Gilad Berenstein, CEO
accumulated about 100 million traveler preferences since it launched in 2011. It works with brands such as JetBlue, TUI Group and Hilton to help
its customers create personalized itineraries.
Berenstein founded Utrip in 2011 when he was 23 years old. The idea for an
artificial intelligence-powered travel personalization platform came to him
after he was frustrated with the amount of time it took to plan a trip to
Europe after college.
Utrip began as a B2C platform and in the
last few years you’ve pivoted to focus on B2B. Why the switch?
foremost, at Utrip we set out to make trip planning easy, enjoyable and
personal for customers. That has always been our goal. I often joke that no
23-year-old has ever started a B2B company because no 23-year-old knows what
B2B is. In general, the first reason that we switched from B2C is the fact that
we learned how difficult it was to attract customers in the B2C space.
looking at a company like TripAdvisor. Even if we somehow figure out how to
create as much new content every day as TripAdvisor and even if we somehow
amassed as much content as they have, their platform will always rank higher than
ours because of their longevity and because of how SEO works.
that A) we could never compete on the ad side because we’d never have as much
money as the big companies to buy traffic, and we could never compete on SEO.
And B) we also realized that it would be much easier to get to market and
achieve our goal through a B2B offering.
We partnered with travel companies to
leverage what they already had, this being inventory and users, and brought to
the table what they didn’t have, which is really great tech and traveler
Along with the technical aspects of
developing an AI platform, you also worked with psychologists at your alma
mater, the University of Washington, to understand decision-making as it
relates to travel. What did you learn?
we learned a couple different things. First, the factors that make a good and
bad traveler experience. To sum it up, we found that authenticity was the
single most important factor in helping people plan a really great travel
This is the idea that the traveler got to do something that is not
only unique and authentic to that destination but is not always available. For
example, people love going to the Louvre in Paris, and they typically have
great experiences there, but very rarely is someone going to tell you a story
of the Louvre. They’re much more likely to tell you about the picnic, that
concert, that event, the street market they found that felt really unique and
local to that destination.
thing we learned was that the leading cause to bad travel experiences was the
feeling of waste. Wasted experiences, waste of money, waste of time … and that
was really about people’s ability to maximize their own experience. One thing
that is a waste of time to one, might be amazing to another. It is all about
finding the right experience for each person. We call that personalization.
thing we learned was all about the way the decision-making process actually
works. It begins with framing decisions - where am I traveling, when am I
traveling, with whom am I traveling - then you get to meta-level decisions,
these being how spontaneous you want to be, what type of pace you’d like to
travel at and your budget. Then, you get into interest area specific decisions
– do I want to see art, history, etc.
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the three core things we learned and, of course, all of that is nonlinear: We
plan, dream and execute continuously throughout the travel planning lifecycle.
Thus, travel companies must offer a discovery experience across the entirety of
Brands such as JetBlue, Holland America,
Hilton and TUI Group use Utrip, along with many DMOs and attractions. What’s
the common denominator there that makes the platform viable for a diverse set
personalization. It’s the fact that at the end of the day, all of these
customers and all of these companies are looking for the same thing: a unique,
special and personal travel experience, and they want to be able to do that
easily and quickly.
That’s the main thing they have in common. Unlike so many
other companies in the space, Utrip hasn’t focused on the best way to sell
flights or hotels or on creating the most content ever. Rather, we have focused
Because of that, our platform is content and inventory
agnostic, which is very important to our customers and allows us to recommend
any piece of inventory to any traveler in a personalized way, and it’s
omnipresent throughout our partners’ digital experiences. The common
denominator is end customers looking for the same things – a unique, special,
What are the biggest hurdles to brand
adoption of AI systems?
lot. First, brands have to remember you can’t do it all yourself. Even as an AI
company such as Utrip, we certainly can’t do everything ourselves. Brands are
going to have to get into the mind frame of partnerships.
Second, is that their
existing data already lives in disparate systems, meaning it’s often difficult
to use that data in AI right off the bat, and sometimes it takes data-based
architecture to get those off the ground. Another hurdle is how to make use of
The last one, and most important, is making sure you “don’t let the
perfect be the enemy of the good.” There’s so much AI can do to help different
companies in different parts of their businesses, but often we are looking for
that killer app that does it all.
My recommendation: Find small ways that AI
helps your various systems - become comfortable with it, learn about it and
from there you’ll figure out how to expand it further. So, don’t let the
perfect outcome be the enemy to getting started.
Why do you think some of the mega brands
in travel such as Expedia and Booking.com have not adopted similar types of
it’s all about conversion. Historically, they’ve just been focused on
conversion in that single transaction. More recently, however, there’s been a
change. We believe we’ve seen this through Scratchpad at Expedia. We’ve also
seen it through booking activities on Booking.com - they’re beginning to think a
lot more about the complete experience, not just conversion rates for one piece
of inventory, but how to do get a bigger package of goods sold to that customer
to increase lifetime value and the average transaction size.
...we found that authenticity was the single most important factor in helping people plan a really great travel experience.
Gilad Berenstein - Utrip
beginning to see those kinds of things from some of the mega brands, but it’s
totally understandable that they would never want to do anything that gets in
the way of a conversion, and that’s why we haven’t seen things like that in the
past. I believe we will see many more in the future though.
What is the future potential for AI for
This is a
huge area for opportunity and development in the near future. Ultimately, I
think it’s all up and down the travel stack (also called the consumer
The most important part is how data will be able to be used
globally. First, data will begin in the dreaming and discovery phases. It will
help provide easy ways for companies to make recommendations to their customers
and keep them engaged.
Then, AI will be involved in selling and making sure you
show the right inventory to the right users at the right time. It will also
help take care of all the pesky logistical details like geography and hours.
Once this has occurred, AI is really going to make a strong push in marketing,
making sure that there are personalized interactions happening to increase
engagement and conversion, as well as improve customer service. There’s a huge
opportunity for AI in travel, and ultimately, as Matthew Upchurch, CEO of
Virtuoso, always says, “What we want to do is to automate the ordinary to
accentuate the extraordinary.”
Why do think that so many trip-planning
startups have come and gone without gaining much traction?
of the companies that have come before us have really focused on sales and
marketing, and not on a great product – they have kind of put the cart before
the horse. We focus on a great consumer experience and good recommendations. It
doesn’t matter how many clients you have or how pretty your UI is if you don’t
have great recommendations.
Building AI and building recommendation engines is
difficult and takes a lot of time. Utrip is more than four years into this, and
we’re still working to improve our core capabilities. That is why we’re around
- because of that focus on really great travel recommendations.
What’s next for Utrip?
just passed 100 million traveler preference data points, which makes our
recommendation engines very strong. We’re now very excited about bringing on a
bunch of new partners and on explaining the number of use cases that Utrip
offers beyond just our white label.
Our partners are using the platform to
personalize their marketing initiatives, to enrich their own data and to better
understand their own inventories. We’re the clear leader in the travel
personalization space and are very excited about growing with many more
You began developing Utrip after
personally dealing with planning challenges as you traveled around Europe in
2010, shortly after you graduated college - so you were very young. What advice
would an older, wiser Gilad give his younger self?
lot of advice I would give myself. If you think about the beginning, when we
started Utrip, I believed the mantra of “if you build it and it’s pretty good,
they will come.” Needless to say, I no longer believe that to be true. I
believe that every business, including Utrip, needs to think about revenue from
the very beginning, and it doesn’t have to come up with the ultimate answer,
but I would certainly think about that sooner.
My recommendation: find small ways that AI helps your various systems - become comfortable with it, learn about it and from there you’ll figure out how to expand it further.
Gilad Berenstein - Utrip
would think about focus. Ultimately, our core focus at Utrip hasn’t changed –
personalized travel experiences - but I would really focus on individual
phases of the lifecycle at first and really hone those before working on the
platforms width and variety of experiences. We sort of did that backwards at
Utrip, so I would certainly do that differently.
would spend a lot more time getting to know small players in the travel
industry early on. We spent a fair amount of time with the Expedias of the
world and other big companies in the beginning, getting to know their needs.
But ultimately, there’s a huge part of the market in the middle. We were ready
for that portion of the market before we were ready to work with Expedia or TUI
or someone like that. I would have learned their needs upfront and been able to
accelerate our revenue growth faster by really understanding our small clients,
who are likely to be our early adopters.
Your father is an AI engineer. As you’ve
been developing Utrip for the past several years, how has his background
Dad, his influence is less about influencing me right now, but it’s more about
me as a kid. I was able to understand early on that one day AI would be
available to all of us. There’s no reason why one has to be an MIT engineer to
interact with AI on a day-to-day basis. My dad’s greatest contribution was
really giving me a familiarity and comfort level with predictive technology and
a vision to where it might go in the future. Obviously, my Dad has been a very
supportive advisor, as well as an investor in the company, but he’s his own
entrepreneur and has never actually worked at Utrip.
What’s the best part about your job?
really hard one, but my absolute favorite part is dreaming about the product
and helping travelers see the world every day. We’ve helped well over 20
million people go on trips that are unique and personal, and that is the thing
I am most proud of.
What’s something our readers might not
know about you?
I was born
in Israel and am a crazy foodie. As far as anything travel related, this past
March I visited four continents in four weeks!
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