A lot has been said and written in the past few weeks about “trip (or travel) planning” as a startup idea, mostly negative. I am writing this piece to offer a different take.
NB: This is the first part of a two-part viewpoint by Saket Newaskar, co-founder and chief technology officer at Triphobo.com.
It seems as if it had become fashionable to say: “Hey, there have been hundreds of travel planning startups in the past few years and they all are 'zombie' startups now and all seem to go nowhere.”
The first article will look at some of the headwinds travel planning startups have faced and how the successful ones have dealt with these challenges. And a good way to start the discussion is to revisit what exactly “trip planning” is.
Nadav Gur, principal at NG Vanguard Enterprises in the US, described it very well in his article for Tnooz which kickstarted the debate around trip planning startups.
As a reminder, he said:
"As a traveler, you’ve made some anchor decisions – some subset of who’s going, where, when and why.You also have some preferences — e.g. brands, budget etc. You need to discover your options for transportation, lodging and activities within those constraints, so what you do is:
"Search multiple times for the different items with different constraints; collect alternatives, understand their implications and rank them; share this plan with other participants to get their opinion too; repeat prior steps until you run out of time and have to decide; book, go…"
Let me add a few more points to this:
The user is booking multiple components: flights/transportation, hotels, car rentals and local logistics such as airport pickup, activity tickets and so on.
The user is also visiting multiple ecommerce platforms to shop for the upcoming trip.
And bookings don’t happen in a single session. They happen over multiple sessions.
Patterns of behaviour
Flights are the most critical component of the trip and tend to be booked first, between 45 and 10 days in advance.
Hotels and accommodation come next, between one month and one week before the trip.
Car rentals, activities and local logistics are booked within a week of departure.
In many cases, international travellers also have to handle visa requirements and logistics. Bookings happen much earlier in such cases.
Sources of inspiration
During the process, users search multiple platforms about the things they are interested in during the vacation. Search engine data shows us that the user searches “accommodation” and the “things to do” the most.
Today, users rely on fragmented content from websites ranging from TripAdvisor, Wikipedia and Lonely Planet as well as general searches on Google and specific content on metasearches and OTAs.
The online travel ecosystem is not really geared to accommodate this user behaviour. Although there is nothing specifically "broken" the process needs to be made more convenient for the user.
Looking back to look ahead
Now let us have a look at some of the types of travel planning startups that have come and gone and see if any of them have made much of a difference to the process the user has to go through.
- Q&A platforms
- Travel inspiration startups
- Travel social networks
- “Pinterest” of Travel
- Startups that use your “social graph” to make recommendations
- Wishlist/bucketlist startups
- Check-in startups
- Startups that help you plan your trips specifically through your social network on Facebook
- Blogging platforms
The startups which adopted one of the above models had some useful features, but they did not address the entire trip planning process, so I don’t see them as real travel planning startups in the first place.
Here are some specific examples of startups that have attempted to address the complete situation.
- TripAdvisor: hardly a start-up now but it was, once upon a time. It is a significant resource for tavellers on the accommodation and things to do front.
- TripIt: booking organization - since bookings don’t happen in a single session, TripIt helps users organize their bookings.
- Rome2Rio: helps users plan multimodal transport
Meanwhile, there are startups which had the right idea when it comes to travel planning but which ran out of time or pivoted.
And there has also been many other “tools” that tried to suggest automated trip plans but they failed to gain traction.
Why do startups fail?
The challenge of building a perfect product isn't simple enough to be summed up in one sentence. Especially when it comes to a problem as complex as travel planning. The challenge isn't about executing the perfect UI or the most seamless booking experience, but a completely different one.
The challenge is about creating content sufficiency.
This doesn't mean that creating scale is trivial. What it means is that too often, the focus is on user acquisition before creating a minimum viable product. In the case of trip planning, it is minimum viable content.
You need to develop content for cities and destinations, accommodations, restaurants, transportation, things to do in each city, the list goes on. If you go with a solution that has content for only 150 cities or even 1000 cities you will never be able to gain sufficient traction. The critical mass number as per our calculation, believe it or not is around 20,000 cities across the world.
If you start with 10-20 cities like Plnnr did, you may be liked by a few but not used by many.
The startups that have managed to get traction have figured out a way to scale content.
Scale and traction
There are further structural nuances to the content piece. If you figure all these pieces out, you are on your way to achieving some significant traction. Our experience at Triphobo is likely to be shared by our peers - for every bit of content we add, we see a direct correlation in traction.
To my knowledge, no travel planning startup other than TripAdvisor , has really achieved scale in aggregating so much of content in under one umbrella! The challenge that TripAdvisor is facing today is unstructured content. Hence TripAdvisor's proposition for users is moving beyond reviews and ratings.
If you can figure out how to aid the user in the actual planning process, keeping content sufficiency front of mind, you could have cracked the code to running a successful travel planning startup.
In Part Two I discuss the theory and practice of content sufficiency in more detail.
Related reading from Tnooz:
Why you should never consider a travel planning startup (Jan 2016)
NB: This is a viewpoint by Saket Newaskar, co-founder and chief technology officer at Triphobo.com. Part Two will appear later this week.
NB2: Image by Shutterstock