You’re going to see hotels develop more touchless technology to avoid touching common areas. You see it already in some hotels that have contactless arrivals and departures, and you’re going to see more advanced apps going forward.
As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Randall Kaplan.
Randall is a co-founder of Akamai Technologies, a content delivery and security software company that serves nearly 30% of the world’s web traffic, is a member of the S&P 500, employs nearly 8,000 people, and had 3.2 billion dollars in 2020 revenues. Kaplan is the founder and CEO of many innovative companies including Sandee, the “Yelp” of beaches which has catalogued 94 categories of information for every beach in the world — more than 50,000 beaches in 212 countries; JUMP Investors, an entrepreneurial investment firm whose early investments included Google and Seagate; Thrive Properties, an LA-based real estate firm; River City Restoration, an Idaho-based company that restores old Ford Broncos; and CollarCard, a promotional products company that makes credit card-sized plastic cards that contain high-quality pop-out collar stays. Kaplan is also an avid ID beach photographer, philanthropist, author, podcast host, and dad.
Randall has been an advisor to and has served on the boards of more than 50 companies, and over the last 18 years has mentored more than 200 students through JUMP’s annual summer internship program. Randall has been a guest lecturer at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, USC’s Marshall School of Business, USC’s Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, and Draper University. In 2001, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented Randall with the Einstein Technology Medal on behalf of The Jerusalem Fund. In 2006, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law presented Randall with the school’s first Distinguished Entrepreneur Award.
Most recently, Kaplan is adding “Author” to his list of accolades, with the publication of his coffee table book Bliss: Beaches which features his drone photos of beaches from around the world and is set to release in June 2021. Through Kaplan’s work on Sandee, a travel company focused on the promotion of beaches and beach tourism around the world, and whose mission is to create the world’s first beach brand, he is the world’s foremost beach expert and has been given the moniker and trademark of Mr. Beach. Since Bliss: Beaches went on sale six weeks ago, preorders have made it the #1 Best Seller in four different photography categories on Amazon over the last four weeks.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
From a young age I was extremely motivated to be successful and was born with the entrepreneurial gene. I took an economics class during my sophomore year of high school where we read profiles about many successful entrepreneurs. I loved the stories, and from that point on, I knew what I wanted to do.
I went to the University of Michigan, and during my freshman year I started a t-shirt business by taking 600 dollars of my bar mitzvah money, buying 100 t-shirts, and going door-to-door to sell them. I would get kicked out of one floor, go to another, and then re-enter the dorm through another entrance. This experience taught me valuable cold-calling and sales skills which has been instrumental in my career.
I graduated in the top 1% of my class and wanted to work on Wall Street, but didn’t want to work for two years before getting my MBA. I applied to law school instead as a means to an end — the plan was to get a graduate degree and then transition to a business career. I went to Northwestern Law and graduated with honors, and my first year out of school was a complete disaster — I was laid off after five and a half weeks and had three jobs in eight months. With my career off to a terrible start, I decided it was time to try to switch gears.
I knew what I wanted — to be the right-hand person to a successful CEO. I came up with a unique plan to write very detailed and unique letters to them asking for informational interviews — not jobs. Everybody I told said these CEOs would never respond to a cold letter and meet with me. They were wrong. I wrote 300 letters and got 80 meetings including the CEOs of Disney and Marriott. One of the people I wrote to was Eli Broad, the founder and CEO of SunAmerica who had started two Fortune 500 companies. Four months after our first meeting, he hired me as Assistant to the Chairman / Managing Director.
Working with Eli was an incredible experience, but after two years I went to him and told him that I was thinking of leaving and wanted to pursue other options including pursuing my dream of starting my own company. After a few months of researching and networking I met two students and a professor at MIT who had invented technology that, if it worked, would revolutionize the way content was served on the Internet. I loved the idea and the potential, and I quit my job to commute 3,000 miles to work each week to start a company with an unproven technology, no CEO, and no funding.
When I told a few friends and my family what I was doing, every single one thought I was crazy. I wasn’t crazy — we raised money fairly quickly, and a little over a year later we went public. The company today has 8,000 employees and earned 3.2 billion dollars in revenues last year.
When I left Akamai, I had the freedom to do what I wanted. I started my entrepreneurial investment firm JUMP Investors, and in the last 20 years we have invested in more than 70 early-to-late stage start-ups including Google. I’ve been fortunate enough to start other companies in multiple areas including a real estate company and a car restoration business. And for the last seven years, I’ve spent 90% of my time on Sandee which I think is going to be a huge success.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting story of my career is how as a 27-year old with an incredibly unsuccessful legal career and no experience in business managed to get a job as Assistant to the Chairman for Eli Broad. The answer starts with my letter writing campaign and my letter to Eli, which, similar to all of my other letters, took more than five hours to write. My letter was unique and showed I had done a tremendous amount of research — it included information about every job he had ever had and included several sections with tabs, was spiral bound, and had a cellophane cover.
When Eli’s assistant called me for an interview, I spent 20 hours preparing and studying for it. I read the annual report, 10-K, analyst reports, and every article I could find about Eli and the company. I outlined my research which included footnotes in the financial statements, created a list of 20 questions, and memorized them. The meeting lasted 90 minutes and went extremely well, and at the end he asked me to take a finance or accounting class at UCLA and said that I could get him a catalog and he would pick one for me.
I left his office, drove to the UCLA campus, parked illegally, ran around for 20 minutes until I found one, got a parking ticket, drove back to my apartment, wrote a hand-written thank you note, and dropped the note and the catalog back to his office — all within an hour. When his assistant called a week later to tell me Mr. Broad recommended that I take one of two classes, I told her I would take both of them. A month later, on my 27th birthday, I received an offer to work there.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I started at SunAmerica, I would arrive at the office very early — usually between 6:15 and 6:30 in the morning. I was single at the time, and one more morning as I was walking on the sidewalk to get into the building, an attractive woman in a Ford Bronco pulled into the parking garage. As she stopped to let me pass, we smiled at one another for a couple of seconds. I went up to my office to get a piece of paper, wrote a short note that said “Do you want to have coffee sometime,” put it in an envelope with my business card, and left it on what I thought was her windshield. Three hours later, a Senior Vice President called me and asked me to come up to his office — and then showed me the note and said, “Do you mind telling me what this is all about?”
I explained the sidewalk smile, and he told me that I had left the note on an employee’s car and that neither she nor her husband who also worked in the building was too happy. I was aghast, confused, and embarrassed, so I went upstairs to apologize to the employee. Thankfully, it wasn’t the same person. It wasn’t too funny then, but it’s funny now. There’s a good footnote here — I’ve been long-time friends with both of them and later hired the husband as one of my money managers.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
I think that work ethic is the most important contributor to our success, and we highlight and emphasize this during our hiring process. This year we had an employee at one of our companies leave before we could find a replacement, and another team member took over his responsibilities in addition to his regular responsibilities. This employee was already working incredibly long hours, including Saturdays and Sundays. He did it with a great attitude, and his work product was incredible. After two months, I called him into my office and told him I was giving him two extra weeks off and was sending him on an all-expenses paid trip to anywhere in the world he wanted to go. He wasn’t expecting that, and when he came back to work, he was recharged and raring to go — and he also got a nice raise.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been extremely fortunate to have had a few mentors in my personal and business life. My first mentor was a man named David Page who was an icon and very prominent figure in the Detroit community. He was on many boards and was the CEO and Managing Partner of Honigman which is the leading and most successful law firm in Detroit. He wrote me an incredible recommendation for law school, and I worked at Honigman as a summer associate between my second and third years. It was an incredible experience, and he made sure that my assigned mentor that summer was a man named David Foltyn who eventually succeeded him as their CEO. Twenty-one years later, David Foltyn was the best man at my wedding.
Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
The beach tourism market is a 5 trillion dollars a year business and represents more than 5% of the world’s GDP. More than a billion people a year visit the beach, and despite its enormous size, there was no complete resource that contained information about every beach in the world before we created Sandee. When you’re planning a vacation and you search for beaches in a particular location, you get paid ads from large travel companies and a lot of blogs and articles that contain limited information about a small number of beaches in any one particular location.
Sandee has completely changed that by offering information about every beach in one place — more than 50,000 beaches in 212 countries. We have cataloged 94 categories of information for all 50,000+ beaches, and users can filter through these categories in a clean, simple, and easy-to-use format to make sure they find their perfect beach.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
The average person planning a beach vacation will visit 32 websites, the majority of which are large travel websites trying to get you to book a trip, or blogs and articles that describe some of the amenities and activities at a particular beach. These sources provide some information, but they don’t allow you to choose exactly what you’re looking for. Tourists today want a personalized travel experience, and prior to booking a vacation, they want to know exactly what they’re going to experience when they visit. They don’t want to pick the wrong destination, and they don’t want to waste precious and hard-earned vacation days by going to the wrong beach once they arrive.
Travelers are not all alike — they all have different needs. Parents with young children typically want a beach with food, bathrooms, and showers. Couples on a romantic holiday typically want low popularity beaches. Volleyball players want to know if there are volleyball nets, and surfers want to know if they can surf. Our trademark is Choose Your Beach — and we give people the ability to do that.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
On the consumer side, we make it simple for travelers to find their perfect beach and make their vacations more enjoyable by giving them what they want before they book a vacation, and also by providing them detailed information once they arrive. They don’t waste any more precious vacation days guessing where to go.
On the business-to-business side, we’re working with government tourist boards to help them increase beach tourism in their states and countries. I’ve met with 14 Ministers of Tourism from around the world in countries where beach tourism is the largest component of GDP, and not a single one can tell me how many beaches they have — and their websites reflect that.
More data and content on DMO websites will lead to better search engine optimization and higher rankings on search results, as well as happier tourists who give better reviews online and to their travel agents, which leads to more bookings and more revenues. If we charge a government 100,000 dollars a year to license our proprietary data, and the average family of four spends 5,000 dollars on a week’s vacation, it only takes 20 new families to pay for our data. If our data leads to 10,000 new families visiting — which is only a one percent increase for countries that have 1 million tourists each year — our data results in 50 million dollars in additional revenues for that country. That’s a 500x return on their investment, which is compelling.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
You’re going to see hotels develop more touchless technology to avoid touching common areas. You see it already in some hotels that have contactless arrivals and departures, and you’re going to see more advanced apps going forward. Hotels are also going to eliminate the use of keycards to get to your hotel floor or enter your room — you’ll use your phone to get to your floor without pressing a button, and you’ll also use it to open the door to your room.
I think you’ll also see much greater reliance on technology to clean your room. A few hotels are already using germ-zapping robots with ultraviolet light that kills bacteria and viruses, and I think it will become a standard part of room cleaning in all hotels. I also think they’ll expand it beyond just cleaning the rooms, and can envision gyms and spas in the hotels closing 30 minutes every five hours for these robots to work their magic. People are still hesitant to get on planes, and I can see smaller versions of these robots cleaning airplanes before every flight.
You are a “travel insider.” How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
I’m a beach lover — the beach is and always has been my happy place, and beach vacations are my favorite types of vacation. I created Sandee to help beach lovers find their perfect beach, and as the world’s foremost beach expert, I have looked at beaches in 212 countries and have some very specific beach destinations that I’m excited to visit. I love to travel with my family, and my perfect vacation experience is visiting a new international destination that has beautiful beaches, fun activities for all of us, cities that are enriched with local culture, hotels with great amenities, and unique attractions that you can’t experience anywhere else.
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Giving back is one of my priorities and has easily been the most rewarding part of my career. When I was 27 years old, I started an event called The Justice Ball for an organization called Bet Tzedek that provides free legal aid to more than 12,000 poor, sick, and elderly, and homeless residents of Los Angeles each year. The Justice Ball is in its 24th year, and during that time it’s raised more than 6 million dollars and more than 30,000 people have attended the event. Seven years ago, a good friend and I started an event called The Imagine Ball which has raised millions for dollars for Imagine LA whose mission is help families transition out of homelessness. I have also created a foster care scholarship at the University of Michigan in honor of my grandmother who was raised in foster care, and I endowed a merit-based, full-tuition, all-expenses paid scholarship at Michigan for a student with an interest in business.
I spend around 10 percent of my time mentoring others, and that includes our successful summer internship program which gets more than 500 applications each year. It’s a teaching internship — I spend 60–90 minutes a day with the interns and we have amazing guest speakers each week. Most of the interns tell me that these experiences have changed their lives, and it’s a tremendous source of pride that I’ve helped more than 70 interns get their first jobs after graduation.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Visit: www.randallkaplan.com and follow along on Instagram:@randallkaplanphotography.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!