My Startup: AHOY

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

International business travel can be difficult. AHOY acts as a digital flight concierge to make the process smoother and more reliable for travellers.

The startup aims to create the best flying experience for busy business travellers. As opposed to managing flights across multiple apps, tracking times, terms and check-ins independently of one another, AHOY keeps it all in one place and does a lot of the leg-work automatically.

And should anything go wrong or plans change, AHOY makes it easy to change or cancel flights - and be fully aware of the fees involved.

Founders: Sylvia Brune, Bart Hernas and Mike Hernas

Founded: 2015


Sylvia Brune, AHOY

We heard from Sylvia Brune about the story behind the company.

Why did you start AHOY?

I started AHOY because I want business travel to be as amazing as looking out an airplane window. But four years ago, it wasn’t anything like that. It was dreadful, and no one seemed to care. 

Before AHOY, I travelled a lot for work, especially between Cape Town, Nairobi, and Lagos - where my team was investing in startups. Managing that amount of travel was time-consuming and stressful.

Our plans changed a lot, flights were delayed, and coordinating, booking, and changing flights took forever. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of random travel tasks and knowledge I had to juggle alongside quite a demanding day job.

As a previously enthusiastic traveller, I was shocked to find that after a while, the prospect of travelling inspired dread rather than joy. 

When I moved back to Europe, I was curious as to why booking and managing travel was so broken. I needed to find out if others felt the same, and what other issues business travellers frequently encountered. So I wrote to some business travellers I knew, and said that if they were stuck or frustrated when travelling, to just WhatsApp me and I’d fix it. 

I started receiving requests, and people’s travel problems became my problems. When they were stranded, they would send emojis of tears streaming or that angry cursing one. When I was able to help them change a flight they were about to miss, they would send all kinds of crazy emojis to show how grateful they were. Those first months were quite special, and sometimes I miss the personal connection that was created by helping travellers through highs and lows. 

However, as that WhatsApp number was passed around, and travellers all over the world became reliant on the 24/7 chat, it became unmanageable. If I wanted to help more travellers, AHOY had to become more than just me. At that point I met Polish tech twins Mike and Bart. They thought I was on to something, and less than 24 hours later they joined as Co-founders and invested in AHOY.

Tell us more about the tech behind the product.

We made a list of all the things travellers had used the WhatsApp chat for, and started finding ways to help them do that in an app. 

For example, we noticed that businesspeople were often uncertain if and when they would be travelling. By the time they could make a decision, the price had gone up or the flight was sold out. So we built the ability to put flights on hold, to take the stress out of the decision, and limit hurried mistakes.

Travellers would also ask a lot about changes and refunds. Not because they wanted to change a flight, but because they wanted to know that if they had to, they could. So we pulled in exact costs of changing and refunding clearly in the flight details. Eventually, we also built an automatic change function where they could see alternative flights, and change instantly if necessary. 

We also found that many travellers had previously experienced the frustration of thinking they had a flight, only to show up at the airport without a confirmed booking. So we built into the system that the 13-digit ticket number was always shown when the ticket is confirmed. We also followed up with travellers if they had put a flight on hold but maybe forgotten to confirm it.

And of course, we kept the 24/7 chat in the app. So if travellers were ever unsure of anything, or needed something fast, real humans were always there and ready to help instantly.

Where are you at right now?

We’ve spent the last three years working towards creating an amazing travel experience for business travellers. It’s great to see how far we’ve come, but still have a long way to go to make business travel pure joy. 

We’ve sorted the basic needs of travellers. Beyond that, we believe it’s important for business travellers to be able to personalise their travel while on the go. This means that the mobile experience has to be simple, informative, and actionable quickly. Anything travellers need which isn’t yet automated gets sorted by our 24/7 flight concierge agents. 

The pressure placed on young talent in high-growth environments means that they don’t have time to deal with travel hassle and uncertainty. So far, we’ve focused on these types of travellers. Because they’d make and change plans a lot, sometimes at the last minute, we had to make it possible to book any flight up to one hour before take-off. 

These travellers are currently a small but growing segment of the business travel market. But they're the ones who struggle most to get what they need done in time, using traditional travel systems.

What are your aims for the next year?

The next steps for AHOY will be to automate how travellers personalise their travel to a greater degree. Sometimes it’s the small details, like instant insight into which frequent travel programme has been added; seeing what meal they will get on the flight; being able to buy a preferred seat ahead of check-in; checking luggage allowances and constraints; and having the ability to add luggage at the last second if needed.

Our goal is to allow travellers to focus on why they’re travelling and what matters to them, so they don’t have to spend time looking through documents, being on hold with airlines, or trying to contact agents to make bookings and amendments.

What's been the hardest thing about getting off the ground?

Most business travellers have become accustomed to whatever system they use. And many accept that hassle and stress is just part of travelling a lot. Some of them have encyclopaedias of information in their heads, and intricate systems to avoid disappointment. 

Getting anyone to try something new is always hard, even if it has the potential to be infinitely better than what they're used to. This is especially true for products or services that are important to getting your job done, and where mistakes are expensive. 

The other challenge is that the underlying technology that airline tickets are built on is overly complicated and different for each airline. Prices and terms vary, depending on the country of sale, deals, licences, and distribution partners. Building a consistent and reliable experience that travellers can trust has been interesting.

Why should more people be using AHOY?

Frequent business travellers will know I’m not being meme-style ironic when I say “the struggle is real”. There are hundreds of things to remember and fix, while still being expected to perform at the top of your game.

For anyone who’s ever been stuck in an airport when all they wanted to do was get on a plane and go home - and who hasn’t? - will appreciate that with AHOY, they can enjoy peace of mind and flexibility when they need it.

How much will it cost users - and why is it worth the investment?

Its a pay-as-you-go model. Travellers pay €10 to book a flight, €20 to change, and €30 to cancel and refund a ticket. This includes the use of our 24/7 flight concierge team. Travellers are also automatically checked in to all their flights, with their preferences added at least 24 hours before the flight, and a boarding pass sent to them - anything to reduce worry, stress, and allow for a smooth trip.

If you haven’t travelled internationally for business, it looks pretty fun. But the truth is, your battery levels are constantly hitting red, you’re overtired, behind on work, and can find it hard to stay present and enjoy time off with friends and family.

This is where AHOY comes in. We offer the speed and simplicity of a tourist booking site, but with the reliability and care business travellers should be able to expect.