The exuberantly named S-Trip! sells travel tours to the Canadian youth market. The "S" stands for Student. But to hear President Alexander Handa talk about growing and promoting his business, it could just as easily stand for Story.
"We're not actually trading in a hard currency or hard product," he says. "We're really built on telling stories. We need passengers to come back and tell their friends."
As a tour operator that includes everything from the moment a student leaves Canada until the moment he or she returns, S-Trip! is a service business that creates experiences. The narrative starts in the sales department.
"Our sales process is very much focused on building the right expectations," explains Alexander. "There's a lot that needs to get communicated with the passenger, so it's not just sort of fluffy, 'Don't worry, it will be an experience.'"
100 full-time employees and 500 tour guides work part-time at S-Trip! Alexander says the challenge is making sure everyone is on the same page. Staff members go through extensive training, including role-playing, to ensure the client has a consistent experience every time. "Everybody needs to believe in the same values and culture, so when the student comes home, he says, 'Wow, that was even better than the first story I was told about the trip.'"
That story - explaining the aspects of a tour with infectious enthusiasm - is top of mind for Alexander's recruiters. There's no shortage of applicants — about 5000 last year alone. S-Trip! doesn't look for people with traditional sales backgrounds. Candidates who have moved large volumes of cars off the lot or jeans off the shelves don't necessarily have the right skills.
"The people who do well selling for us are the people that can really tell a story about how travel is important and why they themselves love travel," he says. "It's a much easier way to infect people. Rather than having a sales person who's very good at closing the deal, getting a signature, getting a cheque payment."
Alex Handa, President
And the story has been working. Alexander has never used traditional marketing to promote S-Trip! — no TV campaigns or radio. It's all word of mouth. Originally a division of his parents' company, Handa Travel, S-Trip! launched in 2006. In the next six years, revenues grew from $600,000 to $22 million. Gradually, the student trips for high school graduation and college spring break expanded to surf camps, snowboarding adventures, language schools and volunteering sojourns. Besides targeting Canadian youth, the company also offers tours for students in the United States, Australia and the Dominican Republic.
According to Alexander, youth and student travel represent about 25% of global travel spending. But no company catering to that market segment is a household name. "When I ask people to tell me a youth and student travel brand they know of, there aren't many that are able to name a dominant player."
Alexander plans to keep expanding into new countries. He predicts the industry will keep growing as more young people in developing nations have the ability to travel. And, judging by his company's rapid growth so far, it appears the S-Trip! story will translate just fine.
by YouInc Columnist Tiffany Burns