Hotels, flights and car hire can all be searched, compared and booked relatively easily via the internet but there’s one last bastion that’s stubbornly refusing to catch up with the times.
The group tour market is worth billions market yet the vast majority of tour operators are yet to fully-embrace technology. They're stuck in the stone age still selling their products through travel agents, brochures and maybe the occasional, but basic, website.
Now, an Austrian startup called TourRadar is on a mission to bring these legacy companies into the 21st century in the same way that Expedia and booking.com have for other parts of the travel industry.
The Viennese firm, founded eight years ago by two Australian brothers, takes some of the world’s biggest tour brands, such as Intrepid and Contiki, as well as some of the smallest, and puts all their trips onto one booking platform, making it easier for people to find the perfect safari, island hopping experience or hike, for example.
“We’re reshaping the industry and pushing our tour partners to become more and more digital so we get more live information from them,” said TourRadar cofounder Travis Pittman, at the company’s head office in Vienna.
"We're not really about day tours of Paris or Vienna or Berlin," continued Pittman. "We do more experiential travel - so you want to do a 12-day tour through Peru or the Inca trail - we work with tour operators around the world, pull that all together and show it to people and make it bookable."
TourRadar works with some of the more tech-savvy tour operators to pull in content and data through APIs and XML feeds.
“The tour operators wanting to join us are becoming more and more sophisticated," said Pittman. "We started off with smaller operators that did beach tours and now we’re getting bigger more sophisticated ones that are into river cruises and the more luxurious travel styles. They’re now approaching us and wanting to come online because they’re seeing huge potential there and they want to jump on the bandwagon.”
But some of the operators don't have the know-how to do this, forcing a TourRadar team in Ukraine to manually enter each tour.
Australian brothers Travis (left) and Shawn (right) Pittman founded TourRadar eight years ago ©TourRadar
When people book onto a tour through TourRadar, they can also download an app that allows them to instant message other people that will be on their tour. TourRadar claims this is useful because travellers can ask others in the group about things like visas and backpacks, thereby taking the strain off its own customer services team.
TourRadar said it wants to be seen as the “trustworthy” middleman between the customer and the tour operator as today’s booking methods aren’t very safe.
“If you go and book a tour now, you put your credit card in but it’s not confirmed like a hotel,” said Pittman, adding that people spend over £3,000 on Tanzanian safari tours even though there’s often no guaranty the tour will actually go ahead. TourRadar said it has so many tours on its platform now (30,000 in total) that it can simply put people onto a different but similar tour should this happen when they book through its platform.
The startup claims the tour market it's trying to tap into is worth $50 billion, with 45 million people booking a tour like the ones on its website every year.
Last year the company processed over 1,500 bookings, each one costing €1,500 on average. This year it hopes to do five times that by upping its efforts in its three main markets: Australia, North America and the UK.
For every booking made on TourRadar, the company takes a 15-20 percent commission. Because of the scale it’s going for, it also charges the tour operators less than travel agents would, according to Pittman.
TourRadar has already been backed with over €1.5 million from investors in Austria that believe in its platform. However, it plans to raise more this year so it can hire people across the four offices it has in its key markets.
“It’s a consumer site so to grow and get market share you need money,” said Pittman. “We’re hiring a North American managing director at the moment to build business there. Australia we’ll be building out as well because they’re the two key markets."
Chief marketing officer, Michael Potscher, added: “There’s dinosaurs in the tour industry that have been around for 40 or 50 years and still work with traditional travel agents. That’s how they’ve always worked. But now we’ve proven to them that you can take bookings online. This is one of the last travel sectors to move to the online world. Hotels and flights and car hire is already there.”