Travel is an essential element of MBA programs — for many, it’s the most essential element. Getting out of the classroom and into the field, particularly when it’s well outside one’s wheelhouse, has a difficult-to quantify but undeniable educational value.
MBAs’ need for travel is what VAOVA’s business model so promising. Now that business schools are going back out on the road and the calendar is filling up with treks to far-flung places around the globe, the Colombia-based destination management company may be entering its most profitable period yet.
VAOVA was founded in 2013 by Juan Pablo Toro with a focus on university, MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions) and luxury travel. Since 2017, the company has brought more than 80 treks to Colombia — and with business picking up post-pandemic, it is expanding to Mexico with an eye to grow across more of Latin America.
THE RICH CULTURAL EXPERIENCE OF COLOMBIA
“In the past six years we have welcomed to Colombia more than 9,000 travelers, to whom we have had the opportunity of showing a country where richness is not measured by its GDP nor oil, but with flavor and resistance; with salsa, bolero, cumbia, amongst many others,” VAOVA founder Juan Pablo Toro tells Poets&Quants.
It’s one thing to be a travel company. It’s another to specialize in tours for demanding clients like MBA students and professors. VAOVA’s founder “realized the immense potential of travel to Colombia, and pivoted towards inbound travel, with a large focus on MBA groups,” says Juan David Galindo, VAOVA’s CEO.
“We have played a significant role in recreating the image of a country deeply affected by prejudices and the burdens of history,” Toro says. “At the same time, we have been a profitable company since Day 1, we have a team of 47 people and we have positioned Colombia as the biggest trek in the MBA community of the top universities in the USA.”
Business flagged during coronavirus, but when Galindo, a 2018 Harvard Business School MBA, joined the company last year after five years at McKinsey, his immediate focus was on growing VAOVA’s university business.
“We are an experience creator and travel company that aims to show our destinations from an authentic point of view: through artistic local expressions that empower local communities and interrupt the daily life of our travelers,” Galindo tells Poets&Quants. “We are happy to have driven interest towards Colombia.”
Before VAOVA started promoting the country, Stanford Graduate School of Business was the only major B-school to regularly trek down to the country, usually for pre-MBA trips. No other university was coming to Colombia on a consistent basis, says Galindo, who organized a trip for his HBS classmates back in 2018.
“In terms of destination, Colombia has a mix of logistical benefits — proximity, value for money, similar time zone — as well as tourism destination: great representation of Latin culture, amazing party scene, unique historical context for learning,” Galindo says.
3 BIG COMPETITIVE DISTINCTIONS
Colombia is no longer VAOVA’s only offering. With a client list that now 18 of the top 20 programs from the latest U.S. News ranking (including all the M7 schools) as well as London Business School and Gallindo’s former employer McKinsey, VAOVA has expanded to Mexico and is looking to Peru and Brazil as well as other locales across Latin America.
It has competition. But VAOVA boasts at least three major advantages:
- Customization: “With our packages, travellers purchase some minimum included core activities, but we have over 80 add-on activities clients can enjoy across the different cities, all designed and put together in-house, allowing us to guarante price, quality and risk level of the activities,” Galindo says. “In a recent trek with 416 Wharton students, we had 261 unique itineraries.”
- Happenings as product concept: “By combining art with tourism, we give our travelers the opportunity to get to live an immersive experience in Colombia, even during large group travel. By sharing the stories of the talented artists, community leaders and businessmen and politicians, we enable travelers to learn (and enjoy) not only from the destinations we travel to, but from culture behind them.”
- Experience: “Our experience handling large groups and MBA services allows us to offer an amazing service. Be it small details, such as leaving a hangover kit after a big party, or ensuring dinners have enough food and proper drinks, or even ensuring a speedy check-in, we are proud of the experience we offer our clients. Finally, I’d be lying if i didn’t highlight the events and parties we put together for our travelers.”
‘EXPERIENCE, SUSTAINABILITY & SOCIAL IMPACT WILL ALWAYS BE OUR PILLARS’
When Covid-19 struck in March 2020, VAOVA had travelers in Colombia that it had to work to get home. After that, as tourism grinder to a halt across the globe, the company was forced to furlough half its staff.
By March of 2021 the company was doing tours again. By the middle of the year, “things really took off,” Galindo says.
Now, expansion is on the horizon.
“We are promoting Mexico, having done a group of about 50 Columbia Business School students in November of last year, and four more opportunities in the pipeline,” he says. “We are defining what our third destination will be in the next few months, but we are looking into Peru, Costa Rica, and Brazil.”
VAOVA’s founder adds that the company’s ambitions are even greater.
“Our purpose is becoming the tourism company of the near-future and leading the transformation of the industry, not only in Colombia, but also in Latin America, according to three major criteria: recruitment and development of the market’s most qualified talent; the transition to a technology-based company; and the strengthening of a sustainable and scalable product that incorporates several artistic expressions in an effort to build a bridge between travelers and the authenticity of the cultures that inhabit the destinations that we travel to,” Juan Pablo Toro says.
“My pursuit is to make the impossible happen, to unfold the stories concealed by our people, to permeate our events with artistic expressions, and to bring our product to new cultural horizons around the world, where experience, sustainability and social impact will always be our pillars.”
Learn more about VAOVA here.
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