But Marius no longer wanted to be just an employee, especially since he was no longer a business lawyer, and he became an entrepreneur. And because traveling has always been more than just a holiday activity, Marius launched Romanian Friend, a platform through which it aims to encourage as many foreign tourists as possible to visit our country and discover its authenticity.
“For me, traveling means more than just classic tourism. It means the curiosity to discover a new world, to see how the locals live, what kind of values they have and how their culture and history are reflected in the lifestyle they lead. At the end of a trip, I like to think I’ve opened my mind a little bit and I’m a man
The idea for the Romanian Friend platform came naturally, he says, from his expat experience. He was frequently asked by foreigners what he could visit in our country, and Marius had become a real promoter of Romania: he showed them photos from our country and gave them travel suggestions.
Ambassador for the beauties of Romania
“Many people told me that I was like an ambassador of Romania because I was talking with a lot of passion and enthusiasm about my country, something I didn’t even realize,” he says.
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“After countless such situations and feedback gathered from foreigners who visited our country, I asked myself two questions: what kind of information does a foreign tourist find who wants to visit Romania and how does our tourism market respond to current travel trends (online presence and services, short trips, practical information and inspirational content) to address independent travelers“, Says Marius.
Initially, he says, he imagined the platform as a simple marketplace that would bring together the tours he wanted to promote among foreigners. But he realized quite quickly that in this form, Romanian Friend would not have the success he wanted. “We are talking about the tourism / travel area, where the economic decision to make an online reservation is much more emotional, subjective and influenced by visual-inspirational or informative content”, explains the founder of Romanian Friend.
So, in Dubai itself, Marius did a survey walking down the street with a notebook in which he wrote down the feedback of the people he targeted as future customers. “I was asking people how they plan their trips and if they would use a website similar to mine. This is how we came to the conclusion that it is necessary to gain the trust of the visitor or potential customer through quality content and practical advice.. Later, through my own research, I realized that the content sections are also important for the online marketing strategy, so, although it complicated my plans, I decided to add content sections as well ”.
After validating his business opportunity, in November 2016 he decided to launch the Romanian Friend platform in the form it currently exists. It happened on his birthday, he was in Thailand and he had trouble finding information and recommendations in a foreign country with an even better tourism infrastructure than Romania.
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“A long process followed in which we prepared the ground and studied what it means to develop a website, online marketing, validate a business idea, but also competition, both on the internal and external market. Website development started around January 15, 2017 and the development of the network of partners and other aspects of the business immediately thereafter. An intense period of work followed, especially in February and March, because I am the sole founder and I had to do them all (website design, user flow, logo, contacting partners, editing content and offers). My luck was that on the way many friends helped me “, Marius details.
So far, the young man has invested about 5,500 euros in the platform, for the creation of the site, but also for marketing and the services of freelancers, his platform being active since April 18, 2017.
What Romanian Friend offers
At the moment, Romanian Friend is a website that offers 2 things: an online booking platform where visitors can make reservations for tours and excursions offered by local guides chosen by Marius and his collaborators, as well as many sections of content with practical information (travel tips, sights, map), events and inspirational articles (blog posts) useful for foreign tourists who want to plan a visit to Romania.
“Practically, Romanian Friend wants to be a one-stop-shop for anyone interested in visiting our country and se is mainly addressed to tourists who plan their trip online and independently, so who do not come through travel agencies or pre-arranged trips. In addition, Romanian Friend is a local product, an important difference compared to LonelyPlanet or RoughGuides, TripAdvisor or GetYourGuide “, says Marius Iliescu.
Romanian Friend targets foreign tourists aged 25 to 44, mostly millennials and Generation X, from all over the world (focusing on Europe and North America), who travel independently, plan and inform you for travel in the online environment, they want flexibility and are looking to discover the culture of a new destination in an authentic and local way.
This is, in fact, the advantage of Romanian Friend over platforms such as TripAdvisor, GetYourGuide, ToursByLocals. Romanian Friend provides them with a local and informed selection of guides and excursions promoted on the platform, updated and relevant information gathered “from the field”, instant online support with any reservation or question, and, in general, an experience that saves visitors the most valuable resource: time spent planning a trip to Romania.
”We centralize all the information that an independent tourist needs to visit our country, making his life much easier for planning a trip“Says Marius.
Thus, first of all, the founder of the platform ensures that the tours contain all the information a tourist needs. After the tourist makes a reservation request and makes the payment, Romanian Friend automatically sends the request to the partner. The latter responds according to his availability, and may even propose a plus or minus day. “Romanian Friend offers assistance to tourists with reservations and can take requests for groups, customized routes or interest-based travels and assign them to the right partners in our network,” he explains.
Promoting small business
At the same time, being a combination between an online booking and a content website, Romanian Friend has the possibility to promote visiting Romania through an integrated, diversified and modern marketing strategy. “Unlike other platforms outside the borders, or the informative ones of the tourism authorities, we want to attract more people to come to Romania, not just to catch those who have already made the decision,” says Marius.
Last but not least, Marius Iliescu proposed that, through Romanian Friend promote responsible tourism, respectively that which contributes to the development of the local economy by including the goods and services offered by small businesses in the places visited. “In other words, the tourist’s money should go to family pensions, meals with products from locals, visits to craftsmen or even tours in collaboration with NGOs. Almost all our tours contain such elements and I am very proud of it “, says Marius.
Regarding the offer on the platform, Romanian Friend works on the basis of zonal partners. For example, says Marius, someone who knows the Cluj or Maramureș area very well does not make trips to the Brașov or Banat area, and vice versa. Another principle that the young man approached on the platform is not to have 2 partners who do similar routes. “There are additional elements by which we want to make sure that we promote quality services at real and low costs for tourists. At the same time, this model gives us a lot of flexibility because we have to take into account the hypothesis that the requested guide is not available. Most tours are selected from the existing offer of guides for one simple reason: they know best the areas, the routes and the way things go.r. However, some of the excursions have been adjusted to our recommendation to include certain objectives or to make them more accessible to the general public. In the future we will collaborate with them to create new routes and experiences “, says Marius Iliescu.
Romanian Friend Perspectives
According to him, the partners are chosen after a rigorous documentation process that involves checking the reviews, the asking price related to the route, the certifications of the guide, local information about it. “Then we have a telephone conversation to find out more details about their activity and see if the mentality and services offered to tourists match the objectives, vision and target clients of Romanian Friend,” he says.
Regarding how to monetize the platform, Marius states that he applies a fee for each individual booking confirmed: 10% from the partner and 10% from the customer. In the last 3 months, Romanian Friend had an average of about 100 unique visitors / day.
“We have crossed the threshold of 10 confirmed reservations and we are in talks with 2 groups of over 15 people for customized tours. Being a new website that needs to make its place among many others, mainly foreign and with high authority, and with a brand still unknown, the above results are encouraging especially because it validates my business model that is based on an approach different and focused exclusively on Romania “, mentions Marius, who hopes that at the end of this year he will have revenues of 2,000 euros, and next year he will exceed 5,000 euros.
His plan is to add new offers so that in no more than 3 years, Romanian Friend will be able to cover all the cities in the country of tourist interest, also served by airports. Its stakes are city breaks and day trips, as well as various types of interest travel (ie hiking, bike tours, food tours, wildlife tracking). “Most foreign tourists do not know what can be done or seen in Romania, so we also have the element of surprise on our side.”