The gradual return of tourism and travel in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to see a wave of startups raising rounds of funding to meet new opportunities in the market. In the latest development, Easol, which has built event and experiences software that third-party companies can use to market and sell bookings — it includes a website builder, reservation and booking tools, and payment plug-ins — has picked up $25 million, a Series A that it will be using to continue building out its software stack, with a view to being a one-stop shop for experiences organizers.
“Right now we enable [organizers] to sell events, but we don’t give them distribution,” said CEO Ben Simpson, who co-founded the London-based startup with his wife Lisa. “We see that as a major opportunity, giving creators the chance to get inventory from elsewhere and push theirs out to other places.”
The company has seen some strong growth in the last year, after a period in which Simpson said it had zero revenue due to travel and gathering restrictions in 2020. Since closing a seed round of $4.5 million that year, it has grown the number of organizers (which Easol calls “creators”) tenfold, with the customer base up 913%, transaction numbers up 50x and spend on the platform up by 30x. It has set ambitious targets to treble its growth in 2022.
Its software is used across some 130 countries, although the majority of the consumers engaging in the events themselves are based out of North America and Europe, Simpson said.
Those are scaling and traction numbers that catch the attention of VCs, and this latest round has some of the biggies. Tiger Global is leading the Series A, with participation also from previous backers Notion Capital, Foundation Capital, Y Combinator (Easol was in the S18 batch) and FMZ Ventures — which is led by Michael Zeisser, the former chairman of U.S. investments at Alibaba. (Zeisser is also joining the board.)
Travel and tourism startups definitely shaped up to be some of the biggest pity cases during the pandemic: through no mishandling of their own, some of the most promising founders and companies found themselves suddenly in freefall when their customers — and depending on the business model, the customers of their customers — simply stopped moving around and doing things. That vacuum, however, also led to some very interesting pivots and efforts to find business in completely new places.
Peek, one of Easol’s competitors in the experiences management space, went from focusing mainly on its own experiences marketplace and turned to providing more and better tools and wider guidance to their events management customers. It too recently raised a significant round of $80 million just last month.
While Easol might look quite a lot like Peek on the front end, however, the ethos behind what it’s doing is very different. The Simpsons came to founding the startup having previously been on the event organizing side of the equation, starting and running events like Rise — a massive ski/clubbing/music confab in the French Alps. Ben said that building and running that raised a ton of organizational issues, specifically when it came to IT.
The festival not only sells tickets to events, but it manages lift passes and a range of different accomodation options, as well as a variety of ski experiences and equipment hire. “We had to run the whole thing through five different platforms,” he recalled, “which also meant a number of separate transaction fees. They had all that power on their side.” So they came up with a plan. “What if we build and ran all of that, and didn’t charge ridiculous fees but built it around a subscription model with smaller fees? Then creators could customize the journey end to end, and keep the experience all in one place, and invest in their own growth.” (Currently, the pricing model is based on three tiers depending on the level of service, at £5/month, £54/month or £207/month, offering a variety of different features and a commission scale that changes depending on how much you pay per month.)
All this is sufficiently specialized enough, Lisa added, that they didn’t feel it really existed in the complex way that experience creators needed it to. She said they thus refer to the category with a distinct term: “experience commerce.” They left Rise, which became a customer, with other current users including Wanderlust, Ibiza Rocks, Global Cycle Network, Untravelled Paths and Envision Festival.
The returns are what have made the pitch compelling to these companies: Easol claims that for an event with a $2 million turnover, using Easol’s software instead of a mix of third-party tools works out to more than $80,000 of savings annually.
“Easol’s market-leading platform and industry expertise allows clients to imagine and market unique experiences for consumers,” said Evan Feinberg of Tiger Global in a statement. “In the rapidly expanding experience commerce market, we believe Easol is poised to capture outsized growth, and we are excited to partner with Ben, Lisa and the Easol team.”