By   – Staff Reporter, Cincinnati Business Courier

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A Cincinnati firm that specializes in putting together travel and tourism experiences for fundraising events was awarded a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but its founder says that’s only a stopgap, as he expects Americans’ desire to travel to come roaring back, despite restrictions in place to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Mount Adams-based Giveback Sports was approved for $48,000 to support the salaries of founder Scott Ruprecht and his four employees for the next two months as part of round two of the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. Ruprecht told me the loan was vital because his revenue is down 80% since the coronavirus pandemic started.

But he doesn’t expect that to last all too long.

Giveback Sports was founded by Ruprecht in 2016 to help create travel experiences to be auctioned off at fundraising events. Say, for instance, a board member of a nonprofit donates a condo stay at Hilton Head Island, S.C., for his or her company’s or nonprofit’s fundraiser auction. Giveback Sports will create a package of experiences around that stay to make it a more appealing offering that will drive up the final sale price, benefitting the organization hosting the fundraiser.

Giveback Sports offers all kinds of packages, from experiences with players and coaches of major league sports teams or fly fishing at Jackson Hole to tours and tastings at wine country. Its top-selling experience in 2019 was a trip to the Country Music Awards.

It grew out of Sportfishing Worldwide, a fly fishing travel company Ruprecht started in 1998 and grew to include what he said was one of the best blue water fishing resorts in the world in Central America.

“Our client base was asking us to do more things: plan a trip to Napa Valley, plan a trip to the Masters (Tournament),” Ruprecht said.

“There really wasn’t much of a difference between putting a fly fishing trip together for Iceland and putting together a trip to the Masters. We got really good at assembling and executing.”

The calls started in late February: nonprofits weren’t sure whether to host their fundraisers amid growing fear that coronavirus would spread in the U.S. Cases had not yet been reported in Ohio. But then as March progressed, most of the events Giveback Sports worked on were canceled or postponed until the fall.

Ruprecht called it a double whammy of not being able to sell trips at those events, but also the current climate of fear surrounding travel made him worry about a long recovery before people started feeling comfortable getting on airplanes and attending large events.

Giveback Sports had grown rapidly since its founding. Ruprecht doesn’t disclose revenue, but said the company went from nothing in sales to pulling in seven figures in 2019. It had triple the number of fundraising events planned in the first quarter of this year compared to the same quarter last year.

The last in-person events Giveback Sports was involved in took place March 12. They were fundraisers in California and Louisiana. Promisingly, travel packages sold in both.

The company has had to pivot. Previously, it gave the purchasers of trips and experiences one year to redeem their trip. Now they’re giving them two years. And when it comes to large, popular live events like the Country Music Awards or the ESPN ESPY Awards, Giveback Sports is giving purchasers the ability to choose to go to this year’s event or postpone and go to the 2021 event.

Since coronavirus has caused many states to issue shelter-in-place orders, Ruprecht expected, and conventional wisdom agreed, that people would be less interested in travel. But Giveback Sports has been involved in four virtual fundraisers in the past 10 days, and travel packages have sold in all of them.

“There’s a big appetite for it,” he said. “Our concern was people not wanting to get on planes. There hasn’t been an appetite for international travel, but there has been domestically.”

Ruprecht has seen a lot of interest in packages like fly fishing in Jackson Hole valley, Wyoming, or the Napa Valley wine region. He’s created new experiences like trips to the Bourbon Trail – it’s something we in Cincinnati take for granted because of the proximity to it, he said, but people in other parts of the country are excited about.

That’s not to say everything is great. While it did host four virtual events, Giveback Sports normally would have participated in 25. Ruprecht said he’s not worried that revenue will be gone for the entire year, but it is going to shift to more coming in during the later part. That’s why the PPP loan is vital.

Ruprecht had a long road to securing his loan. He’s a member of the Cincinnati chapter of the Entrepreneur’s Organization, so he felt well prepared, with the ability to pick the minds of others in his situation to see what worked and what didn’t.

Ruprecht had a long relationship with Chase Bank. He had his information ready to go on April 3 when they opened, and submitted it within an hour of the bank releasing its application.

But then the rules changed on April 5. And again on April 7.

Ruprecht started to get the feeling the applications were not being processed sequentially, in the order they received. He couldn’t get any clarity on where his was in the process. It’s not something he blamed Chase for though.

“My banker at Chase was good. He was always on the phone with me and always on the ball,” he said. “But I don’t know if 10,000 companies got in front of me after the rules changed for the third time.”

Ruprecht made the decision to apply at a smaller community bank as well. He went with North Side Bank & Trust Co. They submitted his application on April 9, but the PPP funds in round one had dried up.

“I was devastated. I felt like a failure,” he said. “I felt a sense of shame almost because you started to hear the stories of bigger amounts being awarded to bigger companies, and the small businesses were getting left out.”

When the second round of PPP was announced, Ruprecht called Chase and asked to have his application removed. He went back to North Side Bank and said they were on the phone with him on the first day of round two, and he submitted his application as quickly as he could. He heard back two hours later that he was approved by the Small Business Administration.

Since then, Giveback Sports has been working on a few big initiatives. It’s been working on a rebrand to Giveback XP to reflect how its experiences are about more than just sports, and it’s also launching a new division called Hometown Experiences to focus more locally on excursions closer to home, working with small businesses around the region to offer things the general public doesn’t typically have access to.

“My team is more creative than they’ve ever been,” he said.