How we created a 4000 strong TravelTech community without spending $1.

In the last 6 months, we’ve been growing our TravelTech community across both Hong Kong and London to over 4000 people. Without spending a single dollar, we’ve had:

  • 8 events across London and Hong Kong
  • 1,000+ attendees
  • 10+ industry-leading speakers
  • 10+ startups pitching on stage

We have learnt a lot of lessons along the way and we wanted to take a second to reflect and share our most valuable learnings to date.

How it all started?

As a team we are all passionate travellers and explorers, but being geeks at heart we also saw a lot of opportunities for technology to make the travelling experience better.

Early in 2016 we came up with a crazy idea to run a hackathon on a plane — this is how Hack Horizon was born.

We wanted to shake up the fragmented travel industry by creating a platform that can bring the big industry players with bright, young, entrepreneurial tech talent to create new digital products and services that can improve the end-to-end customer experience in travel. Our goal was to shift perceptions in the industry and showcase just how powerful technology can be if embraced correctly.

In typical startup fashion, the beginning was messy (yet exciting!) with lots of coffee, late nights, post-it notes and white-board brainstorming sessions. We knew this was going to be a challenge and a difficult event to manage operationally, but it was not until we began to meet with industry experts that we had our first major reality check. Most people that we spoke to did not even know what a hackathon is. If you are unsure yourself, have a read here.

In some ways this was good, because it proved the need for what were are building. After all, how could we expect the industry to adopt and better leverage technology if it did not really understand it, or felt intimidated by it.

All this actually led to a big realisation on our part: if we wanted to really facilitate cross-industry collaborations and innovation, we first needed to educate the industry and get everyone to speak the same language (or at least understand it). This called for something bigger than a 3-day hackathon. We needed something that could continue to spread positive impact even after the hackathon and provide a sustainable framework for innovation. We needed to build a TravelTech community.

Why are strong communities so powerful?

Good communities are powerhouses that fuel the emergence of new ideas and encourage the exchange of knowledge gained during sleepless nights and failed product launches. Communities help you to grow your network, build credibility, discover new opportunities and get first hand feedback for your new ideas.

Simon Sinek, famously talks about how we humans, as social creatures, crave communities and their ability to bring people with similar values and beliefs together. A strong community is critical for survival.

So on Tuesday, June 11th, we held our very first TravelTech Tuesdays meet-up with a simple goal: to create a community where travel ecosystem can come together to share and learn.

What have we learnt about community building?

1. Let the Passion Speak For Itself

If you are not passionate about the community, how could you expect anyone else to be? It is that simple.

People need to understand why they should care about your community and a lot of that comes directly from your passion and energy. You need to help the audience get excited about what you are building, understand how it is relevant to them, and tell them what they can expect.

We were lucky that Travel is a topic that is close to everyone’s heart, especially as it is becoming increasingly accessible with Low-Cost Carriers and sharing economy. After all, who does not get at least a little excited about the idea of backpacking across the world, going snorkeling with turtles in Southeast Asia, or climbing Machu Picchu.

But it is your event. You are the community leader and as such do not be afraid to get on stage and get everyone excited. Gary Vaynerchuk is one of my favourites for this, he always gets the crowd fired up.

2. Keep It Relevant and Interesting

It’s not enough to just bring people together. The best community leaders make sure that their participants leave their event having learnt something new.

More often than not that’s through speakers who can share relevant and interesting stories. It takes a lot of time, hard work and persistence, but the investment in bringing great speakers on your stage will pay off in multiples. This is something that our friends at Startup Grind have been doing for years!

A great speaker is not necessarily a big fish, but they do need to be knowledgeable, engaging and most importantly they need to stay on topic. We have all been to these events where the speaker tried to use their 5 minutes of fame to bore everyone with a sales pitch and instantly make the audience drift away into their phones.

Take the time to prepare an interesting set of topics, questions for the night, and brief the speaker beforehand. Having a skilled moderator goes a long way as well — but remember that they might also need to be briefed! And if it is not a speaker event, why not share some recommend talking points at the start to inspire interesting conversation?

A word of caution is that staying relevant should not just be applied to your speakers; you also have to be mindful of the sponsors you bring onboard. Sure, some money for food and drinks at the event could be great (they are always a great social lubricant for people to get talking, and usually the second biggest cost after venue hire) but will the sponsor’s message really engage with your community?

3. Be Ready To Go The Extra Mile

You need to lead your community by example and be always looking to help and support your members, whether it is through proactively making introductions or simply listening to their feedback and implementing it quickly. Elon Musk even takes product feedback on Twitter.

In the words of Adam Grant, you need to be a giver, and frankly this is probably the most rewarding part of community building. We had a participant get a job from one of our speakers, and a founder who was introduced to a potential investor at one of our events. These two people have now become two of our best evangelists for the community.

In reality our community evangelists have been the biggest catalyst for growing our member base so fast.

However, when it comes to being supportive, there are a few things that can do more harm than good: the biggest one being wrongly sharing your community members’ personal contact information. Often startups have asked us for access to our mailing list, but we have always refused because we strongly believe in the need to maintain trust and protect the privacy of our members. This can be particularly tricky, when it comes to sponsors wanting access to emails as well.

4. Think Of The Best Venue You Can… And Get It!

A great venue really can make the difference between an average and an amazing event. You should pick venues which are conveniently located, have ample room for networking and a decent AV setup.

We have been lucky to have the support from great friends across Hong Kong and London including Metta, WeWork, London & Partners and HuckleTree. If you partner with a venue sponsor who believes in your community, they can form great partners and amplify your marketing through their channels, and save you on hefty venue hire costs!

Thank you all for the continued support in building this TravelTech community and a big thank you to the rest of the Hack Horizon team who put in a lot of sweat and tears in making the events happen. We are excited to continue growing our community and delivering more high quality events in 2017!

We hope this helps give you some food for thought for your community building and we would love to hear your ideas and feedback in the comments below.

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