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Building with empathy: How sherpa° helped guide an industry through a time of crisis

Virtually no industry was left untouched by those chaotic, early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the travel industry stood out in the scale of the disruption it faced. Flights were grounded, borders were closing by the day, travel restrictions were becoming more complex by the hour, and booking flights was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

It was an unprecedented time, one in which sherpa°, like so many other travel technology companies, stared into the future and wondered what lay ahead. 

At sherpa° we’re obsessed with the problem we’re solving, not the solution we offer. And as a company dedicated to reducing the barriers to global travel, we certainly had a monumental problem on our hands. 

Keeping that problem squarely in our focus, we got together as a team (over Zoom, of course) and come up with a product that met the needs of the moment. Within nine months, we had built and launched our Travel Requirements product, which we have now sold to more than 200 airlines, travel companies and corporates. All the while, we tried to lead with empathy for what our clients and our industry were going through, stay bold in our vision, and take the riskier path forward.

This is the story of how it all happened.

‘The air went out of the room’

The year before COVID hit was something of a banner year for sherpa°. In 2019, we launched our eVisa product, and saw airlines come on board right away, helping travelers obtain visas and make the border crossing process easier. Then the lockdowns hit and all the air went out of the room. We figured, we’re a border crossing company and no one’s crossing borders—what do we do?

The way we saw it, we had two options. 

One was to go into “nuclear fallout mode” and just wait for the storm to pass, hoping there’d be a company left on the other side. The other option was to seize an opportunity to build something new, using our existing expertise in a new and innovative way—and to adopt a new business model in order to survive a protracted period of little to no international travel.  

The first step was talking to our existing partners and clients to figure out what they were going through. What concerns and challenges were coming up internally? What problems needed solving first? Right away, the fast-changing and chaotic information landscape concerning border closings and restrictions came up. Not only did airlines and the broader travel industry not know how to effectively communicate these rapid changes to their customers, but in many cases, they didn’t even know whether they were allowed to sell flights from one destination to another. And if they did, whether those passengers would be allowed to enter the country upon arrival.

So knowing that the original transactional model of facilitating eVisa applications for airlines and travel providers was not a priority for the time being, we looked towards building a SaaS product instead. Fortunately, we were in this unique position where we had expertise in this area. We just needed to change our products to fit a changing environment. 

While sherpa° always offered information on what a traveler needed to cross a border, that information had now gone from a couple lines (for example, “Your passport needs to be valid for six months from the date of departure”) to a page or more of complex health information and travel guidelines. In addition, sherpa° had previously acted as a third party to the airline or travel company and the traveler themselves. With an enterprise software product, we could offer our expertise and information database directly to airlines, enabling them to build a new ancillary revenue stream.

And so, with some tweaking on the back-end and a heroic effort by our engineering, product, design and sales teams, the Travel Restrictions product was born: A tool for airlines and travel industry partners to add to their websites and apps, allowing passengers to see exactly what pandemic-related requirements they needed to be aware of before embarking on their flight. All with the hope of making the daunting process of international travel during a pandemic a little less overwhelming.  

Focus on the problem

Every founder has a moment in mind—that moment when you know you’ve achieved a major milestone and inflection point for your company. For us, that had always been seeing a carrier like American Airlines use one of sherpa’s products. Turns out, the catalyst for that to happen was a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. In March of 2020 we were wondering: Is our company going to exist a year from now? And by July of 2020 American Airlines were using our new product—it was that quick. It was a huge moment for us.

Other metrics of success for the Travel Restrictions product speak for themselves. In addition to bringing more than 200 partners on board to date, API calls increased from a quarter of a billion in 2020 to four billion in 2021. But when reflecting on why this product has been such a success, it’s not really because of the product at all. It’s because of our relentless focus on the problem our market faces. 

When we first built sherpa°, what we were excited about was solving border crossings, not building widgets or apps. This period really proved that we earnestly cared about this problem, because it didn’t matter what our solution looked like. Our problem was changing, and so our solution changed as well.

At sherpa° we’re passionate about freedom of movement. Our mission is to help travellers move freely around the world and to shift the way the world's leading travel providers approach border crossings. Through unmatched industry knowledge and expertise, we help our partners—from airlines to cruise lines to online travel agencies—open new ancillary revenue streams to help them reduce costs and operational risk while enhancing the customer journey and growing consumer confidence in travel.

More than simply providing a product or service, we're moving travel forward. Away from stress and confusion, and towards ease and connection. So travellers can move freely wherever life takes them. This is the future of international travel. Contact us today to find out how our suite of solutions can help grow your business.

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