When it comes to travel startups, and comparing Web Summit 2017 with the 2016 edition, this year was a lot busier for me.
There were booths for travel startups during the three days of the Web Summit (as opposed to only two days last year), conferences on the topic of travel and AI, and a workshop led by one of the Web Summit’s partners, Airbus (one that I attended but won’t be writing about. Let me just say this: the future of travel, as envisioned by Airbus BizLab, is beautiful, comfortable, accessible, and with plenty of leg room even for short people like me).
“I think AI can transform travel. Eventually, it’s going to have a huge impact on the experience we provide to customers.” – Gillian Tans, CEO of Booking.com
The buzzwords of travel and technology were also there in almost all of the startups’ taglines: AI, sustainable, local, experience, personalized.
Tourism is one of the biggest industries in the world, representing over 10% of the world’s GDP. UNWTO estimates that by 2030 international tourist arrivals will reach a staggering 1.8 billion.
Over-tourism has been a concern this year and the residents of cities like Barcelona, Dubrovnik, and Venice have been very vocal about it.
Lisbon and Porto are (hopefully) not even near other European cities’ problems, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to start paying attention to the signs of gentrification and the loss of cultural identity.
After visiting slightly-offbeat wineries near Lisbon and spending a weekend in Maia, I’m a firm believer that one of the answers to over-tourism is decentralization (I know it’s more of a political term but I think we can adapt it to the tourism industry too).
Last year, four startups caught my eye. This year, I selected a record number of 11 travel startups to write about. In 2018, I think I want to be even more ambitious with content and plan something a bit more immersive (which will probably mean ditching all of the conferences).
Why these 11 in particular?
Well, for starters, four of them were founded or co-founded by women (36% might not seem like a big number but it sure beats the 0% of last year) – Monika Bhasin of GLYD, Valentina Ursida and Alessia Cacaveri of Grumgo, Nadine Wick of Bond n Fly, and Joly Zou of SoLocal.
Female travel is incredibly specific and not all travel apps or services cater to our needs 100%. Safety is, in general, our number one concern, important enough for TripAdvisor to make significant changes to its website to flag hotels and resorts for sexual assault.
Secondly, something in their tagline aligned with the kind of product or service I’d use and I believe it would come in handy when it comes to sustainable cultural tourism.
Investors see products that will make them earn money (obviously) but users (travelers in our case) see apps and websites that could help them before, during and sometimes after their trips.
In the case of travel bloggers, we seek new tools that our readers could benefit from. We also know that one trip is not like the next or the previous one. We change tastes, we grow older (well, I’ve been beyond the hostel point since I moved to Lisbon in 1997…), we have kids, our kids grow older, etc. It’s a challenge AI will have to solve in the future.
Most startup founders confessed that finding funding for their projects was challenging because most investors didn’t see the value in their product, or it wasn’t disruptive enough, or it sounded too much like something they had seen already.
Let’s face it, most travel startups won’t be insanely disruptive, unless someone makes teleportation possible (just mind the flies… please mind the flies…). Investors telling you your product is not disruptive enough for them to invest is fine. That’s their job. But that alone doesn’t necessarily make it a bad product or service.
And last, but certainly not the least, there was passion behind the project and willingness to meet me (or chase me down the pavilion! Hey, whatever gets the attention of someone wearing a green Media wristlet, right?).
The new generation of entrepreneurs (the ones I met, at least) is not one of daydreamers or kids in College, wannabe-dropout future millionaires, building something that will revolutionize the future of tech from their dorm bunk beds or parents’ garage. They’re cautious and sensible. They do have their heads in the clouds (as anyone crazy enough to want to change the world should) but their feet strongly rooted on the ground. “I’m finishing school first” or “this isn’t my main job” were two of the answers I heard the most when I asked what they did for a living.
The future of sustainable cultural tourism is strongly based on local expertise
Don’t be a tourist, travel like a local.
How many times have you read or heard this somewhere? It sounds like the latest fad USP of every single travel company you come across, doesn’t it.
To be honest, I think it’s pretty thin for a slogan, especially when you think about culture and how it shapes you. We could spend hours talking about this and still not reach an understanding. Cultural identity matters and we don’t all see the world in the same way.
Here is the interesting common ground of these 11 travel startups: none of them is selling you the “be like a local” formula because, and I believe it’s obvious, there is no such thing. I think it’s about time we shift this angle and look for local expertise to guide us through another country’s culture and customs.
There’s a reason why travelers pay more attention to travel blogs or publications with locals’ contributions than they do to websites that crowdsource their content from random users, usually foreigners who didn’t spend more than a week in their destination.
Besides, local contributors (writers, photographers, videographers) not only know their cities, islands, and countries like the backs of their hands, they know where to draw the line between what the tourists have access to and what the residents need to keep their privacy and their local identity intact.
Travelers meet locals for true authentic experiences.
Founder Monika Bhasin hopes to launch the fully-operational app by the end of 2017 and, for now, she’s focusing the content on Southeast Asia destinations. The focus on this specific region is important because this is usually the area where I see the most obnoxious, culturally insensitive behavior from European and American tourists – they take the concept of “the world is your oyster” a little too far.
How I would use it: to get insider tips on cultural customs in Asia, particularly from local women.
Grumgo is your travel companion for smart city breaks, powered by AI. Experience personalized travel now, without the hassle of planning.
Co-founders Valentina Ursida and Alessia Cacaveri are building a product that’s perfect for lazy urban explorers like me. I prefer to let myself go with the flow when exploring a new city but knowing one or two must-see spots for reference could come in handy. These must-see spots, as Alessia explained to me, are curated according to your preferences and personality, so even if a city has a list of 100 POIs, it will pick only the ones that matter to you.
Browse the website and sign up for the beta version of the app (to be launched in 2018).
How I would use it: on my next unplanned city break (I hardly plan it beyond booking transportation and accommodation).
Bond n Fly (Switzerland)
Spice up your trips while supporting the local economy. Immersive and cultural adventures in Switzerland. Surprise weekends, tailor-made trips and activities.
Founder and CEO Nadine Wick’s ambition is to expand her company’s experiences to other countries in Europe, but for now Bond n Fly offers experiences only in Switzerland. The website could potentially answer the questions “what do you gift a traveler?” and “what do you gift someone who already has everything?”. To me, what makes the difference here is their commitment to partner with smaller, locally-owned bed and breakfasts.
Browse the website and surprise someone in Switzerland with a Mystery Weekend.
How I would use it: as a gift for travelers interested in supporting the local economy.
A global community for solo female travelers, which enables them to connect with each other instantly in real life during their trips.
Few people will understand the difficulties of solo female traveling unless they’re women too. Founder and CEO Joly Zou knows the nuances of women travel and wanted to create a safe community of women traveling the world where they can meet like-minded peers and ask specific questions (believe me, our questions are super specific sometimes) about anything from the destination to local customs to the best places to grab a cup of coffee. I absolutely love the slogan “travel alone, not lonely” (it’s incredibly empowering).
Browse the website and stay tuned for launch updates.
How I would use it: as a tool for solo female travelers, especially in areas where women have more questions regarding safety (and to tell the difference between truth or fear-mongering rumor).
Stumbl uses AI and GPS to deliver a fun, free and flexible experience for the new generation of independent and adventurous urban tourists.
I consider myself an independent and adventurous urban tourist despite not fitting the Millennial image (I’m a xennial, people, so it’s close enough) but it’s not because I’m completely fearless of the unknown. Nope. Most of the times I’m a coward with a vivid imagination powered by one-too-many horror movies. That said, this app would have come in handy while spotting the Jack the Ripper’s murder places in Whitechapel, London. Too gory? Well, Stumbl would know exactly where to send me (without judgment). Doing the same self-guided route in 2015 with the aid of Google maps was exhausting (and not entirely productive).
Browse the website for launch updates (especially if you’re in London).
How I would use it: to find super specific itineraries in a city (yes, beyond Jack the Ripper) and uncover the offbeat side of popular destinations.
Places is a social network that connects your places with your friends! Add your places and you will know when your friends are there!
If João Robalo, one of the co-founders, hadn’t chased me down the pavilion, I would have probably not visited their booth (not because they don’t have an interesting app, but because they were in the Social section, not the Travel one so our paths would have never crossed). But as João put it (and later his co-founder Miguel Paiva confirmed), Places could be used for travelers too. Eventually, the users determine the applications of the product. Forget instant messaging or calling your friends to know where they are, with Places you get that in a split second. And not in a Black Mirror-level freaky way (trust me, I double checked with them) because the user chooses when to be visible and only two friends who have added the same place can see each other. Can this be used by travelers? We’ll see in the future. For now, I see it as a useful tool for, say, digital nomads – sure beats the hassle of adding contacts to your phone from every people you hang out with in all the cities and countries you’ve been to.
How I would use it: when I’m extremely lazy to type a message (and because I’m an early adopter of most apps).
Pocket Local (Thailand)
The Pocket Local app connects you live to the right local expert in real time. Using voice, video & chat, get the trip advice you need.
I cannot express to you (well, not as vividly as I did to Luke Hymann, the Managing Director & Head of Product, anyway) how useful this app would have been for me in Bangkok in 2013. Is it fancy to have a bacterial pharyngitis abroad? I guess it depends on who’s telling the story. As I entered the five-star-hotel-looking hospital suggested by the hotel receptionist, the only thing crossing my mind then was how much it would cost me. I find navigation in Asian cities tough (except in India, where I’m fortunate to count on insiders’ knowledge) and if I could have a trusted local source in Bangkok to put my mind at ease in real time, I would have been grateful. Probably they would have suggested me the exact same hospital, but we had just returned from the Grand Palace that day and everything in the city sounded and looked like a scam after that.
Browse the website and sign up to be a beta tester of the app (coming soon).
How I would use it: since I insist in traveling without insurance, next time I’m in a place where I can’t use my European Health Card (yes, getting sick abroad happens more often than I’d like).
Personal Travels (Italy)
With unique packages created by global affiliates and tailored concierge services, we make all your travel solutions easy, green and social.
One of the reasons why I’m not a fan of travel agents is because, based on my personal experiences, I believe they’re more interested in earning a chunky commission than actually finding me the best deal that fits my requests. In fact, every time I had to consult with one, they would add more fees to every special request I had. A real pain in the neck. Although Personal Travels’ service is not new (to be successful you don’t need to reinvent the wheel), it’s their concern with supporting the local economy that makes a difference. For cultural tourism, for example, tips can be as simple as the upcoming events in the city you’re traveling to.
Browse the website and find out more about how to book your custom package.
How I would use it: whenever I want to make sure I’m booking a trip that will support local businesses in the tourism industry.
Anycity is the platform that connects travelers and locals around the world. Get recommendations, local tips and meet like-minded people.
When I finally met with Ivan Cardoso, after a series of missed messages via the Web Summit app and missed encounters at their booth, I asked if he was Portuguese (because of the name). “My parents are, my name is, but I’m not.” In a nutshell, his answer sums up a third culture individual and makes sense, considering the website he launched after Web Summit 2016. When Ivan was in Lisbon for the first edition of the summit, he wanted to have the local experience without feeling like a local but couldn’t find an app or a website that provided that. Confused? I wasn’t. It’s simple, really. AnyCity is for people who want to connect with like-minded people in their destination but without the false concept of “immersive cultural experiences”. Locals stay true to their cultural identity (and their destinations’) and visitors have access to a whole new dimension (not usually found in guidebooks and crowdsourced-content apps).
Browse the website to find a like-minded local in one of the 40 cities (and counting) across the world.
How I would use it: probably as a source to interview local artists or entrepreneurs in a destination (I can’t be a travel blogger and travel without bringing along the blogging and storytelling side of me).
When in X (Macedonia)
When in X is an online marketplace where visitors can explore and book outdoor activities, cultural experiences, and events hosted by locals.
The keyword here is locals. And Macedonia. I confess I was happy to see a travel startup from Macedonia, mainly because of all the countries in the Balkans, I feel this one is often forgotten in the shadows of neighboring well-known tourist destinations. At first glance, and as I told co-founder Antonio Kuzmanovski, I thought this app catered to outdoorsy, active adventure-seeking travelers only (I am definitely not in that target audience). In reality, When in X simply wants to put the Balkans on the map through locals providing services to tourists. It’s putting the sharing economy to the service of the local tourism industry because, let’s face it, if destination X (get it?) is not high on the list of priorities of the tourism authority, it will hardly fall on the travelers’ radar.
How I would use it: to book experiences in the Balkans from a local, trusted source.
Tuki Travel (Israel)
Tuki combines transportation and accommodation services within the travel sharing economy to create the best travel sharing trips.
When Tuki Travel’s CMO Carmit Haba contacted me via the Web Summit app inviting me to visit their booth, I confess I wasn’t that excited to see (what I thought was) another travel sharing platform. Now comes the twist (or I failed to read their tagline properly, whichever comes first). Tuki Travel is the world’s first travel sharing search engine. It’s the only platform that lets travelers compare and combine travel-sharing services like Airbnb, Bla Bla Car, Uber, HomeAway and more, and ultimately get a full and customized package. The website is fully focused on sharing economy tools for carpooling and accommodation and allows you to book everything at once with one click. If you get these two things out of the way in half the time, the planning part is pretty much done and you can focus on the fun part of the trip.
Browse the website to find out how to use the tool.
How I would use it: to plan quick city breaks where I don’t mind unconventional traveling and accommodation options.
Final day of @websummit and I’ve officially ditched my conference schedule. Tourism is a booming industry (for the good and for the bad) and I’m seeing more and more apps focusing on balance between locals and visitors, which is quite refreshing from all the apps that insist on crowdsourcing their content. If most of the world has been traveled to and explored (and Instagrammed, and Facebooked, and Youtubed, and blogged…) what is the future of travel? Tailor-made options, I believe. And for that you need photographers, videographers, and writers who know their cities, islands, countries like the backs of their hands. Who, most importantly, know where to draw the line between what the tourists have access to and what the locals need to keep their privacy and their cultural identity intact. Sustainable travel is not a trend; it’s a necessity.
Over to you. Which one of these travel apps would you use in a heartbeat? If you were at this year’s Web Summit, drop me a comment or a message with what you thought of the event (and Lisbon).