A new startup called AnyRoad has joined the bustling tours and activities space, promising curated trips from insider locals with a bit more verve than the average tour.
Started by two serial entrepreneur brothers, Jonathan and Daniel Yaffe, AnyRoad was born out of a perceived shift in the concept of "tours" for younger travelers. As the brothers told Tnooz:
We used to never take “tours” – a tour was something, that in our mind, was a big group experience of contrived culture and sightseeing.
When we really thought about it, we had taken tours -- the hike up a Nicaraguan volcano with a local guide, and the drive to a tiny hidden village along the Great Wall of China with our confused but excited taxi driver, Mr. Chu, neither of whom even had websites.
The realization was that there were many interactions that couldn't be defined under the traditional rubrik of "tour:" the customer was not purchasing a package from the comfort of their own home before leaving. Rather, they were experiencing the destination and determining what experiences they wanted to have on the fly - and using a tour guide.
These were indeed tours -- we just had to redefine them.
After traveling all over the world last year and interviewing over 3000 tour guides, we learned that these amazing guides not only wanted a more efficient way to run their businesses, but also they wanted an easier way to connect with tourists looking for their niche tours.
The question became: how to engage tour-averse travelers with experiences that would not only connect them to the destination, while also helping in-destination tour guides to get in front of a new, tech-savvy demographic that had eluded them before?
AnyRoad was the answer that the team of 7 came up with. The team is fleshed out by CTO Michalis Polakis, formerly at SoundCloud, and four curators based in San Francisco and Tokyo that help ensure that the right tours end up being featured onsite.
The content of the tours is also an important distinction the team is trying to build. They are focusing on niche markets that not only provide much more per-traveler value, but that bring more in-built passion and engagement to the experience. Bird watchers, for example, might not be able to easily connect to a local guide, either because the traveler is unable to find the guide online or there is not a centralized resource for niche tours.
The company encourages loyalty from their guides not only by helping bridge the digital divide by providing an online path for offline tour guides, but also by donating 5% of proceeds to a non-profit of the guide's choice. This encourages continued engagement at the local level, and introduces travelers to local non-profits close to their guide's heart.
The Yaffe brothers took some time to flesh out their strategy, value proposition and competition in a Q&A with Tnooz.
What competition do you see in the travel and activities space?
Competition in the T&A space is fierce, and segmented into the large tour aggregators selling mostly impersonal general city tours given by large companies, guide rental services, and a multitude of P2P “activity” websites offering cheaper activities aimed at young urban people.
AnyRoad is taking a different strategy by working with the industry to help it modernize. We work with real, professional guides and are focused on the fragmented and underrepresented world of independent niche tours.
Our mission is to work with the key players in the international tourism industry to connect and modernize this antiquated market the way Etsy transformed the handmade craft world. We're also extremely localized, and with our local partnerships and curators, we are able to adapt to the cultural, legal, and economic differences in each of our markets.
We've already partnered with a few governments, large tourism portals, Tourism Concern, and several of the most prominent tour guide associations in the world.
In addition, we donate 5% of all our revenue to local non-profits chosen by our guides. It's our way of building a unique brand of travel that supports local entrepreneur guides and gives back to the communities. While we do have a consumer-focused niche marketplace, over half of our bookings come through the B2B partnerships we've put together.
What is your revenue model and strategy for profitability?
AnyRoad takes 14% commission from tour guides and charges a nominal 5.5% booking fee to the traveller.
Our road to profitability is based on the three pillars of our platform:
Describe what your start-up does, what problem it solves (differently to what is already out there) and for whom?
- Focusing on specific niches: People who frequently travel to observe avian life are not casual birdwatchers; they’re fanatics. The birdwatching tourism industry is a soaring $4 billion market, and we’re flying head-on into the middle of it by marketing our birding tours directly to the birding community.
- CMS and Etsy-like storefront: Professional guides all over the world are using our robust CMS to modernize and streamline their traditionally notebook-based businesses. We’re not reinventing this industry, we’re making it more connected.
- B2B Partnerships: We can’t talk too much about this quite yet.
AnyRoad is modernizing the tour industry by connecting local guides who use our CMS, with a curated marketplace for niche and creative tours. We are bringing change to the travel industry the way that Etsy did to the craft world.
Our platform connects the fragmented and antiquated world of independent guides with tourists looking to experience a more local side of the world, and empowers local guides to play a central role in the global tourism industry.
We are working with some of the biggest players in the travel industry to localize travel. To do this, we only work with local guides, and we donate 5% of our revenue to guide-nominated local nonprofit organizations which support their communities.
We are bringing connectivity to tourism and making travel more democratic, more sustainable, and more fun.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
Guides around the world are transitioning their businesses online for the first time and running their businesses off our platform. We’ve solved some key issues in international payments, and have designed our interface for a highly international audience.
When tourists use AnyRoad, they know they are seeing a local niche perspective of the world with a trusted (with our guarantee) professional guide, not a random person offering an experience. We curate each guide and tour, and we have met 80% of our guides in person. In addition, it’s a great way to give back, as each tour benefits the local community.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
Most of our guides already have viable businesses, and as they transition to the AnyRoad platform, they bring their reputations and customers. On the user acquisition side, we’re continuing to build partnerships with big players in the industry. We’re already working with a number of governments as well as dozens of tour guide associations.
We’re aiming to be the core hub of birding tourism worldwide, and we’re not going to stop there. Also, George Harrison wrote a great song about us (listen here)!
How did your initial idea evolve? Were there changes/any pivots along the way? What other options have you considered for the business if the original vision fails?
When we came up with our original idea of how we could make tourism benefit the world, we started traveling nonstop and creating conversations with governments, ministries of tourism, and tour guides. We interviewed over 3000 tour guides worldwide (about 600 of them one-on-one), listened to their pain-points and desires, and eventually designed AnyRoad for them.
We briefly considered going the peer-to-peer route, but ultimately we feel that rather than try to create a new market (non-guides charging for experiences), we’ll have greater scope if we can harness the existing industry. If the original vision fails, we still feel that there are hugely underserved and overlooked sectors of the travel industry that are ripe for disruption, some of which we’re concurrently experimenting with.
Where do you see yourselves in 3 years time and what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?
In three years time, we see ourselves as being the backbone of the independent guide industry. Just as many small businesses are finding it more useful to have Facebook pages than neglected standalone websites, we’re finding that many independent tour guides are transitioning from Geocities websites (Seriously! FUN FACT: Geocities is alive and well and still up, but only in Japan) to basing their business on AnyRoad’s platform.
We’re helping national governments make tourism local, and helping communities benefit from the influx of international tourists. As more and more tourists are looking for more than Segway tours, hop-on-hop-off bus tours, and large general walking tours following a guide with a megaphone and a flag, tourism will naturally adapt to reflect people’s unique hobbies, and we’ll have the infrastructure in place to connect people with their passions.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
In such a globalized world, when an inspiring cachaça guide in a rural town in Brazil can’t connect with an international tourist looking for a cachaça tour, it’s clear that there is still a massive gap in the industry. Most guides still use notebooks to keep their schedules, and don’t know the first thing about SEO, SEM, or social media.
From the other end, it’s surprisingly difficult as a tourist to find, connect with, and book an unimaginable number of niche tours. When it’s simple to find a hop-on-hop-off bus tour that benefits a huge American company, but nearly impossible to find an urban winery tour (that already exists) that benefits a local entrepreneur and the community, something isn’t working.
It's easy to glaze over when hearing the words "curated tours" in the travel and activities space. However, there's something different going on with AnyRoad. By focusing on tour guides that serve particular niches - and not shying away from the terms "tour" and "tour guides" - the company is able to tap into a passionate group of travelers that are much more likely to spend top-dollar on experiences related to their passions.
Connecting travelers and tour guides via shared passions is also great marketing. Not only does the company have access to a trove of inbound marketing opportunities, but they ensure a much more positive end-user experience that will likely lead to fantastic word-of-mouth in the niche community.
Helping great tour guides get online is also smart - sure, it's an incredible challenge and in some ways a very different business than simply connecting travelers to tours. It does provide a loyal tour guide base thankful for the help - and also gets them locked into AnyRoad as their inbound platform of choice. Rather than sending people to a custom URL, they will send people to AnyRoad.
The 5% to local non-profits is also indicative of a shift in the way marketing is defined. Social entrepreneurs understand how communities play into their business, which is especially vital in the tourism industry. Supporting local non-profits reduces the incredible impact that the industry has on the communities it profits from - and it also provides good will that translates into business. For example, the non-profit worker supported by AnyRoad may use the service when they travel to a new city. Or the non-profit's passionate stakeholders sing the praises of AnyRoad - or perhaps even become tour guides themselves.
AnyRoad has a steep road ahead - the company is trying to solve several problems at once, which is always tricky. However, if they can focus their marketing on the passion of their guides, and use the quality of tours to engage travelers in the long-term, there is a significant opportunity here to be much different than the quirk of a P2P marketplace like a Gidsy or a Vayable, or the sometimes-generic tour aggregation of a Viator.