Funding activity in the travel space has been fairly brisk so far in 2018. The last week alone has seem the announcement of sizeable rounds for TravelTriangle, TravelPerk, Octopus, and IfOnly. Participants in these rounds have included blue chip venture funds such as Bessemer, NEA, and Spark, along with a healthy mix of strategic partners.
So what are some of the trends that have been driving this activity, and what trends are likely to drive further R&D and investment in the travel tech space for the remainder of the year?
The region, being driven forward relentlessly by increasingly affluent consumer classes continues to see a lot of investment activity related to travel, and new properties and tech platforms springing up seemingly on a weekly basis to cater to the demand. There’s no reason to assume this won’t continue as long as the regional macroeconomic outlook remains relatively healthy.
There has been plenty of activity on the investment side, with a flurry of venture deals being joined by AmEx GBT’s mega-acquisition of the UK’s Hogg Robinson Group.
On the tech side, corporates looking to optimize the cost and efficiency of travel continues to drive innovation. Startups catering to these needs include Travelbank who take the pain out of expense reporting, Upside who look to reward frugal corporate travellers, and FreeBird who will automatically rebook business travellers who encounter flight disruptions.
“Smart Travel” (AI/ML, Big Data)
I’m using “Smart Travel” to cover the application of Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, Big Data, and related technologies to the travel experience. At a basic level the tech allows machines to comb through prodigious quantities of data, finding patterns which they then use to improve their abilities at various tasks. Corporates continue to do a lot of their own internal experimentation with the technology, but setting up a team of machine learning and data science experts is expensive. Early startups in the space were often founded by engineers and essentially sold “technology”, but they are increasingly blending technology with product expertise to create sophisticated offerings for both existing travel providers and consumers. B2B use cases include demand forecasting/revenue management (eg Migacore), airport/resort crowd control (eg CrowdVision), and traveller experience management (eg Journera). B2C use cases include fare optimization (eg Hopper).
Full Service Travel
In an effort to create brand loyalty there’s an increasing desire for travel providers to offer a custom experience for each to individual traveller. In a similar vein, they want to get more involved at every step of your travel journey, from planning through organising excursions to helping you get home from the airport at the end of your trip. Now personally I’ve never liked people telling me what to do or where to go, but there’s no disputing that it is a major trend, and I’m calling it“Full Service Travel”. You can see it from carriers and hotels providing trip planning tools on their websites and letting travellers book ground transportation via their apps. Taken to an extreme JetBlue Technology Ventures has invested in “flying car” company Joby Aviation — now that it a great way to get to and from the airport.
A lot of “Full Service Travel” offerings rely on the aforementioned “Smart Travel” technology, which can be expensive to develop in-house. Travel technology providers have picked up on this trend and are using their scale to develop offerings for the entire industry. Amadeus’ recent investment in mapping startup Avuxi is an example of this trend in action.
According to a recent Skift report 51% of US travel spend comes from the most affluent 20% of the population. This is probably more of a trend in terms of branding than tech, but I wanted to call it out regardless. It already has and will continue to drive internal and external industry investment, bring with it higher margins and some protection against a wider economic downturn.
I wanted to cover a couple of the more hyped technology trends of recent times, and will start with voice recognition tech. “Alexas for X” are springing up all over the place as people start to realise the value of the data stored in voice communications (and the ability of voice to tie users to a specific platform). The general trend is possibly slightly over-hyped due to the huge land grab currently taking place involving Amazon, Google, Apple, and other large tech firms all trying to lay claim to the market, but voice interfaces are definitely here to stay.
With a lot of consumer travel focused on mobile, chat has understandably gotten a lot of attention (though in many sectors outside of travel, chatbot adoption is stalling), but in the back-office speech recognition is already being used to monitor and coach sales/call centre agents. The most powerful current use cases involve listening for specific words or instructions in a highly contextualised environment. Outside of call centres, in travel this could mean the initial applications (outside of switching your hotel room lights on and off with Roxy) could be in areas such as air traffic control. Shopping for travel using a voice interface (other than “Ok Google, show me flights to NYC” and viewing the results in a browser) definitely seems to be a long way off.
Almost certainly THE most hyped technology trend of the last two years. Blockchains have been mooted as solutions for anything from peer-to-peer electricity trading, insurance claim adjudication, and supply chain management (IBM tomatoes anyone?), to interbank payments, and digital rights management. Ultimately we’re still in the early days of blockchain development, and outside of cryptocurrencies no real-world use cases have really got off the ground yet. Until that changes I wouldn’t criticise anyone for being sceptical.
Specifically with regards to travel most companies are dabbling, but no more, which I think it the right approach. WindingTree launched a successful ICO earlier this year to raise funds for their decentralised distribution platform, but I think the most promising project to date is Amadeus’ exploration of using Civic’s blockchain based identity system in the travel context. Using a blockchain to manage self-sovereign identity seems to make perfect sense, and identity verification undoubtedly causes friction at multiple points during a traveller’s journey.
Last, but by no means least. It’s the classic “fight or flight” response — nothing focuses the mind quite like a feeling of impending danger. AirBnB is the most recent and obvious example of a disruptive player entering the industry, and has now progressed well beyond its original hippy ideal to help people “live like a local”. Hotels have responded by investing time and money in “Smart Travel” and “Full Service Travel” offerings, and are boosting branding/marketing by offering increasingly unique experiences.
Airlines had their own share of panic when Google bought ITA in 2010, and until relatively recently that threat seemed to have subsided. However at the start of 2018 Google relaunched Google Flights, offering a number of new features. Then of course there is the ever present spectre of Amazon who can wipe billions off your market cap with the issuance of a press release or rumour, and who knows what Facebook will be doing this time next year now that their advertising revenue model is coming under increasing scrutiny.
Long story short, these (potential) interlopers will ensure that innovation remains a high priority for all players, so we can expect to see the incumbents maintain a healthy interest in developing and investing in new technology for the foreseeable future.
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