FTLO Travel–a travel company for millennials
Today LA Style interviews Tara Cappel, the founder and CEO of one of the fastest-growing travel companies in the United States for millennial travel. Her company, FTLO Travel, hosts group trips for solo travelers in their 20s and 30s who are looking to connect.
Interview questions by Ellen Yin of Cubicle to CEO, an online membership teaching women how to monetize their passions and build a profitable business.
EY: Tell us about your passion for your company and how it began?
On the surface, FTLO Travel is a company that makes it easier for solo travelers in their 20s and 30s to meet new people and experience another culture. On a macro level, the mission of FTLO is to promote cross-cultural understanding and encourage human connection. Travel is amazing at broadening people’s perspectives by providing context about the world through actual experience. For many people who aren’t used to traveling, diving headfirst into the unknown can be so daunting that they might never go. That’s where FTLO comes in.
We’ve reimagined “group tours” as a way to make new friends and explore a new place in a “slower,” more curated way. We run mostly single country trips and deliberately design the itinerary to dive deeper into the places we visit, including vetted activities that reflect the unique nature of the place we’re in. We’re a huge supporter of “slow travel” and taking the time to experience rather than just see.
I am a huge believer in the goals of diplomacy and I’m passionate about helping people understand we’re more alike than different. Travel is a great way to prompt people to rethink the “us and them” mentality that can develop when you stay in your bubble for too long, which is something our world definitely needs right now. For me, FTLO is my small, grassroots way of bringing the world together by facilitating the connectedness of its individuals. It’s a lofty goal but definitely my true north when the going gets tough.
EY: Was this always a passion?
Yes, I’ve been pretty nerdy about this since I was a kid. I grew up in a small town in Idaho but was fortunate that travel was important to my parents. By the time I was 16, I had been to over a dozen countries and participated in a year-long foreign exchange program in Italy. In highschool, I started a Model UN Club (one of two in the state at the time) and then went to Tufts to study international relations with the intention of becoming a diplomat.
I speak four languages and am currently learning my 5th (Norwegian, don’t ask). I even wrote my college admissions essay on how I love big airports because they are like microcosms of the world, with people from all nationalities and backgrounds together in one place. I still geek out over the travel conferences we go to because you truly have people from all over the world sitting side by side!
EY: Prior to founding FTLO, what was your professional background in? Was FTLO a passion project that grew into a full-time business, or did you jump in with both feet as an entrepreneur?
Out of college, I actually went into fashion (something I also love) — first working in the buying offices at Neiman Marcus and then running operations for a textile manufacturing startup. My only tourism experience was a gap year I spent selling walking tours outside of the Colosseum in Rome when I was 20!
I quit my job a month before launching FTLO, which was, in retrospect, not the best idea and definitely not something I recommend. I was pretty naive about how quickly FTLO would catch on and could have used the income while I was figuring everything out.
That said, it meant I had the ability to work endless 14-hour days, which helped make up for not having a co-founder.
EY: How do you curate and develop the travel itineraries for your trips? For example, was it largely based on personal travel experiences, do you hire travel experts or influencers to research these trips, or have they been crowdsourced over time from customer feedback?
While the first couple of itineraries were largely based on my own experiences, we now use a myriad of ways to plan new trips. It usually starts with listening to where our travelers tell us they want to go. From there, we start reaching out to our network for recommendations and begin hours and hours of research. It’s also worth noting that when we tell people what we do, they often share their favorite travel experiences to under-the-radar places, so we have an absolute goldmine of insider tips to pull from for many places.
After we have an itinerary we’re happy with, we do a scouting trip to vet everything. This is such a key part because it’s when we find out about the really amazing details that are almost impossible to find through internet research – like the sommelier training bar in Bordeaux with $6 glasses of Grand Cru or the floating sauna in Oslo’s fjord or the back alley salsa club in Colombia.
This can even prompt us to change the locations on the trip. For example, we started running trips to Paros, Greece before most Americans had heard of it because when I did the scouting trip, my taxi driver described it as Mykonos 10 years ago. Once the scouting is done and we begin running trips, we continue to refine the itinerary based on alumni feedback.
EY: Tell us about your mission to promote “sustainable, slow travel.” What are the impacts of fast vs. slow tourism on local communities, and why is this important to you?
Because I grew up in a mountain town largely dependent on tourism, I’ve been passively observing the economic impact it has on a community for most of my life. Beyond the personal connection, there are many reasons I think “slow,” sustainable travel is an important focus.
Independently-owned businesses are born from the DNA of a region. They reflect the culture, provide variety, and, at the end of the day, make a place worth traveling to. It’s important to preserve that by making sure that visitors’ dollars stay in the community and help support the people who make it so special in the first place. People who sprint along the tourist track, stay in chain hotels, snap some photos, and leave are depriving themselves of a richer experience and denying the locals of income needed to maintain their livelihoods and the magic of those places.
EY: What strategies were most effective in helping your company scale to multi-millions? What is a mistake you’ve made that you can help other entrepreneurs learn from?
I tried so many different things, each time thinking it would be the key to unlocking an avalanche of consumer demand. Eventually, I realized that building a successful company is more like chess than bowling – it is the sum of thousands of strategic moves and countermoves and the appropriate strategy is dictated by the nuances of your market, customer, etc. That said, some overarching advice I have based on mistakes I’ve made, is this:
- Do small tests before making large commitments. Early on, we spent a lot of time and money on a brand partnership we thought was going to be a silver bullet. It turned out to be a huge flop and it would have hurt a lot less if we’d tested the waters first.
- Start early. Get a pre-launch landing page up and begin collecting emails the minute you buy a domain.
- A sale is not a sale until you have been paid.
- When it comes to hiring, attitude trumps experience.
- The business should be a mutually beneficial relationship. Don’t be afraid to cut ties with clients who are more trouble than they’re worth.
- People tend to forget things – get everything in writing and get it signed.
EY: How has being female in the travel industry impacted your business success? Did you feel you had to prove yourself or overcome?
The travel industry is still an old-school entity that is heavily male-dominated. That said, if being female has held me back, I haven’t noticed. When I started FTLO, I was 26 and had almost no formal work experience in travel. I felt I had more to prove on those two levels than on a gender level. In terms of building a travel company, I actually think leading with traditionally “female” character traits like empathy and humility is an advantage. Most cultures are not as matter-of-fact in business as the United States and the beating heart of the tourism industry is mom-and-pop-shops who care more about character than contracts.
EY: What’s your vision for FTLO? Do you hope to expand your offerings to serve a different subset of the same age group (for example, romantic getaways that are more focused on private escapes for couples rather than group experiences with new friends?) Where do you see FTLO Travel in five years? Ten years?
I see travelers really looking for a trusted brand that understands their needs and cuts through the noise for them. FTLO is that brand for the 25-39-year-old looking to meet new people and expand their world through amazing experiences. In five or ten years, whatever opportunity there is to be that trusted partner for our community, you can expect we’ll be there.
EY: What does being a CEO mean to you?
I believe that business exists to serve people, not the other way around. To me, being the CEO means making sure that we’re doing our best to benefit all of the stakeholders impacted by the decisions we make as a company – including our travelers, team members, local suppliers, the communities we enter.