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The 10 most innovative travel companies of 2021

From Airbnb and Hipcamp to Delta Airlines and Ennismore hotels, these 10 travel companies found reasons to be optimistic in an unprecedented year for tourism and hospitality.

The 10 most innovative travel companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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Few industries were as hard-hit by the pandemic as travel. The companies on this list, however, found ways to deliver the joy and wonder of experiencing new places while prioritizing travelers’ safety. Hipcamp, Getaway, and Arrive Outdoors brought people outside and off the beaten path, while Delta and Hopper used the crisis to respond to travelers’ changing needs, offering fliers unprecedented transparency and flexibility. Small-tour operator Intrepid Travel used the pandemic slowdown to look at how to make its businesses sustainable, from top to bottom. And Airbnb faced the headwinds by embracing local and even virtual travel, while pulling off a successful IPO.

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1. Hipcamp

For bringing camping closer to home in a year when we all needed to get outside

This camping booking site grew its platform in 2020 by bringing on local landowners across the U.S., especially ones with commercial agricultural property. The company developed a system to forecast demand in different areas and invested in enhancing the tools these hosts need to seamlessly list their land on the site. It also launched “Extras,” which allows hosts to sell additional offerings, including rentals, food, firewood, and even experiences. For more on why Hipcamp is a 2021 most innovative company, click here.

[Photo: courtesy of Getaway]

2. Getaway

For redefining the outdoor retreat

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With its collection of stylish, single-room cabins tucked into the woods outside major urban areas, five-year-old Getaway has created a new paradigm for what constitutes a hotel—one that resonates today. “Getaway has always been a socially distant destination,” says founder and CEO Jon Staff. The guesthouses are notable for what they come with—sleek kitchenettes, full bathrooms, gallery windows, outdoor fire pits, and picnic tables—as well as what they lack: TVs and Wi-Fi. “Days that are free from technological distractions help people be more creative, happier, and healthier,” says Staff. Getaway lists its properties exclusively on its own site, bypassing commissions to online travel agencies and platforms such as Airbnb, but that hasn’t hampered its growth. It opened three new outposts at the end of last year, and is planning to add two more in early 2021, for a total of 16 wooded campuses—up from nine in 2019—and 527 cabins.

3. Delta Air Lines

For setting the standard for U.S. airlines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic

In an extraordinary year for commercial airlines, Delta has stood out for taking a customer-first leadership role during the pandemic. Along with transforming the industry’s standard of clean with measures such as creating a Global Cleanliness team, a 44-point cleaning process, and an all-employee COVID-19 testing program, it was among the first to stop selling middle seats, and the only airline to continue doing so throughout the holiday season of 2020. As many of these protocols are here to stay, including permanently waiving change fees for travel within the United States starting in 2021 (with the exception of basic economy), Delta has gained the respect of its frequent flyers and critics alike. Case in point: Its Net Promoter Score (NPS), which measures how likely customers are to recommend Delta, was up 30 points more in August 2020 than the same month in 2019.

4. Arrive Outdoors

For saving you money on camping gear, delivered to your doorstep

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In line with companies that have focused on getting travelers outside, three-year-old camping gear rental company Arrive Outdoors has seen tremendous growth in 2020: a 488% increase in orders and 439% growth in revenue compared to last year. Arrive’s mission—making outdoor experiences easier, more affordable, and sustainable—clearly resonated last year as more travelers planned camping and other nature-focused trips. The company capitalized on its success by adding new gear categories (hiking boots and apparel), improving distribution and in-house logistics, and streamlining customer service, leading to a CSAT score of 99%. And in an effort to fight shipping waste, Arrive has converted to corrugated packaging and is revamping boxes to be make them reusable.

5. Intrepid Travel

For committing to science-based targets to reduce carbon emissions

During a grave year for the travel industry, this tour operator—known for its grassroots, small-group adventures—used its unexpected downtime to rethink operations and their effects on the planet. Intrepid, which has been carbon neutral since 2010, is now the world’s first tour operator to set emission reduction targets through the Science Based Targets initiative, a partnership between organizations like the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), and the WWF. Not only will Intrepid offset internal carbon outputs by cutting down on business trips and transitioning to renewable energy in its offices by 2025, it will also focus its energies on itineraries that are closer to home and built with lower carbon transportation and accommodation options.

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6. Hopper

For continuing to address new travel pain points through its mobile-only platform

This mobile-only travel-booking platform, which topped our list last year for price-prediction algorithms that advise travelers when to book flights and hotels, continues to add intuitive, user-friendly features. Last year, Hopper built in a price drop guarantee (the company will automatically refund you the difference in any airfare change), in-app cancellation and change capabilities (saving travelers from dreaded calls with customer service lines), and the Next Generation Storefront, in which Hopper tracks prices for competitive business and first-class ticket sales.

7. Journera

For streamlining travel by interlocking your reservations

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A travel-savvy team including Jeff Katz, the former CEO of Orbitz Worldwide, created a platform that helps companies track and assist clients throughout business and leisure trips. How does it work? After required consent, the program links up travelers’ reservations—hotels, flights, rental cars, and so on—alerting all bookings, travelers, and trip managers to itinerary changes in real time. If a flight arrives ahead of schedule, for example, the rental car pickup and hotel check-in times are automatically updated. The travel market has, so far, responded well to this pain point solution: The platform continued to grow throughout the 2020 pandemic, and has now been adopted by companies that make up 40 percent of all hotel and air travel in the U.S.

8. Ennismore

For creative thinking and staying competitive during the COVID-19 pandemic

Ennismore is the parent company of several hospitality families including Hoxton Hotels, a collection of nine properties across Europe and the U.S., and adventure resort Gleneagles in the Scottish Highlands. As hotels emptied out due to COVID-19, Hoxton properties made up for lost revenue by leveraging their popular food and beverage spaces to (safely) appeal to locals; created a pop-up glamping retreat at its Oxfordshire estate; and, before the pandemic, introduced Flexy Time: free 24-hour flexible check-in and check-out for all guests. These quick and thoughtful pivots is one reason why hotel giant Accor is teaming up with Ennismore to group all of its properties under a new umbrella lifestyle brand, also named Ennismore.

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9. San Francisco International Airport

For making airports healthier and more human-centric

Originally built in the 1960s, Harvey Milk Terminal 1 is in the final stages of a $2.4 billion renovation that not only reconsiders how to get people through an airport safely and efficiently, but also makes the experience healthier and more enjoyable. Working closely with Gensler, the architect behind the project, the SFO team focused on creating an environmentally friendly and human-centric space. They designed radiant ceilings for heating and cooling, used toxin-free furniture and carpeting, planned an art gallery in the central concourse, and carved out outdoor spaces, interactive kid zones, and lactation stations. As a result of these efforts and more, Harvey Milk Terminal 1 is the world’s first airport terminal to earn a Fitwel certification, a building rating system for healthier buildings. With the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as growing public awareness of how indoor environments affect health, Terminal 1 is poised to be a blueprint for airports to come.

10. Airbnb

For earning back trust and repackaging the travel mindset

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Airbnb had a particularly rough start to the pandemic. Bookings crashed country by country as the pandemic spread, the company had to lay off 25 percent of its staff, and it initially alienated hosts by offering guests full refunds—at hosts’ expense—when travel came to a full stop. But the company clawed its way back, all while preparing for its IPO, making good with hosts by offering them partial payments for said refunds and allowing many the chance to participate in a direct share program. (The number of hosts who were ultimately chosen for the program is undisclosed.) With international travel and tours at a standstill, Airbnb also turned its local experiences program into an online-only option, which proved a success and offered many hosts an important revenue stream at time of crisis. The company also turned regional travel into a silver lining by marketing itself as the hub for local trip options and long-term stays. It also worked with hosts to create new cleaning standards and help them communicate the safety of their listings to travelers as they came out of lockdowns.