One year ago, in February 2020, Tatler Hong Kong profiled Eric Gnock Fah, one of three co-founders of travel and experiences platform Klook, at the time one of only a handful of unicorn startups in Hong Kong valuated at US$1+ billion. Fah was optimistic, and the Klook team was gearing up to build and launch an impact tourism division in collaboration with their local operators around the globe—"Right now, Instagram looks good—but I think we can definitely do good, and I think that’s going to be the next trend in the travel industry," he told Tatler.
That interview went to print on January 20; on January 23, the first Covid-19 case was detected and confirmed in Hong Kong. By mid-March, much of the world had entered some form of lockdown or restricted movement, and over the ensuing year, the travel and experiences industries have faced their greatest challenges in recent memory.
Today, Klook announced it's raised US$200 million in Series E funding led by Aspex Management, with existing investors Sequoia Capital China, Softbank Vision Fund 1, Matrix Partners China, Boyu Capital and other, new investors, also participating. Is this a sign that the APAC region and the world may be blessed with an imminent return to travel sometime in 2021? Perhaps.
Despite the downturn in the travel economy in 2020, Klook itself has managed to thrive. With thousands of employees and dozens of offices all around the world, the company has retained its startup mindset, remaining nimble and solutions-driven in spite of enormous global setbacks.
"Despite a challenging 2020, we have shown our mettle, turning challenges into growth opportunities with agility and constant innovation," said Ethan Lin, CEO and Co-Founder at Klook, in a statement. "We've observed over the past year that consumers have a pent-up desire to explore and enjoy themselves, despite international travel being paused. Instead, they are turning inwards—exploring new and unique experiences right in their backyard. This new capital further strengthens our leading position to take us from defense to offense, as domestic tourism becomes ubiquitous and international travel gradually returns."
As international and air travel gradually tamped down over the past 12 months, Klook reprioritized its offerings, and focused on digitizing experiences booking while doubling down on local activities, such as staycations and car rentals. As Covid restrictions eased in certain markets, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, Klook responded quickly, increasing its offerings in those regions. Building on its already-strong on-the-ground relationships with local vendors, the company saw a 150 per cent increase in newly-onboarded local activities at the very height of the pandemic, and has worked in partnership with vendors to digitize and scale individual businesses.
"We are setting out to reimagine the next digital leap for the experiences sector which has traditionally been fragmented with offline practices or legacy systems that do not truly address the realities of a post-Covid world," Eric Gnock Fah, COO and Co-Founder at Klook, said in a statement. "Since day one, Klook has been working closely with our merchants, both big and small, to identify common pain points that we can solve together. With this new funding, we have additional ammunition to accelerate our technology innovation, and truly transform and empower this space for future growth."
At the end of last year, the company also deployed a free-to-use contact tracing system for its partners in the Philippines; an "Attractions Plus" content hub for customers visiting local attractions; and livestreaming and interactive video content designed to optimize conversions.