Web Summit 2019: it’s time we move on from “like a local” travel

Web Summit 2019: it’s time we move on from “like a local” travel

With each year, my excitement to attend the Web Summit fades. 

After three editions, I’m beginning to focus less on conferences and discussion panels and more on getting to know the travel startups, networking with fellow travel journalists and web content writers, and seeing one or two live pitches.

(It’s not you, Web Summit. It’s me. But we’re not breaking up.)

By the way, well done with the introduction of the startup showcase stages this year. It’s a huge time-saver to sit for one hour while startups (travel in my case) take the stage to introduce themselves. 

Were they all amazing? No, of course not. Each one of them had two minutes to wow the audience and, to be honest, we weren’t the most cheerful spectators.

That said, two minutes is short, but speakers need to up their game.

My method to select which startups to talk to and which to pass remains the same as previous years:

  • I add all travel startups on the Web Summit mobile app to my favorites (all attendees have to download the app, which doubles as the ticket for the event and replaces business cards);
  • I read the startups’ bios, check their website and social media;
  • Then I remove the ones I wouldn’t write about (for several reasons, but the main ones being I wouldn’t use it as a client, and we’re part of different niches);
  • Finally, I send out a message via the app to touch base and try to schedule an appointment.

This year, out of 114 travel startups listed, I think I spoke to about 20. I generally walk by the booths before engaging in a meaningful conversation with whoever represents the company. And then one of two turn-offs can happen: either the booth is empty (as in, deserted; there’s no one there but a pile of flyers and business cards) or, after taking a closer look, I don’t think we have a connection.

These are the three key aspects to keep in mind (and that sum up the work of each travel startup I’m going to talk about below, just in case you don’t feel like reading the whole post):

  1. “Like a local” experiences are out (but some startups didn’t get the memo yet); immersive cultural experiences (real or virtual) are in!
  2. Traveling is cool, but how does it affect the locals’ mobility? I talked to two startups, one Portuguese and one Brazilian, who rely on useful tourism data to manage tourist crowds better and relieve the negative impact of tourism (it’s about time!).
  3. Niche-expert knowledge to curate travel itineraries has a bright(er) future ahead (it’s no longer about “where do you want to go” but “why are you going”).

Ditch the "like a local" experiences for (virtual) immersive ones

From a traveler’s perspective, the “like a local” scam-like promise still works. From the tourism industry perspective, it’s time we moved on. However, every year at the Web Summit, there are still many startups trying to sell the same concept.

Guys, it’s rehashed, unappealing, unoriginal. You’re only adding to the noise. But, I’m guessing, while there is demand, there will be an offer, right?

So allow me to shift everyone’s attention from the instagrammable locations and the authentic experiences (none of them real, by the way).

At the Web Summit 2017, every travel startup under the sun was focusing on sustainable tourism. The year after that, I browsed many B2B-centered travel startups, and I wasn’t that impressed with the ones that focused on improving the tourist experience. As a matter of fact, I listed only four travel startups at the Web Summit 2018 that I actually had high hopes for.

While AR (Augmented Reality) is already a given in the gaming industry, I came across startups that were using that technology to enhance the travel experience for the first time this year.

The good news? No need for fancy equipment, just your smartphone.

From Tunisia, Histori-AR proposes an “enhanced immersive cultural tourism” experience on your smartphone, recreating historical sites. 

Seeing things as they were on location (think Roman Ruins in Rome or the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris) could be a smart way of cultural tourists connecting with their destination.

Why could virtual cultural experiences be a good thing for tourism? I believe seeing the before and after of a site could prevent further decline (caused mostly by overtourism) by making tourists more conscious of their negative impact.

On the other hand, ARt by Critec from Portugal proposes a new approach to using AR in tourism (although I stumbled upon them by chance because they were listed as a gaming startup).

Focusing on bringing urban art to life (literally), this Águeda-based Portuguese startup developed a product that entertains, engages, and informs. Which is, basically, what people expect when traveling. 

Besides, urban art is so ephemeral that what’s mentioned on your travel guide or a travel website right now might not be there by the time you get to the destination. Wouldn’t it be cool to still see it?

We need tourism, but how can we improve tourist flows?

Ever since I wrote about the impact of overtourism in Lisbon, I’ve been interviewed by different publications and students and briefly participated in a documentary on the topic for Swiss television.

The most asked question? What is the perfect solution that allows us to minimize the negative impacts of mass tourism without alienating tourists without preventing locals who work in the industry from making a living?

I don’t have an answer. And that’s mostly because we’re still focusing on the wrong data. Tourism boards still look at the same data to measure success, and times have changed.

One thing is key for tourism success: improving mobility. And, nope, it doesn’t mean opening up a city to dozens of app-based companies renting e-bikes and e-scooters. You realize most people don’t know how to properly ride those, right?

Enter Smart Tour from Brazil and Ubirider from Portugal. One week after the event and I am still 100% geeking out about them.

Smart tourism is the future. There’s a reason why the European Union has started the European Capitals of Smart Tourism program. Lyon and Helsinki won in 2019, and Málaga and Gothenburg are the chosen cities for 2020.

With the goal of smart tourism in mind, the Brazilian startup is looking at tourism data differently. Instead of just focusing on the number of inbound tourists and the total number of stays (still important data but no longer sufficient), Smart Tour tracks where the tourists are going.

What if you got a notification on your smartphone telling you which tourist attraction is less crowded? See, the point is not to stop tourists from going to the top ten attractions of a destination, but to help them plan in real-time when to go.

Ubirider could also be a game-changer for locals and tourists who use public transportation. Raise your hand if the following has happened to you in Lisbon:

  • You purchase a Viva Card;
  • Top it up with trips instead of money because once you calculate how much you need to spend in a day, you’ll end up with extra cash on the card you’ll never use again*;
  • Not only does each trip for each public transportation has a different price, but they are also valid for different periods.

Confused? So am I every time I have to explain how it works. The whole system is messy and hard to figure out if you’re not a local.

What Ubirider proposes is as simple as all tickets for your journey in one app, regardless of how many transports you’ll need. That’s it. Pretty straightforward, right?

For now, they’re beta testing the app on Fertagus (also known as the bridge train in Lisbon). It’s available for iOS and Android.

*A side note: I still have 1€ extra on my card because one month I topped it up with cash instead, and now I can’t use that extra euro for anything. Trips cost more than that, and their software isn’t prepared to discount that 1€ from my monthly pass fee and call it even. I sh*t you not!

Forget the how, where, and when. Focus on why and what

I’m part of a couple of Facebook groups for Web Summit attendees, which are dormant most of the year except about two weeks before the event. I notice a pattern. Most people book flights and accommodation last minute (perfect for those renting out tiny rooms for double or triple the price…), and they all want to know what they can’t absolutely miss in Lisbon.

A series of advice on must-sees and must-dos ensues, but few people ask these travelers why they travel. Yes, obviously for the Web Summit (duh!). But what do they enjoy doing? How many days in the city do they have? What’s their budget? Do they prefer outdoor activities to museums?

*Pauses to breathe*

Niching down your travel scope has been around for a while, but under umbrellas like ecotourism, cultural tourism, or food tourism. Yes, it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s possible to narrow it down even more.

I think it’s challenging for a startup to come forward and say, “nope, this is my niche, and I’m sticking to it.” Everything is about scaling the business, so it’s difficult to resist the temptation of catering to all types of travelers.

Well, Roundstay (Netherlands), RipATrip (Portugal), and GigGoMe (Netherlands) have identified their micro-niches and (until further notice) are sticking to them.

Roundstay focuses on testing and reviewing local and hotel gyms, running routes, swimming pools, workouts (sheesh, I’m exhausted already) so that you just have to worry about the booking.

For other active folks who travel for surfing, hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities, RipATrip will hopefully replace my “ask a local about hiking in the Azores.”

In fact, a couple of days after the Web Summit, a friend was asking people on Facebook where an acquaintance of him could (safely) go mountain biking on Terceira Island. Her inquiries were incredibly specific. Unfortunately, the people who commented on that post came short of providing a perfect answer.

Last but not least, on this roast of startups for niche travelers, GigGoMe is a one-stop-shop for people who travel for music festivals. Let’s say you want to go to one of the popular Azores festivals like TREMOR, but you have no idea how to plan it. You’d use a platform like GigGoMe and be done with it: buy festival tickets, book the trip, and book accommodation. There. Problem solved and more time to see the island.

(No, Azores events are not part of the GigGoMe platform yet, but I’m trying to use a sci-fi technique here. Maybe if I write it here now, it will happen soon.)

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