Kris Naudts: the man fusing tech and storytelling to reinvent travel

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Kris Naudts, CEO of Culture Trip
Kris Naudts, CEO of Culture Trip

Kris Naudts built Culture Trip, the fastest growing travel media company in Europe. Along the way, Kris scored $100m in funding, a reach of 18 million people per month, and expanded the Culture Trip team from 15 to 300 people.

Kris spoke to BLM about his medical background, how he manages a global team, and how Culture Trip cracked the online content model.

Can you tell BLM a bit about your background?

I trained as a medical doctor and psychiatrist in Belgium and began my career in academic psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. Later, I was a medical director at a private psychiatric hospital. My focus was on neuroscience and genetics. I enjoyed the profession; my satisfaction really came from the understanding and fixing elements of my work. Which is ultimately what psychiatry is; you are understanding, and then fixing something that is broken.

What drove you to leave neuroscience to start a business? Had you started a business before?

I think I was always an entrepreneur who happened to be a psychiatrist rather than a psychiatrist who became an entrepreneur. Psychiatry is about helping people, about deepening understanding, and while I enjoyed my field and was interested in having the chance to improve people’s lives, in the field of research, things can move quite slowly. The pace of change in academic psychiatry didn’t suit my entrepreneurial temperament.

The urge to build and create something led me away from psychiatry and into the world of storytelling. In 2011, I decided to put my passion for culture, creativity and technology to use and I founded Culture Trip.

What gave you the idea for Culture Trip?

I was standing in front of a bookshelf in my West Indian friend’s apartment. Despite being an avid book reader, I hardly recognised any of the authors or titles in my friend’s collection. And I was genuinely perplexed.

I couldn’t get my head around how this library of ideas and culture could have passed me by and wondered if the explanation was simply that we came from different backgrounds.

Out of this experience came the gem of an idea – what if there was a place people could go to before they travelled somewhere new to find books or films from local writers and directors? The collection would deliver diverse perspectives from across the globe, and could help people feel more connected to the world around them.

Eventually, I left the medical practice to pursue this idea, and that is how Culture Trip was born.

What is your vision for the company? How would you characterize the brand?

My vision comes back to our mission – to help people experience what is special and unique about places, people and cultures all over the world. I want to scale the company to the extent that when you search for any experience within a city, Culture Trip pops up on your screen. The goal is for Culture Trip to become synonymous with cities, travel and obviously, culture.

We offer highly creative, localised content – but then we connect that travel inspiration with the ‘how to’, at a global scale. We take people from that initial ‘wow’ moment all the way through to making a plan and, eventually, a booking. Culture Trip stands out from the rest by literally doing this for every phase of the so-called travel funnel and on a more curated basis than other players.

Planning a trip is hard and a disjointed experience requiring using multiple, different websites. Planning a trip should be easy and fun, but nobody successfully, comprehensively built an online alternative to the traditional high street travel agent. To make sure they’ll have that memorable experience, or find an amazing local restaurant, people turn to the players out there that can provide the inspiration and local recommendations they’re looking for.

This is where Culture Trip comes in. The benefit of how we operate is also that we are not just limited to travel – our aim is to inspire people to learn more and do more everywhere, whether they’re discovering something amazing down the road from where they live, or thousands of miles away.

Culture Trip’s content is free to access. What are your primary sources of revenue? Are you looking to expand into any new channels?

We have created a model capable of cracking two great challenges relating to content online. The first is finding a way to generate quality, creative content consistently and at a mass scale, and the second is driving and attributing direct commercial value as users consume that content.

We already monetise in a number of ways, through branded content partnerships with the likes of British Airways, American Express and a number of tourism boards, and also through our affiliate marketing programme. Furthermore, we’re also planning to launch our OTA later this year, enabling people to book directly within the Culture Trip website. Our series B funding round in April 2018 means we have been able to hire great talent, including Andy Washington, former MD of Expedia, who is leading our bookable travel strategy.

Culture Trip uses tech to set itself apart from traditional travel websites. Could you explain some of those innovations? Are there any new ones in the pipeline?

We have a global community of more than 300 local contributors, that we heavily invest in, to ensure we’re giving our audience the first-rate video, photography, illustration, animation and editorial they crave. We’re using creativity and storytelling to inspire people to get out and do things.

This community publish hundreds of pieces of original content every month, consisting of written articles, photography, videography, illustration and animation, covering the best of local culture around the world.

In order to do this efficiently and effectively, we are using technology and AI to help guide, and in some instances, automate parts of our commissioning process. We have built something we called the ‘demand dashboard’ which allows us to measure the demand for various types of content across locations, and balance this with the supply by looking at the content we already have. We can spot the gaps, the overlaps, and the opportunities.

We offer content at every stage of the travel cycle – from inspiration to planning and booking – as well as a wishlist functionality to allow people to bookmark the stories they are interested in.

We’re doing something right as our content clearly resonates with audiences – our unique visitor numbers have gone from 5 million to 18 million in just two years, and our app has been downloaded over 2 million times.

Our stories are available on our site, our app and social channels, helping us to reach a global millennial audience who have an appetite for culture, travel and new experiences, online and out in the world.

As our tech develops, we’ll be able to offer even more ease and access to people who want to experience the world, via enhancements to our app functionality and our product offering.

Culture Trip has raised considerable funding and boasted high growth. Where have you focused those funds?

Our funding round has meant that we have been able to hire great talent across the business, including building our leadership team and bringing on board hires from the likes of Google, Facebook, BBC, Magnum, TimeOut and Expedia. We have also been focused on scaling – we now have 300 employees across our three offices in New York, London and Tel Aviv.

Over the past two years, we’ve focused our efforts on growing our audience and diversifying our revenue streams. Launching our online travel division later this year will be key for the business.

Culture Trip has offices in London, New York and Tel Aviv. How do you find managing a global team?

My background in psychiatry has given me the skills required to juggle many things at once, so I’m grateful for that. But running an international company with a workforce in three different countries, time zones and cultures comes with its own set of challenges.

The most difficult aspect of hypergrowth is keeping everyone in the company aligned as we scale. It’s important to ensure we’re working hard to have a unified culture and build a strong brand, while also keeping everyone focused on delivering against our goals. Luckily, everyone working at Culture Trip believes strongly in the company’s vision and mission.

Operationally, I try to be as transparent as possible with the company. We hold weekly kick-offs where we celebrate wins, introduce new starters and set the agenda for the week ahead. We also try to host weekly huddles where one team or department can share a more in-depth presentation into what they are working on, and I regularly visit our New York and Tel Aviv offices.

What are your plans for Culture Trip in the short and long term?

At the moment, our focus is on product and culture. Monetising is at the forefront of our strategy for later in 2019 and 2020. We are in a unique position in the travel space and we’re excited about the launch of our bookable travel offering when we will be able to offer travellers everything from inspiration and trip planning to accommodation and experience bookings on the Culture Trip site and app.

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