Sherpa's Max Tremaine on passenger documentation and requirement changes

Published on
August 7, 2023
Sherpa's Max Tremaine on passenger documentation and requirement changes
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In this installment of Zeno Live, sherpa° co-founder and CEO Max Tremaine joins Serko SVP of North America Tony D’Astolfo in the virtual studio to discuss “the documents part of international travel.”

Max explains why a company like sherpa° exists, breaks down the differences between visas, e-visas, and electronic travel authorizations, and shares changes underway for the company and the broader travel documentation and requirement landscape.  

Don't miss when Max enters the Zeno Zone and answers three on-the-spot questions from Tony.

Watch the recording or view the full transcript below.

Full Transcript

Tony D'Astolfo: Hi, and welcome to Zeno Live, the new live video series from travel booking and expense management provider Serko, where we feature subject matter experts on various topics across the corporate travel industry. I'm Tony D'Astolfo and today I'm joined by Max Tremaine, co-founder and CEO of Sherpa. Max, thanks for joining us.

Max Tremaine: Yeah, it's great to be here with you, Tony.

Tony D'Astolfo: I also hear, Max, you just landed in Istanbul which is a first for Zeno Live that we’ll be broadcasting from Istanbul. So, extra thanks for either staying up late or getting up early, whatever it is you're doing today.

Max Tremaine: Yeah, it's a fantastic city and honestly, I arrived this morning, so I'm not even sure which one it is if I'm up early or late.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right. Well, we got a lot to talk about today, so let's to it. And before I get started with the questions, Max, I don't, I don't wanna assume that people know what sherpa°does. So give us, the one-minute elevator pitch if you wouldn't mind.

Max Tremaine: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, in a few words, we make it easy to cross borders. We started the company because [co-founder Ivan Sharko] and I were personally, you know, very enthusiastic international travelers and we both just kept having issues crossing borders. Our idea was that a seamless border crossing process means integration.

So, we create integrations for the travel industry to give travelers the right information, get them the right visa, provide actionable information for operators about whether or not people have the right documents, and then eventually work more closely with governments to make travel visas and border crossings truly seamless.

Tony D'Astolfo: Good. Thank you for the background. You guys are experts in what I call the documents part of international travel. It's an area that can be especially challenging for people who don't do it very often, even if we're frequent flyers who maybe do European trips two, three times a year.

Let's get started with some basics, visas, e-visas, and electronic travel authorizations. What's the difference?

Max Tremaine: Yeah, it's a great place to start. A visa is a permission from a government for a traveler to enter a country. It’s quite a broad term. And, you know, thinking back to a couple of decades ago, the way that people typically got visas is one of two ways: they either had to show up at an embassy or consulate ahead of their trip to get express permission to enter a country for a specific amount of time, or they would show up at a customs and immigration desk and get a visa stamped in their passport. Most passports will have a title heading on each page saying visas. That's where you get something like — I'm a Canadian, so when I go to the U.S, I get like a B-1 or whatever it is. And that was a way to get a visa.

E-Visas are basically taking that process online. For people who need to pre-register to enter a country to be pre-approved, this is a way to provide that information online. And then for the government to deliver that permission online as well, which obviously saves a lot of time and money and enables governments to centralize these processes.

An ETA is a different animal. It’s an electronic travel authorization, which is very similar in form to an e-visa, but it is applied to travelers who are exempt from getting a pre-approval to enter. It's basically taking that process that the customs and immigration agent goes through the day of travel and then, putting that process online. It makes it very straightforward for people to provide the information they use for basic vetting so that they can do that process ahead of time, and have all of that information before people actually travel. It just makes the day-of travel process more streamlined for the traveler.

Tony D'Astolfo: Great overview. I've done all three. I'm always nervous, no matter what I've done, right?

Where do you think this is headed directionally? Like, do you ever think we'll have a global standard? I can remember going to India years ago, then going to Brazil, then going to Ireland — it’s a very different process. And I travel often to New Zealand or Australia. Is there a global standard emerging anytime soon? Where do you think this is headed?

Max Tremaine: I would say that e-visas and ETAs are becoming a very broad set of norms. In 2016, one in a hundred travelers needed some sort of electronic travel documentation for their trip. Today, it's about one in ten. In two years, it'll probably be close to one in two travelers who need some sort of electronic documentation before their day of travel. This is a huge shift and I wouldn't say that there are standards emerging necessarily, but there are norms. Governments are doing similar things with these programs. They're taking similar forms but every government is different and has, fairly aligned, but still different priorities. I suspect that these programs will have some differences. A stand out is the European Union is kind of working in lockstep to implement the [ETIAS visa waiver], which is gonna be for all of the Schengen area.

Tony D'Astolfo: I wanna come back to Europe, cause you mentioned it. Traveling for North Americans, I think the first place to open up was Europe. So walk us through Europe's process today and how sherpa° can help. Again, back to a standard, I think the European Union is kind of going in a direction, so walk us through that if you wouldn't mind, Max.

Max Tremaine: Yeah, absolutely. So it is something that is going to change pretty profoundly over the next couple of years. Right now for a lot of people traveling to Europe, people like us who have American or Canadian passports, traveling to Europe is pretty easy. You show up at any European airport and you get something stamped on your passport and that's good for you to travel through the Schengen area pretty freely. For people who need a Schengen visa, it is a process that is pretty lengthy typically. I mean, it's not arduous per se, but it requires putting some documents together and showing up at a consulate.

Two things are happening in Europe. One is ETIAS, which is an ETA for the Schengen area. This is something that in the next year I think it's 40 nationalities of travelers are going to require going into the Schengen area. This is a new requirement for me and you. And then over the next few years, the Schengen visa is set to move online as well. There's a bit of a convergence going on with both these programs.

This customs process for the Schengen area is moving online as a pre-registry for travelers, a large group of which are gonna be like North American and British as well. And then also, for everybody who needs that Schengen visa, it's gonna become a more straightforward process. There is a bit of unification going on in terms of at least what the process is gonna look like.

Tony D'Astolfo: Which is a good thing. Let's talk a little bit about travel's hassle factor post-pandemic, right? So we all stopped traveling and now with the return to travel in the early days it was being tested for COVID, understanding what you might be flying into, and what the requirements might be in the country to come back.

There were so many different things that increased the hassle factor, and a lot of them actually fell to the air portion of the trip. So the airport experience, and then the airline experience, right? You work with a lot of airlines. I'm curious to know, when you talk to them what are they doing to kind of streamline or remove some of the hassles that clearly have been introduced in the post-pandemic world?

Max Tremaine: It follows actually a pretty similar theme to what we've been talking about. That's moving a lot of processes to the pre-airport, pre-day of travel experience. You've probably noticed on a lot of the airline applications that you use, that there's just a higher standard for information being provided. Part of this is sherpa°. We are enabling airlines to inform travelers much more actively.

Pre-pandemic most airlines would just have a fairly generic disclaimer for travel documents. There's a little red box that says like, “Hey, you're responsible for getting everything figured out before.”

Tony D'Astolfo: It happened to me. I think I was flying to London last year and it was COVID. There were a bunch of requirements and the guy in front of me didn't have all his requirements and he completely freaked out. But, so now you see as a priority the airlines are saying, “Hey, this is what you'll need to know.” Let's do it upfront versus just give you that disclaimer, at the back end.

Max Tremaine: It's fair enough that it wasn't a common thing for airlines to provide because it is very tedious to put all of this stuff together. But I'd say that airlines generally are trying to do this for most of their process, to be able to like enrich the pre-travel process, enrich the check-in process. I'm sure people are noticing this as they're flying around. It's like, “Hey, there's just a lot more that I can do.”

Unfortunately, the reality on the ground will push airlines in the opposite direction as well, where if there are issues that are popping up and causing lots and lots of delays inside of the airport, sometimes a direction can be to push people toward a check-in counter just to kind of dot T's and cross I's before someone gets into the process. I think if you look at anything that slows that process down, that's a huge opportunity for wins right now. To solve those problems.

Tony D'Astolfo: You know, I read with interest that they were limiting the number of people that could actually get into Heathrow. That tells you something, that the whole situation needs to be addressed. Hats off to you for doing something about it and for continued success in doing it.

I wanna shift gears a little bit for a couple of questions, just general questions. The great resignation. We've seen people leave, not come back. I think the travel industry has been hit harder than most, and we're still feeling that pinch. Whether it's airlines canceling trips, not enough pilots, not enough crew, you don't get your room cleaned every day, or travel agencies having a hard time servicing their clients. So just general comments, has your business been impacted, or not impacted, as the case might be? And just generally, how do you see this shaking out specifically as it relates to business travel?

Max Tremaine: Oh, it's a great question. I'll speak for sherpa° specifically first, pre-pandemic. We were very, I guess, kind of dogmatic about having everyone in the same room. Building that cult by being together, learning from osmosis. During the pandemic, we had to move completely remote for that period. And we had a lot of work to do. So we said, “Hey, we're gonna go all in on this and really see what we can create with a fully remote form of work.” And it's been amazing. I would say it's enabled travel in a really new way for us. First off, we're a travel-focused company, so a lot of people who are keen to travel gravitate towards sherpa°. They're now enabled to travel around the world and make connections with the companies that we work with and really learn from the experiences that people are having traveling right now.

But also a really key thing that you're seeing become quite common is we do full company retreats and also offsite meetings with teams to make sure that people are still getting that human connection and making those cultural connections across teams internally. It's hugely important. I think business travel is gonna change form certainly. And, like I said, the travel experience is changing, which means that travel tools need to change. I think the opportunities are huge. I don't think we really even know what all of the problems are yet to solve. It's going to be a really exciting time in the next few years.

Tony D'Astolfo: Exciting. A little scary too. I think as people evolve, as the infrastructure evolves, as the ecosystem evolves, right? I'm an optimist, always have been, but it feels like a rough time. We just need to kind of guide our way through it.

We're gonna shift again. Now we put you into something called the Zeno Zone. This is where we get to know you a little bit better, with some questions to kind of draw out who Max is.

First, you got a major business decision that you have to make and there is only one person you can call. Who gets Max's call?

Max Tremaine: The answer is Stuart McDonald. Stewart was the former CMO of Expedia and founder of We connected very early in our process at sherpa°. And he's been invaluable in terms of providing feedback.

Tony D'Astolfo: This one's a little more hypothetical. You've got three dinner guests, dead or alive, three people that Max wants to have at his table. Tell me who your three dinner guests are.

Max Tremaine: I've got a long list, but I would do Thomas Cook, Amelia Earhart, and Lee Kuan Yew.

Tony D'Astolfo: I like it. There you go. All travel stuff. Very cool. This might not be appropriate because I'm not sure that there was fine dining and/or dive bars in Thomas Cook’s era, but he would've probably been in a pub…are you guys fine dining, or are you in a greasy spoon somewhere?

Max Tremaine: If somebody else is paying, I'd say fine dining.

Tony D'Astolfo: It's your invite. So you're picking up the tab. So we'll put you in the greasy spoon. My last question, a little bit more serious. Give us a prediction, something you think is going to happen in our industry in the next 12 to 18 months.

Max Tremaine: I'd say probably the most major hurdle right now is just that travel demand is so difficult to model. Demand outstrips supply in many places. Supply takes a long time to scale up. There are mismatches very often, I would say, and in the next 12 months, that is unlikely to change. The stability of demand is unlikely to change.

I think what will happen is that supply will become more flexible. Travel companies are gonna need to change the way that they do delivery. In the same way that in the seventies short cycle manufacturing became a thing — Toyota pioneered just-in-time manufacturing in the seventies, it completely changed that industry. Any travel company that has a shorter cycle for delivery is gonna win in a big way, either in terms of being able to respond to travelers' needs, but also to be able to operate efficiently, which is hugely difficult right now.

One example I would point to would be IcelandAir flying ground staff out to Schiphol. A lot of people were just like, “Wow, I can't believe that's how far it's gone.” And I was just like, “That's actually an amazing innovation, maybe there's something there.” That just makes you so much more flexible as an airline. Obviously, scheduling is still very difficult, but if you can become more nimble you're gonna win. So, I'd say companies taking a unique approach to delivery.

But also any company that is able to provide low-cost ways to make sure that travel can happen. I think sherpa°fits this mold. We make sure that everybody has the right documentation so that documentation error doesn't cause disruptions. Anything along that vein I think is gonna be super important for the next 12 months.

Tony D'Astolfo: Interesting observation. We'll see if that one takes hold in the next year or so. All right, Max, we're at the end of time. I wanna thank Max Tremaine of sherpa° for joining us today. And also thank all of you who joined us live and hope you're joining us on the next installment of Zeno Live. Until then, this is Tony D and Max Tremaine signing off.