ZapTravel attempts semantic travel metasearch, with activities upfront
Type in a query in natural language, like “go hiking in Italy in May,” and the site will provide information on relevant flights, hotels and activities.
While Google sometimes is able to resolve “SFO to LAX for April 4“, ZapTravel claims to let users ask broad queries.
Examples: “I’d like to get away from London for a long-weekend to a place with notable cuisine” or “I want to visit a notable LGBT event in Europe in May.” Or “We want to take a honeymoon to a beach destination staying in a 5 star hotel for under 1,000 euros.”
ZapTravel was born out of founder Andrew Lacy’s surprise when booking a trip to Valencia, which just happened to coincide with a heritage festival in the city, complete with fireworks, processions and history.
Lacy realized that events can turn a great vacation into an unforgettable one, but typically it is time-consuming if not impossible to find the intersection of well-timed experiences and destinations you can easily and affordably reach. So he put together a startup to try to solve the booking problem.
His site has just soft-launched. Its team of ten are split almost evenly between engineering and content curation.
The founder, Andrew Lacy, co-founded Tapulous, one of the first iPhone-focused businesses, and was a senior vice president at Disney Mobile.
The company’s head of engineering, Nicolas Martignole, is one of the most followed tech writers in France and its head of product, Olivier Desmoulins, is one of the leading user experience designers in France.
The startup is self-funded team. During 2013, it plans to raise an angel round of financing and add advisors.
Q&A with founder Andrew Lacy:
Describe what your start-up does, what problem it solves?
We founded the company because we realized that the current linear approach to travel (research location -> identify airports -> identify flights -> search for cheap prices -> identify hotels, search for cheap prices -> identify activities, etc etc) is fundamentally broken and fragmented.
Customers find themselves bumping from one site to another.
We wanted a solution that harked back to travel agents in the pre-internet days: a solution that would listen to a client’s needs and what experience they want to have, and then instantaneously propose great deals that match those requirements.
Because we understand what it is that the customer wants, every deal that we put in front of them is extremely relevant, which is different to the many travel deal companies you see online today.
Another fun fact: Our site is 100% built in memory thanks to a Redis client.
It makes our results speedy and robust. While Google Web search sometimes is able to resolve “SFO to LAX for 1/4″, our users can come to our website and ask to “I want to get away for a long-weekend to a place with notable cuisine“.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
First: Business model.
Unlike websites that are specifically focused on inspiration, Zaptravel’s proposals are tightly coupled to actual deals in the market.
We presently make money by referring qualified leads to leading travel partners, but over time we plan to get more involved in the customer transaction because we ultimately believe that customers are looking for an end-to-end solution in the same way they do when using a bricks-and-mortar travel agent.
Because travel was one of the first markets to go online in the 90s and early 2000s, much of the technology driving it and product thinking that went into it was developed quite some time ago.
User expectations have changes and the ability of technology to deliver against those expectations has increased.
Start-ups like Zaptravel are more capable of making this happen simply because we don’t have any legacy constraints on how we need to operate.
Third: Consumer experience.
We believe that the discretionary travel market is poorly served by almost all online travel properties, which fall into one of three categories: (1) transaction websites (eg. OTAs), (2) inspiration websites (Eg. Lonely Planet) and (3) deal websites (eg. Groupon travel).
The problem is that transaction websites do a poor job at inspiration, inspiration websites get you excited about places you cannot visit, and deal websites advertise great prices for deals that are often impractical.
Semantic search as a category is still very new although we believe it represents the future of travel search and search in general.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
We are developing tools to enable you to flag specific types of deals (for example: “beach destinations under 200 euros”) which you will be able to share with friends and receive frequent updates as new deals are identified and prices change.
We are exploring distribution strategies with 3rd party destination sites. And we have created a chat agent to provide tailored advice to customers.
All of this should help with word-of-mouth referrals.
Where do you see yourselves in 3 years time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?
I think fundamentally over the coming year the web and devices we interact with are going to become much better at understanding what we want and help sorting through all the noise in the market.
User experience with apps like Google Now and tools like Google Glass will alter their expectations of how all digital platforms should work, and even desktop tools will have to become more predictive and simpler.
ZapTravel hasn’t truly cracked the semantic code, despite its marketing.
There’s more work to do. Just run a few of your own natural search queries to judge on your own how consistently accurate and apropos its results are.
For consumers, ZapTravel’s premise is a single search box to use (i.e., no pop-up calendar, no multiple choices) and help with inspiration when all they know is that they want to, say, go someplace sunny for vacation.
That’s very appealing.
Semantic travel metasearch site is on trend. Some analysts predict that semantic search will be standard by 2020 across metasearch sites and online travel agencies (OTAs) and supplier sites.
No company has made serious in-roads into semantic search for travel, though Adioso has come closest so far, Expedia is testing Your Visit, Momondo has flirted with it, CheapAir has gestured at it, Adioso attempts it for flights, Hopper has promised it, and a Siri-spinoff called Desti is bringing it to travel content on the iPad.
Will it be able to stay ahead of better-funded rivals?
Another concern: It’s a desktop-first start-up in mobile-first times. That’s raises yellow flag.
The site also needs to scale up in the number of suppliers it covers. Right now, its claims of sourcing ‘half a million hotels, tens of thousands of events, and thousands of “reasons” to visit a place’
It needs to add air plus hotel plus activity packages to go the last mile in truly answering these natural language searches like “I want to go hiking in Italy first week of April”.
Lastly, ZapTravel is vague, at least in public, about its plans for user acquisition, one of the costliest problems for new travel startups today.
But, as Brian Balfour has written, “building it is not enough“. You need to get the right users, and get them cheaply, despite a tsunami of distractions out there.
Sean O’Neill is a New Jersey-based reporter for Tnooz. He is also a daily contributor of consumer news to LonelyPlanet.com.
He used to work for BBC Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and Kiplinger's, and used to live in London, New York City, and Washington, DC.