Upside looks to expand beyond the US following WSJ deal

Travel tech entrepreneur Jay Walker expects to expand his new venture Upside outside the US after signing a deal to provide a travel platform for the readers of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in the US.

Upside, which launched earlier this year, is targeted at business travellers from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who do not have access to the services of traditional travel management companies (TMCs) or their own travel departments so typically have to make travel bookings themselves.

The US startup has agreed a deal with one of the world’s highest profile financial publications to use its online platform to create The Wall Street Journal Business Travel Service, designed to cater for “do-it-yourself” business travellers.

Upside is giving WSJ readers the ability to book individual flights and hotels, but they are incentivised to book a “lower-priced” package combining air, hotel and ground transportation services. Readers using the service receive discounted rates, gift cards and special benefits, such as lounge passes, as rewards for booking.

Walker, who is best known as the founder of Priceline in the 1990s, told tnooz:

“It’s the first time anybody has done this in the US in business travel – other publications like The New York Times have offered leisure travel programmes before but it’s the first time that an unmanaged business travel audience has been addressed.

“The Wall Street Journal has the largest audience in the world for SMEs with many millions of readers. The Journal is looking to diversify revenue and offer new products to their readers, so they felt having a business travel service made a lot of sense.

“We have a complete focus on this market so we were the natural choice to provide this service for them. The enormous advantage of The Wall Street Journal is that it has relationships with millions of business travellers and has the trust of these travellers because of its reporting on business.”

The selling point for these DIY business travellers are potential savings of around 5-10% when they combine flights, hotel and ground transport into a package, compared with regular public rates. Upside says this combined pricing gives them access to special unadvertised rates from travel suppliers.

Through Upside’s platform, travellers can select which airlines and hotels they are willing to use, and, unlike the original Priceline model, the names of the suppliers are revealed before the purchase is made.

Walker says Upside hopes to sign similar deals with other organisations that have a high proportion of business travellers who self-book trips within their audiences.

“Our market is for anybody with customers, readers and audience that has a similarly high number of unmanaged business travellers.

“We want to add more value for their customers by offering a high-quality product to them. We’re going to see this market grow – whether they use us or somebody else. We won’t have the market to ourselves. But we’re purely focused on serving business customers, that’s all we do.”

Further afield

Currently, Upside is only offering its platform to US-originating travellers but Walker does not expect this to stay the case for long.

“It’s only a matter of time until we go into other markets especially with partners that have global audiences where we want to serve the entire customer.

“We’re not offering something that’s unique for the US market, there are the same challenges for SME business travellers whether they are in Europe or Asia if they don’t have a travel department and are stuck in the leisure system.

“We can help them and give them a concierge service that’s available 24/7. People want real service in real time. They don’t want to be put on hold – they want instant, fast, quality service.

“We will expand the business as rapidly as we need to serve the customer wherever they are. It’s a global marketplace – there’s no reason why we should be a US-only solution.

“There’s been so little innovation in the DIY business travel market. In the US you have 50 million people who feel aggrieved that they don’t get any service. The TMCs have done an excellent job at capturing the top end of the market but the lower-end of the market has not been served. But that’s not going to be the way for much longer.”

For the WSJ service, Upside has created a dedicated team to assist the publication’s readers with consultants, known as Navigators, who are available 24 hours a day through phone, email, chat or social media.

“We have added new staff – software people and specialist agents to answer the phones.

“You better have a large staff for something like this and we have a dedicated team to serve their readers. It’s a substantial commitment on our part. The Journal is incredibly rigorous in doing deals and it was a fairly keen competitive market.”

Walker says it’s only advances in technology that are now making it possible to serve DIY business travellers in this way.

“Technology makes it possible to do this now, as long as the back office systems are good enough.

“This will only get better – most business travellers want to communicate through chat or text, they don’t want to phone people. But they want to know somebody is there to help them if needed.”

The US is seen as being a potentially lucrative market for Upside’s services with around $160 billion of “unmanaged” business travel spending per year, more than half of the $300 billion spent on business travel overall.

With such a large market out there, what are the early signs for the WSJ service, which was only launched at the end of October? Walker doesn’t give too much away, but adds:

“We don’t release data but I think having full-page adverts in The Journal is a very powerful tool and we’ve not been lacking for customer response.”

As for the publication itself, what was their rationale for offering a business travel service to its readership?

Suzi Watford, chief marketing officer at the WSJ, says:

“We know that many of our members travel frequently for business, often booking their own trips. Based on their feedback, we also know that many find the experience time-consuming and frustrating.”

She adds that the WSJ Business Travel Service aims to “ease the stress, giving our members more time to get on with business”.

Related reading:

Upside raises $50 million as Priceline-founder fronted discount service goes live

Startup pitch: Priceline founder opens Upside to reward budget-minded business travelers

Can travel agents thrive by partnering with travel media companies – and vice versa?

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Rob Gill

About the Writer :: Rob Gill

Rob Gill has been writing about the travel industry since 2001 when he joined the features department at Travel Trade Gazette in London, having previously worked for local newspapers in the UK for five years.

He was also city and finance correspondent at TTG before later becoming editor of ABTN (Air & Business Travel News) and then digital editor of Buying Business Travel.

He is now an award-winning freelance journalist writing about the leisure and business travel industries for B2B magazines and websites. He has travelled extensively for both business and pleasure, but is mostly based in London these days.

 

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  1. Yannis Moati

    great win for Jay Walker! Congrats.

     
 
 

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