Company Profile: How DHARMA is turning travel into a passion play for online creators

Company Profile: How DHARMA is turning travel into a passion play for online creators

Start-up's founder Charaf El Mansouri says the future for travel is the passion economy with creators inspiring online tribes to join them on trips with people who share the same interests

What if your favourite yoga teacher was also your travel agent? Or what about the surfer you idolise, or a real-life idol like former Manchester United legend Eric Cantona? 

DHARMA, the start-up experiential travel brand, is introducing a modern spin on the concept of the travel agent by bringing the passion and creator economies together.

It has curated a 60-strong talent base of masters in their fields ranging from sports, wellness and fitness, meditation, and food and wine.

The most famous of these is French former footballer turned actor Cantona who bought onto DHARMA’s idea for Looking FC immersive football trips inspired by the Looking for Eric film directed by Ken Loach.

DHARMA’s Spirited Stories brand is another high-profile collaboration with Pernot Ricard, the parent company of Absolut Vodka, Jameson Irish Whisky and Perrier-Jouët Champagne.

Co-founder and chief executive Charaf El Mansouri said DHARMA’s “core conviction” is that travel increasingly is less about the ‘where’ and more about the ‘what’, and ‘who with’.

“The basis of everything we do is the future of travel is passion led,” he says. “In the past 50 years travel has been geography led - I want to go to Turkey, or India, or Brazil. The future is going to be around passion points close to individuals’ hearts, around travelling with people. 

“Geography is the secondary consideration; it’s no longer whether you go to Bali or Costa Rica, it's more I want to go experience Bali with my favourite yoga teacher. The question we ask is: what if travel wasn't about finding new places, but finding your people?”

Trips inspired by passion - the secular pilgrimage

El Mansouri says the concept is most akin to a “secular pilgrimage”. “Looking at it from a philosophical perspective, our parents’ and grandparents’ generation had three narratives that made up their identities: the national, the religious, and the extended family. 

“I think all three of those narratives have been worn down for our generation where today religion, the nation state or my nationalism, or bonds to my close family, are not as strong as they were to the generation before me and the generation before them. 

“From a philosophical angle it's almost like people have reassigned their identity to their online tribes, their digital communities. So, for us, the benchmark in terms of the travel vertical is religious tourism. Our trips are kind of secular pilgrimages.

“There's two layers to what we do, it’s a B2B2C business. We first need to build the trips, so the first layer of supply is the trips and itineraries, and the second layer of supply is the talent, or the creators, and they generate the demand. 

“If we are able to focus and build the best-in-class solution for the first two layers of supply then we will generate demand. Our hypothesis is passion-based travel is supply driven and if we own the supply we own the demand. 

“The thing about passion travel is it has to be authentic. The minute you start feeling, sounding, or looking like a plastic brand you will lose the talent and you will lose the guests.” 

Cutting cost of acquisition with hyper-personalised trips by design

As the internet becomes more social and democratised thanks to sharing sites like TikTok, there are estimated to be up to 50 million ‘creators’ globally, each of which share content with communities of likeminded people who share a particular interest. 

DHARMA aims to give these experts the online platform to tap into these fandom captive audiences so they can curate hyper-personalised trips without the expense and hassle of becoming a tour operator themselves.

El Mansouri said with OTAs today having to spend up to 35% of their revenue on customer acquisition, this model of “hyper-personalised trips by design” that are relevant to the target audience raises the prospect of no-cost acquisition.

“Clearly this is the future of travel,” he says. “The idea is to say the future travel agent is not a travel agent, it’s a chef, or a surfer, or a yoga teacher and people want to travel with me because I'm not a travel agent. 

“But the last thing I want to do as a chef or yoga teacher is manage guest bookings, travel regulations and payment processing, pandemics and cancellations. For us, there's an arbitrage opportunity.

“When it comes to talent we’re non-judgemental meaning what we like to say is if you give us a strong tribe, give us a captive audience, we'll give you an amazing travel experience and a strong travel brand.

“DHARMA, basically, is a white label tour operator plug-in for non-travel professionals to enable them to very simply create and sell trips to their communities.”

Although based in Abu Dhabi where it joined the Hub 71 incubator during the pandemic in 2020, DHARMA considers the UK it’s “birth country” because this is where it first gained traction with leading Yoga studios.

The firm is pre-Series A, but has raised around $5 million to date and now has around 30 people in its team including senior travel sector experience of partner Dan Christian, former chief marketing officer at Trafalgar Tours and Contiki parent The Travel Corporation. 

Financial backers include Convivialité Ventures, the San Francisco-based VC arm of Pernod Ricard, Sharooq Partners and L& Ventures, a part of Loop Agentur which works on marketing for Puma, Red Bull, and Porsche, and BY Venture Partners of Beirut.

Last year, the firm took 900 people on trips in groups averaging 11.8 people in size and is on track to take advantage of “crazy growth” this year to at least double that by breaking the 2,000 milestone and with 10,000 targeted for 2024.

The average age range of a DHARMA customer is between 30 and 55 to 60 and predominantly female, except for the Cantona football trips. Just over two thirds of bookings (70%) emanate from the US.

By the end of 2023, DHARMA expects to have 100 creators on its books and for that to hit 1,000 by 2025, still only scratching the surface of an addressable global creators market estimated to be between 20 and 50 million.

A new marketplace for passion-based travel 

Its latest initiative which went live this week is to launch a beta version digital marketplace, initially for internal use only, for its trips and experiences that will act as a central hub bringing together its growing portfolio of talent. 

A proposal to “bet the farm” on an “all or nothing” hyper-growth strategy to develop a wider B2C platform to also include non-talent-led trips was scrapped in favour of sticking with DHARMA’s core philosophy. 

El Mansouri said he does not want to be a “pale version of a traditional tour operator” and enter the generic OTA space, competing against brands that have achieved scale by commoditising supply indiscriminately.

“Three weeks ago we got together with our team, with our investors, with the wider stakeholders and said we are on to something, the numbers are clear and clean. Let's just take the time do this right as opposed to doing it fast. 

“The whole game for generic OTAs is having more hosts, more hotels, more experiences. There are specialised OTAs, but you would be hard pressed to find a marketplace that offers curated experiences based on your passion points. 

“For us, being close to the talent and actually creating these experiences from scratch, it became quite clear a marketplace that aggregates all of our curated trips was a natural evolution of our business.

“Until today they’ve kind of existed in isolation on landing pages that are separate from each other. If you go on the DHARMA website today, it’s more scaffolding than a website so the next step was to launch a B2B2C marketplace for passion-based travel.

“As we grow and the marketplace starts to generate its own direct revenue it will becomes an incredibly powerful flywheel part of our business.

“But as a pure direct to consumer concept it would require betting the farm, not only from a marketing spend angle but also hiring, and building for yield management, and we weren't willing to do that when we have such a strong core business.”