6 years ago

Did Foursquare just kill a bunch of trip planning startups?

Foursquare this week launched its Explore feature on the web, an effort termed as: “Personalized search for the real world.”

Previously available via its mobile apps, the launch of this feature as a section on the Foursquare website shows the company is making a serious push into local search on the web.

But more than that, the company may have finally nailed the “holy grail” many travel planning startups have been yearning for: utilizing your friends’ behaviors and preferences to recommend things for you to do.

How it works

Let’s take a brief look at how the feature works. Upon loading, you’re presented with a simple dialog asking what you’re looking for:

Note the options in the bottom right. In addition to being able to simply explore new places you haven’t been to yet, you’re also able to easily search for places your friends have been to.

Here’s a quick example of a search for coffee shops in London:

You’re quickly shown a map with places your friends have visited, how often they’ve been there, and what they’ve had to say about them. Of course, this feature exists on countless other travel planning sites.

But Foursquare has a secret weapon that no other travel startup can come even close to matching: Over 1.5 billion checkins worldwide, a truly massive amount of data on past consumer behavior. Each of these checkins has tracked:

  • Where the user is
  • The time of day the user checked in
  • Whether they’re with a friend
  • Any comments the user has left via Foursquare’s “Tips” feature
  • Any photos the user chose to attach

Utilizing big data technology, Foursquare has been able to analyze this data on an aggregate level and extract value from it by determining a plethora of useful patterns such as:

  • What places my friends like going to at specific times of the day, eg: “Your friends prefer these lunch spots”.
  • Where my friends like to stay, eg: “Your friends stay at these hotels when visiting New York”.
  • What my friends like to do, eg: “Your friends love doing the Eiffel Tower tour when in Paris”.

What’s different about Foursquare’s effort is that unlike most travel planning sites, Foursquare hasn’t had to ask users to recommend things post-facto or bribe them into having to manually enter this data — this data was shared in real-time, giving it authenticity and lacking the sort of bias towards popularity frequently seen on other sites.

But Foursquare hasn’t stopped at just allowing you to search for places: Explore also now searches the massive amount of data contained in Tips and Reviews left by users, enabling a user to free text search for places and recommendations such as “chic boutique hotel” and really dig into what users think about particular places.

The power of this is perhaps best demonstrated when combined with the ability to follow brands on Foursquare.

Imagine you follow The Travel Channel on Foursquare – now, when searching Explore for places to eat, you might find places with recommendations left by popular Travel Channel personalities such as Anthony Bourdain.

Enabling users to easily find things they’ve previously expressed interest in is another important feature of Explore.

Utilizing the “Save for later” feature, a user can easily bookmark spots in a city they wish to visit in the future.

When visiting that city, Explore would allow the user to easily find spots they’ve bookmarked. This is in addition to Foursquare’s Radar feature, which can automatically alert you when you’re near a place you’ve saved.

Why planning startups should worry

It’s easy to dismiss Foursquare’s efforts as yet another attempt at a problem countless other startups have failed at.

But Foursquare has what many travel startups don’t, including over 15 million registered users, approximately half a billion checkins in the last six months alone, and buy-in from some of the world’s largest brands including a recent deal with American Express. In a word, traction.

But beyond traction, Foursquare’s massive data trove will be hard for most startups to catch up with.

By demonstrating true value to users (such as the recent American Express Small Biz Saturday which saw users who linked their card receive a $25 statement credit), the company will likely continue to accelerate its adoption and usage rates.

This will give it an even bigger trove of data with which to work with and launch new features.

And finally, Foursquare has one of the best startup teams out there. Its discipline in growing the company from a simple location-based game to where they are today shows incredible depth and vision.


Foursquare hasn’t won yet. There are of course other companies with even more data making efforts in the local space, including the recent launch of Google’s Schemer.

Facebook can’t be ignored in this space either, tracking the location of its users everytime their mobile apps is launched. The fact that only 5% of US adults use location-based apps can’t be ignored either.

Will 2012 be the year that this changes? We’ll see.

One thing is for sure: By moving Foursquare Explore to the web, Foursquare has a serious contender in the battle for the travel planning crown.

It’ll be interesting to see how other startups respond.

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Alex Kremer

About the Writer :: Alex Kremer

Alex Kremer is co-founder and head of product at Redeam, an electronic ticketing platform serving the tours & activities industry. He was previously Senior Vice President of Partnerships at Nor1, a leading hospitality merchandising provider. He joined Nor1 after it acquired Flextrip, a B2B tours & activities distribution network he co-founded. Alex is a 15-year veteran of technology startup companies, previously co-founding Cruvee, a business intelligence company for the wine industry where he led Business Development. Prior to that, he co-founded FanAxis, one of the world's first fan club management and merchandising firms in the music and entertainment industries. Alex is based in Boulder, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter at axk.



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  1. Rhonda Rice

    Hmmm. I’m thinking a Booking.com, Airbnb, Foursquare mashup would let me do all the search and booking in the hospitality space plus give me things to do, places to see, etc based on friend recommendations, relations, and reviews. Yesterday I did a Booking.com search. I always read the reviews and consider my location needs and interests. When I wanted to consider more apartment options for a long term stay, I went to Airbnb and found a place that I can also see which of my local friends know or recommend this person. I would for sure book this option over others. I regularly build guides and lists with tips in Foursquare that friends do use regularly and vice versa. Explore is useful within 10mi of your present location. I don’t consider this planning unless you are already at a search location. I couldn’t really plan my trip to Barcelona while in Dallas. But I can find my Foursquare Friends in Barcelona and see their Lists and Most Explored Categories (like Restaurants or Cafes) or even use Contact in Foursquare to ask them. This takes some effort but for real ‘planning’ I’d have to see a clear way to then build a Plan or List

  2. matbios


    What i read heure is very interesting !
    Do you think the first Foursquare business model is not good ?
    Are they looking for an other one ?
    I’m french, and i use it a everyday, but i never get something for free or a discount in a shop…!
    I use it to track where i have been, to use information (maybe) in an other service/app, likre Gogobot for example.
    So, maybe they are going to do a cities guide, with advices and recommandations from users.
    A Gogobot competitor ? But according to me, this website is not a real trip planer…
    And for me, trip planing is not the job of Foursquare !


  3. Ian

    “But Foursquare has a secret weapon that no other travel startup can come even close to matching: Over 1.5 billion checkins worldwide”

    I think this sentence needs to read:

    “Over 1.5 billion checkins worldwide from social media nerds and hipsters”

    The data is skewed… we need to be honest here and acknowledge that FourSquare has a demographic.

    Would the recommendations suit everyone’s tastes? Probably not.

    • Alex Kremer

      Much like the appeal of most trip planning sites, you’re probably right — only a certain demographic will use it. That being said, as an example, you’ll be hard pressed to find a hipster (in the US at least) who is into Ellen DeGeneres. Her 240k followers since November aren’t to be overlooked and suggest a broadening of the base beyond early adopters.

  4. Nadav Gur

    Quite frankly, I just tried to search for Hotels in San Francisco (probably the 4sq capital of the world)
    Here’s the very first results I got:

    Hotel Milano
    55 Fifth St.
    Hotel • 2.4 mi • 9 Tips

    Sam M. July 2, 2011
    Hotel Ghetto. AC doesn’t work, bathtub drain doesn’t work, blinds are broken. Don’t stay here!

    …How exactly does that help me plan a trip, I wonder? Avoid the Milano?

    I don’t think 4sq’s DNA is a travel planner, nor does it support their business model (at least not the one they’ve been diligently trying to work at for the last couple of years). Nor do I think they are going to pivot in that direction very soon.

    • Alex Kremer


      I just did the exact same search and my first result was the W, which a friend has stayed at multiple times (as have I, but before I started using 4SQ). I happen to quite like the W.

      I’m not sure what you mean re business model. Their business model is monetizing the data they’re crunching in various ways, including some of the brand partnerships discussed above. The fact that this data enables them to effectively serve a new segment (trip planning) suggests not a pivot but the reality that they’re executing on the founders’ original plan.

      Finally, their press release specifically mentions trip planning. I’m including a link to Betabeat which carried the release below.


    • Ilan


  5. Alex

    Hey Alex, great post. Foursquare may have killed a bunch of travel start ups, but if they hadnt seen this coming they probably deserved it! It will be very interesting to see where Foursquare take this next.

  6. Roman Peskin

    Good article, Alex!
    In my humble opinion if there will be startups ‘killed’ by Foursquare launching their own webapp based on their own data then these startups deserved to die. No one in their right mind should start a company only relying on an assumption that another company won’t use their own data to expand.

    In addition to that – owning data in its entirety is always so much better than accessing the data over APIs ( see here: https://www.tnooz.com/2011/09/15/news/travel-technology-shakedown-are-apis-evil-and-is-xml-dead/)

  7. ilan

    It BOGGLES my mind that there still isn’t a service which simply shows me:
    1- places on a map
    2- that my friends
    3- REALLY LIKE (and not have just been to.)

    Why oh why is that so hard?

    • Alex Kremer

      I’ve got some local places where some of my friends have checked in 40+ times. I think they really like it 🙂

      • ilan

        Yeah I’m sure it can be a side product if the n is high enough. But what if every place has only been to once? What if I also want to mark places I really love without actually being there at the time.

  8. Joe Buhler

    They certainly have a leg up on the startups for the reasons mentioned in this article.
    It’s interesting to observe how Foursquare has developed into something most people didn’t predict when they launched. I remember the instant critics who immediately panned the idea of check-ins and getting badges etc. as useless. Just shows that it often helps to be patient and hold judgement and wait for things to develop just a bit further.


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