It may be scuba-diving for the first time, or catching a glimpse of a majestic tiger, or even that short trek. There are just a few travel experiences that can be truly memorable and transformative. And, today, travel is not about just visiting a destination, but it is all about immersing oneself in the local culture, food and festivities. It was with this idea in mind that Vikram Ahuja started Byond Travel, an experiences-led travel platform that designs and executes immersive travel journeys in over 50 countries.
In 2011, Vikram Ahuja had a life-changing travel experience in the middle of the Nevada desert, during the Burning Man Festival, a seven-day music and arts festival that brings together over 50,000 people.
Speaking about the experience 32-year-old Vikram says, “It was in the middle of my umpteenth narration to a friend that I realised the power of what travel could be - a transformative, truly immersive experience that creates stories and memories to last forever.”
This experience made him realise that a traveller needs to be exposed to local interactions, cultures, arts, communities, people, food and wine. That was when the idea for immersive and experiences-led travel was seeded.
But the idea to start an immersive travel startup saw stronger validation for the 32 year old during the football 2014 World Cup in Brazil. There were over 5,000 Indians willing to travel all the way to take in the experience.
“In doing some research, I realised that there was almost no one offering an outlet for these travellers seeking new-age experiences, and that's when Byond Travel was born, with a mission to take travellers beyond destinations and immerse them in local cultures,” adds Vikram.
Hailing from a Navy background, Vikram had the opportunity to travel across different parts of the country. He finished his university in Bengaluru and started work as a technology developer with a boutique consulting firm called Thoughtworks. After this he went to business school in Spain and went ahead to work in Barcelona, Madrid, Los Angeles, The Hague and San Francisco pursuing strategy and management consulting.
A friend then approached Vikram to move to Dubai to join an early-stage startup, and they grew it to be the largest daily deals company in the Middle East. After that company was acquired in 2013, Vikram co-founded a travel startup, which he exited a year later to move back to Bengaluru.
It was in 2014 that he began working on Byond Travel. The travels are all built in close consultation with local partners so as to ensure that the travellers get to interact with local cultures. The team also works with special interest groups to serve specific communities with small group travels - including women-only travel, self-drive adventures, biking getaways, health, yoga vacations and much more.
Experiential travellers are at over 200 million in number globally. This has created a need for more immersive and deeper travels. However, it is not easy today to discover and plan travel experiences around the world using one platform. The segment is fast picking up with several players venturing into the experiential travel segment.
While the bigger players like MakeMyTrip and ClearTrip create packages for activities, there are other players like WeNomads, Adventure365, Thrillophilia and even TripHobo that create itineraries for travellers to do different things. Byond Travel works along the problem in different ways.
The team claims their products are created with an idea of providing local experience beyond regular sightseeing. These could be everything from doing the India-to-Bangkok road-trip, watching the Northern Lights in Iceland, or doing yoga in Ladakh.
The team also actively builds an engaged community of travellers who come together over their shared passion or interest. These include Lime Diaries, a speaker series for travel stories, pop-up dinners and travel clubs, which meet once a month to discuss travel. Some of the speakers of past Lime Diaries events include Suhel Seth, Vasundhara Das and Mahesh Murthy.
Byond Travel has tied up with several partners that run one of India’s leading inbound luxury travel management companies to help the team with on-ground and operational details of executing travels in over 50 countries around the world.
In this year alone the team has organised groups to places like Egypt, Bhutan, Vietnam and Cambodia, Greece and has even begun registrations for the Hornbill Festival later in the year in Nagaland. They are also partnering with one of India's leading yoga schools to take 50 people to Ladakh on a yoga retreat.
“In addition, we are also making big progress in bringing virtual and augmented reality, including creating immersive experiences, and allowing our customers to virtually experience destinations much before they even go there. We have managed to build some strong partnerships with a few tourism boards globally to build and roll out this content and we hope to become the first travel company in India to make rapid progress in this space,” adds Vikram.
Last year, the team mapped over 150 experiences in 50 countries and began working with over 500 suppliers. Many of these experiences have been a first in the Indian (and sometimes global) market. “We have seen a 100-percent growth in the last year alone and our multiple forms of content have crossed 10 million impressions,” says Vikram.
He adds that the team’s focus on using storytelling and digital content to drive awareness has allowed them to work closely with multiple tourism boards including Jordan, Thailand, Peru, Taiwan, Yas Island and much more. They also partnered with the government of Daman & Diu to run the 'Festa De Diu', Asia's largest beach festival earlier in the year. Earlier this month, the team also partnered with the Times Group for the Times Women's Drive.
Byond Travel is a member of Kyron's Innovation Labs. The team is currently bootstrapped and will be looking to raise funds in the second half of the year.
The team is strongly focussed on building India's largest portfolio of experience-led travel journeys. “We also look forward to announcing some big partnerships with premium and lifestyle brands which will allow us to reach a much wider audience,” adds Vikram.