Taking Flight: The Travelstart Story

It’s not every day one gets to write about one’s boss. There is always a certain amount of trepidation in what they will inevitably think of you afterwards; you don’t want to come across as an ass kisser nor do you want to totally disassociate your personal emotions and feelings which you most certainly have towards this fellow human being that you spend a relatively healthy amount of time with.

But with Stephan Ekbergh, it has always been safe to say anything, as long as it’s smart, or funny, or witty, or clever or all of the above, just as long as it’s the truth. I have never in my entire career had a boss who was so willing to listen to what you had to say, let alone a boss who truly believed that women make better CEOs.
He is a sci-fi man. A forward looker. A deep thinker. And when you look at this incredible, quirky, heartwarming success story of a company which basically spearheaded the advent of travel tech as we know it, you will probably fall just a little bit in love with him, too!

Here is a just a piece of the story, written from notes taken at the Travelstart Founder Story Event at Innovation City.

In the Time of Disco
The story of Travelstart is a tale of entrepreneurship, resilience, and innovation. Ekbergh’s extensive experience in the travel industry, combined with his ingenuity, allowed him to navigate the ups and downs, and emerge as industry leader. Founded in 1999 with very limited resources, the company became a household name relatively quickly. But how did it all begin? One can almost say this adventure has its origins in music.
Ekbergh is a huge music fan; he had even been a professional DJ in the 70s. A lot of his musical influences came from the Beatles, the hedonistic days of Studio 54, and the rock’n’roll era, and musical influence on him still continues to this day. If you don’t believe me, just watch this keynote speech he delivered at Innovation City’s Awards Night in April 2023 as proof!

It wasn’t until 1981 that his journey in the travel industry truly began, after a prompt from his then girlfriend’s mother to ‘get a real job,’ instead of having tons of fun playing clubs in Stockholm’s gay disco scene.
He quickly learned the mechanics and craft of the industry from a boss he said was ‘the smartest guy in the room,’ being 30 years his senior. Under his guidance, he spent 2 years learning the mechanics and craft of the travel industry, which inevitably led him to start a company converting airline information which then was on paper, onto floppy disks, and then distributing them.

When the internet became available, they began operating online. After a short while though, Ekbergh was actually fired by investors, as he had been ‘too complicated to deal with.’ He remembers that day vividly; he was sitting with the worst toothache ever in a dentist’s office and saw an ad for the company on the tv that was playing in the waiting room. This enraged him even further, and he decided then and there that he was going to get even.
Raising Travelstart

To put his plan of revenge into place, he needed to raise capital: “I did about a hundred presentations. They were looking for certain types; preferably young and good looking, and preferably from business school. I felt like a dinosaur already and I had never done a PowerPoint presentation in my life so mine was absolutely terrible!” he recalls.

Testament to his amazing ability to tolerate and engage with young and old people alike, it was only after a young man from business school who worked for him had suggested they write a report on how the internet is changing the travel industry, that he raised the $10 million to found what we now know as Travelstart. He also got his revenge by seeing the other company eventually go bankrupt.

Incidentally, the name Travelstart was just one of a few he had to choose from, which he admits wasn’t his favourite first choice; the dot com was owned by a Hawaiian condo owner who offered to sell the dot com to him for $1million, which he thought was ludicrous. But he bided his time, and during the 2008 crisis, he reached out again to the owner who then agreed to sell it to him for $50K.

Travelstart faced financial difficulties after the 9/11 attacks, and Ekbergh had to take drastic measures to keep the company afloat. At this time, there was a huge demand for cheap tickets and Ryanair was at the forefront of that offering. After several failed attempts to get a meeting with Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, in his signature ballsy way, Ekbergh sent him a fax of a press release stating Travelstart’s partnership with the Airline (which constituted a generous offering of $1 million and no commission), to which he finally got a response from O’Leary lauding him for the witty move, despite the fact that he inevitably said no to the deal. It didn’t matter, Ekbergh said, the PR was great for Travelstart anyway!

Moving the Business to South Africa
Anyone who has ever had a conversation with Ekbergh knows that he absolutely and utterly adores South Africa. One never gets tired of hearing it from him either, because most of us who live in SA, whether we like it or not, can’t help but have a deep, gnawing fear about how long this beautiful African romance will last.

The difference between him and rich folk living here is that he genuinely wants everyone else to prosper too. It explains his never ending patronage of local artists and photographers, his support of sports, and incessant promotion of Cape Town as a world-class travel destination, but it’s also in the time he freely donates to help South African startups reach their full potential in his venture at Innovation City.

Before moving down, Ekbergh had reached out to local travel companies but was constantly told that the CEO would be out playing golf. He quickly realised that no CEO was ever at work! “I thought: If the CEO is out playing golf all the time, this is going to be easy for us!” he said.

When Travelstart expanded to South Africa, Ekbergh was seen as a rather exotic creature that everyone wanted to meet; the vibe in SA was certainly different to Sweden where work was a very personal, hands-on thing. In SA, Ekbergh realised that this journey would be about building a strong team, and this is what he set out to do.

Among the many and amazing male employees who have contributed to Travelstart’s success, Ekbergh called up a number of his female leaders to speak at his event. Enter the powerful women who at some point did, and some still do contribute to Travelstart’s successes like Lori Hayley Joffe CA(SA), Paulina Klotzbücher, Odette Faling, Michelle Kleu, and Linda Balme, all whose stories of shenanigans, comedic marketing bloopers, mishaps and even more wins all contributed to the many adventures of Travelstart in South Africa and beyond.

Surviving Covid
The Covid pandemic was a significant challenge for Travelstart with some very hard decisions to be made. But it also became a reset for the company; they refocused on customer satisfaction and incorporated AI tools into their system. In fact, if you’re lucky to call in to customer service on any given day, you may just be helped by Ekbergh himself, who is shifted in just like everyone else in the team, to handle customer calls!

Flying into the Sunrise
Despite the challenges, Ekbergh credits his team for the success of Travelstart. He acknowledges that while his business journey in Sweden was mostly about his own growth, the journey into Africa became, and very much still is, about the people that work with him. This team focus has arguably allowed Travelstart to thrive, even in the face of significant challenges.

Ekbergh’s story is a testament to the power of perseverance, innovation, and risk-taking. He took a small company and transformed it into a major player in the travel industry. His willingness to take risks, his strong team focus and dedication to customer satisfaction are all critical factors in Travelstart’s success. Despite the challenges, Ekbergh remains optimistic and sees a bright future ahead. Travelstart seems to be going in the opposite direction of a ‘sunset ending;’ flying maybe not into the sunrise, but most certainly alongside it.

Sandra Buckingham is a Journalist and works as Marketing Head for Innovation City