EUREKA! Where could your travel startup idea come from?
Depending upon your pain threshold, running a travel startup is either the most rewarding challenge in your life or it can be a truly terrifying ordeal.
Because you lay forth your personal reputation in the most public manner possible, but equally you have an opportunity to create something that will have an impact on thousands, if not millions, of people.
But where do travel startup ideas come from in the first place?
The most clichéd answer is that someone went travelling and, from a consumer’s perspective, they saw an opportunity.
This can be a good starting point, but if the problem is present as a result of how different players in the industry currently work together (it often is), then you are going to need to build an industry wide solution.
Industry wide solutions, however, tend to require leaving existing players in place, hence you need to know who they are and how they think. This is not an easy challenge for a travel startup founded by someone fresh out of college.
So, instead, here are some approaches to creating travel startup ideas that don’t require “fixing” the industry.
Strategy A – Do the opposite of what already works
As an example, think of special offers. These tend to work on products that have a “must buy”-type demand – a flight or a hotel.
People must sleep somewhere. They must travel somehow (once you have chosen to travel). Hence customers are going to buy and therefore they may be hunting for an offer.
Now think of the opposite – such as special offers on “nice-to-haves-but-don’t-care-if-I-don’t” are an interesting area for innovation. Could they work?
Why can’t I offer an airline $20 to NOT have someone sat next to me on the plane?
Now, they can take me up on my offer (at any point – perhaps even at 20 mins to go until boarding) or they can sell the seat to someone else… If ultimately the airline can’t sell the seat, it should take up my $20 offer.
(A clever marketplace would combine the offer to pay for an empty seat between the person sat in seat A and seat C, as both benefit from seat B being empty!).
What about taxis?
In London I tend to walk between most places (if it is going to take less than 45 minutes). But sometimes I want to take a taxi.
Sometimes I get half way to my destination and it starts raining (a common occurrence in the UK capital) and I kind of want to take a taxi, kind of want to just continue walking…
Again, I want to be able to put in an app, where I am going and where I have got to – and if a taxi wants to take me the rest of the journey at a discounted price, then perhaps I would take them up on the offer. But if they don’t, so what, I will keep on walking.
(The app needs to track where I have got to… as I don’t want to stop walking)
Or route planning?
Most route planning services tell you the fastest, the cheapest or the greenest route from A to B. But how about optimising for the most interesting route?
I recently asked an airport transfer taxi driver how long it would take to go from A to B and he said “just an a hour”, but driving down country lanes past all the thatched cottages (in the UK), several hours longer.
Most tourists, he said, took the longer route and he has spent years building up knowledge of where the most “British style countryside” routes are between many places.
So, think the opposite of what currently works – and why it works – and see if it creates any ideas about making opposing concepts work too.
Strategy B – recycle old ideas
We keep hearing about how the person-to-person marketplace (aka sharing economy) is “new” and therefore there are questions about whether culturally it will become accepted as the norm.
Actually, P2P pre-dates much of the modern travel industry.
Did you know that, for example, boarding houses were a key 19th century innovation (read more via the Boston Globe, registration required)? Perhaps Airbnb isn’t such a new idea after all!
Or have you heard of “valets-de-place”? These were local tour guides long before travel startup entrepreneurs created P2P tour guide marketplaces.
Hunt around what used to work for travellers but has been long forgotten. Maybe digital tech can bring it back?
Even if you do not find anything interesting, reading historical travel guides is great fun research. (Google has many of them in its digital book library)
Strategy C – sell tools!
In a gold rush, there will be some ambitious or lucky enough to strike it rich. Others though are content to sell tools to the gold diggers.
The key with tool-selling travel startups is to either help people get ahead of the curve… or help laggards keep up (not quite the same concept).
For example, to get ahead right now I would be looking at traveller profiles.
We have an interesting challenge within the day-tour sector that customers tend to book direct with suppliers (either when in destination or just before).
For every transaction, suppliers start with zero knowledge about the customer. But what if there was a central profile where the customer could say, “hey, I am a keen scuba-diver…”, now when that customer is talking to a tour operator in Cancun, the local company can respond (automatically) with a more appropriate product selection.
This profile needs to be maintained either centrally (under the consumer’s control), such as for Gravatar, or by a brand that the customer trusts to maintain profile information (Facebook, Google Plus, for example). Plenty of scope for innovation here!
Or while we are talking about profiles – what about retail travel agent profiles?
Travel agents (small, local, retail ones) have an increasing challenge with the web.
Every supplier website has a “travel agent login”. In the consumer world there are many websites offering log-in via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, etc – solving that for consumers (to a point).
What travel agents need is a similar solution, but for them, connected to their travel agent business profile, which also handles payments such as balance or commission payments.
Strategy D – bring new innovations to the industry
Many changes in digital travel come from outside of the travel industry itself, and are then brought to the travel industry.
The web, mobile, social media – all have come from outside of the industry and then arrived in the sector via travel startups. But what is next?
For example, 3D printing – is there a travel industry use for this?
(See this explanation of how 3D printing could work in the music industry - explained by Will.i.am)
Now imagine you have just seen an attraction or a well-know landmark in a destination.
Could this memory or experience be custom-printed in 3D for the customer, on-the-spot?
If you listen to how Will.i.am talks about 3D printing at music gigs, why can’t a tourist board/DMO invest in 3D printing within a destination?
Travel entrepreneurs should be trying to work out how to apply this technology to the travel industry.
Plenty of new areas for travel startup entrepreneurs to get busy with.
It is harder now to catch up to an existing digital-based company with a similar strategy (due to the incumbent’s network effects coming from a five-to ten year head start) so, frankly, probably wise to just leave it alone.
However due to the decreasing cost of web technologies, it’s even easier than ever before to create new businesses in new areas.
Hopefully the above has set a few thoughts in motion. Go for it!
Alex is a contributing Node to Tnooz and writes about travel technology, travel startups, specialist tour operators and the tours & activities sector. He has previously led ecommerce, social media and reservation system projects for airlines, leading mainstream tour operators and hotel distribution companies in both leisure and business travel sectors.
He is the CEO of TourCMS, a web based software-as-a-service reservation system and distribution platform used by many specialist tour operators worldwide to take online bookings and distribute to 3rd parties.
He also moderates Small Fish Big Ocean, a community that welcomes small tour operators and niche travel agents to come and discuss travel ecommerce issues. Alex has a computing degree, is passionate about usability, speaks French and still writes and reviews code.