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Start-Up Success: How Two Inspired Entrepreneurs Built A Travel Business In A Pandemic

Discover how travel veterans, Alexis Bowen and Craig Zapataka, successfully built and launched a travel business in a pandemic with help from Canva.

Colleagues and travel veterans, Alexis Bowen, and Craig Zapatka, lost their jobs overnight(opens in a new tab or window) as a result of the pandemic. With close to 20 years of experience in the travel industry between them, Alexis and Craig had witnessed the changing face of travel and identified an opportunity to create their own business.

“It was a rough time, and no one knew whether the travel industry would ever be the same,” Alexis tells Canva(opens in a new tab or window).

Both without work amid a global pandemic, Alexis, a San Francisco native, and Craig, from Savannah, could not have imagined a new chapter as owners of their own travel business lay ahead.

Alexis Bowen and Craig Zapatka are the co-founders of Elsewhere

Launching A Travel Company In A Pandemic

Over the years working together, Alexis and Craig witnessed the changing state of travel and how local communities and businesses were being overlooked by some of the bigger travel agencies.

Their new business idea vowed to change that and create a more sustainable model of tourism, one that benefits travelers and the destinations they visit.

“It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but to me and Craig it was a chance to shape the future of travel.”

“We had this amazing network of in-destination agencies that were suddenly out of work and asking us for help. The two of us realized that now was the perfect moment to start something new and build a modern brand with a sustainably-driven purpose-built into its foundations,” Alexis said.

Together, the duo co-founded Elsewhere(opens in a new tab or window) in the fall of 2020, creating a sustainably-driven travel booking platform that connects travelers with local on-the ground experts to create bespoke trips of a lifetime.

Elsewhere prides itself on offering travelers wildly unique experiences and positive impact trips, all built on local insight.

The Elsewhere point of difference? The company ensures the bulk of those tourism dollars stay in the destination, uplifting local communities with access to long-term, locally based income, whilst offsetting the carbon footprint of each trip.

“We’re focusing on making travel a force-for-good, while creating unforgettable experiences for travelers,” Alexis said. “Our goal is to mainstream travel better – travel that is more ethical, more sustainable, and more responsible, and to provide incredible trips to incredible destinations.”

Building A Brand With Canva

Elsewhere officially launched to the public in April 2021 as a self funded travel start-up. Alexis and Craig poured their life savings into building their new business from the ground up with no marketing budget.

That meant taking control of their outgoings and utilizing tools that would deliver maximum results with minimum spend and resources.

Canva(opens in a new tab or window) became the design platform that allowed Alexis and Craig to bring the Elsewhere brand to life, creating social media templates such as Instagram Reels(opens in a new tab or window) and Videos(opens in a new tab or window) that “took off”.

“We started building out our concept and brand, put a heavy focus on photos and videos, and a clean tech-aesthetic,” Alexis said.

“We didn’t have a lot of resources so we started to create awareness through social media, designing posts and [Instagram] stories. Everything was built on Canva. Canva allowed us to create a modern and beautiful brand on a shoestring and with no design background.”

Social Media As A Brand-Building Tool

The boot-strapped launch strategy worked. Within two months of going live with Elsewhere, at a time when parts of the world were still battling lockdowns and COVID complications, Alexis and Craig sold enough trips to cover their operating costs and have been profitable ever since.

“Our social networks exploded(opens in a new tab or window). Within four months we had 12,000 followers and we've received hundreds of trip requests per month. Social media was an incredibly important tool for us because it meant we could reach a wide audience with no marketing spend,” Alexis said.

Elsewhere’s entire brand and business strategy is focused on targeting travel-loving millennials, many of whom are active social media users. To date, 66 percent of Elsewhere trips are booked by millennials.

“Millennials are a generation we know and understand, and they are also a generation that values travel, particularly international travel,” Alexis said.

Elsewhere’s research shows that millennials take 2.6 international trips per year, prioritize traveling “like a local”, and prefer to travel with a provider that shows environmental responsibility.

“We knew this target audience would be easily reached via social media and our strategy worked,” she notes.

Running A Global Travel Company With Ease

As Alexis and Craig approach their one-year business anniversary, the Elsewhere success story is just getting started. The company has been on an upward trajectory since day one and was recently acquired by Lonely Planet. “We have ambitions to grow Elsewhere, while still retaining our heart,” Alexis said.

With their eyes set on the future and building out their team, the founders can be anywhere in the world for work, often dividing their time between Europe and the United States.

Canva as a visual communications tool allows the duo to stay connected and operate more efficiently. “As a scrappy start-up, I only have two devices: my laptop and my phone. And I can use Canva to work with my team wherever I am. We can collaborate, view and save our designs in real time while being on opposite sides of the world,” Alexis said.

Alexis’s Advice For Aspiring Entrepreneurs Building A Business

Be scrappy

“Keep operating costs as low as possible and reinvest everything back into your business. Being scrappy means being creative and utilizing every means possible to build your business and get ahead.”

Persistence is key

“There are always setbacks, but don’t lose your fire. Any action is progress.”

Listen to your customers

“You may not want to hear the feedback, but it is always valuable.”

Ask ‘What are we not doing?’

“The focus is often on our to-do list and what needs to be done. The more important question is to ask ‘What are we not doing?’. Step back from the everyday to-do list and look at the bigger picture.”

The Elsewhere team feature in Canva's 'What will you design today(opens in a new tab or window)?' campaign.