Behind the scenes of your sunny vacation at the beach is the dark-arts world of technology. It’s a group of fresh, young minds, and they gather a few times a year around the world for drinks, to hear from peers, to brainstorm and whiteboard and to seek out millions of dollars of new funding. Outside the JW Marriott in Downtown LA where the minds gathered this week for the PhoCusWright conference, you would have found a lot of valet-parked luxury automobiles (even a Bugatti Veyron was spotted this year), some driven by the venture capital players who’ve come to take a look inside the brains of these entrepreneurs, with the hopes of maybe learning where the next Priceline or TripAdvisor is going to come from.
Inside the hotel’s conference center, the founders and CEOs of these tech firms (it’s mostly start-ups) stand on stage for 7 minutes to pitch their ideas to the roughly 1,600 people in attendance.
“It’s like ‘American Idol’ meets ‘Shark Tank,’” explains PhoCusWright managing director Tony D’Astolfo.
The start-ups come from Silicon Valley, from Bangalore, from Copenhagen; they come all the way around the world to take a crack at solving the big problems in travel. In those 7 minutes, ideas are thrown out like spaghetti at the walls of your kitchen. Some stick. Some are shot down politely by a panel of critics.
Here’s what could stick—it’s our look at nine of the best new travel companies that are making lives easier for travelers like you and me:
The pitch: Options Away allows you to lock in your flight reservation for days or even weeks, giving you the time to decide if that’s really the flight you need to make. Options Away charges you a fee to lock in the cost of your flight, and your fee (while fairly miniscule) increases if you want a longer lock. “A lot of our customers will hold the reservation on their mobile phones and then complete the transaction at their desk,” explains Robert Brown, founder and CEO. It doesn’t tie up the actual flight inventory, says Brown, so the travel companies like it as much as you will.
Our take: Who doesn’t like options? Expect this to become a normal part of the booking sites like Expedia, Hipmunk (already there), Booking.com and others. It’s a technology that probably won’t limit itself to flights, either.
The pitch: You’ve got a second home in the mountains or a condo at the beach, and you’ve been managing it on your own as a vacation rental through HomeAway or AirBnB, but you really want to just sell out the whole year except for the few weeks that your family might use it. Vacation Futures allows you to sell that inventory to professional property managers through an auction/exchange type of site. “The professional property managers are being squeezed out of the market and losing income,” says CEO Andrew McConnell, because of the entrance of companies like AirBnB and HomeAway, but this marketplace puts them back in the loop with the inventory of your home’s rental availability.
Our take: You might not get 100 percent of what you would get if you were renting out your second home on your own, but the convenience is worth it … if you can trust that property manager buying the inventory. Trust is a big deal; this is a home we’re talking about after all, not just another hotel room.
The pitch: We’ve all wanted to book that tour or activity but couldn’t do it online or in advance. For me it was the day sailing trip in the Greek isles, but the operator still ran his business via pen-and-paper documents and when I got there, I learned he didn’t take credit cards and didn’t have openings. I had to find another boat. “It is no wonder we still book tours and activities when we get there,” concludes Booking Boss’ Renee Welsh. But she and her Australian company are ready to change that (along with a lot of other similar players like Bokún, AnyRoad, GetYourGuide, Nor1, Peek, XOLA and so many others). For Booking Boss, they’re delivering the software to make it easy for the Greek sailing captain to put his business online, and then let those trips be booked in real-time via sites like Viator.
Our take: It’s needed, but the set-up has to be easy for that tour captain, or we will still be booking that day sailing trip the old-fashioned way, by walking the docks until we find someone with availability and a good price.
The pitch: WorldMate has been around for a while (it has an app that puts all of your trip info in one easy-to-access format on your mobile phone; it’s a competitor to the very popular TripIt app). But the cool thing that it's doing according to WorldMate’s Ian Berman is it now offers hotel price alerts and hotel counter offers to travelers in the hopes of saving you some money. You book a hotel, send the data into your WorldMate app, and then WorldMate finds the price at the same hotel has dropped, so you can go from paying $210 to $158. Not only does it find that price drop, but it helps you rebook at that lower price and helps you cancel the prior reservation. What’s more, it's also now offering counter offers. So you’ve booked for the Marriott, but it shows you the Hilton across the street for $50 less and helps you book the better rate and cancel the former reservation in as few as eight clicks on your phone.
Our take: Who doesn’t like to save money? But you can expect the hotel industry to fight this like the Bush administration on the War on Drugs. At some point, it seems inevitable that the WorldMate approach will win. We already do this as travelers right now; WorldMate is just smartly automating an onerous process. Let’s go ahead and hashtag this idea #FTW.
The pitch: You’re in a city you don’t know that well, and you’re looking for something to do right now near your hotel before you meet friends for dinner. Kamino has a stack of about 650 travel-blogger-generated walking tours in 85 cities around the world, so now you have something to do. Use its GPS-enabled app to get a little tour of downtown as a way of introducing yourself to the city.
Our take: We could all use a little more exercise, and this makes it easier for you to explore a new city. While we wish every traveler was out engaging with locals and making personal connections, at least this app gets folks out of the hotel lounge and helps re-couple “exploration” and “travel.”
The pitch: Sharon Haran’s take on travel insurance is that the current model has run its course. You’re traveling, having a great time and then your son breaks his leg (boys do that) while overseas. You go to a hospital; you pay whatever it asks, and then about 45 days later, you get reimbursed some of that cost from your travel-insurance provider. Haran’s company turns it around. You get a credit card from the travel-insurance provider that’s preloaded with the right amount of credit to pay for the cost of the mishap (lost luggage or emergency surgery) so you’re not paying from your checkbook. Best of all, as a clearing house of this travel-insurance data, it knows exactly what things cost, so it can pay out the appropriate amount and make sure you’re not getting ripped off overseas.
Our take: It makes total sense, and it’s why Haran’s company won the top award at PhocusWright 2014 and is rumored to be very near to locking massive funding round to make this thing very, very real. Can we hashtag #FTW again for Haran? He deserves it.
Get there: www.passportcard.com
The pitch: TripScope CEO Katelyn O’Shaugnessy is a travel agent in addition to being a start-up entrepreneur. And she knows the relevance of the travel agent has been challenged. “Agents cannot keep up with the technologies that today’s travelers expect,” she says, noting that 28 percent of millennials have booked a trip through a travel agent. Her tool (a mobile app and website solution) lets agents connect to their travelers via text and video chat and even screen-sharing to better plan trips or get things solved mid-trip.
Our take: If it makes the travel agent a bit more relevant and it helps travelers work with their existing agent, then it’s a good thing for the agency business and the travelers who still use agents. And if O’Shaugnessy is right that the roughly 100,000 U.S. travel agents still account for 30 percent of all U.S. travel bookings, well, then there’s a real business here, too, despite the overall decline of the travel-agent business. It’s probably going to be used most by luxury travelers and type-A-personality travelers.
The pitch: Robert Booth was on stage to point out something everyone already knows: Travel disruptions happen. Planes break down. Snow covers runways. And he also points out what we also know: Travel disruptions suck. But the pitch here is that Robert’s company thinks it has figured out how to easily rebook travelers and provide them personalized service that makes those disruptions suck a little less. In the model it has created, this rebooking tool would be used by your airline to not only get you on another flight, but give you vouchers, complimentary services and even recommendations for things to do while you’re waiting on that next flight.
Our take: We like it when travel disruptions suck less, and the idea of a personalized, convenient mobile experience to rebook us is appealing—especially compared to the “Sir, you’re just another number to us” approach of today.
The pitch: Based out of Charlottesville, Va., Tap Tap founder Ashwin Kamlani wants to make things easier for you when you’re at the airport, hungry and tired and wondering where is that confounded shuttle bus that’s supposed to get you to your hotel. Today we stand around, looking, waiting, hoping to be surprised that it is our bus coming down the parkway, but no, that’s the one for the Courtyard, not the hotel shuttle we need. Kamlani wants to slap GPS tracking on these hotel buses so you can figure out how long until your shuttle will be here.
Our take: Why isn’t this being done already? If they play their cards well, some day he will even track Comcast trucks and tell us how long until the cable guy is there at our house. (That last idea about making Comcast any better at all got an ovation from the audience.)