If Hollywood made a film about online travel startups, it would probably tell the inspiring story of two young entrepreneurs building a tiny company that takes on global behemoths.
It'd be a story of a dynamic duo relying on their grit and determination, rather than big funding--until the dramatic breakthrough.
It may take a while for the travel industry to have its "Moneyball" or "The Social Network" moment. In the meantime, here's the story of Trevii, which compares attraction tickets.
Trevii helps travelers find the best offer for tickets to museums and similar attractions at popular destinations. It recommends the best value option for a customer's itinerary and personal interests.
Unlike similar services, it attempts to account for free entry dates, voluntary admissions, age-related discounts, and others alternative options for finding the cheapest tickets.
Trevii has two founders: designer Jaesub “Masslow” Ahn and programmer Moonyoung “Moon” Kang.
Ahn is a master's candidate in electronic commerce at Chonnam National University in South Korea, while Kang is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science, with a specialty in computational linguistics, at Boston's Northeastern University.
Ticket cost optimization is an instance of P vs NP problems, one of the most difficult and interesting problems around. It's called the “Millenium Prize Problem” by the Clay Mathematics Institute.
The founders hope that by applying their domain knowledge of travel and ticketing, Trevii will be able to efficiently hack the ticket cost optimization problem.
If they can come up with a solution that is elegant--both from the perspectives of user design and computational linguistics--they may have a startup that, however imperfect, could interest many other online travel players.
Trevii's founders have made a Vine to illustrate their startup:
A Q&A with CTO Moonyoung Kang:
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
I was waiting in line for a ticket at Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, and found that there is something called CityPASS. A brochure claimed that I would save up to half off of admission tickets if I bought a CityPASS.
Even though CityPASS’s advertisement was very attractive, I was still hesitant to buy it.
First, I wasn’t planning to visit all the tourist attractions CityPASS is covering, and second, each tourist attractions had their own alternative discounts, such as a student discount, which could be cheaper than buying a CityPASS.
Comparing CityPASS and alternative discounts was not easy. I could not finish my calculation before I faced the ticket seller and I ended-up not buying CityPASS.
This was bad for both me and CityPASS because I lost an opportunity to save money and CityPASS lost a customer. I felt there must be a way to calculate this automatically.
After coming back home, I started building a system that can automatically calculate the cheapest ticket option, given a customer's itinerary.
I showed my prototype to friends. People liked it, and I decided to start a service.
We have been self-funded so far.
Estimation of market size?
We are targeting tourist attraction admission ticket market. We estimate that market to be about $500 million.
Number of visitors to U.S. is more than $100 million a year, and that the number of travellers to Europe is similar to that of U.S. from various statistics, the global market for attraction tickets may be $10 billion
With the commission rate of 8%, satisfaction rate of 70%, and distinctiveness rate of 100%, we get $500M market.
We are aware of one very direct competitor: passcomparison.com.
Trevii is different from passcomparison.com because that site compares only between regular tickets and attraction passes, while Trevii compares many other options as well, such as “pay what you wish” attractions, attractions with “free entry day”, “Museums on Us” by Bank of America, etc.
We also believe we have better interface overall.
Revenue model and strategy for profitability?
Trevii earns commissions by connecting customers to ticket sellers (e.g. CityPASS, GetYourGuide). The commission rate differs between 6%-10%.
In one month after opening our website on Oct. 6th for beta service, Trevii was able to make more than $250 by selling double-digit number tickets worth more than $2,500.
To date, we've helped more than 5,000 people, despite almost no marketing.
What problem does the business solve?
Given a user’s travel itinerary and details of trip members, Trevii compares attraction tickets and recommends the cheapest one.
The user need not calculate it with pencil and paper, but can find the cheapest ticket option within few seconds at Trevii.
How did the initial idea evolve and were there changes/any pivots along the way in the early stages?
Other than attraction passes (e.g. CityPASS), we found additional ways to get discounts for tourist attractions, such as “pay what you wish” (e.g Metropolitan Museum of Art), “free entry date” (e.g. Museum of Modern Art’s free Target/Uniqlo Friday), “Museums on Us” by Bank of America (e.g. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and etc.
We had to build a system that could deal with all these various discount methods.
Why should people or companies use the business?
People spend more than 30 minutes searching for cheaper attraction tickets and overpay by 30-60%, especially when visiting famous attractions with free entry day, such as Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
However cheaply you buy your tickets, they are more expensive than free entry. Trevii automatically compares all the free entries and discounted tickets so that you get the best deal.
What is the strategy for raising awareness and the customer/user acquisition?
We're attending events, such as last November's PhoCusWright Conference and the upcoming ENTER 2015 event in Lucerne.
We try to promote Trevii to cost-sensitive travellers.
Lots of international students are coming to U.S., and they plan to travel around. As first-time visitors to many places in U.S., they are likely to visit top tourist attractions in a city, and are likely to benefit more from Trevii.
Credit Card Forums
Credit card forums always look for cheaper things. Lucky for us, the rewards of credit cards are often flight or accommodation discount. These people should be interested in a cheaper way to travel, and we could get the word out about us in these threads.
Hostels are good places to share and spread information about a cheaper way to travel.
Forums about “budget travel”
Budget travel forums are very interested in new ways to save money and would be interested in Trevii.
Where do you see the company in three years time and what specific challenges do you anticipate having to overcome?
In three years, Trevii will become the website which people visit before they travel. All tourist attraction and show tickets will be purchased through Trevii.
Trevii will launch several other services that will make it something beyond a ticket-selling website.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that it requires a startup like yours to help it out?
Nothing seems to be wrong. Though, from attending a few tourism conference, I sense lots of concern among people in travel industry that they think they are falling behind.
Many problems in the travel industry look simple superficially, but are actually fairly complicated, including the ticket cost optimization problem Trevii is trying to solving.
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?
Although Trevii and AirBnB resides in very different field, we think we have a lot to learn from them, to name one, advertising strategy.
Which company would be the best fit to buy your startup?
Travellers are still reluctant to buy tickets form a website and Tripadvisor seems to be interested in ticket-selling business because they recently purchased Viator.com.
A website that finds the cheapest ticket set for all the tourist attractions to visit would make users more likely to buy tickets from the website.
Describe your startup in three words?
Compare tickets fast.
We met Trevii's founders at the industry's annual gathering, the PhoCusWright Conference, where they had a kiosk.
You would have been hard pressed to find nicer entrepreneurs at that event, or ones tackling a more interesting problem.
Of course, attraction passes may seem like small potatoes to some industry insiders. ("Where are the fat commissions?" "Where's the transaction volume?")
But as a computational and user design problem, cracking the code of how best to compare tickets, given such complex criteria, could have powerful relevance for a variety of other aspects of online travel.
We don't like to knock another budding entrepreneur's enterprise, especially one as straightforwardly covering its costs and helping people out as passcomparison.com.
Yet at least to a layman's eyes, that competitor site isn't as inviting, comprehensive, or technologically savvy as Trevii.
Ditto for Tripomatic (see its Tnooz startup pitch, here) and for Citybot, though those two startups excel at other functions.
Trevii faces a marketing challenge, obviously. It's only found about 5,000 users since its launch last autumn.
To be sure, its target market of attraction pass users is large.
Nearly a million New York City CityPasses were sold last year alone. The international student market is also broad and likely to share helpful sites via word=of-mouth and social networks.
The marketing problem is a problem Airbnb and other startups have solved through growth hacking. It's also a problem that another deal-comparison startup, DealBase, is working on.
We wish Trevii a Hollywood ending.