It was over their mutual love of football that Rayan Ismail, Georges Batrouni and Firas Arab hatched their plan to create Fly-Foot, the first football game travel company in the region.
Football (or soccer) is the world’s most popular sport with an estimated fan-following of 3.5 billion people. The 2014 FIFA World Cup held in Brazil reached a total of 3.2 billion viewers, with 1 billion fans tuning in for the final between Argentina and Germany. Football is also tightly interwoven with the lives of people from the Middle East, being the region’s most popular sport. However, the Middle Eastern football fan community remains underserved. While Lebanon is host to numerous football fan clubs such as the Manchester United Supporters’ Club and Chelsea FC Lebanon, not many people get the opportunity to travel abroad to watch their favorite players in action. With the upcoming UEFA European Championship in France, Fly-Foot, a local startup, is geared up to get their own piece of the action.
In 2011, Ismail, Batrouni and Arab, who are based in Lebanon, London and Barcelona respectively, all pitched in from their personal savings to fund their project. “We had no salaries and we used to only get paid from sales commission,” remembers Ismail. The business partners saved all their earnings in the first two years in order to fund growth. “The team stood together from the very beginning until today and managed to run a company out of nothing,” he adds.
While most start-ups research their market in order to gain perspective on their clients before launching, the team at Fly-Foot found no competitors in the region to compare their business to and instead opted for the trial-and-error strategy in the first two years of operation. “We felt that we were not only promoting our product but also creating the market for it, and that was our main challenge,” explains Ismail.
It was with that leap of faith and a strong will to share the live football experience with fellow fans that the partners embarked on their venture, selling their first package to their friends for less than $1000. “There was no business or marketing rationale behind [the pricing of the tickets] but we considered it as a first challenge,” says Ismail. Five years later, Fly-Foot has a more structured pricing system.
The company offers two types of products: the semi-packages that include accommodation, stadium seats and Fly-Foot on-spot services, starting at $300 and the full packages that include round-trip flights, accommodation, stadium seats, airport pick-ups and Fly-Foot on-spot services, starting at $700. The majority of package sales are in the $1000 – $1500 category.
Fly-Foot started by serving Lebanese fans and later expanded its services to cater to fans in Dubai, Amman and Jeddah, among other cities. Today, the company flies more than 2000 clients a season (including the World Cup and the European Championship) from the Middle East to stadiums in eight cities across Europe.
Business model and new teammates
The Fly-Foot squad, consisting of 12 fixed full-timers in the starting lineup and various reserves (such as drivers), expanded their initial model of football travel to sell clients more than just a match when visiting new cities. The team builds on-the-ground relationships with football clubs, local boutique hotels, nightclubs and other attractions in Europe to give clients who want to make an entire vacation out of their trips a variety of options. “We have an on-spot service if [the customers] need anything, if they want to ask where they can go shopping, book a restaurant or get on our guest list for certain clubs,” says Ismail.
Fly-Foot is also incorporating business-to-business sales into their model by working with travel agencies to maximize profit and efficiency for both players of the game. “We provide the service to the agents but leave it up to them to set the final price to their customers,” explains Ismail. Travel agents can buy semi-packages from Fly-Foot at discounted partner rates, add them to flight tickets and sell them to their customers. “We position ourselves as providers or suppliers to these agencies,” explains Ismail. The company gives its partners special rates on each game and trusted partners get priority on ticket availability and prices.
The business trio does not depend on advertising to generate new business leads but instead relies on social media and word-of-mouth. “Fly-Foot has been growing organically since we began,” explains Ismail. They plan to develop an app. While Ismail prefers not to talk exact revenue figures, he tips that Fly-Foot is expecting to grow its turnover to $1 million this year.
Looking to grow
The company is also expanding into the region. “We are attracted by cities with low setup costs since we’re still a self-funded company. We opened an office in Amman in January 2016 and are trying to serve the region out of there in order to mitigate the risks present in Lebanon,” he explains. Next on the list is growth into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) market by opening offices in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The expansion comes with added payroll and operations expenses to the tune of $500,000, and the business partners are cautious about raising capital. “We are being careful with the equity financing as we believe that an investor willing to finance the growth in the GCC should also be able to provide a business added value, or else we can go for debt financing especially since the needed amount is below $1 million,” he says.
And while they may be looking to expand beyond Lebanon, the business partners are not yet ready to part ways with the company they created. Asked if they are seeking a potential buyout or looking to go public any time soon, Ismail explains that Fly-Foot is currently not for sale. “We are registered in Lebanon, and going public in such an immature financial market is not an option,” he says, adding that the team is “adding value to our brand by the minute.”