Pitchup.com CEO Dan Yates shares how the pandemic affected his company's technology choices — and his observations on how the travel industry has transformed.
While international travel took a nosedive during the COVID-19 pandemic, local outdoor recreation saw an overnight surge in popularity. Given that it's hard to beat the social distancing and solitude of a WiFi-free wilderness, camping became an unexpected winner in the travel industry.
Dan Yates, CEO of UK-based online booking company Pitchup.com, saw this shift firsthand when COVID-induced consumer demand for domestic travel prompted an unprecedented wave of outdoor vacation rental bookings on Pitchup — and pushed the limits of tech stacks like his that make thousands of daily reservations possible.
Pitchup's technology is composed of a well-established Python/Django/Celery-based solution, supporting reservations across more than 5,300 holiday accommodations in its system. This stack is complemented by a new mobile-centric Vue.js front end with improved UX features and robust bug fixes. Pitchup is also about to kick off a migration to Google Cloud that will leverage the platform's autoscaling to meet future demand spikes.
We talked with Dan about other technology changes coming to Pitchup.com, and what the company has planned at a time when international travel remains challenging and camping holidays are experiencing a renaissance the world over.
How did the pandemic's seismic upheaval to the travel industry affect your business?
The first few months of the pandemic were tough: Revenue plummeted to near-zero and thousands of customers canceled or amended their bookings. But then we saw dramatic recovery when lockdowns ended last year — booking volumes soared. On a single day in July, there were a record-setting 6,500 individual bookings and 1.4 million page views. This surge has continued in 2021, with over 1.8 million people around the world planning holidays with Pitchup this year. We also signed up 1,500 new campgrounds in the UK alone in 2021, which was around triple what we signed up before the pandemic.
Did that upheaval expose any gaps in your tech stack?
We always have to budget for our annual peak during the summer months because our traffic can be more than 20 times what it is during winter. We're accustomed to that, but we're not accustomed to it being 40 times higher like it was in 2020, with a booking every few seconds. Every aspect of our infrastructure was pushed to capacity, so we quickly added new servers and memory. With our migration to Google Cloud, we'll ensure the stability and agility needed to cope with increased traffic. It will also significantly reduce our carbon footprint, so customers booking through Pitchup can make more sustainable travel choices from the moment they book.
Does sustainability drive your technology and business decisions?
I always wanted the company to focus on green opportunities within the travel industry because domestic camping doesn't require flying and camping activities tend to be low impact. Plus, grass campsites don't typically require resource-intensive buildings.
People are increasingly opting for outdoor holidays as a more sustainable choice compared to other travel options. We're glad to support that trend, but since IT infrastructure is a big part of our business, it can consume a surprising amount of energy. Our partnership with Cloudreach and Google Cloud helps eliminate much of our infrastructure’s carbon footprint.
Over half of your bookings are made on mobile now. Does that reflect mobile adoption overall or something particular to your customers?
We were already seeing a trend for greater mobile adoption across the board, but the pandemic accelerated that shift. Thirty-two percent of people in the UK are now registered for mobile payment. That trend is reflected in our customers' booking habits, with 59% of bookings over mobile in the last 12 months compared to 54% last year and 50% in 2019. We've designed our new website specifically for mobile, alongside new features such as an improved autocomplete and improved ability to search directly from campsite pages, which we're excited to reveal soon.
Given that you're a UK-based company, what plans do you have in the North American market?
There's no getting around the fact that North America accounts for half of the global camping market. It's also a similar market to the UK in that there's a very high proportion of domestic customers. We think Pitchup has a unique opportunity to bring European customers to the American market, but we need to reach US domestic customers too, which can be a challenge for a UK-based company. Still, our ambition in North America is cross-category — from tent camping to glamping to lodge and cabin accommodations — and we already have a team on the ground. We see a lot of value in our ability to offer something for everyone, whoever you are and whatever kind of experience you're looking for.
You've said before that you're particularly proud of Pitchup's customer satisfaction scores and feedback. What role does tech play in the customer journey?
The most common word in our feedback is "easy." Our goal is to remove complexity from bookings and allow customers to focus on what matters: their camping trip. Our new best-in-class technology will go even further to help users easily unearth suitable accommodation options and book their holiday in just a few clicks.
As an online travel agent, our technology is our product — the better it is, the better our customer experience will be, so we're constantly refining it. With our new Vue.js front end, we've been able to decouple the back and front ends of our technology, which will provide greater flexibility and seamless feature improvements.
You've developed a reputation for supporting small businesses like campsite owners, and much of the revenue Pitchup.com generates has been in rural areas. Is that commitment reflected in decisions you make about your technology?
The rural nature of our business reinforces the need for fast, snappy page load times and, for those who need to stay connected, transparency on the quality of WiFi networks at the campground — which is why we added campsite WiFi ratings to our site almost a decade ago. We always want to be at the forefront of technology developments, and smaller, burgeoning companies are often the drivers of innovation there.
It's been gratifying to see how our business has transformed the lives of both consumers and campground owners. We believe that this year, the customers we have sent to campgrounds around the world have contributed well over £100M in overall tourism spending, most of which is in rural areas. One woman moved back to her family's house in the Lake District, a famous national park in northwest England. They’d been living there since the 12th century, and the campground is what allowed her to return home and still make a living.
People are enjoying what's in their own backyards more, too. We had one customer who originally intended to take his family on holiday overseas, to Barbados, but they enjoyed their farm holiday so much they're going back this year. In the end, that's one of the most interesting phenomena to come out of the pandemic — people are taking more interest and pride in the beautiful experiences they can have near home.
At Vention, we know firsthand how leveraging the latest technology benefits both businesses and their users, so it warmed our hearts to see Pitchup's success seizing the day to bring socially distanced, low-impact, and local travel to the forefront of its industry. We're excited to see where Pitchup's technology updates take it next.