Picture search is becoming so popular that even academics are seeing how they can establish and run a travel startup - in this case, PixMeAway - to target the trend.
PixMeAway is a service from within Pixtri, a startup created in 2010 by a lecturer Rainer Schuster and Professor Hannes Werthner from the Vienna University of Technology, qith a further four members of the time now on the project.
Funding has come by way of Euro 200,000 from the Austria Wirtschafts Service and a further Euro 50,000 from the founders.
Essentially the service allows to users to browse thousands of pictures and select those which appeal to their requirements for a trip.
These can be cross-checked with fellow users to see whether a particular product or destination was popular with others, as well as obtain detailed destination guides, courtesy of Columbus Travel Media which has provided around 220 of the guides.
Money back in to the business comes from both display advertising and affiliate bookings to partners. In addition, suppliers can sponsor a certain picture, or set of images, so that their product or service is then featured alongside it.
Q&A with CEO Rainer Schuster:
How is the way you are solving this problem more special or effective than previous attempts you or the market has seen before and how different do you have to be to succeed?
Over 60 percent of Internet users worldwide start planning their next trip by typing one or more destinations into their preferred search engine.
Yet according to recent studies, 500 million would-be travelers are not sure where they want to go. The newly-launched travel community platform Pixmeaway solves this problem by offering the world’s first image-based search engine.
In order to start planning their next trip or find inspiration, users simply click on images from a set of 63 pre-defined motifs.
Based on this selection, Pixmeaway classifies the user into seven scientifically-proven travel personalities. All recommendations - be they destinations, sights or activities - are then targeted to the individual preferences of the user.
These results can be narrowed down with additional filters for budget restrictions, favored regions and activities.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
Since images capture the travelers’ emotions, image-based trip planning is very common in offline travel agencies.
So far, there is no platform which applied this approach in the online tourism industry. The core product of Pixtri is a community platform called PixMeAway.
If users select pictures that reflect their hidden travel desires, it leads to amazingly accurate results in much shorter time.
The core algorithm is based on many years of research in the area of tourist classification. Schuster and Werthner developed seven travel types and integrated this type concept humorously in the platform.
The seven travel types on Pixmeaway.com are: action seeker Archie, educational tourist Olivia, independent traveler Toby, sun loving careerist Max, nature lover Amelie, adrenaline-junkie Rocky and culture lover Charlotte.
The value proposition for the customer is to get trip recommendations based on their picture selection. The recommended items might be POIs (Point of Interest – eg. the Guggenheim Museum), destinations (eg. Tuscany or Berlin), or even trips and tours of “similar” users.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
We are going to use Facebook as a channel to gain new customers. There, we will set up games (eg. photo contests -> the winning picture will be included in our pre-defined picture set), funny questionnaires, apps, and user stories.
The seven characters should play a major role in these social media activities. Furthermore, we will do some Google and Facebook ads.
Prof Werthner (initiator of ENTER conference and former IFITT president) has a big eTourism network which might be helpful to get some B2B customers.
By the summer of 2013 we are planning to have 300 business customers having integrated our picture-based search in their system. Furthermore, we expect to have 50.000 registered users on our platform.
What other options have you considered for the business and the team if the original vision fails?
Since the picture-based algorithm can be applied to several other domains, we have further ideas/projects in the pipeline.
Some of them are already implemented as a beta-Version and some of them exist conceptually.
What mistakes have you made in the past in business and how have you learned from them?
When we were starting the project, we implemented a lot of features that we did not test on users. However, we learned that it is very important to verify the functionality.
That’s why we recently did some tests on 1,000 users. The results of this survey helped us to modify the UI. Eg. originally we had 100 pictures for our algorithm.
We found out that it is almost impossible for a user to capture all those photos on one screen. During the tests we found out that 63 is the best size of the picture set.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
I think that people that are in the pre-trip phase wants to get inspired really quickly. Instead of searching via search engines, pictures reflect emotional feelings and help people get inspired.
With a few clicks you have defined your profile and you have some results. Plain search engines do not provide such features. Furthermore, traveling websites that offers you some tips or recommendations are boring.
Traveling is fun, so booking and searching for your next trip should be fun as well.
PixMeAway tells you something about your travel desires in a humorous way…and I think this is what people are missing. Booking should be fun, no pain!
Understanding the user experience of trying to find recommendation and tips for new travel services has clearly played a major part in the development of PixMeAway.
The interface is slick and intuitive, with a significant difference to other image-led players out there (sub-Pinterest) with the addition of expert-produced guides from Columbus.
The company says it plans to break even some time in 2014, which will presumably only work out if the company's marketing and PR strategy is a success.
Obviously there is a major play with social networks such as Facebook to drive users to the service, but perhaps it is the white label scheme with partners where it will get the most traction given that customer acquisition can be expensive in search and relying on word-of-mouth and social is never guaranteed.
NB: TLabs Showcase is part of the wider TLabs project from Tnooz.