This is a viewpoint from Mark Lenahan, co-founder of CJ Ignition.
Imagine as a traveller if you never had to eat alone, if you had a tour guide in your pocket everywhere you went, if you could see the history and the natural environment come to life as you explore and book any activity instantly? Those were some of the ideas pitched at the travel and tourism-themed Startup Weekend in Kilkenny, Ireland earlier this month.
Setting the scene
More than fifty students, business people, advisors and investors gathered in the historic Tholsel building in Kilkenny to create new startups from scratch in just 54 hours! In that time they met volunteer mentors and industry experts, created concepts, built teams, did real market research (usually out on the streets of Kilkenny), created business plans, and in some cases even built working demos.
By Sunday night five teams pitched to a panel of experts and investors, and I’ve included more details on those five startup pitches below.
Although the objective of Startup Weekend is primarily learning, a surprising 12% of the startups created at these events globally go on to become actual businesses.
The startups created in Kilkenny had a distinct tours and activities focus. According to Phocuswright (as reported by Tnooz previously), tours and activities are the travel industry's fastest growing sector, currently estimated to be worth $129 billion a year, and projected to grow to $174 billion by 2020, even though more than 80% of bookings are still made offline. Given that established OTAs account for less than 4% of tours and activities bookings, the area is wide open for innovation and disruption.
My own role was to be there as part of the large team of volunteer mentors, and I set the scene by talking about the joy and complexity of the travel industry and the disconnected nature of our customer experience.
I was joined by other industry experts including including:
- Anne Marie Hallinan of Flynn Hotels
- Margaret Ahearne of Expedia
- Keith Butler (formerly) of Aer Lingus.
The first team to pitch offered a new way to interact with destinations. Their app is a local guide in your pocket which knows about interesting buildings, sites, attractions, restaurants and activities nearby. The app also has a unique “Wander More”, where you set a couple of themes (e.g. history, culture) and the app will notify you from your pocket when you get close to something interesting.
I always expect that I’m missing something when I walk around a city such as London or Berlin, or even Dublin, so the idea that I’ll get customised alerts sounds good, especially compared to alternatives such as walking around staring at the map or planning every walk in advance.
Walking Wonder team members were Young-Hwi Cho, Sinead O'Keeffe, Aidan Clancy and Eugene Devereux.
This was one of the two startups that drew comparisons to Pokemon Go! They pitched a concept that combines augmented reality, in-destination tours, history and mythology.
Their app provides virtual tour guides for destinations, where you point your phone at a designated marker or building and a historical figure appears on screen (example used was a knight), superimposed on the live camera view.
The figure can direct you around the attraction and point out key sites and tell stories in your native language. Having surveyed more than a 100 tourists they found that people wanted to experience attractions their own way and at their own pace, with a significant portion interested in gamification and use of the app with their children.
The Ancient Footprints team consisted of Bill Walsh, Susan O'Kane, Alan Armitage and Grainne Kelly.
This also drew Pokemon Go comparisons, but for quite different reasons. The team aggregated many different open-source scientific databases of plant and animal observations from around the world - originally designed for environmental and other scientists - but made the data searchable and accessible.
The end result is an app that can tell you actual species of bird, animal, plant or insect sighted in your area or your planned holiday destination.
As one judge observed, “you have made Pokemon Go, but the animals are real!”, which led the team to stress that the app will not actually lead people to animals directly, but rather provide areas where various species have been seen. The projected initial market for this would be parents with children aged 4 to 12, helping them to understand the environment whether at home or abroad, but with the option to serve special interest groups like bird watchers or plant enthusiasts.
The ZooLaBooLa team were Jude Wilson, Vicki O'Donnell, and John Hoare.
This set out to solve the problem of eating alone when travelling by selecting a city, date and entering minimal profile information (such as gender, language, age group). Although the concept of social dining is not new, their app would take a different approach targeting business or leisure travellers who want to eat in a restaurant with a group of peers.
Most existing apps are either “hosted” dinners or one-to-one dating, the latter in particular being something the surveyed customers did not want. This is another app I would definitely use, mostly for those business trips when I’m travelling alone and happen not to be taking clients to dinner.
There were several potential pricing models on the table (pun intended), including subscription, one off booking fee (good to prevent no-shows), and probably the most obvious - funding from restaurants in return for the business (or possibly discounts to diners in return for their booking fee).
The TableConnect team consisted of Maurice Keane, Josephine Eviston, Maeve Keane, and Suzanne O'Keeffe.
This is an idea to help tour guides and destination activity organisers sell more easily online. The core concept is to be both a platform app (connecting B2C travellers with tours and activities) and
a technology plugin that the tour or activity provider can embed very easily on their webpage.
The team was anxious to stress that TravelJenny would not be a distributor but actually, all bookings would be direct (whether from platform app or widget), and as such the model would be subscription-based pricing rather than a transaction fee or commission model.
While clearly there are a number of big T&A aggregators already out there, TravelJenny plans to disrupt the model for the one million small and independent tour guides they estimate exist globally.
TravelJenny consisted of Silviu Preoteasa, Jenny Bjorklof, Aislinn DS, Maximilian Thiel, and Arpit Gupta.
Speaking on behalf of the panel of judges, Alan Costello
of Dublin NDRC said they were “blown away by the amount of work done in 54 hours”.
The entire jury were really impressed but they also advised the startups to work some more on market research. The other key piece of advice was to explain more clearly in the presentation how the proposed pricing model relates to revenue - good advice for any future startup pitch participants.
The full panel of judges included:
The panel of judges chose ZooLaBooLa
as the winner, with a special mention for Walking Wonder
for the best pitch.
Their prize is mentoring sessions with Taxback Group founder Terry Clune.
I asked Vicki of ZooLaBooLa how she felt the event went:
“The event was a roller coaster from start to finish with everything from business development to market research and sales strategies to product developed all rolled up into 2.5 days of work. It was an eye opener how much can be achieved with a great team, lots of mentors and a room full of people knowledgeable in everything from legal issues and finance to programming and sales.”
When asked what the team intend to do next Vicki replied:
“It’s too early to say, but the market is interesting and there is potential. Whatever happens, it was a great event with learning that we can take back to our day jobs!”
The event was organised by Sandra Wycech of BOI Startups, John Cleere of RedLemonade and Orla O'Donnell of Sales-Promotions, and supported by Bank of Ireland, The Local Enterprise Office, Kilkenny County Council, VHI Healthcare, and The Taxback Group.
On-site expertise in running a Startup Weekend was provided by volunteers from the Techstars community Simone Demelas and Daniel Kyne.
For me, it was an honour to take part, I got to meet some very interesting people, help teams develop some great ideas and help introduce new people to travel technology. Even acting as a mentor (or so called “expert”) for an event like this is a great opportunity to learn, and so far in my career I have never met anyone who couldn’t teach me something.
This is a viewpoint from Mark Lenahan, co-founder of CJ Ignition. Opinions and views expressed by all guest contributors do not necessarily reflect those of tnooz, its writers, or its partners.
Photography by Damien Conway.
Related reading from tnooz:
New research on the state of travel startups in 2017 (Oct17)