Today's startup pitch comes to us from ComboTrip, a travel startup targeting the challenging sector that is group travel. While the startup points to the nearly $80 billion group travel market, there is a long history of startups trying and failing to achieve real traction in this space.
Many companies in this space have focused on a piece of this unwieldy market, such as Groupize's focus on a hotel-facing product for group bookings, rather than trying to work with groups to book travel directly. It's a tough space given how much of a pain it is to organize large groups that travel infrequently and without guarantee of booking through the platform used for organizational purposes.
The startup has seed-funded itself to a beta platform, and says that it is "focusing on growth from a real-revenue model."
Read on for the Vine and Tnooz interview.
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
The early prototypes for ComboTrip around the idea of improving travel for themselves and their group of friends. As international and exchange students who loved travelling as a group, we always faced big communication and coordination issues in executing on their travel ideas. They decided to create a platform to make travel happen, and a new tool to empower this communication.
What is the size of the team, names of founders, management roles and key personnel?
Proudly based in the growing tech community of Albuquerque. New Mexico, the ComboTrip Team currently consists of nearly 15 talented developers, designers, marketers, and energetic creatives - travel enthusiasts from all over the world.
Moe Esmaeili officially founded ComboTrip in 2014, with Travis Kellerman as an advisor. They currently serve as the CEO and CMO of ComboTrip, respectively.
What is your estimation of market size?
The US Group Travel industry is estimated at $76 Billion. ComboTrip focuses on leisure and adventure group travel as an initial target for consumer adoption.
The platform offers functionality for business and niche group travel as well though, with targeted features in development for this type of travel. Initial targets and test niches include young professionals, international students, and reunion groups.
Please describe your competition.
Direct competition for an all-in-one group travel platform is limited, but sites like Travefy offer group planning and cost splitting.
Traditional-model booking platforms like Kayak have competitive rates/booking, but few to no planning options, and nothing for groups.
Other services focus on different trip elements like activities or local exploring (Gogobot), or just planning certain elements for groups (TripIt).
Others simply match your criteria to traditional travel agents (Tripology).
ComboTrip has taken on the tall order of creating an all-in-one group travel exploring, planning, and booking platform.
What is your revenue model and strategy for profitability?
We focus on a real revenue model based on commissions from bookings. As a full-experience platform, ComboTrip allows for any individual piece of a trip or the entire range of trip elements, including Flights, Hotels, Car/Transport Rentals, and Activities.
Complete travel packages, direct supply for better margins/commissions, and more diverse types of transportation (train, boat, bus) are in the works as well.
What problem does the business solve?
Real-time communication for group travel planning and booking simply does not exist in any efficient form. What usually results is an endless string of emails, texts, or social media posts/comments with no tracking of decisions or direct way to act on those decisions. With everything travel has to offer, the biggest barrier is often the planning and booking aspect.
With a single interface (PlanIt) that allows groups to propose, discuss, commit to, and book the full spectrum of travel, we make it happen. Through multiple, direct partnerships and integrations with leading travel inventory suppliers, we ensure competitive pricing and accurate availability to simplify decisions and enable confident booking alongside group travel planning.
ComboTrip users can discover new places and localized activities, propose real options, discuss and give their approval, and easily create a full itinerary. Social-style notifications keep the conversation going as a group decides and books their preferred routes. ComboTrip and the itinerary can be referenced at any time, on the go, on any device.
How did the initial idea evolve and were there changes/any pivots along the way in the early stages?
Travel is a massive scope to take on, and a mature industry that has established some rigid standards and protocols on supply and booking.
We learned early on that focusing on groups and solving the communication issues involved was plenty to handle. Add in the challenge of creating a real-time booking platform that references current inventories and provides rates at the same price or better than leading sites, and you have a monster effort on your hands.
After many rounds of prototypes and validation testing, the drawing board has been visited several times now, and we have spent many months with our dedicated, talented development and design team to build a new, robust platform. With new partnerships, knowledge, and deep integrations, we are making the final tweaks with the help of our private beta users to unveil an experience that empowers and enables travel and discovery.
We also realized along the way that it was not enough to just create another tool based on planning and booking, and that we had to dive deeper.
By immersing ourselves in the travel blog-o-sphere, we learned how adventurers think and find their new moves. We have made a goal of providing options for any budget, any group of people or solo explorer, to find a new place or re-unite with an old one and the friends or activities that make it special and even transformative.
Why should people or companies use the business?
A one-stop experience that enables discovery, real-time planning and booking with confidence at low-rates, and communication with fellow travelers that feels like conversation more than the work and hassle of coordination. You explore/connect, and we make it happen.
What is the strategy for raising awareness and the customer/user acquisition (apart from PR)?
Working directly with numerous travel bloggers and influential travel enthusiasts, ComboTrip works to create a community around the incredible benefits and discoveries travel produces.
More than just promoting a tech platform or pushing a product, we connect on the shared interests of fellow travelers. “ComboTripping” - as used in our various social media efforts - is about trying new things, seeing new places, moving and syncing with all the diversity of the world.
We are developing an intelligent system to connect appropriate posts and articles to our users based on their location, activity, and other search fields, to inspire ideas and inform travelers based on the adventures and rich descriptions/images of the talented writers in the travel blog-o-sphere.
Through a mixture of organic community-building and targeted, creative, online marketing efforts to existing travel communities, the ComboTrip marketing and outreach team connects in dynamic ways to reunion groups, international students, adventurers, and travel enthusiasts of all types.
Where do you see the company in three years time and what specific challenges do you anticipate having to overcome?
In 3 years, we aim to have established a strong, group travel community around our mission and tech, with a substantial market share in key group travel niche demographics.
Access to deals, competitive pricing, and new travel components will be a constant challenge as we grow. As a diverse technology platform for group travel, the software will need to maintain multiple, robust, evolving integrations with top partners to ensure a supply of travel inventory that keeps pace with the demands of the market.
Advancing our direct relationships with businesses offering travel services will be another push to develop our own, high-value supply of offerings exclusive to the platform on top of our current supply partner integrations.
PlanIt, as a primary differentiator, will be in a constant state of change and adaption to be fine-tuned from real-user feedback. It will embrace the latest trends and push new, proprietary interaction features in digital communication for groups. We cannot and will not stop innovating, testing, trying new features, functions, and targeted business development/marketing efforts. We have tall orders for the tech and strategy, and a talented team to fill them.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that it requires a startup like yours to help it out?
Communication, efficiency, and connecting ideas and plans to action. The current offerings within online travel stick to a static model and process that overwhelms, complicates, and frustrates the user, especially when trying to organize within a group. Our platform syncs people, plans, and converts them into booking action in real time- making it happen.
What other technology company (in or outside of travel) would you consider yourselves most closely aligned to in terms of culture and style... and why?
Lyft - We encourage individual style, exploration, and creativity in our team and users. #Combotripping is our slogan, verb, noun - it speaks to diversity, new adventures, trying new ideas and experiences, wherever travel may take you.
Which company would be the best fit to buy your startup?
Any industry player looking to seriously take on the large, complex, and challenging segment of group travel.
Describe your startup in three words.
Group Travel Happens
Group planning is one of those perennial travel startup ideas. While this makes sense insofar as the challenges related to corralling a group of people towards a shared itinerary, there has never been a true winner that hasn't either shifted towards a B2B product or a niche focus.
On the leisure side, travel is an occasional purchase and thus especially difficult to maintain consumer connection right up until the moment of purchase. Group travel is even more challenging, as most consumers travel even more rarely in large enough groups to seek a solution.
All that being said, there is still an opportunity for the end-all-be-all resource for group travel planning. A winner in the space would have to focus not only on providing an easy-to-use tool that streamlines booking but also on well-priced inventory and a killer marketing plan to make it the only go-to resource for group travel planning
This is especially vital if the only business model is to be commission-based. Users could plan trips and book elsewhere, meaning the business bears the operating costs without the revenue upside. That's why it's essential to have favorable pricing within the solid interface — and ensuring a steady stream of customers by focusing on groups that travel often, such as sports teams, church groups and other community organizations, or on a tool to help travel agents reduce the organizational challenges of managing group travel.
Another potential is to offer some sort of B2B product, which is one of the only chances for most travel startups to log enough revenue to justify further investment. For example, a white label product could be providing to amateur sports leagues that also include a networking component so that all teams can share itineraries and enhance the social component of the organization.