Any company can create a startup “accelerator” by offering serviced office space to cohorts of startups and making pre-seed investments for equity.
But Travelport, the UK-based platform technology company, is taking a bolder tack. Not only is it the only one of its business-to-business travel tech peers to create an accelerator, it also has a bigger vision and greater ambition for it than is usual.
NB: This article is sponsored content by Travelport.
Travelport Labs, based in Denver, has many goals, but a top one is putting to use the company’s hard-won industry insights and connections to help a new generation of innovation rise in travel.
It aims to do this by hot-housing solutions that lie outside of its core lines of business.
The tech giant also hopes it will internally enjoy halo effects from the program. For instance, it wants to encourage Travelport employees to think more like entrepreneurs. Partially this is achieved by having internal teams run their new ideas right alongside external startups in the accelerator.
Importantly, Travelport wants to prove itself to the world’s top technical talent via action — not just talk.
The company has dedicated a staff of five to the program and it has seen what it calls excellent participation globally from both business and technical leaders. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the traction the program has gained outside of Travelport.
The last cohort concluded on June 16 and Demo Day was attended by more than 100, including investors, mentors, and interested parties from both the travel and startup scenes in the Denver/Boulder, Colorado, area.
Certainly the accelerator also serves as a chance to show off the company’s APIs (details, here), SaaS-based solutions, technical culture, and platform-based network. But Travelport is consistent in indicating this is not about creating customers out of startups.
Nathan Bobbin, Travelport’s Sr. Director of Product Innovation, who is responsible for the program, says:
“The accelerator is an opportunity for Travelport to give back and an opportunity to be on the front lines of the next wave of disruption in the travel industry – regardless of where that may be occurring in the value chain.”
For example, one of the accelerator’s external teams in its most recent class was PicThrive, founded by a pair of brothers from Vancouver whose model is to digitize and streamline the process by which travelers on tours and activities, such as a whitewater-rafting trip, can buy and receive photos taken of them.
This certainly appears to be a good way from Travelport’s traditional sweet spot of travel distribution, but PicThrive’s founders felt the program was perfect for them.
“Joining the Travelport Accelerator was the best decision we could possibly have made for our business," says one of the brothers, Neal Belovay.
Getting the vibe right
Like other accelerators, Travelport Labs develops cohorts of startups through a vetting process, with an offer of intensive support to build a community of effective strivers.
This autumn, its fourth class will get access to a 16-week program. (For details, see our earlier story on tracking graduates of the Travelport Labs Accelerator.) The application process closes July 8.
The class that graduated on June 16 developed good camaraderie, says Bobbin:
“An interesting thing happens during these 16 weeks. The teams gel in a way that's really special. They're going through a hard thing together. They begin to hold each other accountable.
It's no longer the coaches and staff of the accelerator that are saying, ‘Is that the right test? Are you really doing the right thing?’…The accelerator staff is highly skilled and experienced, but feedback from a peer resonates strongly.”
That said, many of the external founders lack familiarity with the ins and outs of the travel industry. The accelerator exposes them to mentors from within Travelport and elsewhere in the industry who have deep knowledge of search and of the intricacies of distribution, such as how passenger name records work.
Travelport can also make intros that can lead to business development.
Raising the metabolism
Bobbin says an essential part of the design for every class has been “the dynamic of the internal teams and the external teams working together.”
For internal staff, the company runs idea challenges on specific questions or domains. It holds one-week programs, called Lean StartINs. The sessions are basically a miniature version of the accelerator. They teach and apply the Lean concepts of build, measure, learn, and loop.
The best ideas and teams flow into the accelerator, as internal teams working alongside externally sourced ones.
In the most recent class, an internal team called DriveMe focused on improving the user experience for travel agents who are booking pre-planned ground transportation, a.k.a., black cars. Until now, booking this channel has been a cumbersome process for agents.
Jason Nash, GVP global marketing & product incubation at Travelport, says: “Anything that any company can do to help the agencies that we work with be more successful in the market is obviously good for us.”
Nash points to an internal team that helped create a new version of ViewTrip, its mobile itinerary management tool, and another internal team whose project is to help travelers, agents, and airlines more smoothly respond to flight cancellations, irregular operations and other disruptions that can strand consumers at airport hotels.
Travelport Labs has learned enough in the coaching of a few classes that it has begun to offer to run workshops for other travel companies. Labs team members can come in and teach the same methods over a week to help kick start startup-inspired innovation efforts.
But the team doesn’t think it has all the answers. It says it drinks its own Kool-Aid when it comes to working iteratively.
Among other lean practices, it holds four retrospectives throughout any given four-month class to get feedback from participants. Then it focuses in a systematic way on improving the top pain points that have been surfaced.
One innovation that resulted from a retrospective was the adoption of group OKRs, or Objectives and Key Results. The Travelport Labs staff, not just the startup teams, has embraced the concept, which basically means iteratively setting up goals and measuring results in a transparent way that makes stakeholders accountable to their peers.
Looking ahead, Travelport Labs is exploring having an incubator function that helps internal and external teams launch and commercialize their products, though discussions on that idea are still ongoing. Says Bobbin:
“By challenging startups is to learn as much as possible as fast as possible and as inexpensively as possible, we hold ourselves internally accountable to maintain that metabolism for our own work, too.”
For external startups, applications for the next class can be found at f6s.com. Travelport Labs says that an estimated 70% of the applications are weeded out just on the basis of those written and video-recorded applications.
At a high level, Travelport is looking for teams that have a passionate founders, makers with know-how, and an idea that targets a monetizable problem with a significant market size.
It’s not really about how well a startup idea lines up with Travelport's strategy that makes it appealing to the accelerator’s leadership. Travelport is more interested in if it feels it itself has the relevant expertise to help the founders achieve product-market fit quickly. Says Bobbin:
“Travelport’s primarily aim isn’t directly monetizing what it’s doing with these startups. Yes, we have an 8% equity share as strategic investment, but that will be quickly diluted once these teams actually raise….
What our involvement is about is to have skin in the game, to help grow the industry, and to improve travel for the entire ecosystem….”
Here are videos from Travelport Labs' Spring 2016 Demo Day:
Apply to Travelport Labs.
NB: This article was written for Travelport by Sean O'Neill. It appears here as part of Tnooz’s sponsored content initiative.
This is the second in a four-part series aimed at following startups through the Travelport Labs accelerator and uncovering their experiences. Check out our previous article on tracking graduates of program.
NB2: Image at top is of some members from all of the teams, except for Livingua. Inset photo is of Judah Musick from Tagible for Travel, with Laura Medina of Cooley, a sponsor, partner, and mentor.