The reality of the pandemic, and the impact that it would have on the travel and tourism industry, first struck CrowdRiff CEO Dan Holowack during a summit in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
It was the first week of March; a time when there were only a handful of reported COVID-19 cases in North America, and already a few attendees were canceling their travel plans and dropping out of the event.
“This is Jackson Hole, it's a quiet, beautiful place, and I thought, 'it's rather odd that some speakers within the U.S. aren't traveling,’” says Holowack. “I started to gather that something was happening that could be much bigger than what people were first anticipating.”
Just a few days after returning home to Toronto, borders began closing, flights were grounded and major tech firms announced plans for remote work. The full gravity of the situation began sinking in. Suddenly the future of CrowdRiff—which provides an integrated marketing platform for over 800 destination and attraction organizations around the world—looked uncertain for the first time in the company’s history.
“Some of the destinations that we work with had to furlough or lay off staff, and there were a few stories of customers that weren't even able to pay their utility bills,” says Holowack. “The most painful moment was having to make the terrible choice to reduce our headcount by 30, from 100 to 70 people.”
What could have been the beginning of the end for CrowdRiff and others in the industry, however, offered a unique opportunity for transformation. Though customers were no longer using the platform to attract international visitors, many began using it to respond to the pandemic.
“Since COVID hit we've seen customers using CrowdRiff to feature authentic, real-time, on-the-ground imagery from local people about patios opening up, and safety protocols, and local experiences,” he says. “It’s being used to showcase stories from local small businesses, many of which were struggling at the time.”
Holowack says the company’s customer retention proved more resilient than forecasted as customers began focusing their attention on local-first and community-based strategies. Rather than using CrowdRiff to showcase their destination to long-haul travelers, it was being used to attract local and regional visitors to family-owned businesses and experiences. It’s helping locals rediscover the unique character of their own communities.
“We were hit hard by the pandemic, along with our industry. Most companies would have pulled back and done less,” he says. “We did focus on the health of our core business and products, but innovation is paramount during times of immense change. If anything, R&D accelerated, and our conviction strengthened as we realized the solutions we had under development could play a meaningful role in rebuilding and transforming the travel industry.”
As the pandemic hit, CrowdRiff was already midway through releasing a new product called Story Network. It’s a solution that fosters deep collaboration across the travel industry and leverages a new compelling story-based format. CrowdRiff shared a sneak preview of this solution at their annual SEE event last year. Destination British Columbia was the first customer to adopt the solution and use it to navigate the pandemic. Together with their partners everyone joined together to create and distribute relevant stories like these gorgeous Fall hikes and views, a physically distanced date itinerary, and local brewery hopping with patios.
“The sheer ingenuity of our customers always inspires me,” says Holowack. “Within 30 days of COVID-19 they launched a multi-stage recovery plan to support the industry. That strategy required more coordination with partners to create and deliver stories that not only resonate with locals and visitors in this new climate, but also adapt to local health and safety guidelines as they evolved. This set a compelling example for other destinations around the world.”
One of the other innovations that came out of this period was CrowdRiff’s latest product, Localhood. The idea is based on a reality that has long been acknowledged in the travel and tourism industry, but never adequately addressed. In recent years, discount airlines and accommodations have made travel more accessible and affordable than ever, ushering in an era of unsustainable growth.
The impact of unbalanced and ubiquitous travel was becoming too significant to ignore, there was a growing disdain between locals and visitors, travel experiences were becoming far less authentic, and many of the world’s top destinations were struggling with over-tourism.
“There was an imbalance in this mass tourism that we've been seeing the past couple of decades,” says Holowack. “But now we've paused, and the entire industry is looking around and realizing we can build a new future for tourism from this moment, and I realized CrowdRiff can and must be a meaningful part of that future; one where locals and visitors live in harmony.”
Localhood is a content platform that encourages locals to showcase hidden gems to fellow residents as well as incoming visitors, driving traffic away from the overcrowded hotspots and into more authentic, local experiences.
“We're intentionally building out solutions that foster that connection and harmony, and because we're already industry leaders, we have the channels to put something like this in place, and drive change at a time when the industry is looking for direction,” he says. “It's a huge mission to have, but we can be a catalyst for positive change, in partnership with our customers.”
On July 15th CrowdRiff launched Localhood in Toronto, and within days the new product saw overwhelming demand from over 150 destinations around the world.
“It was extraordinary, but we realized we couldn't bring Localhood to that many cities that quickly; we needed to first learn more about the magic of building this community of people, and made a choice to launch in Toronto, Indianapolis, and Stockton, California,” explains Holowack. “We knew that by starting with a few cities we could maximize what we could learn, and be more successful in launching Localhoods to the hundreds of customers in hundreds of cities that expressed interest.”
The CrowdRiff team, customer Visit Stockton, and some Localhood Creators come together to share new ideas.
Today, only six months after downsizing to secure the future of the business, CrowdRiff is once again in growth mode, seeking candidates for a range of positions—including engineering, product, and design—to support demand for its existing products, as well as its emerging offerings.
“It wasn’t easy. At times it was downright exhausting and emotionally draining, but our team accomplished extraordinary things at a time when our industry needed it most. I’m so proud of them. The feedback and validation from customers and locals have led to an even stronger sense of urgency to surround ourselves with more people who believe in transforming travel and improving the impact it can have on all communities,” says Holowack.
To learn more about the company’s values, culture, mission, and to explore available job opportunities with CrowdRiff, visit crowdriff.com/careers.