Destination Unknown: Traveling with Pack Up + Go

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Your bags are packed, your time off request has been approved for months, and you can’t wait for your vacation to- wait, you don’t know where you’re going?

Pack Up + Go Founder & CEO, Lillian Rafson. Photo Credit: Pack Up + Go

This is the experience that thousands of travelers go through every year when booking trips with Pittsburgh surprise travel agency Pack Up + Go. In a world that is constantly getting smaller, where individual travel experiences are often idealized amongst the Instagram gurus of the world, many people just can’t seem to find the time or energy to plan their next getaway. This is something that Founder & CEO, Lillian Rafson realized on a cool evening in Riga, Latvia.

Rafson had hit the familiar fork in the road that many of us face. She had just quit her job in New York City and decided to take advantage of this break by backpacking around Eastern Europe, all while figuring out what her next pursuit would be; it didn’t take her long.

In the beginning of her backpacking trip, Lillian met two women in Riga who were on a vacation with a surprise travel agency; something the soon to be entrepreneur was unfamiliar with.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had never worked in the travel or hospitality industry, and when I heard about this concept I was immediately drawn to it, and I imagined that I was the target audience – someone who is already staying in hostels, backpacking around, kind of has a wanderlust and is down for the adventure. I remember thinking, ‘if I am this excited about it, and it doesn’t exist in the states, I think other people will also be this excited about it.’”

So what exactly is a surprise travel agency?

The idea is simple. You pick the dates that you want to travel, the travel agency picks your destination, makes all of the accommodations, and you then find out where you are going when you arrive at the designated place of departure. Pack Up + Go breaks down their model into an easy 5 step process:

  1. The travelers take a quick survey about budget, travel dates, and travel preferences

  2. The company’s team of travel coordinators book your travel and accommodations

  3. A week before departure, the travelers receive an email that contains the weather forecast for the mystery destination, recommended items to pack, luggage restrictions, and location of departure

  4. A few days before the trip, travelers receive an enclosed envelope that includes travel destination, city guide, and curated list of recommendations – this envelope is not to be opened until arriving at location of departure!

  5. Travelers go to designated location of departure at the given time, open envelope, and begin their trip

Photo Credit: Pack Up + Go

When developing a business venture, it’s advised to speak with your target audience for the chance to get to know the customer. Fortunately for Rafson, she still had 7-8 weeks left on her backpacking trip to bounce her new idea off of fellow travelers before returning home. One thing she quickly learned is that maybe she wasn’t the target audience after all.

“As someone who loves planning trips, I forget that it is really stressful for a lot of people. So while we definitely have a large number of travelers who are interested in the element of surprise and spontaneity, we get a lot of travelers who just want to go on an easy trip, and they don’t want to plan or think about where they’re going, they don’t want to take care of hotels, flight cost, and do research on restaurants and attractions. The surprise is really just the cherry on top for them, but it’s really about the ease and simplicity of planning.”

For the rest of her trip, Rafson traveled from hostel to hostel asking people what they think of the idea, what questions should be included on the survey, what the average traveler’s budget was, and how much time people would be willing to give up for a mystery trip; this is how the 2-nights/3-days model was decided upon.

“I knew from working in New York that we do not have a lot of vacation time as Americans, and the time that we do have for vacation we find so close to our hearts and it’s so important. I figured with the element of surprise, I don’t know that I would be willing to give up a lot of those precious vacation days, so let’s just go with a quick weekend trip.”

Lillian had traveled to Eastern Europe with a lot of unanswered questions about her future, but sure enough, she returned to the states 2 months later with a business plan, extensive customer research, and big aspirations. Launching out of Pittsburgh in January 2016, Pack + Go kicked off in the way that many entrepreneurs could only dream of; it started off cash flow positive on day 1 and hasn’t looked back.

With a small team, little money to work with, and no advertising budget, Pack Up + Go launched with the goal of booking 50 trips in their first year. Their service was in much higher demand than anticipated, as the startup quickly beat their own odds by 1000% and booked over 500 trips within the first year. The company has cultivated great pride in growing as organically as possible, which shows in the steady growth that has followed since the 2016 launch. In year two the company booked 1,700+ trips, followed by 2,000+ trips in 2018, and is currently on pace to book over 3,000 trips in 2019.

There are few things more exciting for an entrepreneur then when they first sell their product or idea to someone that isn’t a friend or family member; something that Rafson didn’t have to wait too long for. “I remember really early on, one of the first trips that we had was from Shreveport, Louisiana, and I can remember thinking, ‘This is crazy. I’ve never even heard of this place. How did they hear about us?’“

While Shreveport might not be a consistent departure location, the departures do span across the entire nation. Whether it’s people in the North trying to find a way to warm their bones during a brutal winter, or people in the South trying to cool off in the blistering summer, there’s never a shortage of people trying to get away.

Pittsburgh departures are beginning to increase as prospective surprise travelers learn about the company, but the startup’s hometown has not been a primary source of customers as of yet. However, while Pittsburgh may not be a primary city for departures, it turns out that it’s a great city for arrivals.

“I think that Pittsburgh is kind of a perfect example of why I love Pack Up + Go so much. We know it’s great, we love it, we know that there’s an amazing food scene, craft beer scene, museum scene – we’re all onboard, but so few people think to visit a city like Pittsburgh for a leisure vacation. I’ve always been interested in small businesses and local economies, and wanted to know how we could encourage people to visit a place and give a city a chance that they normally wouldn’t visit on their own.”

It’s no secret that tourism is often hugely beneficial for local commerce, and Pack Up + Go is providing that opportunity to cities that don’t necessarily get to experience this benefit. The company currently only books trips in the United States and does not plan on changing that anytime soon due to a number of obstacles related to international travel.

In a jovial tone, Rafson refers to the company’s current state as “low tech, high touch,” and you can tell how important it is to her to hold the traveler experience above all else; something that she will not risk compromising as they continue to grow. “We’re trying to streamline our process a little bit more to see how we can scale and automate our process while still continuing to have humans plan our trips, because at the core of our business that’s who we are.’” Enhanced technology leads to increased possibilities, including longer trips and even multi-city trips; all which are in consideration for the future.

To date over 12,000 people have traveled with Pack Up + Go. Travelers have gotten the opportunity to explore new cities without having to spend any time and effort planning. Rafson is even happy to share that there have been over 10 engagements on trips they’ve planned, including an actual marriage ceremony in the airport prior to departing on a surprise trip.

All travelers have their own motives for wanting to get away. Whether it be to find a change in climate, spend some much needed time with a friend or partner, or just to explore somewhere that isn’t home, value can be found in traveling. Rafson realized that many people miss out on the world of travel due to the stressors of planning a trip, and saw an opportunity. Pack Up + Go has tapped into the market of spontaneity by finding those that are willing to roll the dice on adventure. Where will the dice roll next?

David Neimanis
Contributing Writer
David is a cultural producer and writer from Buffalo, NY. After spending years on the road as a traveling musician, David migrated to Pittsburgh, PA where he now writes for StartNow PGH, The Urbanist, and Beaux Arts. In addition to writing, David is a curator at PG&H, and works for 412 Food Rescue.