Tag Archives: tourism

TripIt and Dopplr – A Match (which could be) Made in Heaven

17 Apr

TripItI was recently introduced to TripIt, a “next generation” travel site which has really impressed me in my first day as a user. It replaces Dopplr (which I have used for approximately four months now) as my favorite startup travel destination on the web for two major reasons: its superior input methodology and the practical usefulness of the site’s main service: itinerary aggregation.

While these sites are clearly competitors, I think they might find that if a collaboration agreement could be reached, the sum would be greater than the parts.

Primary Functionality:

Dopplr LogoIf you were to ask me what Dopplr’s primary purpose was – its raison d’être – I would say creating community around travel, particularly for frequent travelers. It notifies me when I will be in the same place as one of my friends (still hasn’t happened to date, but I like the idea) so that we might meet up and grab dinner or a drink, or perhaps to share travel plans and tips. It also allows users to share their ideas and expertise about the places the visit frequently with other users online. In other words, it is a site that’s all about community. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of one yet. Until it has gained the faithful participation of more of my friends and acquaintances (which it has certainly been doing in the last few months), it just isn’t very useful to me.

TripIt, on the other hand, has a pretty compelling service from the get-go. It offers to aggregate the disparate elements of my travels into a single master itinerary. In effect, it does all those nice things your assistant would do for you when planning your travel, if you were lucky enough to have one. It allows me to look to a single location for all of my travel details: what flight I am on, what time it leaves, when it arrives, what seat I am in, what hotel I am staying at (at what address, with what phone number), and which rental car company I will be using to get there. It even provides a few handy “value-adds” such as weather forecasts for the locations I will be in each day, and quick access to city maps.

In January, TripIt added some social functionality and is attempting to build a community element which appears similar to Dopplr. Nevertheless, it’s community appears to be even thinner than Dopplr’s, and has a long way to catch up.


Whereas Dopplr offers a fairly easy and intuitive method of inputting travel locations and dates, TripIt introduces an input methodology that is truly groundbreaking (in my experience, at least). Instead of requiring any real effort on my part, all I have to do is forward them my confirmation emails (from United, Hertz, and Sheraton, for instance) and it parses the information to identify all the pertinent details. It loads this detail into my calendar instantly and automatically, even capturing things like my frequent flyer numbers.

Another blogger who recently compared Dopplr and TripIt suggested an even better idea: setup an email filter to automatically forward travel plans to TripIt, eliminating even that minimal effort required to put the site to work for me. With an email filter in place, TripIt would automatically aggregate all travel details, update my travel calendar, and stream it through iCal to calendar programs like Google Calendars. (As a side note, am I the only person who wishes you could use an iCal stream as an input into an existing Google Calendar entry, rather than requiring you to establish a separate calendar for external feeds?)

Once in my Google Calendar, my travel plans (and location) would be easily shared with friends and colleagues. Even better, once they join the TripIt community, we can even build collaborative itineraries (such as a business trip with several colleagues making arrangements for the group individually).

The Case for Collaboration:

In summary, TripIt has quickly won me over on its practicality and simplicity. Where it still falls far short of Dopplr, however, is on the community element. Dopplr’s Facebook application and blog widget (which I use here as well as at mitchellwfox.com) allow me to quickly and easily allow others to track my location. The potential value of discovering that a friend’s travels will overlap with my own is strong enough to convince me to continue updating my itineraries there in the meantime. If, however, TripIt’s itinerary aggregation and input could be joined with the powerful potential of community I see in Dopplr’s model, it would be a match made in frequent-flyer heaver.

Where from Here:

It will be interesting to see how the TripIt business model develops. In my initial usage of the site, I didn’t see any obvious indicators of what their eventual business model would be. Following in the steps of the likes of TripAdvisor by adding advertising and the ability to book trips would seem a logical course of action. One interesting suggestion made by another blogger was to enable travelers to re-book previous itineraries through a simple interface asking for the dates of the repeat booking, which could then be executed through a partner, such as Expedia or Kayak.  Given the convenience this would provide the user, you might be able to extract a small booking fee.

It is an exciting time in the development of online travel tools – I wonder what’s next.

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Opportunity to Build a Worldwide Brand of Boutique Hotels

16 Dec

Thai Boutique Hotel - BangkokTourists visiting new cities are certainly not all looking for the same thing out of their experience. Some seek inexpensive or unique shopping experiences, some seek thrills and adventure, others seek the opportunity to say “I went, I saw, I … took a picture.” What generally unites people when they are traveling, particularly in parts of the world that are new and unfamiliar to them, is the desire to sample and taste a bit of the culture that makes their destination unique.

For tourists, selecting a hotel is a challenge of balancing their desires. In most cases, they want:

  • A hotel they can afford
  • A hotel where they feel they will receive the level of service they are accustomed to
  • A hotel that is comfortable, safe, and clean
  • A hotel that is conveniently located to the places they want to visit

Trying to satisfy these four challenges is difficult enough, and in many cases lead people to choose the Marriott, Hilton, or Sheraton, even as they aspire to “immerse themselves” in their experience. They settle for these international chains because they are reliably consistent, delivering fundamentally the same hotel experience wherever you go.  Yet that, inherently, is their fundamental flaw – they fail to meet the truly differentiating fifth and sixth criteria for a truly remarkable hotel experience:

  • A hotel that reflects the culture and local flavour of the surrounding city
  • A hotel that is exciting and unique; an adventure unto itself

I have little doubt that in nearly every corner of the world there are wonderful local hotels that meet all six of these criteria (though, sadly, not all – Jizan, Saudi Arabia comes to mind). The challenge for the tourist is how to FIND these hotels. For the more adventurous, sites like TripAdvisor can help. Where you are lucky enough to have a local friend to serve as your guide, you might be directed as to the best place to stay.

Moroccan Boutique HotelBut, at the end of the day, CatLover245’s rave reviews and assurances of good customer service really aren’t enough for most people to choose the Little Damascus Inn over the Sheraton. At least you can be reasonably confident that you won’t find bed bugs at the Sheraton.

The challenge of building confidence with consumers that a hotel can, in fact, meet all of these criteria creates a significant opportunity to build a network of branded boutique hotels in major tourist destinations throughout the world.

An entrepreneur with good financial backing could make a small number of hotel investments in high-growth tourism cities such as the Middle East and Northern Africa, bring them up to international standards of quality and service, unite them under a brand, and market them to tourists from abroad. With time, as CatLover245 and her friends write positive reviews, and as more and more customers experience the benefits of the hotel in its diverse locations, it will build a faithful following of advocates and frequent stayers.

I would choose to first target the developing world, where many hotels miss out on substantial opportunity to attract visitors merely by lack of a web presence with photos and a map, written in fluent English. With an understanding of the increase in revenue that could be expected by linking a hotel into online reservation systems like Orbitz and Hotels.com, investors could value properties higher than their current owners.

By upgrading service, renovating and redecorating rooms, and bringing in an additional infusion of local flavours and colours, the hotels could start charging more for rooms. Substantial changes to management and workforce wouldn’t be necessary so much as bringing a few leaders who can help oversee the transition to world-class standards.

How long this opportunity will remain untapped is questionable. Already, chains like Joie de Vivre and Kimpton are building branded networks of boutique hotels throughout California and the United States. Companies like Mexico Boutique Hotels are taking that concept to other popular mainstream tourist destinations. It’s only a matter of time before the same basic concept is carried to other parts of the world.

Further reading on Boutique Hotels:

Off the Beaten Path: Tourism for Expats

26 Aug

Camel During the first weekend that I stayed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia while living as an expatriate consultant, I quickly realized that there was a significant untapped business opportunity to provide tourist services to expatriates in unusual locations.  Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia broadly, are not your typical destinations for tourists (in fact, there are no tourist visas), but there are, large numbers of expatriates who live within the country.  And there is very, very little to do.

Many of us benefit from expense accounts which compensate for having been pulled from our lives in places in London, Amsterdam, and Toronto to move to the desert in August.  Those accounts afford us the opportunity to explore the region every few weekends, but aren’t necessarily large enough to fly us home regularly, or even necessarily get us outside of the country (flights to most “destination” cities like Beirut or Cairo are upwards of $700 USD from Riyadh).  We can, however, afford fun, reasonably priced local activities that allow us to explore the cities and regions where we live – making the best of the opportunity while we are here.

The challenge, however, is that the tourism industry is substantially underdeveloped.  Beyond a large, good quality museum, Riyadh has little in the way of tourist attractions.  Some opportunities do exist, for instance, to take advantage of things that locals already do, such as ride ATVs in the desert, eat traditional foods, or smoke a hookah.  Others, such as visiting the local camel market, might result in the lucky coincidence of finding an enterprising rancher who will let you ride his camel.  By and large, however, it is a substantial undertaking the string together even a few interesting activities.  Some of us are young, adventurous, and enterprising enough to do it, but there are surely thousands who are not.

All it would take is formalizing a few key relationships with locals (e.g. the guy with a small fleet of ATVs, a camel rancher or two), creating some marketing materials, hiring a couple English-speaking guides/drivers, and you would be well on your way to having a lucrative local tour business.  The biggest challenge (and not a small one to overcome) would be finding someone who could manage and grow the business on the ground.

Taking it a Step Further:

Okay.  So, you could make a little money selling tourist packages to a few expats in Riyadh.  You could make a few bucks doing lots of things you say.  I think there is, however, a broader opportunity here.

The Middle East is not a typical tourist destination, but with business booming on the wave of high oil prices, the region is awash in money.  That money is bringing in a lot of skilled, highly paid workers who are eager to do something on the weekend, and are curious to see the world.

Expand Throughout the Region: I believe that this same opportunity is present in many countries in the region.  Bahrain, another country I have visited recently, had a number of activities which were available, but were poorly marketed and difficult to arrange.  What other cities might this work in?

  • Doha
  • Jeddah
  • Abu Dhabi
  • Others…?

Invest In Developing Your “Suppliers”: Because many tourist activities do not exist in these cities, you could become a co-investor in the development of several related businesses that would appeal to both locals and tourists.  These might be:

  • Go-karting
  • Up-scale local dining
  • Water sports (e.g. wave runners, parasailing)
  • Adventure travel (e.g. spelunking, climbing)
  • Cultural education (e.g. cultural etiquette courses)

As more people begin to venture into the Middle East (and the boom in Dubai alone is enough to ensure that will happen), the opportunity will only grow.

Are Travel Agents the Future?

31 Jul

Travel agents will continue to evolve into niche players in the tourism industry. They will be most successful where they embrace specific types of travel (i.e. those seeking exotic adventures in the less-traveled regions of the world) and specific customer groups with high demand for travel assistance (i.e. businesses, or the elderly).

Robert Buckman’s post today on Fast Company’s Expert Blogs (“Innovation: Tired of DIY Travel Bookings?”), in response to a recent New York Times Article (“Happy Returns for Travel Agents”), analyzes the surprising continued success of traditional bricks and mortar travel agents, in light of the strong trend in DIY travel bookings seen in the last few years at sites like Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity. Buckman rightly predicts not only the continued existence of traditional travel agents, but describes them as becoming more successful as they adopt to a niche.

But travel agents have found a definite niche among travelers who are too time-pressed or impatient to deal with the vagaries of the Internet. Why not turn that chore over to the expert?

DIYism is great if you are not up against the clock and are persistent in resolving problems that inevitably crop up during a trip. But if you’re on the road and you need a solution quick, there’s no substitute for an experienced travel agent who has seen it all before.

TripologyWhere Buckman fails to take his analysis a step further, is to point to emerging startup businesses who are tailor made this this precise niche-targeting in mind. For instance, Tripology, a site which was recently covered in depth by VentureBeat last week after it raised a round of funding led by Ascend Venture Group, targets travelers with exotic destinations in mind. The articles by the NY Times and Buckman’s analysis provide the evidence that a niche play can be successful. VentureBeat points out the wisdom of Tripology’s particular strategy.

The problem for adventuresome consumers is that the best specialty travel agents are not always easy to find. The problem for specialty travel agents is that finding the adventuresome consumers is even harder. Sites like Specialty Travel and Travel Hub list specialty travel agencies, but the listings on those sites requires digging and guesswork, and is somewhat cumbersome.

Tripology addresses this: It asks intrepid travelers what they want to do on their trip and automatically finds three to four travel agents who know how to make that happen. For the consumer, finding the agents is free. For the travel agents, the qualified leads come for $5 dollars a pop.

Are travel agents here to stay, as Buckman predicts? Those which customize their service and target a niche (even a very large niche, as American Express Travel has done for corporate travelers) will be the true winners.