A new startup, Bon Voyaging, is walking the well-worn trail of custom trip curation, with an online interface that offers an elegant means of collecting points of interest into shareable itineraries for specific trips.
Many other startups have plied this trade, from startups like Tripomatic and Dcovery to more established players such as Gogobot. It's a crowded field that hasn't had any clear success stories, and quite a few quiet flameouts - especially difficult given the challenge at monetizing the model.
Bon Voyaging has an Orbitz link-off to book hotels and flights off site, but at the moment doesn't have a direct integration on site. The app is also free to use, so at some point any traction will need to be converted in order to make this into a business.
Beyond the business, the interface is elegant and surprisingly easy to use. The ability to search for different categories of activities, and to have the map auto-update as it moves, allows the user to explore different neighborhoods and easily add items to a trip.
Trips can be downloaded for offline use, and a bookmarklet can be installed to save research into specific trips.
More on Bon Voyaging follows in the Tnooz Q&A with co-founder Nicole Cohen.
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
As an avid traveler, I was always interested in figuring out ways to make my trips more efficient and sharing authentic experiences. So like most DIY people, I mapped out my itineraries based on myriad different websites, guides, and pieces of advice from my network.
While I am from (and now based in) New York, I decided to start Bon Voyaging while living in Paris, France. Paris is a hub for international travel, so while actually planning trips for myself, I began to visualize how a site like Bon Voyaging would truly work. With these real world examples in mind, I started to map out the site’s initial design.
What is the size of the team, names of founders, management roles and key personnel?
Like most startups, we are a virtual team of myself and developers. I’m Nicole Cohen, Founder and CEO of Bon Voyaging. I worked with Square Mill Labs, led by Conor Hunt, Ruby on Rails back-end developer and Jeff Boulet, front-end designer, for the beta site.
What are your funding arrangements?
Bon Voyaging is funded on investments from friends and family.
What is your estimation of market size?
The U.S. leisure travel industry totaled almost $600 billion in 2012. In a recent Google study, it was estimated that over 60% of leisure travelers turn to the Internet for inspiration. 80% of all respondents used the Internet for travel planning.
Additionally, 49% looked to family, friends, and colleagues for planning advice. Bon Voyaging is targeting these dominant segments of the marketplace.
Please describe your competition.
While there is an endless number of travel sites, there are really very few that provide a customizable platform and tools for travel planning that are especially made for the leisure and DIY traveler. Main competitors include companies like Mygola, Trippy, and although quite different, Place Pins on Pinterest.
What is your revenue model and strategy for profitability?
The initial revenue model is two-fold: first, Bon Voyaging has an affiliate relationship with Orbitz and we expect to add more OTAs for bookings.
Secondly, we plan on featuring sponsored content and collaborating with strategic partners to bring branded voyages to the site. Additional revenue will come from licensing the platform to various travel professionals.
What problem does the business solve?
The main problem that Bon Voyaging solves is that there are just too many choices in travel without enough useful curation. Bon Voyaging effectively solves this problem by leveraging an easy-to-use platform and tools that allow travelers to filter information in order to envision their trip in a way that reflects their personality and style. More than simply collecting a list of places, travelers can create a calendar and map that are all shareable.
Our philosophy is that you should get lost in the right neighborhood. By this we mean you should do enough research to find the best places, but also leave room for ongoing discovery. No travel planning site can be a substitute for wandering around and stumbling upon a cozy, below-the-radar café in Paris, for example.
Bon Voyaging allows you to coordinate enough so know that you’re more likely to find such a gem in a neighborhood like The Marais. You can then update and save your finds to your voyage. Thus, Bon Voyaging also solves a second issue of, “What was the name of that restaurant again?” It provides a blueprint of your travels, so you can share better recommendations and wisdom with friends after you get back.
How did the initial idea evolve and were there changes/any pivots along the way in the early stages?
The initial idea was based on my experience of traveling to over 30 countries and having trouble finding one site to organize and share all of my travel information. I was constantly writing down travel recommendations on napkins or sending myself e-mails full of links. I had friends that had been forwarding around the same e-mail for years about a particular destination.
I knew this couldn’t be the most efficient way, so I did some basic market research, which revealed this was a larger problem that everyone shared. So I set out to create a better way to plan a trip that also appealed to someone with a keen design sensibility. Bon Voyaging is definitely still in the early stages, so we have not changed or pivoted.
Why should people or companies use the business?
Bon Voyaging will improve the travel planning experience and in turn create savvier travelers. Our motto is, “travel well and be well traveled,” which is exactly what our platform encourages by providing intuitive tools and solutions for travel planning.
Rather than creating an excel document or using an app that spits out a predetermined itinerary, Bon Voyaging allows travelers to create a completely customizable map of their destination(s), collect places from any site using our bookmarklet, and then design a day by day calendar.
A key feature of the platform is that days are broken down into morning, afternoon, and evening because we wanted the format to reflect the leisurely attitude of the traveler. Instead of having a calendar with exact times that is reminiscent of Outlook or any business application, this layout is more fluid— you can simply plan to go to a museum in the morning followed by shopping in the afternoon.
There is no need to schedule everything down to the minute, but you can of course put reservations or exact rendezvous times in the notes section. The entire voyage is easily shared with social media links and you can also export your voyage as a PDF to save on your smart phone or tablet so you have it on the go.
What is the strategy for raising awareness and the customer/user acquisition (apart from PR)?
Thus far, with Bon Voyaging in beta, the strategy has been word of mouth while it is still in the testing phase. We are starting to work with various bloggers to create highlighted voyages in order to reach and engage their followers.
We are also looking to partner with strategic travel brands like hotels and tourism boards to reach a larger audience.
Where do you see the company in three years time and what specific challenges do you anticipate having to overcome?
I see Bon Voyaging as a trusted lifestyle brand that has a wealth of searchable content from like-minded travelers. Building on the current design, I plan to take it to a level where it is a one-stop destination for travel planning ranging from suggested hotspot ideas to an e-commerce component for packing to editorial features from top tastemakers.
As an early stage startup, we will have to overcome many obstacles, including building a solid team and differentiating ourselves from the competition. Maintaining user engagement and gaining more traction is the foremost challenge.
Bon Voyaging is for the millennial traveler who seeks new experiences and wants to share and get recommendations from friends. This kind of traveler does not need a new social network for travel; rather, they need a platform by which to share this information on their existing networks.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
The travel industry, like most established markets, is slow to change. So rather than focusing on what is wrong with the travel industry, our outlook is that it needs another startup because it is growing and changing faster than the large companies can or want to react.
I had a conversation early on with another travel startup founder who was a potential competitor and his insight has really guided my perspective on this issue. There doesn’t need to be only one travel startup that “wins,” rather, multiple small companies can gain traction and change an industry.
What other technology company would you consider yourselves most closely aligned to in terms of culture and style... and why?
In terms of culture and style, we are most closely aligned with a company like Etsy. We provide a DIY platform for people to create and be creative. Like Etsy, design is key and we have an artistic sensibility. But instead of making and selling products, travelers collect and share experiences.
In terms of culture, Etsy is redefining an industry and very mission-driven which is similar to Bon Voyaging in that we don’t just see creating a voyage as a rote activity, but rather as a opportunity to be inspired and a means of expression.
This is a tough spot to be in for a startup, as there's no clear path to win. Money doesn't come easy in this trip inspiration and planning space, which usually tends to mean that startups are strong out of the gate and then lose momentum once reality sets in.
The startup is also competing against other broader companies, such as Evernote, which make it especially easy to sync content across devices with its own bookmarklet and mobile app. In fact, that's the value proposition proposed by one competitor, Dcovery, which of course must be even more easy to use than Evernote if it is to out-compete in the travel vertical.
Nonetheless, what we do like is that the website is elegant and actually fun to use. Integrating the map into the interface is on-trend, as maps have rightly become the default interface for travel. In our test with Cuba, and even though the interface relies heavily on the Google Places API, the content available seems to be varied and interesting. Some tweaks are needed as far as making map icons clickable and allowing for more seamless scroll on the place listing column.
The next step must be to curate some content specific to the platform - it's all well and nice to pull in other companies' information, but true platform status requires content that users can't get elsewhere. The startup must also manage m0bile expectations, as competing startups offer downloadable itineraries for use on-the-go.
The site also has an Explore page, with shared itineraries that make for off-the-shelf curated trips, which points to one potential avenue for monetization: white labeling the service to travel agents or even providing purchasable itineraries created by either experts or actual sellers of travel - and taking a commission. CVBs and destination managers might also be interested in this as well, although again Bon Voyaging must compete for limited marketing spend as an effective marketing channel.
Perhaps there's a way to create some sort of pay-to-play priority placement within the interface, although that means overcoming the hurdle of a building out a sales force.
The startup is well-positioned on the user interface front, and now must push forward to provide more rich multimedia content that is available offline for in-destination travelers. This will at the very least provide a solid platform from which to jump into the raging monetization river.
NB: Map image courtesy Shutterstock.