Running big-ticket events takes a lot of brain power. Aside from the project management of line-ups, shows and moments offered to attendees, there’s things like accommodation, transportation and food to think about, as well as security, health, safety and, for some, ski safaris.
That was the case for husband-and-wife duo Ben and Lisa Simpson, founders of the Rise snowsports and music festival in The Alps. After years of impressive growth – the festival is now one of the largest of its kind in Europe – a complicated booking structure began to really slow down their expansion. The couple quickly found that the sheer number of elements that went into putting on an event of this scale (package travel, corporate bookings, luxury ski chalets, etc) meant their business was stretched across multiple different online platforms.
‘It became incredibly complex in a really short space of time and turned into a bit of a beast,’ Ben says. ‘We were using a front-end WordPress website. We had a booking platform for the event part of the experience; we had an accommodation platform, a transport platform; we used something totally different for groups and, again, something totally different for packages. So growth went from doubling to really slowing down. And all of our time went into stitching data together, trying to make sure that when people spend $1,000+ with us, we delivered them an amazing holiday. And it became totally untenable.’
Not only was it hard for the company to get the customer insights it needed, it was also really pricey. Third-party booking platforms couldn’t provide the sort of personal service to customers that Ben and Lisa wanted, all the while keeping hold of customers’ money until after the festival, which massively restricted cash flow. And customers, fed up with a complex purchasing process online that meant signing up to multiple platforms and terms and conditions, started to look elsewhere to places like Airbnb and Booking.com for places to stay. ‘That was one of our primary sources of revenue,’ Ben says.
So, after a year of looking at different solutions, the couple decided to build a platform of their own. ‘What we quickly landed on was this idea of a platform that was genuinely creator-first. That allowed us to flip things entirely on its head and say: well, it makes no sense that you have to manage all of these things in different places – what if you had one website that was absolutely built for selling experiences first?’
The result was Easol – an all-in-one 'experience commerce' platform. Launched in 2017, it has grown from being primarily for themselves to becoming a software-as-a-service offering. The team describes the service as 'e-commerce redesigned specially for selling experiences': it provides a front-end website, a booking and management system and a payment stack, giving customers the option – like in travel – to pay a deposit and instalments. Easol also lets experience organisers (or ‘creators’) get paid instantly from sales and charge their own booking fees, and gives them access to customer data so they can market their experiences how they want.
After an impressive start, and a significant funding round – raising $4.5 million in seed money early this year – Easol’s founders say they’re seeing huge amounts of post-Covid activity. ‘The past three months have been the largest in terms of volume of bookings and processing from pretty much everybody on the platform. We've seen incredible pent-up demand,’ Ben says.
While the demand for festivals is very high and seemingly gets a lot of the limelight in the press, Ben says they’re seeing demand ‘across the board’, but particularly in fitness. ‘Combining fitness with community and music is an amazing emerging trend pioneered by brands like Wanderlust, the global yoga brand, through to people like Soul Circus, a yoga festival in the Cotswolds [UK].’
The couple have ‘the most FOMO-building job in the world’, according to Lisa, and their favourite part is being a part of these events and getting out there to meet inspiring people. ‘Essentially they're building businesses from their passions. Like these doctors, Josh and Kristine, who took their passion for surfing and developed these amazing surf therapy retreats in Morocco to help people overcome trauma. Or people like Theo, a super-passionate trail runner who used to run corporate conferences for an energy firm, then started the Love Trails festival, which organises trail-running events in the UK and ultra-marathons in the Faroe Islands.’
According to Ben, most creators that use the Easol platform have an unconventional background. ‘They're always incredibly capable people, MBAs from Harvard, or leaving Goldman Sachs after 10 years and saying, “Actually, that's just not what I want to do with my life. I'm really passionate about this thing and I want to share it with other people.”’ He adds: ‘The past year made people realise that they need more real-life experiences, that they are in an incredibly privileged generation and have this ability to travel at will, to come together and build communities.’
Running a business full time can be pretty full on, with little chance for downtime, but as things open up the couple say they’ve set themselves a task of signing up to one experience a month. ‘I foolishly signed up for a half-marathon trail run, which has 25,000ft of climbing, as a non-runner. It’s at the end of May in the Lake District [UK] with a company called Trail Pursuit,’ says Ben. ‘I'm on the cusp of signing up for a trip to Kenya with a guy called Mantas who runs a company called SurfYogaBeer. He runs the most amazing set of fitness retreats around the world.’
Lisa says she’s looking to get out to Kenya as well, ‘with this amazing creator called Kat, a pilates instructor, who's set up these experiences called Rewilding – it's part pilates retreat, part safari.’