO is certain that social media is a perfect tool to promote the brand, increasing its presence and virality. LinkedIn and Twitter became Smartvel’s primary platforms for finding and attracting clients, as well as its major advertising channels.

LinkedIn is suitable for keeping the company’s blog, establishing connections, and communicating with clients. Twitter helps them keep up to date with their partner companies; it allows them to collaborate with bloggers and increase audience loyalty. The СЕО believes that these two social media platforms perfectly cover the needs of his business since the company’s primary focus is on B2B. If there were a need to develop B2C more actively, the brand would have to expand its social media presence. The СЕО admits that his current strategy might be a mistake, and his business might be missing a huge opportunity.

Smartvel has a professional team that works on developing the accounts. They utilise all available tools to ensure maximum SMM efficiency. is an example of such an auxiliary service as it includes copywriting, design and management systems altogether. They empower the service to compose well-structured & engaging captions, maintain your brand's visual identity and posting to your profiles at best times.

How the pandemic helped create a top service

Smartvel has its own service that selects a travel route based on parameters set by the user. Due to the drastic changes to the tourism industry caused by the pandemic, the Smartvel team had to change this platform’s algorithms and implement an artificial intelligence system.

Now anyone can not only build a route but get information on the rules of entry into a chosen country and on the anti-COVID measures implemented there. The information is constantly updated. Smartvel was one of the first to create such a platform and collect all the necessary data for travellers in one place. One in three Europeans currently uses this service before flying somewhere.

“At the start of the pandemic, I began to think about how we could use this challenging and unexpected situation to benefit us. I immediately realised there were hidden opportunities. Then the Spanish airline Iberia, our client, came to us with the same problem and asked for our help. And I realised that we had to direct all our efforts to create a technology that would make travelling during the pandemic easy and enjoyable. We eventually managed to create an excellent service.”

The entrepreneur is convinced that no business will succeed without a great team – you should hire the best of the best. Money isn’t the best motivator, he argues. You can earn much more than just a fortune. And most importantly, according to Iñigo, an aspiring entrepreneur should remember: don’t be afraid to move forward and reject ideas that don't work – sooner or later, you will find your path.

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