Boris Pasternak once said, “Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.” It truly is. It is in our nature that we remember and cherish those moments that took us by surprise or brought something unexpected.
For example, years ago, my family was on a road trip in Florida when we happened to notice a fruit stand in the middle of a long highway that speared through miles upon miles of lime trees. The incredible smell of tropical fruits filled the shop. Light coconut mingled with the heavy perfume of key limes. There were rows of guanabanas, dragon fruit, and starfruit. Although this was a small moment in a two-week long journey, it was my clearest memory because it took me by surprise.
Pack Up and Go, a Pittsburgh startup, seeks to bring the surprise and adventure aspect in vacation to you. Eric Johnson, who is the director of business development and one of the original employees, shared the story behind Pack Up + Go.
Founder Lillian Rafson went to New York University where she majored in consumer behavior and after graduating got a typical office job in New York.
After a brief stint at the job, she decided that corporate life wasn’t a right fit for her and dropped it in favor of a more adventurous lifestyle. After she quit, she headed towards eastern Europe to travel and experience life. After traveling around, she arrived in Riga, Latvia that she met one couple who were on a surprise travel trip. After hearing about their experience, she had an epiphany. In her own words, she said, “It was like a lightbulb went off in my head.”
As Eric explained, “She …heard about that company [surprise travel company] and absolutely loved the idea” It turns out, the surprise vacation industry was thriving in Europe, and she decided to transplant it to the US.
After she moved back, she started the company and two months later, Eric moved back from Italy to join as the director of business development.
What is Pack Up + Go?
Pack Up and Go is a surprise vacation company. They plan three-day, long weekend trips tailored to a traveler chosen budget and each trip is no more than four hours away from the traveler’s home. The twist is in how much they know. Up until a few hours before the trip, no information is revealed about their destination or what activities entail.
Trips vary in budget from $400 – $2000 depending on preference for living arrangements and activities. After you set up your budget and dates, you enter in some information to show your preferences and then the trip details are sent to the office where Pack Up and Go plans an outline of an itinerary for you, your living arrangements, and your transportation.
A week before the trip, you get an email from the company showing some basic guidelines for what you should pack, where you should go, and what time your transportation is.
A few days before you leave, you receive an envelope in the mail that contains all the information about the trip. You should, under no circumstance, open this until right before you leave.
Finally, you get to your transportation, open the envelope, and in prominent, wavy letters, you get to see your destination.
Small Team, Big Dream
Creating these tailored surprise trips is no easy feat, and it’s been especially hard on the startup from the get-go.
With 25 million small businesses in America and 10% of start-ups failing within a year, it might seem the odds were stacked against two people entering a bloated travel industry and attempting to create their own market.
From the beginning, all the trips had been planned manually by Lillian Rafson. She would book the lodging and transportation, all while managing to build up a customized list of places to go at the destination. Because of this, one of the largest hurdles has been adapting to increased workloads and last minute changes.
For example, sometimes, issues like snowstorms or cancellations can throw a wrench into company activities. Navigating those twists and turns is as unexpected as the trips themselves, and Eric admits that “providing customer service with just a small team” is difficult. Other times, a deluge of trip requests can overwhelm the team. In order to confront this issue, Pack Up and Go has recently hired a new employee to help plan the trips. With an estimated 1000-1500 trips projected, it’s become more important than ever to be efficient and maintain quality.
No matter the obstacles ahead, Eric remains optimistic about the team’s ability to face these hurdles. He says, “We work very well together and we are very supportive of one another. It’s a great office environment. We keep it low stress. We’ve always had the confidence that we would be able to handle whatever comes our way.”
Another challenge has been budgeting. From the beginning, and like many other startups, Eric explained that the company is “completely unfunded”. With the recent surge in popularity and media coverage, figuring out where to put their money and how to build business partnerships has been a painstaking process. Eric said, “People reach out to us all the time with various business partnerships ideas, and as much as we want to do them all, we can’t.” Early on, they had spent more money than they hoped for, and controlling expenses has been a crucial area for the business.
Budgeting in marketing has also proved challenging, but they’ve come up with a three pronged approach to cut expenses and to increase revenue.
The first prong, and probably the least accounted for has been the organic media coverage. Early on, they realized, “people were writing a lot of articles about us and featuring us in various things on their own …and then we would get a big burst of orders from that.” This has been one of the best ways that they’ve been able to acquire customers; without spending any money, people were flocking to the service based on unsponsored articles they read.
The second prong was based on word of mouth marketing. Using quick customer surveys, Lillian and Eric have discovered that most of their clients are from friend and family referrals. Taking advantage of the shareable nature of vacation, they built up a large customer base from word-of-mouth, grassroots marketing. People who refer get 10% off their next trip. Using this robust customer referral program, they’ve been able to get people who didn’t know about Pack Up and Go originally to come and try the service.
The third prong uses social media. The company frequently posts success stories of their business on their social media pages and takes advantage of the creative, colorful envelopes they send to travelers to attract new customers.
Pack Up and Go hasn’t changed its vision. They built their business on accessible, short duration surprise trips and have thrived off of that market. In the future though, they see an expansion of possible destinations. The business currently operates under a strict three-day vacation, short distance, domestic rule, but international or longer duration trips are on their radar. Although expanding is an interesting idea, Eric admits that “those would be much further down the road”.
“Whatever you are doing, whether it’s a product or a service, focus on making it as high quality as you can because from there, people recognize that quality and the brand will grow from that. Don’t try and cut corners or just try and graze your bottom line.”
Favorite Country: Italy
Favorite City: Sienna
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