My Take on Phocuswright's Battleground

Published November 2015 Analyst: Douglas Quinby

 

My Take on Phocuswright's Battleground

For eight years Phocuswright's Travel Innovation Summit has assembled travel startups and more established companies to present their innovations to the industry and compete on stage at The Phocuswright Conference. This year, we launched The Battleground, a preamble to The Travel Innovation Summit which provides an opportunity for early-stage startups to take the stage and compete for three slots on the main stage of The Travel Innovation Summit (in the end, there was a tie and four innovators moved on to the main stage).                  

I sat in the audience and listened to all of them. In case you missed it, here's my quick take. Two notes before you start:

  • Although I work at Phocuswright, I played no role in evaluating or selecting any of the participating startups in The Battleground, nor do I have any business relationship with any of them. These are my own opinions, not those of Phocuswright, and are mostly based on the 21 six-minute pitches plus questioning by the judges.
  • Six of the 21 presenters were women founder CEOs. That’s more than one in four. Great to see!

THE CONTESTANTS

Wyndow is a service to help travelers travel like locals through a local activity discovery engine that takes into account a traveler's location, interests and time window, as well as availability from local activities. The interesting hook here is the time window – especially for time-crunched travelers that may only have an hour or two.

My Take: local discovery still isn't very good, so the more new entrants to tackle this the better. But it's a tough road to hoe, and the novel time window feature will not be enough.

Bellhop aggregates on-demand marketplaces within a single booking engine. The CEO presented this as a "metaservice" for on-demand services such as dining, ground transportation and ordering food. Next up are other services such as groceries, laundry and spa.

MY TAKE: I don't know why anyone would use it, when likely users would already have Uber, Lyft, OpenTable, Munchery, GrubHub, etc. And the judges seemed to agree. The CEO countered that there are international destinations where there are local providers that might have more options or better service. OK ...

Hotelied is a membership hotel OTA. Travelers must sign up and provide some information about themselves, and Hotelied then targets travelers with personalized offers and discounts. So travelers give some information about themselves and link their social profile(s) to get benefits. Hotels can then target specific traveler segments through Hotelied and provide rates that would be opaque to the major OTAs.

MY TAKE: It's an interesting approach, and the CEO presenting clearly knows the hotel business. Can this scale and acquire supply and customers? And will the benefits really be that compelling to change consumer behavior? Currently they have only 350 hotels, so they have a long way to go. Also, a smaller side note, one of the judges raised the issue of trip context. In other words, just because I may spend a lot when I travel for business, I may still be a cheapskate when I travel for leisure. So how will Hotelied interpret different trip intentions? The CEO was dismissive of this concern. He shouldn't have been.

Zizoo is a marketplace for vacation boat rentals. Zizoo takes the really old-school charter boat rental market and modernizes it with a SaaS offering for charter companies and a consumer-facing booking site. The CEO outlined the marketplace: She  said it is big (28 million boats) and really old-school (charter companies working off of Excel or Post-it notes, offering only seven-day rentals). Zizoo takes a 12% commission on an average basket of $3,300, currently has 6,000 boats in 20 countries, has done $3M in bookings and is growing 40% month on month.

MY TAKE: This is one of the best presentations of the day, and I agree with the judges (Zizoo was a winner). The CEO clearly outlined the market, the problem and how they are solving it, and delivered data to prove it's working. (Other presenters take note: This is how every startup pitch should be!). I don't know a thing about the boat rental market, but her presentation really brought to mind the vacation rental market of 10 years ago, and look at what's happened there. So, could Zizoo be the HomeAway of boat rentals? Sure feels like it. (I'd just want to do some due diligence on some of the market stats first!)

Sharethebus is an online marketplace for organizing charter bus services. Sharethebus is targeting event organizers in five low-hanging segments:

  1. Music festivals
  2. Schools
  3. Corporations
  4. Conferences
  5. Sporting events

MY TAKE: This could be really interesting for certain events where you have people coming in from all over, and organizers could use technology to dynamically create shared transportation offerings to their events. However, I'm not sure I buy it regarding schools and corporations – I'm not sure this would be easier than just calling a Mears or local business company, with whom they already probably have longstanding relationships. Also, this will need to be a clear money-maker for event organizers. Otherwise, why bother?

Grab makes the airport eating experience a little less stressful for harried fliers. The app enables travelers to order food and then skip the line and pick it up. Grab offers gate-to-gate mapping based upon the traveler's flight itinerary, so the content offered is curated based on the traveler's path from gate to gate. Next up will be integration within airline apps, including the option for travelers to pay for food with airline points.

MY TAKE: The real advantage is skip the line, but is this really such a big problem for travelers? Also, a great observation from Sam Shank of HotelTonight (one of the judges): "Great idea but can people get excited about this? I mean, I don't exactly savor eating at the airport. Mostly it's like, sh**, I need to find a sandwich."

Hitlist serves up targeted deals based on travelers' destinations of interest, timing (availability and special deals) and social context of the traveler. Travelers create a profile and "hit list" of the places they would really like to see, with a little help from Hitlist.

MY TAKE: Hitlist is basically Tinder-style mobile travel discovery for destinations and deals. I personally love the idea and the app, but I'm not sure I would use it to seriously plan and book – rather I just enjoy the entertainment value of travel inspiration. Judge and VC Cameron Yuill asked the key question, "I just don't get the consumer value prop. I can go and book on Orbitz or elsewhere. Why would I do this?" And then the clock ran out ...

Guidekick offers mobile, visual-audio guides of attractions allowing museums, for example, to create immersive, 3-D walk-throughs to visitors. Guidekick charges about $10K to onboard an attraction plus a recurring annual fee of $30K-$50K.

MY TAKE: Interesting potential visitor experience and mapping technology, and I love the idea of having a personal, guided mobile audio tour of a museum as opposed to those pre-cooked tours by the museums themselves (live or audio). Sam Shank raised another good point: "Even if you own this entire market, it still feels like a small business. Maybe think less about travel and more about indoor mapping ..." However, I would pay for this. Maybe there are enough other travelers who would also, to make this worthwhile for museums, and for Guidekick.

SeatWizer offers seat-centric flight search. So you can search for a flight not only by schedule and price, but also be specific seat sizes. "Seats come in many different sizes, but flight search hasn't noticed," said their presenting CEO. He gave an example: "This seat is 8% cheaper but 20% smaller."

MY TAKE: This is that most rare of rare birds in travel: an interesting innovation in flight search. Someone sitting next to me (you know who you are!) said, "this is the piece that Hipmunk has missed." However, someone else said TripAdvisor's SeatGuru already does this. I thought SeatWizer took things a bit further than SeatGuru, but then I realized I hadn't visited SeatGuru in ... almost forever.

Voopter is flight metasearch, but in Brazil.

MY TAKE: This is flight metasearch, but in Brazil.

TravelWits offers multi-destination dynamic packaging vacation search based on a traveler's specific budget, interests and dates.

MY TAKE: There have been lots of stabs at this, but none have taken off. The math behind Travelwits may be as sophisticated as the founder's claim, but I'm not sure it solves a big traveler problem. Travelers are perfectly happy to shop around and increasingly shop for their components separately.

Bucket is an online social travel organizer that helps travelers compile all of their trip ideas in one place. Bucket's novel hook is the parsing of free-form text to anywhere on the web, including from private social profile pages and conversations. Bucket then brings photos and destination information into a visually oriented page based on the text. Users can then check the options they want to hold on to for a trip. 

MY TAKE: Without question, the presenter and CEO (Julia Lam) was impressive and passionate about the vision, and seems to have the track record to make this work. Although the free-form text parsing and related content aggregation is novel, I'm not sure it's enough of a hook. But it feels like early days for Bucket, and I think there's more to come from this team.

Trekkable is a platform for accessible travel. The startup scores and aggregates hotels that are best equipped to support the needs of disabled travelers. The presenter noted that while travel reservation systems do have the ability to designate a room as smoking or nonsmoking, they do not have any category for accessibility.

MY TAKE: Hotels are supposed to be ADA compliant, but compliance is a matter of degree. A service that can sift through this for the millions of disabled travelers would be a welcome addition to online travel. (Trekkable was one of the winners.)

Lokafy is a peer-to-peer platform for tours and activities, matching travelers with guides based on personal preferences.

MY TAKE: This is not an original idea. There are plenty of others. We have covered it at length in this study. However, I still love the idea, and I really want to see one or some of these entrants figure out how to scale this and get it right. Not easy. Good luck!

TRYTN is a digital platform for tours and activities providers and resellers to manage and distribute tours and activities.

MY TAKE: This is also not an original idea. There are plenty of others. We have covered it at length in this study. And there’s lots and lots of competition that’s getting better and better. Also not an easy space to tackle. Good luck!

Magpie is a solo community platform for women travelers focused on safety. Magpie lets users make connections and find potential hosts when traveling. Think of it as a Couchsurfing-plus-Facebook just for solo women travelers.

MY TAKE: I initially wondered if there was real a market opportunity: Are women really concerned about safety when they travel solo, and if this would be compelling, or if they can just get their travel needs met through more established channels. However, I'm also aware that I'm a guy, so I shouldn't try to answer that on my own. I asked a woman sitting next me – and, yes, she said she had traveled solo twice and was concerned about safety, and yes this was interesting to her. So, this is interesting to me.

Wetravel is a student-led group travel organization and group tours platform that is free for organizers and travelers.

MY TAKE: There have been lots of attempts to solve the unique difficulties of group travel planning and organization, and I did not see what distinguished Wetravel from other platforms, and what differentiated it specifically for student travel. But the group nut has yet to be fully cracked, and more new entrants are welcome.

Pana is virtual travel assistant through a concierge, messaging-based platform. For a monthly subscription fee of $49, Pana will help you find, book and organize your travel. All of the activity in Pana is stored against the user's profile. Pana is also proactive, and reaches out if there is a problem. The company has 1,000 paying customers and reported some impressive growth (it launched in April 2015).

MY TAKE: I confess – I'm biased – I believe messaging is the future of traveler support and engagement. And the 23-year-old CEO delivered a terrific presentation and knows the business inside and out. Judge and KDS CEO Dean Forbes could not get his head around the $49 subscription fee model, and that definitely limits its appeal to only heavy travelers who aren't too price sensitive. But I suspect they have bigger plans in the works with lower tiered pricing models as they scale. I think they should have been one of the winners – hands down.

Waygo is an augmented reality language recognition and translation service that uses computer vision technology to recognize and instantly translate. Currently it supports Chinese, Korean and Japanese, with other languages soon to follow.

MY TAKE: Great technology that I thought already exists with Google, but obviously has a lot of applications, and certainly not just within travel. By the way, Ryan Rogowski, the co-founder and CEO, also said there was an article in Japan which said he was going to be the next Steve Jobs, but Ryan said he didn't think that would be the case. What can I say? I have a thing for humble founders.

Visit.org gets travelers off the beaten track with curated travel experiences offered by nonprofits around the world. Revenues from the trips are sent back to the communities through the host nonprofits.

MY TAKE: I know there is an incredibly, diverse world of travel opportunities out there, and the idea of really experiencing these types of truly local, off-the-beaten track places and communities is definitely appealing. And this is a way to travel well and also do good by contributing back to the local communities. The founder is clearly passionate about travel and providing exposure and awareness for nonprofits doing great work, but being a nonprofit and being a tour operator are two very different things. I think this will, at best, be an interesting niche tour operation.

TRIPBAM is a really interesting platform to help corporations and business travelers shop hotel bookings for lower-priced options within a range of parameters. It's also the fourth startup from a corporate travel technology veteran with a great track record, Steve Reynolds. TRIPBAM is currently doing 100K bookings a day, working with 15 of the 20 top TMCs and more than 1,000 companies.

MY TAKE: Steve certainly pitched this like it was just another home run for him, and yes, they were one of the winners (congrats, Steve!). And it looks like the company is doing well. So honestly, why were they on the stage? I felt like they shouldn't be in The Battleground (isn't this for early-stage companies?), but should have already been in The Travel Innovation Summit.