Travel has undoubtedly been one of the industries hardest hit in the coronavirus pandemic, constrained by restrictions on how people can move between and within countries, many venues closing, new rules to minimise gatherings, shrinking economies, and a general reluctance among consumers to engage in getting out and about. One startup in the space has been acquired in the wake of that.
IfOnly — an “experiences” marketplace based around access to exclusive, and often expensive, events and people, with a portion of the proceeds that a guest pays for the experience going towards good causes — was quietly acquired and shut down by credit giant Mastercard for an undisclosed sum. Mastercard told TechCrunch that it has folded the tech and team into Priceless — its own experiences marketplace — after initially leading a strategic investment in the company in 2018.
“At the end of last year, IfOnly, whose technology helps to power Priceless.com, became part of the Mastercard family, bringing their expertise and know-how in-house,” a spokesperson said. “The IfOnly platform will continue to help advance our Priceless strategy and our combined team will be even better positioned and equipped to deliver exclusive experiences for cardholders globally.”
IfOnly had been founded and previously led by Trevor Traina, a businessman, member of one of the wealthiest families in the US, and a well-connected Trump supporter. Traina eventually left the role of CEO when Trump appointed him ambassador to Austria in 2018. He was replaced by John Boris, who had been the CMO of Shutterfly. He still lists the CEO role of IfOnly as his current gig.
Mastercard had been just one of IfOnly's big strategic investors; others were Hyatt Hotels, Sotheby's and American Express, while financial backers investors included the likes of Founders Fund, NEA and Khosla. Together, investors had collectively put nearly $50 million into the startup. IfOnly was last valued at about $105 million, according to PitchBook data.
While Mastercard said that it had acquired the company at the beginning of the year, it turned out to be a soft landing for the startup, given the global turn of events and how it has impacted the travel industry.
It was only in July of this year that IfOnly had posted a notice on its site announcing the closure and acquisition. (A reader tipped us on the development last week.)
But before that, IfOnly's business had ground to a halt in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the archived pages of the site (via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine) the company announced months ago that it would be pausing the availability of its experiences “due to the COVID-19 situation”, saying it would update as it learned more.
The sale (and closure) puts an end to a startup that began life with exclusive experiences that appeared to be aimed squarely at the one percent. One offer (on an archived page) for example offered “a family weekend feasting in Florence, Italy” starting at €62,851 (about $74,000) for four people, and tours of the Champagne region in France.
But the startup appeared to want to widen that out. Another offer included a session with the founders of “Goat Yoga” in Las Vegas for a private feeding and yoga session with baby goats (yes, this is a thing), starting at about $33 per person, depending on group numbers and presumably the number of goats and other parameters. Each experience was tied to a particular charity that would benefit from the purchase.
It also looks like IfOnly had also expanded into single, virtual experiences and those that could be bid on, both directly on its site and in partnership with auctioneers Sotheby's. These included having customised voicemails created by Susan Sarandon, or bidding on a lunch with Mary Kay Place.
But the writing may have been on the wall, with the startup not formulating any kind of “plan B” on its site in the wake of the global health pandemic. Others that have built businesses around experiences — visiting places, going on tours, meeting famous people and doing other things to engage people in something new either close to home or further afield — have had to completely rethink their approach.
Airbnb — which had moved aggressively into experiences some years ago to complement and expand its accommodation booking platform — in April launched Airbnb Online Experiences, offering virtual tours and other video-based engagements to users.
GetYourGuide, the very well-capitalised Berlin-based startup offering unique tours and other travel-based experiences, has brought in pay cuts and reassessed its business model essentially around the idea of writing off 2020 (that is, assuming no one books for this year), in hopes of a turnaround in the longer term.
Meanwhile, Klook resorted to cutting staff. And yet others like Omaze — which like IfOnly also ties in its experiences with raising money for charity — are still raising money and operating, albeit currently needing to delay some of the experiences they're selling.
For Mastercard, the Priceless platform is part of the company's wider efforts to expand its business beyond basic card services. (That's something that has seen companies like Mastercard, Visa and Amex expand into services for businesses, too, such as Mastercard's purchase of B2B payments company Nets, and Amex's purchase of SMB loans platform Kabbage.) Services like Priceless also help Mastercard create more brand loyalty with its customers, and to potentially make better revenues per user through more direct retailing.
As with other experience purveyors like Airbnb, it seems like the Priceless offerings have moved into the completely virtual sphere, selling people a chance to meet sports celebrities online, go backstage at famous theatres, and learn how to mix drinks with well-known mixologists. These may now be powered by IfOnly, but only in part: the option to give to charities doesn't appear to have carried over with the deal.