As 2013 comes to a close, we’ve seen another year’s worth of travel startups trying – and in most cases failing – to gain traction.
To long-time observers of travel, this is of course not a surprise.
Indeed, "travel innovation" as a phrase, let's face it, is hard to come by or over-egged by many in the industry.
To wit: fellow Tnooz Node Timothy O’Neil-Dunne’s advice to a packed house at last week’s World Travel Market to "just don’t do it" when asked about founding a travel startup.
Naturally, entrepreneurs won’t take this kind of advice at face value. They’ll keep forging ahead with the wild, the crazy and the unexpected. Some of them will time it just right and revolutionize a sector, or invent a new model.
Others will just keep going, year after a year, trying to find their groove. But those entrepreneurs are few and far between.
Most of them will adopt the Silicon Valley mantra to iterate, fail quickly, and move on to the next thing. And for a fair number of them, the next thing won’t be in travel due to the inherent nature of travel’s complexity.
For all of us in this wonderful industry, this represents a true shame.
It’s all about the volume
Not a week goes by where a travel startup’s dreams aren’t dashed by feedback such as "You’re never going to get the traffic" and "What if OTA X, Google, etc do this?"
The feedback is mostly correct.
Getting traffic for consumer travel startups is nearly impossible. Between the noise and the competition, it will take a truly innovate, one-in-a-million approach that is timed perfectly to succeed. In a phrase, it’s all about attracting eyeballs.
Travel insiders know that OTAs and metas with the volume – the Gatekeepers of Eyeballs (GoE) – won’t easily relinquish their status.
They’re performing; they’re out-spending the startup sector in advertising by a magnitude of a thousand, and battling each other for share, all while innovation in consumer experience suffers.
Can we get some innovation please?
Sure, the GoE are performing well because they’ve found a formula for success. The biggest fear is messing with that formula and impacting the next earnings call.
But could the GoE find a way to try innovative new approaches by leveraging the scrappy ideas that startup founders generally have? Those ideas that have zero chance of ever succeeding without a massive amount of traffic?
It’s already happening
Humbly, I suggest the answer is yes. Let’s take a look at a company that’s already doing this. You may have heard of them: Google. Stop sighing and hear me out.
Those of you who use Google regularly will find certain queries being handled in a somewhat special way. Take a look at a few examples:
You may be asking what’s so special in the above: The answer is that certain queries are being answered in a better and more informative way than a regular query.
They’re returning much more relevant information for a query in the boxes and carousels at the top, and they’re much more helpful to a user.
And in effect, you can think of them as apps. Apps -- undoubtedly developed by independent teams -- that pay attention to the trillions of search queries passing through Google, and pick out the ones they can perform better at than the regular Google results engine.
Couldn’t the GoE’s try this?
Imagine a world where your good old mega travel booking site doesn’t just ask you for the usual quadrant of information (From/To, Start/End Dates). Imagine instead a search box that serves your needs, just as you’d query for them in Google. (Yes, GoE’s, I know you’re working on it).
But what if that search box wasn’t just served by code written by a GoE’s engineering team?
What if the GoE offered their own reverse "app store" – inviting developers, startups, and geniuses the world over – to find new, innovative ways to service a consumer’s search and booking behavior on a term-by-term basis.
Imagine a world where your trip planning needs are built in to your GoE’s search engine.
A query like "I want to go to Miami with Andrew" could be an irritating Q3 2021 roadmap item for a GoE’s engineering team. But an innovative startup could help the GoE service that query instantly by passing it on and having the startup’s engineering deal with it.
The results would be returned in a completely native way to the user, with the GoE’s branding, never knowing that a third-party’s innovation helped them with their query.
The GoE would pay the Innovator on a per-query basis for the work served, therefore rewarding the innovator monetarily, and leaving the GoE with a satisfied en-user.
But, but, but, but, but, but!
Yes, there’s a lot of but’s. From engineering certification, to control issues, to load testing, to branding issues, to privacy issues, there are a lot of risks and challenges for anyone who would try this.
I submit my own "but": Apple is doing this, every single day. Its app store process is stringent, thorough, and borderline intrusive to a developer’s business.
But in the end, Apple guarantees a certain level of service and experience standards for their users. There are few reasons a GoE with the gusto for true innovation couldn’t try this.
And, if you’re looking for a more relevant example of this happening today, take a look at your nearest GDS desktop, which is already returning advertising-style result overlays based on the queries being typed in the green screen: agent searching for flights to Miami?
Surface an image ad for the Hilton Miami right away.
Risk vs reward
So, yes, there is a ton of risk. But a ton of reward will follow: the reward of a GoE being able to free themselves from engineering resource constraints, and from having to study and copy innovation.
Instead, they could be the epicenter and enabler of it. The scrappy startup would suddenly have a (shock!) real business model based on getting paid for effort exerted.
And the ultimate winner?
NB:Crazy idea image via Shutterstock.