[Executive Edge] 24-year old CEO invites you to see the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines – When most Filipinos think of vacation destinations in the country, their first thoughts are Boracay or Palawan. Yet the Philippines has much more to offer than white, sandy beaches.

April Cuenca, the 24-year old CEO and founder of FlipTrip, wants to make this fact known to more people.

FlipTrip, incubated by Ideaspace Foundation, was rooted in Cuenca’s experiences as a traveler. Prior to founding FlipTrip, she had traveled across the Philippines as a paid backpacker, a tour guide/coordinator, a tour operations consultant, and even as part of a travel show.

Marketing online

Cuenca counts herself lucky for being able to see how beautiful the country was. “I was able to explore destinations intimately, sometimes staying for a few weeks at a time to find unique things that I could promote,” she said.

Some examples of her unique trips and experiences include hiking through the rainforests with an indigenous man, tracing the paths where he had watched World War II battles in Romblon; judging a beauty pageant in Occidental Mindoro; and going caving in Samar, where she walked up to the first cross ever erected in Asia in Southern Leyte.

Though she was privileged to have all these amazing, off-the-beaten-path destinations, she realized that not everyone would be as fortunate. One major pain point was that the information pertaining to these destinations was not readily available online.

“Information is often incomplete, outdated, and you have to go through so many websites just to get what you need, if at all,” she said. “Then, you try to actually call numbers, and they’ll be busy, unavailable or nonexistent.”

Despite these inconveniences, Cuenca realized that there was an easy solution within reach. “I realized that it boiled down to making it easier for locals to go online and market their services, especially for those who have little to no experience with the Internet outside of Facebook,” she said. This is where FlipTrip comes in.

The FlipTrip platform empowers locals to have an online presence and to be able to accept accommodation reservations online in real-time through a simplified reservation management system. The FlipTrip team trains those who pass their quality checks to use this system, Cuenca said.

FlipTrip also connects travelers to tour and transportation service providers. Cuenca’s reasoning is that people do not just go to a destination to sleep. “You go there to have an authentic experience,” Cuenca explained.

Big visions

Cuenca has big visions for the company as a whole. She wants FlipTrip to allow both Filipinos and foreign visitors to experience unique and memorable experiences all around the Philippines in the best and most convenient way. “FlipTrip will be the gateway to exploring the Philippines your way,” she said.

To get there, Cuenca has been focused on going to hostels and other venues where travelers concentrate. She wants to know her customers intimately. “You can create a great product in your opinion, but at the end of the day, if it’s not something that your customer will buy and use, it’s basically useless,” Cuenca said.

The way she conducts this market research is a bit unique. Rather than interview people at hostels and tour attractions outright, she asks a lot of questions in a conversational manner to gather her insights. These questions revolve around everything from their planning process before coming to the Philippines to what their experiences have been like so far traveling around the country.

Because she sounds like a curious person, their responses do come out as pure and uninhibited. Cuenca eventually does reveal that she is the founder of FlipTrip, and travelers remain very warm to her. In some cases, they become her clients, and in others, they refer their friends to her. Yet the feedback that they give is already valuable enough.

One such discovery that Cuenca made is that many foreigners are not motivated to come to the country just because of campaigns like “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” Instead, they often come to visit the Philippines on the strength of their relationships and encounters with Filipinos back home.

Cuenca recently met a cook who fit this bill. “He said that Filipinos are the most hardworking and wonderful people that he knows,” Cuenca shared. “If they were great at home, imagine a whole country full of them!”

The market research has also helped them establish who their target demographic exactly is: travelers from 21 to 35 years old who are interested in adventure activities beyond the usual fare like Boracay or Palawan. They are often left wondering what their next thrill or adventure will be. “We’re here to answer that,” Cuenca said.

Challenges ahead

Even though Cuenca is now armed with this valuable knowledge about her target demographic, there are still many challenges ahead. Cuenca reveals that hers is a lack of experience in building and running a tech company.

“I’m a big believer in passion as the driving force of pursuing your dream, but at the same time, you have to be willing to learn things on the go,” she said. As a result, she’s had to develop a particular orientation for her team. “Our mantra is ‘If you don’t know the answer, find out what it is.’”

This challenge is compounded by the fact that Cuenca is young. “Unfortunately, there will always be people who will doubt your credibility and experience, simply because they don’t believe that someone young could have that,” she said, thus this serves as her motivation.

“My co-founders and I continuously work to prove naysayers wrong by being able to stand on our own feet and converse on the same level as anyone, no matter what status or position they might have,” Cuenca emphasized.

Even as they focus on growing and scaling FlipTrip, Cuenca never gets away from her core advocacy of getting people to explore the Philippines. “You can go navigate the caves, hike through the forest, or take to the streets,” she said and that there are so many places in the country to choose from, one only need to get up, go out, and wander.

Cuenca herself will have visited all 81 provinces of the Philippines by the end of this year, so she argues that no one should use age as an excuse not to travel now. She noted that having more salary leads to less free time.

“As you age, your responsibilities grow,” she said. “The time is now, when you have the freedom and energy to explore! The country is beautiful, and it’s just waiting for you.” – Rappler.com

Rappler Business columnist Ezra Ferraz is also the chief content officer at ZipMatch, a tech company backed by Ideaspace Foundation, Hatchd Digital, IMJ Investment Partners, and 500 Startups. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Connect with him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz