Local Online Travel Company Sees Big Opportunity in Small Travel

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Emily Bernard and Ethan Hawkes launched PlacePass, an e-commerce company offering organized travel experiences, in 2016. After rapidly ramping up – just a few years, they had grown to 30 employees handling reservations for over 100,000 destinations around the world – Bernard and Hawkes have started to rethink their strategy.

“We have always believed in the value of escape as a way to rejuvenate, to be better and more complete humans,” says Hawkes (who, for the record, is aware that his name is very similar to a certain actor). “We had both traveled a lot, but we realized after much discussion that there were so many wonderful experiences to be had closer to home.”

They hoped, in other words, to get their clients to think more deeply about how best to use their time. Which is, after all, limited.

So they started a second business – a boutique project, in fact – to focus on what they started to call “little trips”. Bernard & Hawkes would organize day trips and unusual overnight getaways for people seeking to relieve some of the stress of modern life, to enhance their own sense of well-being.

And then the pandemic struck.

As 2020 approaches, Hawkes says, “I think everyone in the industry thought it would be the busiest year on record. The economy had continued uninterrupted for the past decade. “

When the shutdown began, PlacePass processed over $ 1 million in refunds within a week.

“It wasn’t part of our forecast,” said Hawkes.

It was time to reflect. Fortunately, the co-founders had already started to do this.

On their website, they started offering advice on how to reap the benefits of ‘getting away from it all,’ “even if people don’t feel comfortable traveling right now,” says Bernard, who has already written articles in the Food section of the Globe. “We provide research-based evidence on how to spend your time well. “

They’re compiling a collection of articles on how to refuel and boost morale – not just lists of glamping sites and winter getaways, but also tips on digital detox and activities designed for. release your endorphins. As an outgrowth, Hawkes just published “The book on time” a beautifully crafted coffee table book that he calls an “owner’s manual” for a conscious living.

Hawkes grew up in Woodstock, Vermont, and now lives with his wife, Caitlynn, and their young son in southern Maine. Bernard, originally from Chicago, came to Boston to study at Harvard University (where she stayed with Hawkes’ future wife). After graduation, she lived for a while in Washington, DC, but decided New England was the place for her after her aunt and uncle organized a lobster cook in their home. Somerville house.

The outside setting was “heartbreakingly beautiful,” Bernard says, “and I decided, ‘Why would you want to live anywhere else? “She and Hawkes are eager to host experiences in other parts of the country and beyond, but for now they are focusing the business on their own backyard.

Like his partner, Bernard is a new parent. Their children, they say, gave the co-founders a welcome perspective on the journey closer to home.

“It’s the rediscovery of our own region through their eyes,” says Hawkes. “We go to parks we might not have been to, or on road trips at night. This is all new to a child. And these are valuable lessons, he says, even for those who don’t have children.

As the virus persists, the travel industry is clearly suffering. One of PlacePass’s biggest accounts is with Marriott, which just laid off half of its Copley Place employees.

The founders of Bernard & Hawkes hope to use the downtime to carve out a niche as a more thoughtful travel provider.

“COVID has really made us go back to the mission,” says Hawkes. They hope the concept of “Tiny Trips” takes off, much like the idea of ​​eating or shopping locally.

“We almost want it to be a movement,” he says. “It’s not like we’re inventing something new, but there is room for more awareness.”

James Sullivan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.


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