How Dharma Reshapes Travel with Eric Cantona

Related: Abu Dhabi start-up Dharma and soccer legend Cantona team up for themed travel platform

The travel industry has long been dominated by mass package tours that offer large groups pop-up visits to multiple countries on whistle-free world tours, where they end up jostling with thousands of others in areas tourist crowded just to catch a glimpse of famous sights.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way many consumers perceive travel and a growing niche has emerged for more personal and immersive experiences, according to Charaf El Mansouri, CEO and co-founder of Dharma, a brand of trip based in Abu Dhabi. -platform as a service that curates unique experiences that appeal to people’s passions in life.

“We decided to create a travel agency that we want to exist…it’s the future of travel,” Mr El Mansouri said. “In the future, travel will be consumed from a point of passion, not a point of geography or destination.

“At Dharma, we build both the architecture and the technology to power this [and] to enable non-travel professionals to create and develop their own travel brands.

Travel has been one of the hardest hit sectors during the pandemic, as movement restrictions and border closures have kept millions at home and flights blocked. However, the sector is gradually recovering as governments ease restrictions and ramp up vaccination programs.

The global travel and tourism market is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of around 3.1% to reach $8.9 trillion by 2026, according to market research firm IndustryArc.

However, it is the personalized travel and experiences segment that is expected to see the strongest growth. Valued at $91.2 billion in 2020, it is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 17.1% to reach $447.3 billion by 2030, Research and Markets said in its latest report.

Mr. El Mansouri, Nisma Benani and Leah Howe, who have worked for some of the world’s best-known companies including Uber, Airbnb and Equinox, started Dharma in 2018. The co-founders moved to the United Arab Emirates during the pandemic, after that the company became one of the first start-ups to be accepted into Abu Dhabi’s global tech ecosystem, Hub71, in November 2020.

Dharma began by curating personal health and wellness travel experiences with yoga influencers, but since then has expanded its portfolio to capture travelers interested in adventure, music and culture, and even sport after collaborating with French actor and soccer superstar Eric Cantona.

The company’s Looking FC platform offers a range of four-day trips organized by the former French national team and Manchester United player, who drew on his own personal experiences of traveling the world while playing football to create immersive journeys for fans.

Cantona, 55, played for seven teams before ending his career at Manchester United in 1997 aged 30. In 2002, he was among the first inductees into the English Football Hall of Fame.

Trips organized by Cantona include Buenos Aires, Argentina, where fans can watch a Boca Juniors game at La Bombonera stadium, hang out with locals to learn the lyrics to fan chants, enjoy a traditional asado barbecue, participate in a Boca masterclass and play a game of futsal.

Other immersive journeys include Italy for Inter Milan fans, France for Paris Saint-Germain fans and the UK for a game between Liverpool and Manchester United, among others.

“What better way to understand the history of a city than through its football clubs?” Cantona said.

“These trips are a way of allowing people to experience, in addition to the euphoria of the games, the passion of the community around the clubs.

These trips are a way to allow people to experience, in addition to the euphoria of the games, the passion of the community around the clubs.

Eric Cantona, actor and former French footballer

“People want to experience that, I think. Real fans want to be in the action, want to be part of the energy of the game. They want to see and meet the fans… learn the songs and their meaning, who created them and what they mean to the local community.

Football is the most popular sport in the world. Fifa, its governing body, estimates that 265 million people play the sport worldwide, while 3.5 billion fans watch the match.

“That’s why we started with football and Eric; football is the biggest social phenomenon in the world with 3.5 billion fans and Manchester United have around 600 million online followers between their social networks,” Mr El Mansouri said.

“So the idea was that if there was a proof of concept on our hypothesis as a company, it would be in football with Eric. The results since the launch have been extremely positive.

Cantona package prices range from €1,290 ($1,438) to €3,000, says El Mansouri. Travelers pay for their own flights in addition to the cost of the package, but everything on the ground is taken care of by Dharma, such as sourcing match tickets, accommodation, food, arranging transport and others activities, he adds.

“From the moment you land at the start, you don’t think or worry about your route, you don’t think about your wallet, you don’t think about anything; it’s just fully organized from arrival to departure,” he says.

“We just priced it at cost of goods sold plus [a] margin which is the industry standard, which then helps us with acquisition, marketing and distribution.

“We certainly don’t make crazy markups with this; we make margins in the industry so we can sell the product and we believe that once the first customers have had this experience, Looking FC will become one of the biggest travel brands in the world. »

The co-founders launched Dharma with $50,000, but over the past year have raised $3.5 million from investors including Abu Dhabi’s By Venture Partners, Shorooq and Flat6Labs, as well as Convivialite Ventures, based in San Francisco.

The company plans to launch a Series A funding round in May, aiming to raise between $20 million and $25 million to fuel its expansion plans, El Mansouri said.

Since the launch of the Cantona Looking FC platform earlier this month, 2022 has been Dharma’s biggest year yet, he adds.

“We’re already six times bigger than our biggest years and have already recorded about $3 million in revenue,” he says. “We’re looking at a $20 million run rate by April, which is why we’re going in the market for a Series A [funding round].

“It’s like everyone in travel has been holding back a bit for jump time. This is jump time and the numbers are backing it up, so it feels like it’s time.

Despite the pandemic, Dharma’s growth plans remain on track, Mr. El Mansouri said.

Funds raised from Series A will be used to continue to strengthen the Dharma team, as well as launch the next 10 Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism travel brands and other curated packages which will include onboarding 500 wellness leaders, such as yoga teachers and meditation instructors, and partnering with fitness studios by the end of the year.

“The first thing I would say is Covid is the best thing that ever happened to us because we ended up in Abu Dhabi,” he says.

“It was the best decision we have ever made. We [will] come out of Covid probably 10 years earlier than we were when we got into it in terms of support, positioning, team strength and company strength.

Company Profile

Company Name: Dharma

The meeting has started: 2018

Founders: Charaf El Mansouri, Nisma Benani, Leah Howe

Based: Abu Dhabi

Sector: TravelTech

Funding stage: Pre-series A

Investors: Convivialite Ventures, BY Partners, Shorooq Partners, L& Ventures, Flat6Labs

Q&A with Charaf El Mansouri, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Dharma

What other successful start-ups do you wish you had started?

I’m a big fan of Spotify’s algorithm, which gets to know your musical taste better than you know yourself. I aspire to create the same to travel one day.

What new skills have you learned since launching Dharma?

Much more than I learned in all my studies combined – and that goes from coding to design to production.

Where do you want to be in five years?

I wish I had succeeded in building the Dharma. It’s one thing to have an idea, but our challenge in the next three to five years is to prove that we are the right team to execute it.

If you could do everything differently, what would you change?

I wouldn’t have been so hesitant about which product to build. The lack of self-confidence in the product vision is something I wish I hadn’t addressed as we have a clear vision and now that it’s validated I realize we were on the right track much earlier than we didn’t think so.

Updated: January 31, 2022, 06:24

Company Profile

Company Name: Dharma

The meeting has started: 2018

Founders: Charaf El Mansouri, Nisma Benani, Leah Howe

Based: Abu Dhabi

Sector: TravelTech

Funding stage: Pre-series A

Investors: Convivialite Ventures, BY Partners, Shorooq Partners, L& Ventures, Flat6Labs

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