Friendship

Welcome to the latest issue of The Window Seat magazine. This month we look at “Friendship” and how travel enhances and strengthens some of our closest relationships.

Naren Shaam has always been passionate about traveling. Morocco, Portugal and Switzerland are just a few of the destinations he has explored. Credit: Naren Shaam

The Future of Travel: Q&A with Naren Shaam

Our CEO discusses his passion for travel, why he started Omio and what’s in store for the pastime post-COVID

The pandemic ravaged the travel industry. Planes sat quietly on runways, ferry horns fell silent, and trains and buses emitted a whimper. The memory of our last vacation seems like a dream. However, thanks to the effective rollout of vaccines in countries across the globe, it will soon be time to weigh anchor and set sail again.

The roots of travel go back to ancient times and the passion to explore new places and cultures is deeply ingrained into our souls. But what’s next? We caught up with Naren Shaam, our CEO and founder. Find out how a backpacking trip sparked his desire to start a travel company that helps people connect across destinations, what makes travel so special, and which emerging travel trends are waiting in the wings. 

Lisa Huebener: Let’s start at the beginning. What sparked your passion for travel?
Naren Shaam: It’s very hard to identify where someone’s travel passion begins, because I actually haven’t met anyone that is not passionate about travel. It’s an opportunity to just let go day to day, explore new ways and learn something. [In] my childhood days, my parents and I have traveled a lot, mainly in India. I went to the [United States] to study and I’ve been traveling a lot since then. I can’t remember a time when travel was not a huge part of my life.

L.H.: How did your backpacking trip through Europe in 2010 inspire you to start a travel platform?
N.S.: I was traveling in Europe and I did something like 14 countries. It was the first time I explored the continent and it was fantastic. I went to 10 or 12 different cities in Germany alone. Truly what you would call backpacking. I took mainly trains and buses across the whole continent and stayed at hostels. Overall, I didn’t even spend $7,000 for the entire trip in about three months for food, boarding and everything. It was the beginning of exploring the beauty of travel [and] it was the eye opener that you can enjoy the journey as much as the destination. 

Each journey is unique and it doesn’t have to be much hassle. One company (or us hopefully) can create that difference in the journey. Everybody loves travel, but most people hate booking: finding the right price, so you’re not cheated and making sure all your amenities are included and [provide] good information on delays and platforms, etc. All the little moments sum up to the whole experience that can be changed. Companies like ours can bring this inventory into a simple experience. I can just rely on Omio to take care of me.

L.H.: As a travel expert, what makes a vacation special and memorable for you?
N.S. When I was younger, I wanted to meet a lot of people and be in crowded places. Now, when I get the opportunity [to take a vacation] it’s about finding more peace. What makes it special for me is when I can combine that kind of peace along with the cultural experience of staying with the locals, being somewhere very local, speaking their language, and tasting the local food. 

But what makes travel most memorable for most people is deeper inside. We settle for a norm in our home locations. Everything has to be right, because it’s mundane, it’s routine. When you travel, you’re more forgiving [and] complain less. Your horizons are completely different, you try to add more positive memories. People want to travel [and] explore more.

L.H.: The pandemic had a drastic impact on the tourism industry, but people’s desire to travel continues unabated. What do you think travel will be like post-COVID and how will it have changed for the better?
N.S.: It’s gonna be a lot more emotional. There’s so much bottled up demand that it’s going to come out like crazy when you open the borders. It’s going to be memorable.

The environment around us has changed and travel has to adapt to that. People will travel again, but it will be a lot more digital [and] they won’t take it for granted as before. 

Another thing that will change is the consumption of content. You’re researching a lot more and you want to make sure [your destination] is COVID-safe. I’ll seek a lot of information to answer questions like what is safe, do I have to quarantine, etc. But the habit of consuming content will not go away, in the future it will change to something else like interesting things I want to do or other things that I read up before I actually go and experience. 

South Africa, the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech and the Great Wall of China afford an escape from everyday life and spectacular views. Credit: Naren Shaam

L.H.: What advice can you give our readers to travel safely?
N.S.: I think the Open Travel Index is really good to start exploring. We’re still not there in terms of giving advice on regions, but it gives me a starting point [for research]. I would very much recommend to follow government regulations as much as possible. Social distancing and wearing a mask actually makes a meaningful difference on how fast the virus spreads. I’m not saying don’t travel. But if you do, please follow the guidelines, as painful as it is to sit with a mask on a four hour train. It’s totally necessary before we’re out of it.

L.H.: How has the pandemic affected destination choices and do you think the current travel trends will continue?
N.S.: Taking ground transport [like] trains, especially for longer distances, where before you would just hop on a flight is here to stay. I definitely think staycations are here to stay, too, especially with flexible work policies. What will evolve is people can work from anywhere for a short period of time. You would go on a six week holiday and would work from there for a month [and have a] two week holiday after.

To not just go to a crowded location but to smaller towns, alternate locations is definitely one of the big [trends]. In the beginning, people will be cautious to avoid the crowded towns, and that gives an opportunity for them to explore smaller towns and to cherish them.

It’s almost like as a non-European, the first thing you want to do is go to Rome, Paris, Amsterdam. The second time you don’t want to go to the same town again, you go to small towns like Bruges or Florence and the third time you want to explore even smaller towns like the Amalfi [coast] or Taormina [in Sicily]. That’s something that’s going to accelerate because of the pandemic.   

L.H.: You have friends all over the world, how do you stay connected these days?
N.S.: It’s [about] social media and communication as much as possible. I have a lot of video calls with my friends. We try to catch up as frequently as possible. Everyone’s super busy, a lot of them are running companies too. So it makes it equally difficult for us to coordinate schedules. 

L.H.: What places in Europe are must-see spots and why?
N.S.: My number one is Rome. I’ve probably been to Rome once a year for more than a decade except last year because of COVID. I still cannot see it all, the amount of history is mind-blowing. The first time you get around the famous [places] like the Pantheon, but the second and the third time you truly start to explore. 

I would recommend Dubrovnik and Croatia. I love the south of France around Nice, Marseille, Saint-Tropez. I really love Switzerland, too, especially if you want to explore nature and the countryside. It’s a great country to take trains through. I also love the north like Sweden. Especially in winter with snow everywhere. And then Taormina in Sicily, one of the most beautiful towns to spend a few days.

Rich in history and culture, Rome is a place you can’t just visit once. Credit: Nicole Reyes/Unsplash