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Local online travel company sees big opportunity in tiny trips

Bernard & Hawkes curates unusual day trips and overnight getaways for people looking to relieve some of the stress of modern life.

Emily Bernard and Ethan Hawkes (both on left) in Maine.

It’s one of our most common questions. Even in the age of mobile phones, with their large-font digital clocks, we routinely ask each other, “What time is it?”

To the cofounders of one online travel company based in Boston, it should be a two-part question: “What time is it — and how much do we have?”

Emily Bernard and Ethan Hawkes launched PlacePass, an e-commerce business offering curated travel experiences, in 2016. After ramping up quickly — just a couple of years in, they’d grown to 30 employees managing bookings for more than 100,000 destinations across the globe — Bernard and Hawkes began to rethink their strategy.

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“We’ve always believed in the value of getting away as a way to recharge, to be better, fuller humans,” says Hawkes (who, for the record, is aware that his name is very similar to a certain actor’s name). “Both of us had traveled extensively, but we realized after a lot of discussion that there are so many wonderful experiences to be had closer to home.”

They hoped, in other words, to get their clients to think more deeply about the best use of their time. Which is, after all, limited.

So they started a second company — a boutique project, really — to focus on what they began calling “tiny trips.” Bernard & Hawkes would curate unusual day trips and overnight getaways for people looking to relieve some of the stress of modern life, to boost their own sense of well-being.

And then the pandemic hit.

Coming into 2020, Hawkes says, “I think everyone in the industry thought it would be the busiest year on record. The economy had continued unbroken for the past decade.”

When the shutdown began, PlacePass processed more than $1 million in refunds in a week.

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“That was not part of our forecast,” Hawkes says.

It was a time to reflect. Luckily, the cofounders had already begun to do just that.

On their website they began offering tips about ways to reap the benefits of “getting away,” “even if people don’t feel comfortable traveling right now,” says Bernard, who once contributed articles to the Globe’s Food section. “We’re providing research-based evidence on how to spend your time well.”

They’re compiling a collection of articles about how to replenish your energy and boost your spirits — not just lists of glamping sites and winter getaways, but also primers on digital detoxing and activities designed to release your endorphins. As an outgrowth, Hawkes just published “The Book on Time,” a handsomely designed coffee-table book he calls an “owner’s manual” for conscious living.

Hawkes grew up in Woodstock, Vt., and now lives with his wife, Caitlynn, and their young son in southern Maine. Bernard, a Chicago native, came to Boston to attend Harvard University (where she roomed with Hawkes’s future wife). After graduation, she lived for a while in Washington, D.C., but she decided that New England was the place for her after her aunt and uncle hosted a lobster bake at their home in Somerville.

The outdoor setting was “heartbreakingly beautiful,” Bernard says, “and I decided, ‘Why would you want to live anywhere else?’ ” She and Hawkes look forward to curating experiences in other areas of the country and beyond, but for now they’re concentrating the business on their own backyard.

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Like her business partner, Bernard is a new parent. Their children, they say, have given the cofounders some welcome perspective on traveling closer to home.

“It’s the rediscovery of our own region through their eyes,” Hawkes says. “We’re going to parks we maybe wouldn’t have gone to, or taking a road trip overnight. All that is new to a child.” And these are valuable lessons, he says, even for those without kids.

As the virus persists, the travel industry is clearly hurting. One of PlacePass’s biggest accounts is with Marriott, which just laid off half of its Copley Place employees.

The founders of Bernard & Hawkes are hoping to use the downtime to carve out a niche for themselves as a more thoughtful travel provider.

“COVID really did make us go back to the mission,” says Hawkes. They’re hoping the concept of “Tiny Trips” takes off, much like the idea of eating or shopping locally.

“We almost want it to be a movement,” he says. “It’s not like we’re inventing something new, but there’s room for more awareness.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.