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How will the pandemic reshape corporate travel?

The valuation of Airbnb soared to new heights in its debut in public markets, even while the pandemic kept revenues depressed.

Now another unicorn startup focused on the travel space is also getting an upround: TripActions, a maker of corporate travel and expense software, announced that it had raised $155 million in funding Thursday, bumping its valuation up from $4 billion in 2019 to $5 billion today even though revenue remains below pre-pandemic levels. The Series E round was led by Andreessen Horowitz, Lee Fixel’s Addition Ventures, and investor Elad Gil. Zeev Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Greenoaks Capital also participated.

It’s an upround that would have been hard to imagine at the start of the pandemic. Multiple startups in the space took action to cut expenses, and TripActions laid off a quarter of its 1,100 employees as bookings and usage among its customers dropped 90%.

But now, the vaccine has shown investors a light at the end of the tunnel, creating a window of  time to buy into travel startups while they believe companies in the space are undervalued.

That’s part of the thinking that led Gil, a longtime Airbnb investor, to co-lead the round. The investor pointed to Warren Buffett’s famous quote: “Be fearful when others are fearful,” adding he believes travel will bounce back likely by 2022 if not by late 2021. 

By focusing on acquiring large customers and launching new features—including one that analyzes corporate expenses broadly and another that lets customers check on virus numbers in travel regions—TripActions has convinced its investors that it can be a winner after the pandemic, even if its revenue was just at 60% in the year ending January 2021 compared to its pre-virus days. And while revenue is down, its total “book of business,” a number that effectively accounts for total transactions through TripActions, grew from $2.1 billion to $3.6 billion in that same period. (“TripActions also executed extremely well in its toughtset time. When I think of travel, the two companies that stood out were Airbnb and TripActions,” says Gil.) 

For TripActions, its future business isn’t just about getting over the pandemic. The company is also betting that corporate travel trends will fundamentally change even in the most bullish scenarios. Anticipating that the remote working trend will stick even if the virus is eliminated, TripActions CEO Ariel Cohen says the company anticipates more group travel as diasporic workforces look to meet up quarterly or weekly. 

“Because of work-from-home and a more spread out workforce, [we believe there could be] more team meetings,” says Cohen. “We think there will be a greater change around business travel.”

Previously focused more on middle-sized companies, TripActions inked deals with the likes of Netflix, GameStop, and Rivian in 2020. I couldn’t help but ask: Was TripActions focusing on customers that it believed were prone to travel, even in the pandemic? 

To an extent, yes, says Cohen. But it is more focused on companies that it believes will travel in the long-term. Take electric car maker Rivian, for example: “When you’re developing a car, you need to travel—that was our assumption.”

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