Travel innovation on the stage

21 May 2017 by Tom Otley
Attendees at the Phocuswright Battleground

It’s a familiar complaint that travel companies and suppliers seem to be behind the curve when it comes to serving customers. Whether it is airline reservation systems, the long lines as you wait to check in at a hotel or the reservations systems underpinning many of the bookings travellers make, travel suppliers seem ripe for disruption, but difficult to disrupt.

It’s not impossible – as companies such as Uber and Airbnb have proved, and before them, low cost carriers such as Ryanair and Easyjet, but it often takes more than just technology. Regulation, or de-regulation plays a big part, as perhaps does luck and timing. So what’s coming next for travellers? The Phocuswright Europe event in Amsterdam suggested some possible answers.

The two-day technology event kicked off with a version of a Dragon’s Den – called here the Battleground, where 12 start-ups looked to win awards – and possibly funding from any venture capital companies in the room. The judges were:

  • Sara Pavan: Investment Manager, Amadeus Ventures, Amadeus IT Group SA
  • Mat Orrego: CEO, Cornerstone Information Systems
  • Johannes Reck: CEO, GetYourGuide Inc
  • Christian Saller: Partner, Holtzbrinck Ventures
  • Jochen Mundinger: Founder and Chairman, routeRANK Ltd
  • Chris Hemmeter: Managing Director, Thayer Ventures
  • Kevin May: Senior Editor, Tnooz
  • Jo Hickson: Head of Innovation, TUI UK and Ireland

As you’d expect, all of the ideas claimed to have found a solution to a problem. Whether it was car rental or rail pricing, finding (and making money from) trustworthy user-generated content to avoiding queues at the hotel reception and checking in with your mobile phone, these entrepreneurs had the answer.

What made the ideas interesting was not only the focus on providing answers to consumers’ problems, but the different ways these start-ups promised a return on any investment made by those with capital to gamble (sorry, venture). Whether selling on consumers’ data (with permission, of course), to encouraging consumers to buy higher-priced tickets (where appropriate, of course), none of these ideas were wholly altruistic, though Sharewood, an online sharing marketplace for outdoor gear came closest.

Here are the highlights, and make sure to have a look at the links to their websites – whatever funding these start-ups have so far attracted, most of them must have spent quite a bit of it on what they would doubtless describe as their digital presence.

Car Rental Gateway

According to Martin Kallasmaa of Car Rental Gateway,  the majority of car rental is done through third parties rather than direct to the car rental companies, and the system is inefficient and expensive.

Car Rental Gateway promises a “versatile vehicle rental distribution ecosystem providing top technology for all travel distributors” or in English, a white label system allowing everyone from airlines to tour operators to offer car hire at low cost and also personalise the user experience – the technology recognises you from previous searches and suggests locations and pick up points as well as displaying results in one of 30 languages,  the relevant currency and even formats phone numbers so they are recognisable. This increases the likelihood we will book (15 per cent instead of four per cent conversion).



We’ve all heard of the hotel apps that allow you to check-in and perhaps even use your mobile as the room key. Conichi does all of this and more, offering those signed up to it a personalised experience, and one which works with your company travel manager (assuming you have one) to make sure you are recognised as a VIP and can avoid check-out with bills sent direct to your company – you can add a personal card to the booking for spending outside your travel programme or allowable expenses.

Conichi won the judges’ award.


Whalar pitching at the Phocuswright Battleground


Ever understood why people bother with Instagram? No, me neither. But when brands want to get in on the act and partner with those Instagrammers with large social media followings, how do they go about it?

Whalar is one way – a technology platform that allows brands to find the right Instagram “influencer” and invite them to participate in brand campaigns. Brands can search for the right individual, target their message, track engagement and specify the amount they spend. In return they are promoted by these influencers across multiple platforms, with Whalar acting as a technology agent for the whole process. Very clever stuff for advertising and marketing types – although it may make you doubt anything you see on the web that has a picture or moving image.


Axon Vibe

From the guys who started the company (Endoxon) that eventually because Google Maps, Axon Vibe is a hugely ambitious attempt to convince travellers that by keeping their location tracking activated on their phone, they are doing more than asking for trouble from a loved one.

Instead, with this information, the company will feed through real time travel updates for everything from a regular commute and the disruptions we encounter through to trip information for less familiar journeys. Ultimately, they will sell us virtual tickets (although this will need updated ticket gates so we can scan the bar code like we do in airports) and make money from ancillary revenues (allowing us to buy that sandwich in advance). They will also have amazingly rich data on all of us through their AI-powered location analytics, allowing them to help train operators “orchestrate door-to-door mobility”.


Caravelo pitching at the Phocuswright Battleground


This company offers white label chat bots to airlines, as well as opportunities around ancillary revenue (again). It’s a turnkey service for airlines who know they should be innovative, but haven’t got the internal resources or time to develop their own products.

Built around the Nina travel assistant (like Siri for Apple or Alexa in Amazon’s Echo), if you take a look at the webpage you’ll see opportunities for airlines around seat reselling (“Sell seats twice by automatically encouraging passengers to swap from full to low-demand flights”) and empty seats (“Sell empty adjacent seats on a standby basis and generate revenue from distressed inventory”), not to mention selling upgrades. All under the umbrella of customer choice.


Save A Train

Rail is notoriously bad at innovation, although someone at the conference described a train as an autonomously self-driving vehicle, which of course it is for the passengers. Save a Train offers the chance (from a consumer point of view) to track your proposed journeys and buy tickets at the lowest price. Simply add in your journey details and the website will tell you when the price drops and what it thinks the lowest price is.

The technology takes into account the fiendishly complex and sometimes nonsensical rail pricing (or so the founders say) and will enable consumers to save money by refunding the price of their original ticket (if it can be exchanged). Currently available only in France, the plan is to roll out across Europe. Again, for the train companies the promise of increasing occupancy on trains (currently running at 60 percent rather than the 100 plus percent we all seem to have in the morning) as well as increasing revenue in the form of extras sold (yes, ancillaries).



The ‘Airbnb’ for sharing outdoor gear all over Europe. You pick the category of gear you want to borrow (bikes, skiing equipment, camping) and a location where you want to go, and with luck there’s someone at the location who has the gear and isn’t using it so is willing to make some extra cash from it. It’s an Italian start-up, so that’s where the majority of the sharing is taking place at present.


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