GoEuro rebrands as Omio to take its travel aggregator business global

European multimodal travel booking platform GoEuro has announced a change of name and destination: Its new ambition is to go global, scaling beyond its regional grounding to tackle the challenge of intercity travel internationally — hence needing a more expansive brand name.

The name it’s chosen is Omio, pronounced with the stress on the ‘me’ sound in the middle of the word.

GoEuro unveiled a new brand identity late last year — which it says now was preparing the ground for this full rebranding.

So why Omio? CEO and founder Naren Shaam tells TechCrunch the new name was chosen to be memorable, lighthearted and neutral. A word that travels inoffensively across languages was also clearly essential.

“It took a while — probably eight months — to do the search on the name,” he says. “The hard thing about the name is a few criteria we had. One was that it had to be short, easy to remember, and four letter names are just non-existent now.

“It had to be lighthearted because travel inherently comes with a lot of stress to consumers… Every time you book travel it’s a lot of anxiety and then relief after you book it etc. So we want to change that behavior to customers; saying we will take care of your journey.”

The multimodal travel startup, which was founded back in 2012, also says it’s happy to have been able to retain a ghost of its old brand — thanks to the double ‘o’ in both names — which it intends to suggestively stand in for the beginning and end of a journey.

In Europe the travel aggregator tool that’s been known since launch as GoEuro — and soon, within a matter of weeks, Omio, everywhere it operates — has some 27 million monthly users tapping into the convenience of a platform that knits together train travel, bus trips, flights and most recently ferries to offer the most comprehensive coverage available of longer distance travel options in the region.

Europe is heavily networked for transport, with multiple intercity travel options to choose from. But it is also massively fragmented across a huge mix of providers (and languages) making it challenging for travellers to navigate, compare and book across so many potential options.

Taming this complexity via a multimodal search and comparison tool that now also integrates booking for most ground-based travel options (and some flights) on one platform has been GoEuro’s mission to-date. And now it’s Omio’s tackle globally.

“Global transport is not on a single product. What we bring is way more than just air, in terms of all ground transportation,” says Shaam. “So for me the problem of how do I get from Kyoto to Tokyo, or Rio to Sao Paulo. Or somewhere in Southeast Asia in Thailand is still a global problem. And it’s not yet solved. And so for us it’s the right time to evolve the brand… It’s definitely time to step out and say we want to build a global brand. We want to be that transport product across the world where we can serve all transport globally.”

While GoEuro is in some senses a quintessentially European business — Shaam says he “couldn’t have imagined” building a multimodal transport platform out of the US, for instance, where travel is so dominated by airlines and cars — he suggests that sets the business up to tackle similar complexity elsewhere.

Putting in the hard graft of negotiating partnerships and nailing technical integrations with multiple transport providers, large and tiny, also isn’t the sort of tech business prone to fast-following platform clones. So Omio suggests competition at a global scale will most likely be piecemeal, from multiple regional players.

“When I look beyond Europe the problem that I experienced in Europe in 2010 [which inspired me to set up GoEuro] is definitely a problem I experience still globally,” he says. “So when we can figure out how to bring 100,000 remote train and bus stations plugged into a uniform, normalized product and then give a single-click mobile ticket that works everywhere why not actually solve this problem globally?”

That translates into having “the engineering and the product and the means” to scale what GoEuro has done for travel in Europe internationally, moving to other continents with their own blend and mix of transport options and challenges.

Shaam notes that Omio employs more than 200 engineers within a company that has a staff of 300 — emphasizing also that the partnerships plus all the engineering that sits behind the aggregator’s front end take a lot of resource to maintain.

“I agree it is such a European startup. And it has served us well to get 27M monthly users traveling across Europe. Last year alone we served something like eight million unique routes. So the density of routes that we have is great. We already have global users; we have users from 100+ countries,” he says, adding: “If you look at Europe, European companies are starting to go on the global stage more and more now.

“You can see Spotify being one of the largest global tech companies coming out of Europe. You’ve seen some in the fintech space. Industries where there’s heavy fragmentation in Europe allow us to build global products because Europe is a great product market.”

GoEuro — now Omio — founder and CEO, Naren Shaam

On the international expansion horizon, Omio says its considering expanding into South America, Asia and the U.S. Although Shaam says no decisions have yet been taken as to the regions and markets it might move into first.

He also readily accepts the goal of building a global travel aggregator is a long term mission, with the partnerships, engineering and legacy technology integrations that will have to underpin the expansion all requiring time (and money) to work through.

There’s also no suggestion that Omio intends to offer a more lightweight transport proposition as a strategy to elbow its way into new markets, either.

“If we go into the U.S. the goal is not to just offer another airline product,” he says. “There’s enough websites out there that do exactly that. So we will offer something different. And our competition will also be regional companies that offer something similar in each market.”

In a year’s time, Shaam says he hopes to have further deepened the platform’s coverage and usage in Europe — noting there are more transport dots to connect in markets including Portugal, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, plus parts of Eastern Europe (as well as “very heavily fragmented” bus providers in Spain and Italy).

By then he says he also wants to have “a clear answer to what are the two next big continents we want to expand into and have people that are ready to do that”.

So connecting the dots of intercity travel is very evidently a far slower-paced business than heavily VC-backed innercity transport plays — which have attracted multiple billions in funding in very short order thanks to fast usage velocity and revenue growth vs GoEuro’s modest (by contrast) ~$300M.

Nonetheless Shaam is convinced the intercity opportunity is still “a big market”. Perhaps not as massive as micromobility, ride-hailing and so on but still big and relatively under-invested, as he sees it.

So how will GoEuro as Omio approach scaling a travel business that is, necessarily, so very grounded in fixed and non-uniform transport infrastructure? He suggests the business will be able to draw on what is already years of experience integrating with transport providers of various types and sizes to support the new global push.

It’s developed what he describes as an “a la carte” menu of products for different sized travel providers — arguing this established menu of tools will help scale into new markets in fresh geographies, even while conceding there are other aspects of the business that will not be so easily replicable.

“Over time we built a lot of tooling that adapts to the different types of suppliers. So, for example, if you’re a large state-owned operator… that has very different systems built for decades basically vs a tiny bus company that runs from Naples to Positano that nobody even knows the name of or no technology it stands on we have different products that we offer to each of them.

“We have all the tooling built out so it’s basically ‘plug and play’ for us to do. So this thing doesn’t change. That’s portable.”

What will be new for Omio is international product market fit, with Shaam saying, for example, that it won’t necessarily be able to rely on the same sort of network effects it sees in Europe that help drive usage.

He also notes mobile penetration rates will differ — again requiring a different approach to serving customer needs in new regions such as Latin America.

“It’s not quick,” he concedes. “That’s why we’d rather launch now because I can’t tell you that in three months we’ll have had four more continents covered, right. This is a long term play but we’ve raised enough capital to make sure we’re here for that long term journey.”

“We have a name that people know and we can build technology,” he adds, expanding on what Omio can bring to the table as it tries to sell its platform to travel providers everywhere. “We’ve worked with 800+ suppliers. So from a commercial standpoint, people know who we are and how much scale we can bring in terms of their fixed cost businesses — so we can sell a lot of tickets for all of them. We can bring international tourists from a global audience. And we can really fill up seats. So people know that you put your supply on our product and we instantly scale because the existing demand is just so large.”

The Berlin-based startup closed a $150M funding round last fall so it’s not short of immediate resources to support the new hires it’ll be looking to add to start building out its global roadmap.

Shaam also notes it brought in more Asian capital with its last round, which he says he hopes will help “with this globalization capital”. Most of the investors it added then are also geared towards longer term returns vs traditional VC, he adds.

Omio is not currently in the process of raising another funding round, according to Shaam, though he confirms it does plan to raise more in future as it works towards the global vision of a single platform to help travellers move all over the world.

“The amount of capital that’s gone into intercity transport is tiny compared to innercity transport,” he notes. “That means that if you’re still going after a global problem that we want to solve that means that we need to raise capital at some point in the future. For now we’re just very comfortable with what we have but it doesn’t mean that we’ll stop.”

One potential future market Omio is likely to approach only very cautiously is China.

A b2c partnership with local travel booking platform Qunar, which GoEuro inked back in 2017, to link Chinese consumers with European travel opportunities, means Omio has a commercial reason to be sensitive of any moves into that market.

The complexity and challenge of going into China as an outsider is of course another major reason to go slow.

“I want to say very carefully that China is a market we need a lot more time to understand before we go into, as I think there’s enough lessons learned from all the tech companies from the West,” says Shaam readily. “It’s not going to be a rushed decision. So in that case the partnership with have with Qunar — I don’t see any changes in the near term because going into China is a big step for us. And it’s not an easy decision anyway.”

Grab invests $100M into India’s OYO to expand its budget hotel service in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian ride-hailing firm Grab has made its most ambitious investment to date after it backed India-headquartered budget hotel network OYO to the tune of $100 million. The investment was part of a $1 billion Series E round led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund that closed back in September.

The deal was first made public via a regulatory filing in India, as Economic Times reported.

“We can confirm the investment into OYO,” a Grab spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Grab has done a handful of strategic deals thus far, including investments in bike-sharing startup oBike and grocery delivery service HappyFresh, but those have been far smaller and local to Southeast Asia. Its highest acquisition to date is around $100 million for Indonesia-based offline payment network Kudo some 18 months ago.

The deal with OYO is not only far higher but also outside of its immediate home turf, which spans eight countries in Southeast Asia. OYO’s business is heavily focused on India and China, but the company is also active in Nepal, Malaysia and, most recently, the UK. That Series E deal was aimed at funding international growth and it looks like Grab will work closely with the company to help expand its presence in Southeast Asia, a region with over 650 million consumers and a fast growing digital economy.

A source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch that Grab was primarily motivated to partner with OYO for its potential to boost its GrabPay service. The core idea here is that GrabPay could become the preferred payment method for OYO in Southeast Asia, thereby boosting Grab’s ambition of dominating the region’s mobile payment space.

OYO claims to have over 10,000 franchised or leased hotels in its network which it says spans 350 cities across five countries, although most of that is concentrated on India and China. In the latter country, OYO says it offers 87,000 rooms in 171 cities after launching in the country in June 2018.

Southeast Asia, where OYO is already present via Malaysia, is an obvious next step and Grab could also give it a helpful boost to reaching customers by including its service on its in-app platform. Months after a deal to buy Uber’s local business in exchange for a 27.5 percent equity stake, Grab unveiled a ‘platform’ designed to aggregate services in the region to give its audience of over 110 million registered users visibility of services that they may like. That, in turn, can help companies tap into the Grab userbase, although some users have complained that Grab’s app is increasingly ‘cluttered’ with additional services and information beyond basic transportation.

Grab has already partnered with travel giant Booking — which recently invested $200 million in its business — to offer deals to its users, and it is quite conceivable that it could do the same with OYO to help the Indian firm’s efforts in Southeast Asia.

The $11 billion-valued ride-hailing firm isn’t short of cash — having raised over $3 billion this year — so it can afford to make the occasional splashy investment. However, it might need a budget reallocation. That’s because Indonesian rival Go-Jek’s continued Southeast Asia expansion is threatening to reignite a subsidiary war that Grab probably thought it had won for good after Uber’s exit. It’ll be interesting to watch how that competition weighs in Grab’s overall effort to go from ride-hailing into the ‘super app’ space, covering payments, local services and more.

Taiwan-based travel startup AsiaYo raises $7M Series B led by Alibaba Taiwan Entrepreneurs Fund

AsiaYo, a travel accommodation booking platform based in Taipei, Taiwan, has raised a $7 million Series B led by Alibaba Taiwan Entrepreneurs Fund, a non-profit initiative run by the Chinese e-commerce giant, and China Development Financial. Darwin Ventures and Delta Ventures also participated in the round, which brings AsiaYo’s total raised since its launch in 2014 to $10 million, including a $3 million Series A.

Founded by CEO C.K. Cheng, AsiaYo has grown over the past four years to a team of about 100 people and now claims about 300,000 members on its site. In addition to Taiwan, the platform also operates in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand, and says overseas bookings account for 60% of its business. AsiaYo’s new funding will be used to launch in new markets, with operations in Singapore and Malaysia and a new Japanese website slated to launch next year. Cheng told TechCrunch that it picked Singapore and Malaysia as its newest markets because of the amount of travel between the two countries, which are next to one another.

AsiaYo works with 50 partners, including Hong Kong Airlines, KKday, and Rakuten LIFULL STAY, to provide reward programs and deals on vacation bookings. The website is currently available in English, Chinese, and Korean and claims 60,000 listings across 60 cities. The startup targets younger tourists traveling within Asia with what it calls “hyper-personalized journeys” created with the help of its AI-based algorithm AYSort, which analyzes user behavior to provide booking suggestions.

In a press statement, Alibaba Taiwan Entrepreneurs Fund executive director Andrew Lee said “With rapid economic development across Asia, we have seen a significant rise in inter-regional tourism. AsiaYo has capitalized on this trend, demonstrating its growth potential. We’re currently working with AsiaYo to further develop technological capabilities in the travel industry.”

AsiaYo’s listings include a combination of rooms, apartments, hostels, and hotels, which means it competes against a wide variety of other accommodation booking sites, like Airbnb, Agoda, and HotelQuickly. The startup differentiates, however, by verifying listings with landlords before they go live for quality assurance and to “inspire travelers to step out of their comfort zone,” said Cheng. The company also provides multi-lingual customer support through several channels, including Line, Facebook, WeChat, and its own helplines.

Taiwan-based travel startup AsiaYo raises $7M Series B led by Alibaba Taiwan Entrepreneurs Fund

AsiaYo, a travel accommodation booking platform based in Taipei, Taiwan, has raised a $7 million Series B led by Alibaba Taiwan Entrepreneurs Fund, a non-profit initiative run by the Chinese e-commerce giant, and China Development Financial. Darwin Ventures and Delta Ventures also participated in the round, which brings AsiaYo’s total raised since its launch in 2014 to $10 million, including a $3 million Series A.

Founded by CEO C.K. Cheng, AsiaYo has grown over the past four years to a team of about 100 people and now claims about 300,000 members on its site. In addition to Taiwan, the platform also operates in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand, and says overseas bookings account for 60% of its business. AsiaYo’s new funding will be used to launch in new markets, with operations in Singapore and Malaysia and a new Japanese website slated to launch next year. Cheng told TechCrunch that it picked Singapore and Malaysia as its newest markets because of the amount of travel between the two countries, which are next to one another.

AsiaYo works with 50 partners, including Hong Kong Airlines, KKday, and Rakuten LIFULL STAY, to provide reward programs and deals on vacation bookings. The website is currently available in English, Chinese, and Korean and claims 60,000 listings across 60 cities. The startup targets younger tourists traveling within Asia with what it calls “hyper-personalized journeys” created with the help of its AI-based algorithm AYSort, which analyzes user behavior to provide booking suggestions.

In a press statement, Alibaba Taiwan Entrepreneurs Fund executive director Andrew Lee said “With rapid economic development across Asia, we have seen a significant rise in inter-regional tourism. AsiaYo has capitalized on this trend, demonstrating its growth potential. We’re currently working with AsiaYo to further develop technological capabilities in the travel industry.”

AsiaYo’s listings include a combination of rooms, apartments, hostels, and hotels, which means it competes against a wide variety of other accommodation booking sites, like Airbnb, Agoda, and HotelQuickly. The startup differentiates, however, by verifying listings with landlords before they go live for quality assurance and to “inspire travelers to step out of their comfort zone,” said Cheng. The company also provides multi-lingual customer support through several channels, including Line, Facebook, WeChat, and its own helplines.

Marriott says 500 million Starwood guest records stolen in massive data breach

Starwood Hotels has confirmed its hotel guest database of about 500 million customers has been stolen in a data breach.

The hotel and resorts giant said in a statement filed with U.S. regulators that the “unauthorized access” to its guest database was detected on or before September 10 — but may have dated back as far as 2014.

“Marriott learned during the investigation that there had been unauthorized access to the Starwood network since 2014,” said the statement. “Marriott recently discovered that an unauthorized party had copied and encrypted information, and took steps towards removing it.”

Specific details of the breach remain unknown. We’ve contacted Starwood for more and will update when we hear back.

The company said that it obtained and decrypted the database on November 19 and “determined that the contents were from the Starwood guest reservation database.”

Some 327 million records contained a guest’s name, postal address, phone number, date of birth, gender, email address, passport number, Starwood’s rewards information (including points and balance), arrival and departure information, reservation date, and their communication preferences.

Starwood said an unknown number of records contained encrypted credit card data, but has “not been able to rule out” that the components needed to decrypt the data wasn’t also taken.

“Marriott reported this incident to law enforcement and continues to support their investigation,” said the statement.

Marriott-owned Starwood the largest hotel chain in the world, with more than 11 brands covering 1,200 properties, including W Hotels, St. Regis, Sheraton, Westin, Element and more. Starwood branded timeshare properties are also included.

The company said that its Marriott hotels are not believed to be affected as its reservation system is “on a different network,” following Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood in 2016.

The company has begun informing customers of the breach — including in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

Given that the breach falls under the European-wide GDPR rules, Starwood may face significant financial penalties of up to four percent of its global annual revenue if found to be in breach of the rules.

How cities can fix tourism hell

A steep and rapid rise in tourism has left behind a wake of economic and environmental damage in cities around the globe. In response, governments have been responding with policies that attempt to limit the number of visitors who come in. We’ve decided to spare you from any more Amazon HQ2 talk and instead focus on why cities should shy away from reactive policies and should instead utilize their growing set of technological capabilities to change how they manage tourists within city lines.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @[email protected].
  

The struggle for cities to manage “Overtourism”

Well – it didn’t take long for the phrase “overtourism” to get overused. The popular buzzword describes the influx of tourists who flood a location and damage the quality of life for full-time residents. The term has become such a common topic of debate in recent months that it was even featured this past week on Oxford Dictionaries’ annual “Words of the Year” list.

But the expression’s frequent appearance in headlines highlights the growing number of cities plagued by the externalities from rising tourism.

In the last decade, travel has become easier and more accessible than ever. Low-cost ticketing services and apartment-rental companies have brought down the costs of transportation and lodging; the ubiquity of social media has ticked up tourism marketing efforts and consumer demand for travel; economic globalization has increased the frequency of business travel; and rising incomes in emerging markets have opened up travel to many who previously couldn’t afford it.

Now, unsurprisingly, tourism has spiked dramatically, with the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reporting that tourist arrivals grew an estimated 7% in 2017 – materially above the roughly 4% seen consistently since 2010. The sudden and rapid increase of visitors has left many cities and residents overwhelmed, dealing with issues like overcrowding, pollution, and rising costs of goods and housing.

The problems cities face with rising tourism are only set to intensify. And while it’s hard for me to imagine when walking shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers on tight New York streets, the number of tourists in major cities like these can very possibly double over the next 10 to 15 years.

China and other emerging markets have already seen significant growth in the middle-class and have long runway ahead. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the global middle class is expected to rise from the 1.8 billion observed in 2009 to 3.2 billion by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030. The new money brings with it a new wave of travelers looking to catch a selfie with the Eiffel Tower, with the UNWTO forecasting international tourist arrivals to increase from 1.3 billion to 1.8 billion by 2030.

With a growing sense of urgency around managing their guests, more and more cities have been implementing policies focused on limiting the number of tourists that visit altogether by imposing hard visitor limits, tourist taxes or otherwise.

But as the UNWTO points out in its report on overtourism, the negative effects from inflating tourism are not solely tied to the number of visitors in a city but are also largely driven by touristy seasonality, tourist behavior, the behavior of the resident population, and the functionality of city infrastructure. We’ve seen cities with few tourists, for example, have experienced similar issues to those experienced in cities with millions.

While many cities have focused on reactive policies that are meant to quell tourism, they should instead focus on technology-driven solutions that can help manage tourist behavior, create structural changes to city tourism infrastructure, while allowing cities to continue capturing the significant revenue stream that tourism provides.

Smart city tech enabling more “tourist-ready” cities

THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Yes, cities are faced with the headwind of a growing tourism population, but city policymakers also benefit from the tailwind of having more technological capabilities than their predecessors. With the rise of smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives, many cities are equipped with tools such as connected infrastructure, lidar-sensors, high-quality broadband, and troves of data that make it easier to manage issues around congestion, infrastructure, or otherwise.

On the congestion side, we have already seen companies using geo-tracking and other smart city technologies to manage congestion around event venues, roads, and stores. Cities can apply the same strategies to manage the flow of tourist and resident movement.

And while you can’t necessarily prevent people from people visiting the Louvre or the Coliseum, cities are using a variety of methods to incentivize the use of less congested space or disperse the times in which people flock to highly-trafficked locations by using tools such as real-time congestion notifications, data-driven ticketing schedules for museums and landmarks, or digitally-guided tours through uncontested routes.

Companies and municipalities in cities like London and Antwerp are already working on using tourist movement tracking to manage crowds and help notify and guide tourists to certain locations at the most efficient times. Other cities have developed augmented reality tours that can guide tourists in real-time to less congested spaces by dynamically adjusting their routes.

A number of startups are also working with cities to use collected movement data to help reshape infrastructure to better fit the long-term needs and changing demographics of its occupants. Companies like Stae or Calthorpe Analytics use analytics on movement, permitting, business trends or otherwise to help cities implement more effective zoning and land use plans. City planners can use the same technology to help effectively design street structure to increase usable sidewalk space and to better allocate zoning for hotels, retail or other tourist-friendly attractions.

Focusing counter-overtourism efforts on smart city technologies can help adjust the behavior and movement of travelers in a city through a number of avenues, in a way tourist caps or tourist taxes do not.

And at the end of the day, tourism is one of the largest sources of city income, meaning it also plays a vital role in determining the budgets cities have to plow back into transit, roads, digital infrastructure, the energy grid, and other pain points that plague residents and travelers alike year-round. And by disallowing or disincentivizing tourism, cities can lose valuable capital for infrastructure, which can subsequently exacerbate congestion problems in the long-run.

Some cities have justified tourist taxes by saying the revenue stream would be invested into improving the issues overtourism has caused. But daily or upon-entry tourist taxes we’ve seen so far haven’t come close to offsetting the lost revenue from disincentivized tourists, who at the start of 2017 spent all-in nearly $700 per day in the US on transportation, souvenirs and other expenses according to the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office.

In 2017, international tourism alone drove to $1.6 trillion in earnings and in 2016, travel & tourism accounted for roughly 1 in 10 jobs in the global economy according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. And the benefits of travel are not only economic, with cross-border tourism promoting transfers of culture, knowledge and experience.

But to be clear, I don’t mean to say smart city technology initiatives alone are going to solve overtourism. The significant wave of growth in the number of global travelers is a serious challenge and many of the issues that result from spiking tourism, like housing affordability, are incredibly complex and come down to more than just data. However, I do believe cities should be focused less on tourist reduction and more on solutions that enable tourist management.

Utilizing and allocating more resources to smart city technologies can not only more effectively and structurally limit the negative impacts from overtourism, but it also allows cities to benefit from a significant and high growth tourism revenue stream. Cities can then create a virtuous cycle of reinvestment where they plow investment back into its infrastructure to better manage visitor growth, resident growth, and quality of life over the long-term. Cities can have their cake and eat it too.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

Travel startups are taking off

The second wave of Internet-era travel companies has captured the attention of venture capitalists.

In the last five years, travel companies have raised more than $1 billion in venture capital funding. That includes short-term rental startups, travel and tourism apps, marketplaces for “experiences” and other travel or hospitality tech platforms. Airbnb, a $38 billion company and an anomaly in the category, has raised $3 billion in that same time frame, according to PitchBook.

In the last few months alone, aspiring Concur-competitor TripActions and travel activities platform Klook entered the “unicorn” club with large venture rounds that valued both of the businesses at more than $1 billion. Meanwhile, luggage maker Away raised $50 million at a $400 million valuation and smaller startups in the space like Freebirds, IfOnly, KKDay, Duffel and RedDoorz all closed modest funding rounds.

“Something is really happening in the industry; something bigger than us,” TripActions co-founder Ariel Cohen said in a recent conversation with TechCrunch about his company’s $154 million Series C financing. “Different startups are identifying the opportunity here and the fact that companies want to make sure their employees are happy while they are on the go. That’s why you see investments in companies like Brex and like TripActions.”

Brex, though not classified as a travel startup, lets startup employees earn extra points on business travel with its corporate credit card for startups. It recently raised a $125 million Series C at a $1.1 billion valuation.

Global travel and tourism is one of the most valuable industries worth some $7 trillion. The online travel market, in particular, is expected to grow to $817 billion by 2020. VCs are hunting for tech-enabled startups poised to dominate that slice.

“You have a new wave of businesses where all of that digital infrastructure is set up, so the focus can be on things like efficiency, improved customer service, scale and growth — you have a ton of companies popping up catering to those needs,” Defy Partners co-founder Neil Sequeira told TechCrunch. Sequeira was a managing director at General Catalyst when the firm made its first investment in Airbnb.

On the other hand, you have a whole cohort of travel business founded amid the dot-com boom that are looking to technology startups for a much-needed infusion of innovation. Many of those larger companies have become active acquirers, fueling VC interest in the space. SAP Concur, for example, acquired the formerly VC-backed travel-booking startup Hipmunk in 2016. Before that, it bought travel planning company TripIt for $120 million, among others.

Expedia has gobbled up a number of travel brands too, like travel photography community Trover; Airbnb-competitor HomeAway, which it paid a whopping $3.9 billion for in 2015; and most recently, both Pillow and ApartmentJet.

Many of these acquisitions are for peanuts, which is far from ideal for a venture-funded company. And building a travel business is cash intensive, hence the $4.4 billion Airbnb has raised to date or even TripActions’ $236 million in total VC funding. To keep momentum in the space, companies need to be striking larger M&A deals.

It doesn’t help that many in and around the venture capital industry are predicting an imminent turn in the market. Travel companies, which are reliant upon a consumer’s tendency to spend excess cash, will be among the first sectors to be impacted by hostile economic conditions.

“If the market turns, people aren’t going to spend $10,000 on a trip to Zimbabwe,” Sequeira said, referencing companies like IfOnly, which sells curated experiences.

Travel startups should raise now while the market is hot. The conditions may not remain favorable for long.

TravelPerk grabs $44M to take its pain-free SaaS for business travel global

Only six months ago Barcelona-based TravelPerk bagged a $21M Series B, off the back of strong momentum for a software as a service platform designed to take a Slack-like chunk out of the administrative tedium of arranging and expensing work trips.

Today the founders’ smiles are firmly back in place: TravelPerk has announced a $44M Series C to keep stoking growth that’s seen it grow from around 20 customers two years ago to approaching 1,500 now. The business itself was only founded at the start of 2015.

Investors in the new round include Sweden’s Kinnevik; Russian billionaire and DST Global founder Yuri Milner, and Tom Stafford, also of DST. Prior investors include the likes of Target Global, Felix Capital, Spark Capital, Sunstone, LocalGlobe and Amplo.

Commenting on the Series C in a statement, Kinnevik’s Chris Bischoff, said: “We are excited to invest in TravelPerk, a company that fits perfectly into our investment thesis of using technology to offer customers more and much better choice. Booking corporate travel is unnecessarily time-consuming, expensive and burdensome compared to leisure travel. Avi and team have capitalised on this opportunity to build the leading European challenger by focusing on a product-led solution, and we look forward to supporting their future growth.”

TravelPerk’s total funding to date now stands at almost $75M. It’s not disclosing the valuation that its latest clutch of investors are stamping on its business but, with a bit of a chuckle, co-founder and CEO Avi Meir dubs it “very high”.

Gunning for growth — to West and East

TravelPerk contends that a $1.3tr market is ripe for disruption because legacy business travel booking platforms are both lacking in options and roundly hated for being slow and horrible to use. (Hi Concur!)

Helping business save time and money using a slick, consumer-style trip booking platform that both packs in options and makes business travellers feel good about the booking process (i.e. rather than valueless cogs in a soul-destroying corporate ROI machine) is the general idea — an idea that’s seemingly catching on fast.

And not just with the usual suspect, early adopter, startup dog food gobblers but pushing into the smaller end of the enterprise market too.

“We kind of stumbled on the realization that our platform works for bigger companies than we thought initially,” says Meir. “So the users used to be small, fast-growing tech companies, like GetYourGuide, Outfittery, TypeForm etc… They’re early adopters, they’re tech companies, they have no fear of trying out tech — even for such a mission critical aspect of their business… But then we got pulled into bigger companies. We recently signed FarFetch for example.”

Other smaller sized enterprises that have signed up include the likes of Adyen, B&W, Uber and Aesop.

Companies small and big are, seemingly, united in their hatred of legacy travel booking platforms. And feeling encouraged to check out TravelPerk’s alternative thanks to the SaaS being free to use and free from the usual contract lock ins.

TravelPerk’s freemium business model is based on taking affiliate commissions on bookings. While, down the road, it also has its eye on generating a data-based revenue stream via paid-tier trip analytics.

Currently it reports booking revenues growing at 700% year on year. And Meir previously told us it’s on course to do $100M GMV this year — which he confirms continues to be the case.

It also says it’s on track to complete bookings for one million travellers by next year. And claims to be the fastest growing software as a service company in Europe, a region which remains its core market focus — though the new funding will be put towards market expansion.

And there is at least the possibility, according to Meir, that TravelPerk could actively expand outside Europe within the next 12 months.

“We definitely are looking at expansion outside of Europe as well. I don’t know yet if it’s going to be first US — West or East — because there are opportunities in both directions,” he tells TechCrunch. “And we have customers; one of our largest customers is in Singapore. And we do have a growing amount of customers out of the US.”

Doubling down on growth within Europe is certainly on the slate, though, with a chunk of the Series C going to establish a number of new offices across the region.

Having more local bases to better serve customers is the idea. Meir notes that, perhaps unusually for a startup, TravelPerk has not outsourced customer support — but kept customer service in house to try to maintain quality. (Which, in Europe, means having staff who can speak the local language.)

He also quips about the need for a travel business to serve up “human intelligence” — i.e. by using tech tools to slickly connect on-the-road customers with actual people who can quickly and smartly grapple with and solve problems; vs an automated AI response which is — let’s face it — probably the last thing any time-strapped business traveller wants when trying to get orientated fast and/or solve a snafu away from home.

“I wouldn’t use [human intelligence] for everything but definitely if people are on the road, and they need assistance, and they need to make changes, and you need to understand what they said…” argues Meir, going on to say ‘HI’ has been his response when investors asked why TravelPerk’s pitch deck doesn’t include the almost-impossible-to-avoid tech buzzword: “AI”.

“I think we are probably the only startup in the world right now that doesn’t have AI in the pitch deck somewhere,” he adds. “One of the investors asked about it and I said ‘well we have HI; it’s better’… We have human intelligence. Just people, and they’re smart.”

Also on the cards (it therefore follows): More hiring (the team is at ~150 now and Meir says he expects it to push close to 300 within 18 months); as well as continued investment on the product front, including in the mobile app which was a late addition, only arriving this year.

The TravelPerk mobile app offers handy stuff like a one-stop travel itinerary, flight updates and a chat channel for support. But the desktop web app and core platform were the team’s first focus, with Meir arguing the desktop platform is the natural place for businesses to book trips.

This makes its mobile app more a companion piece — to “how you travel” — housing helpful additions for business travellers, as nice-to-have extras. “That’s what our app does really well,” he adds. “So we’re unusually contrarian and didn’t have a mobile app until this year… It was a pretty crazy bet but we really wanted to have a great web app experience.”

Much of TravelPerk’s early energy has clearly gone into delivering on the core product via nailing down the necessary partnerships and integrations to be able to offer such a large inventory — and thus deliver expanded utility vs legacy rivals.

As well as offering a clean-looking, consumer-style interface intended to do for business travel booking feels what Slack has done for work chat, the platform boasts a larger inventory than traditional players in the space, according to Meir — by plugging into major consumer providers such as Booking.com and Expedia.

The inventory also includes Airbnb accommodation (not just traditional hotels). While other partners on the flight side include include Kayak and Skyscanner.

“We have not the largest bookable inventory in the world,” he claims. “We’re way larger than old school competitors… We went through this licensing process which is almost as difficult as getting a banking license… which give us the right to sell you the same product as travel agencies… Nobody in the world can sell you Kayak’s flights directly from their platform — so we have a way to do that.”

TravelPerk also recently plugged trains into its directly bookable options. This mode of transport is an important component of the European business travel market where rail infrastructure is dense, highly developed and often very high speed. (Which means it can be both the most convenient and environmentally friendly travel option to use.)

“Trains are pretty complex technically so we found a great partner,” notes Meir on that, listing major train companies including in Germany, Spain and Italy as among those it’s now able to offer direct bookings for via its platform.

On the product side, the team is also working on integrating travel and expenses management into the platform — to serve its growing numbers of (small) enterprise customers who need more than just a slick trip booking tool.

Meir says getting pulled to these bigger accounts is steering its European expansion — with part of the Series C going to fund a clutch of new offices around the region near where some of its bigger customers are based. Beginning in London, with Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris slated to follow soon.

Picking investors for the long haul

What does the team attribute TravelPerk’s momentum to generally? It comes back to the pain, says Meir. Business travellers are being forced to “tolerate” horrible legacy systems. “So I think the pain-point is so visible and so clear [it sells itself],” he argues, also pointing out this is true for investors (which can’t have hurt TravelPerk’s funding pitch).

“In general we just built a great product and a great service, and we focused on this consumer angle — which is something that really connects well with what people want in this day and age,” he adds. “People want to use something that feels like Slack.”

For the Series C, Meir says TravelPerk was looking for investors who would be comfortable supporting the business for the long haul, rather than pushing for a quick sale. So they are now articulating the possibility of a future IPO.

And while he says TravelPerk hadn’t known much about Swedish investment firm Kinnevik prior to the Series C, Meir says he came away impressed with its focus on “global growth and ambition”, and the “deep pockets and the patience that comes with it”.

“We really aligned on this should be a global play, rather than a European play,” he adds. “We really connected on this should be a very, big independent business that goes to the path of IPO rather than a quick exit to one of the big players.

“So with them we buy patience, and also the condition, when offers do come onto the table, to say no to them.”

Given it’s been just a short six months between the Series B and C, is TravelPerk planning to raise again in the next 12 months?

“We’re never fundraising and we’re always fundraising I guess,” Meir responds on that. “We don’t need to fundraise for the next three years or so, so it will not come out of need, hopefully, unless something really unusual is happening, but it will come more out of opportunity and if it presented a way to grow even faster.

“I think the key here is how fast we grow. And how good a product we certify — and if we have an opportunity to make it even faster or better then we’ll go for it. But it’s not something that we’re actively doing it… So to all investors reading this piece don’t call me!” he adds, most likely inviting a tsunami of fresh investor pitches.

Discussing the challenges of building a business that’s so fast growing it’s also changing incredibly rapidly, Meir says nothing is how he imagined it would be — including fondly thinking it would be easier the bigger and better resourced the business got. But he says there’s an upside too.

“The challenges are just much, much bigger on this scale,” he says. “Numbers are bigger, you have more people around the table… I would say it’s very, very difficult and challenging but also extremely fun.

“So now when we release a feature it goes immediately into the hands of hundreds of thousands of travellers that use it every month. And when you fundraise… it’s much more fun because you have more leverage.

“It’s also fun because — and I don’t want to position myself as the cynical guy — the reality is that most startups don’t cure cancer, right. So we’re not saving the world… but in our little niche of business travel, which is still like $1.3tr per year, we are definitely making a dent.

“So, yes, it’s more challenging and difficult as your grow, and the problems become much bigger, but you can also deliver the feedback to more people.”

Travel giant Booking invests $500M in Chinese ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing

Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing company, has pulled in some strategic capital after Booking Holdings invested $500 million into its business.

The deal will see Booking Holdings — which was formerly known as Priceline — work closely with Didi to offer its on-demand car services through its Booking.com apps via an integration. Likewise, Didi customers will have the option to book hotels through Booking.com and its sister site Agoda.

The deal isn’t about money. Didi has said publicly that it has multiple billions of US dollars on its balance sheet, thanks to a gigantic $4 billion funding round that closed at the end of 2017 and a history of raising big in recent years.

Instead, the tie-in helps on a strategic level.

Besides Booking.com and Agoda, Booking also operates Kayak, Priceline.com, Rentacars.com and OpenTable, all of which makes it a powerful ally for Didi. That’s particularly important since the Chinese firm is in global expansion mode, having launched services in Mexico, Australia and Taiwan this year. Beyond those three, it acquired local ride-hailing company 99 in Brazil and announced plans to roll into Japan.

Beyond boosting a brand and consumer touchpoints, linking up with travel companies makes sense as ride-hailing goes from simply ride-hailing to become a de facto platform for travel between both longer haul (flights) and short distance (public transport) trips. That explains why Didi has doubled down on dock-less bikes and other transportation modes.

“Building on its leadership and expertise in the global online travel market, Booking is championing a digital revolution of travel experience. We look forward to seamlessly connecting every segment of the journey and improving everyone’s traveling experience through more collaborative innovation with the Booking brands on product, technology and market development,” said Stephen Zhu, VP of strategy for Didi, in a statement.

In other Didi news today, the company is said to be considering a deal to offload its car services business.

Reuters reports that the unit, which was formed in April and consists of Didi’s car rental, sales, maintenance, sharing and gas services businesses, could be spun out in a deal worth $1.5 billion. The thinking is apparently that Didi’s IPO, which is said to be in the planning stages, would run smoother without these asset-heavy businesses involved.

Representatives for Didi declined to comment on the report when we got in touch.

Didi was linked with a 2017 IPO back in 2016 but the company went on record denying those plans. Indeed, there’s plenty of progress since those reports surfaced. Not only did Didi go on to acquire Uber’s China business — that seems like a long time ago — but it has made strategic investments across the world, backing Uber rivals in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and beyond. That’s in addition to its aforementioned expansion plans, which have seen the Didi business roll into four countries outside of China.

Headout lands $10M Series A to help tourists book last-minute outings

Imagine being in a new city with a few hours to kill, but no idea what to do. Headout is a travel app that enables tourists to book outings at very short notice, in most cases on the same day. The startup announced today that it’s raised a $10 million Series A led by returning investors Nexus Venture Partners and Version One Ventures to support its ambitious growth targets.

Over the next 18 months, co-founder and CEO Varun Khona says the startup wants to expand from 20 cities to 100 cities in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific. The app recently added French, German and Spanish in select markets and aims to have all of its inventory available in 12 languages by the end of next year. Its bookings includes sightseeing tours, museum tickets and shows.

Headout’s Series A brings its total raised to $12 million. Its seed round was announced in 2015, when TechCrunch first profiled the company. The startup claims it has grown eight times over the past 12 months and is profitable.

As it enters new markets, however, Headout will be up against a roster of competitors that also offer experience bookings for tourists. These include Klook, TripAdvisor-owned Viator, Get Your Guide and Airbnb’s Experiences feature.

Khona says Headout’s main edge is tailoring its inventory and technology platform for “spontaneous last-minute mobile use cases.” It’s also a managed marketplace, meaning it standardizes pricing and quality, with the hope of creating a consistent experience across all outings. The startup says this focus on combining quality with unit economics means it’s enabled customers to save an average of 18% on last-minute bookings.