Despite the tough year brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, resilient local businesses are continuously finding ways to recover and survive. Richard “Rich” Pabilona, CEO of Online Travel Express, shares how the travel agency continues to thrive, grow, and expand its reach through applying personal business values and the opportunity for innovation they found through JazzyPay and cashless payments.
Started in 2013, Online Travel Express has made a mark in the travel and tourism industry by being one of the most popular travel agencies in the Philippines. The travel agency has won numerous awards for its affordable and quality travel services.
Before it made a mark in the tourism industry, however, Online Travel Express started out as an online travel booking business operated in a small boarding house. It originally began as a side hustle, with Rich looking for ways to further help his family financially. Rich was known among his peers for making his own travel itineraries and booking his own flights without the help of travel agencies, so friends and officemates would often ask to use his credit card and book flights for them. With this, Rich began to conceive the business idea of starting his own online travel agency. He started promoting the business to friends and relatives, partnering his services with affordable rates. Although online businesses were not too popular at that time, the business thrived and grew through consistently good feedback from customers.
The travel agency continued to run online until in 2018, Rich decided to put up a small kiosk in a commercial area. With business booming, he also took the chance to expand the physical branch when nearby spots were vacated, and not long after with its incorporation in 2019, Online Travel Express opened its main branch in Santolan, Pasig. At the time, it also already had several franchises around the metro.
CEO Richard Pabilona in front of Online Travel Express' Robinsons Metro East branch
Online Travel Express offers a wide range of services — from curated tour packages, transport assistance, land arrangements, and van rentals to even handling paperwork for travelers through passport and visa processing. Rich saw to it that the travel agency would support their clients in every step of the way, staying true to their motto, “We plan for your travel, all you need to do is pack and go!”
Though the travel agency adopts pre-arranged itineraries from trusted operators, Rich adds a personal touch to many of the offered tour packages and itineraries by organizing and arranging them himself. When traveling, he always takes note of places that would appeal to fellow travelers. “When I go to places I enjoy, I feel like I have to share it, gusto ko ipa-experience sa customers. So my personal travels are, in a way, also like doing ocular visits.”
(“When I go to places I enjoy, I feel like I have to share it, I want customers to experience it too. So my personal travels are, in a way, also like doing ocular visits.”)
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic largely affected the country’s economy, and the travel industry is one of the industries that took a harder hit among all other businesses. With temporary travel restrictions imposed, most businesses in the travel and leisure sector found it difficult to stay afloat.
“Yung pandemic is probably the biggest challenge sa akin,” Rich said.
(“The pandemic is probably the biggest challenge for me.”)
However, having already faced several difficulties in running the business for more than seven years, Rich did his best to take the challenges brought about by the pandemic in stride. First, he made sure to prioritize his people and his customers. Employees were retained, compensated, and were continuously given benefits despite the situation. Customers who were unable to travel due to previous restrictions were also assisted in rebooking their arrangements. “I make it a point to take care of clients, because your number one marketing is your customers. Your customers and their satisfaction is your number one advertisement,” he said.
Rich also credited the business’ survival to his financial strategy. “I can still operate kasi nung kasagsagan ng business, wala akong utang, or yung company. So forming a good financial strategy is really something that I would advise fellow entrepreneurs to do,” Rich shared.
(“I can still operate because when business was booming, we didn’t have debts. So forming a good financial strategy is really something that I would advise fellow entrepreneurs to do,”)
“Simple lang, ‘wag kang gagastos ng sobra sa kinikita mo. Yun yung bottom line. At kapag may ma-encounter kang challenge, then don’t think of it na ikakabagsak mo na. Don’t give up. Kapag nadapa ka, bumangon ka at bumawi.”
(“It’s simple, don’t spend more than you earn. That’s the bottom line. And when you encounter a challenge, then don’t think of it as your downfall. Don’t give up. When you fall, get up and recover.”)
CEO Richard Pabilona speaking in a travel agency seminar
More than a year into lockdowns, the travel agency continues to thrive, still optimistic that the travel industry will get back up. To fellow travelers, Rich leaves this message: “There are domestic destinations that are already open for tourists and tourism. Mag travel po tayo, pero let’s also follow the standard protocols. We have vaccines already. Kahit papano, nandun na yung punto na malalabanan na natin yung COVID ‘Wag tayong mawalan ng pag-asa. We will be back to normal, maybe not now, but soon.”
(“There are domestic destinations that are already open for tourists and tourism. Let’s travel, but let’s also follow the standard protocols. We have vaccines already. We’re at a point where we can at least combat COVID. Let’s not lose hope. We will be back to normal, maybe not now, but soon.”)
Prior to the pandemic, Rich found it difficult to apply for payment gateways for cards and other online payments, so adopting alternative local payment methods was left unexplored, resorting to PayPal for card payments. However, with customers’ shift in preference to online transactions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rich began to search for an accessible payment method system and discovered JazzyPay. “Before, we used PayPal as our credit and debit card payment facility, but mas mataas ang interest rates, and minsan hindi rin nag-wowork for local credit cards,” he said.
(“Before, we used PayPal as our credit and debit card payment facility, but the interest rates are higher, and sometimes it doesn’t always work for local credit cards,”)
“JazzyPay offers a wider range of payment options such as online banking. The transaction fees are reasonable, and mas bumilis, mas dumami, at mas naging convenient pa yung process kasi hindi na kailangan ng tao mag face-to-face, we can do it all online”
(“JazzyPay offers a wider range of payment options such as online banking. The transaction fees are reasonable, and [our payment and collection] process became faster and more convenient since customers don’t have to go to our branches for face-to-face transactions as we can do it all online.”)
For Rich, using JazzyPay as a payment gateway is a step towards added safety and efficiency.
Already planning your next getaway? Check out affordable tour packages and even get help for your passport and visa processing by visiting Online Travel Express now! Easily pay for their services through JazzyPay here or by typing in “Rilopa Online Travel Express Inc.” in the JazzyPay home page’s search box.