Category Archives: Travel

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.

Marriott’s Starwood breach: What should you do? That depends on who, and why

Current Starwood Preferred Guest home page on Marriott’s website. (Marriott International Image)

It’s easy to focus on the big number associated with the Starwood breach announced by Marriott International on Friday — 500 million accounts compromised. But I’m focused on a much smaller number: four. As in, hackers had access to Starwood networks for four years. In the world of “advanced persistent threats,” this sounds like some kind of record to me.

Four years is a long time for criminals to take up residence on a network. It’s a very long time to hide their tracks. Their method for doing so seems ingenious. The criminals encrypted data they wanted to steal before exfiltrating it from the network. Why? It might have been done to evade security software that rings alarm bells when it spots data being moved suspiciously around a network.

I’m also focused on the type of data stolen. Once upon a time, “compromised credit card accounts” got all the headlines. But as Uber’s Melanie Ensign said recently on a panel I moderated, when a new hack is announced, “I hope it’s credit cards.” That’s easy to deal with. The Starwood incident involves, in some cases, passport numbers. That kind of information would be awfully interesting to someone who wanted to keep track of important peoples’ movements around the globe.

Who did it and why? That’s no academic question. Whenever an incident like this occurs, the obvious question is: What should I do about this? How can I protect myself? Until we know who did this and why, it’s hard to give advice on how to protect yourself. Marriott hasn’t said anything about “who” and “why,” so we are left to speculate.

This is no ordinary credit card data heist. If the criminals were using card accounts stolen in this incident, banks would have figured out where the stolen cards had come from long ago. I doubt it’s an identity theft ring. There’s no way some kind of casual prankster or amateur would have kept up this effort for four years. Something more serious is going on here. These are professionals. This is pure speculation on my part, but it sounds more like the work of a nation-state or some other large entity with big plans.

I can’t help but be influenced by my reporting on the Yahoo hack of 2014-2016 — which this hack is now being compared to — or the attack on the Office of Personnel Management hack in 2015. In the Yahoo case, we know Russians working for the FSB intelligence agency spent two full years accessing millions of user emails. In the OPM case, Chinese hackers accessed millions of government worker records, including background reports and fingerprints. The goal of those hacks seems to have been massive intelligence gathering, and in some cases, creation of dossiers on targeted individuals.

Imagine if an intelligence-gathering operation could marry data from hacks like Yahoo or OPM with the Starwood data. With passport information, it seems obvious the data could be used to create a travel map of targeted individuals.

I repeat, this is speculation. But if you are a person who wants to know what to do to react to this crime, I think it would be smart to assume the Starwood attack involves a sophisticated agency with such big plans. So start there.

Marriott’s Starwood data breach website that went live on Nov. 30. (Marriott International Image)

What should I do about the possibility that a nation-state has a dossier on me?

In reality, not much. I think that’s life today. I spoke to an analyst on Friday who put it this way: We’ll probably wake up in a few years and realize that the global cyber war began years before we realized; and America was “0wned.”

What’s should I do about stolen passport numbers?

Passport numbers, along with other personal information, could be theoretically used to make fraudulent passports. That’s non-trivial — much harder than making a cloned credit card, and riskier to use — but it does happen. Still, theft of physical passports is a much greater risk. There isn’t much you can do about stolen passport numbers, other than the very extreme step of replacing your passport. Given the risk level, that’s not worth it.

What’s the risk from the credit card numbers that might have been stolen in this incident?

The usual. Check your bills carefully and look for fraud, then report it. Fortunately, that’s easy to recover from. And in general, if your account numbers were stolen back in 2014, I’m sure they would have been used for fraud by now.

I was not a Starwood Preferred Guest member. Should I care?

Probably. If you stayed at a Starwood hotel in the past four years, you’re probably impacted. The list of hotel brands is long: Sheraton, Westin, W Hotels, St. Regis, Four Points, Aloft, Meridien, Tribute, Design Hotels, Elements and the Luxury Collection.

Should I accept Marriott’s offer of dark web monitoring?

Why not? The service will theoretically alert you if your personal information is being sold or shared online. It’s better than nothing, though a year of dark web monitoring is cold comfort after a four-year-long hack. Surely, criminals who have your data will be smart enough to wait until another year has passed before they use it. These criminals are also probably smart enough not to trade your information on the dark web. But still, free is free. U.S. residents, click here to sign up.

What else can I do?

The usual. Change your Starwood password, if it still exists or is in use after the Marriott acquisition of Starwood and the integration of the Starwood Preferred Guest program into Marriott Rewards earlier this year. Recall all the *other* places you used your Starwood password (bad you!) and change those passwords too. Check your credit report periodically. Put a credit freeze on your report (it’s free now!). And be alert for any strange activity in your digital life.

Also, critically, don’t overreact. While this Starwood story is dramatic, it probably doesn’t increase your risk of being an identity theft victim all that much (odds are about 1 in 20 annually, depending on how you count). It’s mainly another reminder of how fragile our digital lives are.

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 hat 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.”

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.

United Airlines set to begin Denver and SF flights from Paine Field near Seattle in March 2019

United’s Embraer E175 aircraft, planned for Paine Field at Everett. (United Airlines Photo)

United Airlines has become the second — and for now, final — airline to start selling tickets for commercial flights next year from Paine Field in Everett, Wash., north of Seattle.

On Monday, United announced its schedule for nonstop service between the new commercial aviation terminal and the airline’s hubs in Denver and San Francisco. Starting March 31, 2019, United will operate six daily flights, two between Denver and Everett, and four between San Francisco and Everett, subject to final government approval.

Earlier this month, Alaska Airlines announced its schedule of 18 daily nonstop flights from Paine Field to eight cities, beginning on Feb. 11, 2019, and fully phasing in over the following weeks. Alaska’s destinations from Paine Field include Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orange County in California, Phoenix, Portland in Oregon, San Diego, and San Jose. Both United and Alaska will serve San Francisco, providing more options for travelers between the two major tech hubs.

Like Alaska Airlines, all United flights serving Paine Field (airport code PAE) are expected to be on Embraer 175 jets.

Paine Field passenger terminal
Artist’s conception of the finished Paine Field passenger terminal. (Propeller Airports Illustration)

Paine Field is perhaps best known for its relationship to Boeing and its adjacent airplane assembly facilities. But the growth of the Seattle area with an increased demand for flights at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to the south of the city, as well as nationally notorious traffic congestion, led to the push to add commercial airline service at Everett inside of Snohomish County north of Seattle.

Originally, Southwest Airlines had also planned to fly from Paine Field. But concurrent with Alaska Airlines’ flight schedule announcement, Southwest said it had given up its plans due to “business considerations” and instead transferred those Paine Field gate times to Alaska.

“We are excited to offer our Seattle and Northwest Washington area travelers new opportunities to easily access our hubs in Denver and San Francisco,” said Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of domestic network planning, in Monday’s statement. “With United’s six daily flights from Paine Field beginning this spring, our new service will conveniently connect customers from the Northern Seattle, Snohomish and Northern King County areas to the world’s largest business and leisure destinations with just one stop.”

In its announcement, United also pointed out this, too, is a return for it to Paine Field, where it says it operated the first commercial flight — in 1939.

My parents are wowed by Amazon, LimeBikes and more as longtime visitors return to big, new Seattle

Dick and Kathy Schlosser take in the Amazon Spheres — a new addition to Seattle since their last visit to the city. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Getting together with family during the holidays — especially with members who visit from across the country — is a great time to assess all that has changed. Grandkids get taller, adult kids get grayer, and parents get a little slower. And cities like Seattle get more unrecognizable.

My folks traveled to Seattle for Thanksgiving this year after having not visited the city for about four years. They love Seattle and have been big fans since my brother and I moved west more than 20 years ago. Back then I tried hard to get Dick and Kathy to relocate, and I tried even harder when we had their first and only grandchildren. But Seattle was unaffordable then, and now moving from Western New York is not even a conversation worth having.

What we did talk about was the explosive change in Seattle, even in the few years since my parents last visited. And, as usual, we talked about technology and how it impacts my city and my family. It was fun to notice how they reacted to some of the newer things around town, even if those things feel like they’ve been here for some time now. I’ve collected a few post-holiday highlights below:

Seattle growth

The Space Needle stands out amid cranes and construction materials in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo /
Kurt Schlosser)

Even 20 years ago, Seattle felt a little big for my folks. They’re not fans of traffic, or sitting in it to get anywhere, even though one of their favorite things to do, at 82 and 78 years old, is get in the car and go for a drive.

Driving through Ballard and Fremont, they noticed the proliferation of new apartment buildings. “Wow,” they would say, staring up at five-story building being constructed on what they remember as a sleepier corner.

During a favorite walk of theirs, from my house to the neighborhood bakery, plenty of older houses have been replaced by modern boxes. “People are stacked on top of people now,” my mom said.

Amazon

Dick Schlosser watches an information video at Understory, a visitor center located beneath Amazon’s Spheres. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

I felt like the best way to show off the change in Seattle was to take my parents to the epicenter of it all. The day after Thanksgiving we headed down to Amazon’s headquarters for a look at the Spheres, mostly from the outside and from the Understory information area that is open to the public.

Walking around in the cold drizzle and staring up at Amazon’s Day 1 and Doppler towers, and the Block 21 project that is rapidly taking shape across the street, I could sense my parents running numbers in their heads. So I told them, 45,000 people now work for the tech giant in Seattle.

The city where they live is home to Kodak, and that film giant, which once employed 60,000 people, is a shell of what it once was. My parents have a hard time, in 2018, imagining the same thing could ever happen to Amazon.

We walked past the first Amazon Go store and they just kind of chuckled when I told them there are no cashiers, you just grab items and walk out. My parents live in a city that is home to Wegman’s, one of the most revered grocery chains in the U.S. It’s a joy for them to shop there, and talking to the people who work there is a big part of that joy.

Inside the Spheres’ visitor center, they watched a video about some of the plants that live in the structures above, and they learned a little about Jeff Bezos’ philanthropic pursuits from informational kiosks. I reiterated that the Amazon CEO is the richest man on the planet. “What about Gates?” my dad asked. “Yeah, twice as rich as Bill Gates,” I said.

We drove through South Lake Union and I explained that most of what they were looking at was also Amazon, with some Google and Facebook and Paul Allen ventures sprinkled in. “There sure are a lot of cranes,” my mom said. “Yup. More than any other city,” I told her.

Amazon’s Day 1 tower, with an Amazon Go store and the Spheres. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Bike sharing

We talked a lot about transportation during this visit. My dad drove a truck for UPS as a career, and I always catch him checking out the delivery drivers at the crowded Pike Place Market, as if he’s watching them navigate the throng of tourists and saying to himself, “No thanks.”

My wife now works for an e-bike company in Seattle and as a family we have about eight bikes in the garage. I raced BMX with my dad a long time ago, so bikes are always a hot topic. Around Seattle these days, Dick was flabbergasted by all of the LimeBikes.

“What’s with all the green bikes? How do they work? Why are they left on the sidewalk?” he asked. “There’s another one. Oh, there’s a Lime. Someone left that one on the grass!”

His reaction was typical of anyone dropped into the city in the last couple years, since bike sharing became a thing. I’m glad he wasn’t here when the colorful addition to our commuting lifestyle also included yellow Ofo and orange Spin bikes. But, he did get to ask what was up with the new red Jump bikes from Uber.

Meeting Alexa

We have an Echo Dot in the kitchen at home, and it was the first time my parents interacted with Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa.

Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, my mom was prepping her apple pie. “Want some music?” I asked her. “I can play whatever you like. What’s your favorite?”

I asked Alexa to play the Bee Gees. “She’ll play anything?” my mom asked, as her eyes widened by the small black disc sitting on a shelf.

Throughout the week, Alexa was employed by my kids to answer a variety of questions — or make a cat noise. Each time my parents were kind of surprised by the artificial intelligence living among us.

My mom, who loves her iPad, thought she was already ahead of the game.

“When I have a question I always have to go to the Google,” she said.

Screen time

Dick Schlosser plays a YouTube video for Kathy Schlosser on an iPad. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

I thought I’d have to defend my kids’ screen time during my parents’ visit, but a funny thing happened during down time around the holiday. At certain moments, all six people in the house were checking some sort of device. My wife and I were on our phones; I used my laptop for work; my son played games on an iMac in his room; my daughter drew pictures or watched a show on an iPad; my parents played solitaire on their iPads.

At night it was an even funnier sight, as our family headed for bed and left my parents on the couch. Both of them were wearing headphones, watching separate Netflix shows on their iPads.

“Goodnight!” they yelled over what they were listening to.

I have to tell a 5-year-old, regularly, that she’s had enough “My Little Pony.” I didn’t have the heart to unplug “The Great British Baking Show” from her grandmother.

PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES:

Mom and dad unplugged: How 10 days with my parents taught me to love the way they use tech

After 58 years, my parents ditched their daily print newspaper for iPads — here’s the scoop on that

Expedia CEO: ‘We haven’t given up on China’

Expedia CEO Mark Okerstrom. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Expedia wants to be the world’s travel platform. China is standing in its way.

Expedia faces fierce competition in the Chinese market, both from powerful domestic firms like Ctrip and familiar rivals such as Priceline. Its efforts in Asia have stumbled in recent years. The Bellevue, WA-based company sold off its majority stake in Chinese travel site eLong in 2015, and it ended a partnership with Malaysian airline AirAsia in August.

Ignoring China isn’t an option. Chinese travelers account for a fifth of all tourism spending worldwide. That amounts to 130 million international trips taken by Chinese travelers at a cost of $258 billion in 2017.

Speaking at the Phocusright travel conference in Los Angeles last week, Expedia Group CEO Mark Okerstrom acknowledged that, for now, the company doesn’t “have a real chance of winning” in the domestic Chinese market.

Instead, the firm is focused on capturing Chinese travelers bound for international destinations.

“We haven’t given up on China,” he said. “Our big brands — Expedia, Hotels.com — are absolutely serving Chinese travelers.” International customers account for 38 percent of Expedia’s gross bookings, a figure that Okerstrom would like to grow.

Despite challenges in the world’s largest travel market, the company has sought to expand elsewhere internationally, primarily through acquisitions and partnerships. Expedia invested $350 million in Indonesia’s Traveloka in 2017, and it has a long-running partnership with Despegar in Argentina.

But the dream of competing in China lives on. Asked about what types of acquisitions he’d like Expedia to make in the future, Okerstrom cited two areas: the corporate travel market, to bolster the company’s Egencia business travel company; and the growing opportunity in China.

“In a totally different world, where the U.S. and China relations are much better, boy, I would love to have a big player in China to be part of the Expedia family,” Okerstrom said.

Okerstrom, previously the company’s chief financial officer, became Expedia Group CEO last year, succeeding Dara Khosrowshahi when he left to become CEO at Uber. Okerstrom and Khosrowshahi had led the company through a series of acquisitions, including Trivago, Orbitz, and HomeAway.

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: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.
  

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.

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.

End of the road for Wanderlust Society as travel startup created by Amazon vets is shutting down

Wanderlust Society
Members of the Wanderlust Society team, from left, Sean Vegeler, Jeff Topham, Andrej Gregov and Jana Kleitsch pose with the boots of the famous Hat ‘n’ Boots in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. (Wanderlust Society Photo)

It was an interesting trip but a relatively short one for the team of technology veterans who set out to change the way people plan their travels. The Seattle-based startup Wanderlust Society is shutting down at the end of the year.

In an email to members who had signed on with the service, the Wanderlust team wrote Monday that they lacked the growth needed to continue to build out their product and the “runway has come to an end.”

Co-founder and CEO Jana Kleitsch was one of handful of team members with previous experience at Amazon. Kleitsch spent nine years at the tech giant, and she previously founded the successful internet wedding website Bridalnet. Jeff Topham served as CTO and was previously a senior mobile development manager for the Amazon Go retail store concept. Andrej Gregov was head of product and he spent more than eight years at Amazon and another four at IMDb.com where he launched that site’s first mobile apps.

Wanderlust Society sought to help people find inspiration for trips from friends, save ideas from anywhere on the web, view potential destinations on a map and more. Kleitsch thought the company could fill a void in travel planning by offering more reliable recommendations, sourced from friends and fellow community members.

Wanderlust Society had about 200 members in a beta version of the tool when GeekWire profiled the company in July.

We reached out to Kleitsch for comment and will update this post when we hear back. Read the team’s letter to members below:

Dear Society Members,

It is with sadness we report that Wanderlust Society will discontinue service, effective December 31, 2018.

Our mission has been to help our Society Members take great trips. While we believe our initial product was a step in the right direction, we have not seen the growth needed to continue to build out the next stages of our product. Unfortunately our runway has come to an end before we were able to fully realize the dream of making personalized travel recommendations.

We have loved being a part of your travel planning and adventures, and the #wanderllama can’t believe the good fortune of all the adventures our Society Members have taken her on.

If you have any questions, please contact us at hello@wanderlustsociety.co.

Wander on!
The Wanderlust Society Team

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.