Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Wanderfly Sessions: Talking travel inspiration and discovery with Wanderfly co-founder Christy Liu

Two years ago I started writing about travel discovery and inspiration sites. Interviewing start up CEOs and Chairmen about the future of travel discovery and how to build a start up business under the shadows of Google, social media and the big four OTAs. Start up Wanderfly has joined the race for inspiration in this new wave of online travel search and discovery. I recently spoke with Wanderfly co-founder and Director of Marketing Christy Liu (pictured) about inspirations, advice for start-ups and building traffic.

We have seen a variety of different approaches to the user interface for travel discover and inspiration engines. Joobili asks you start with a date, Triporati start with 64 interest areas and ask you to rank them and Tripbase have five criteria with "sliders" to select a balance. Wanderfly's angle is for a combination of sliders on dates and price and tabs/buttons for twelve interests or activities.

Review of the site

Wanderfly have tried to differentiate themselves with a very slick landing page layout. They have integrated baseline content and descriptions with booking engine feeds and content imported from lonely planet and foursquare. There is also a Facebook connect login reminiscent of the TripAdvisor Tripfriends integrate. To date the Wanderfly destination landing page is the cleanest looking integration I have seen of social media, editorial and pricing/trip cost functionality. Result is a very usable and attractive destination page. I commend them on the UI and layout.

While the page looks good, there is still a lot of work to do around the depth of content. I did a search on Culture, Outdoors, Beach and Eco. Parameters of $5,000 per person and destination Africa. The recommendation was Masindi in Uganda (shot below).

This is an intriguing answer. It is a place I have never heard of in a country with a name that invokes many positive and negative images. It is not on my list of places to go in Africa (top 2 currently are Tanzania and the Okovanko Delta). Unfortunately the Wanderfly destination page for Masindi is light on content and does not indicate why it is that this is the best destination based on my criteria. The layout is clean and clear allowing for ease of use and encouraging reuse but consumers will need more both in terms of absolute levels of content and in terms of explanatory text on why a destination is proposed. For example there is still a bit of work to do around incorporation of and depth of news feeds and improved photo tagging to help indicate what it is that has been photographed (or how to find it).

First thing to fix is the “Change Trip” option top right. This is the button that allows users to find the rest of the recommendations made. Chances are customers wont see it or understand it and assume that there is only one recommendation. Liu told me this was a deliberate tactic. They are modeling Wanderfly after real human conversations. The theory being that a human response would be one suggestion at a time rather than a list. Click tracking should point out soon enough that consumers are not clicking on options past the first one.

Collecting Data

This time last year I published my three rules for what is needed to start a consumer information or UGC based online travel start up.

In it I discussed how important it is for a content company to collect data from outside sources. I talk to Liu about where she was getting her data to build the pages and how hard it was to collect. Liu said that the team has spent part of the last 18 months integrating into more than 20 partners for data including Expedia, Kayak, Yelp, Foursquare and Lonely Planet. Many of these are open APIs but some required customer deals. She indicated that it was also important to add an editorial level. To include a manual review, writing and matching process. Much like my 2007 post on the balance between UGC and editorial content Liu said they were aware of the need for an editorial level – especially when it comes to matching a destination to the twelve designated trip themes

Themes and trip tags

I asked Liu – why twelve themes and would more be chosen. She told me that Google traffic levels were the main criteria for selecting a theme. But she acknowledged that twelve themes were not enough. Wanderfly are planning to launch a ten to fifteen more. We also discussed the challenge in attaching a theme to an individual’s needs when each individual may have a different definition of what that theme. Luxury is a classic example. One person’s definition of luxury is very different to another. Liu is aware of this and is betting that their research and search depth can help solve this.

Company background and advice for other entrepreneurs

Liu shared that the company is 1.5 years old and is working off dollars from a round of angle funding. Liu said they are actively looking for and negotiating for a new round. An announcement was expected before the end of the year - I have not see the release yet. Via email Liu tells me that there should be an announcement coming early in the new year [UPDATE - 1 Feb announced $1mm raised from a series of angles]. Once raised money will be used on product and content – I think that is the right call.

I also asked Liu for any advice she might have for other entrepreneurs trying to launch a product or business. She replied

“the big one is to trust your gut and trust your instinct. Many people offered us advice and guidance. A few times we went through with advice that we did not feel comfortable with and did not end up where we expected.”

My take

The look and feel is great and my support of the inspiration space is well known. To success Wanderfly have three challenges to face

  1. Depth of Content – as per above (and my comments in a recent Tnooz search post) the future of search will need lots of content and information but will also need the reasons for the results. Consumers will want to know why a result was chosen. Specifically what elements of the search drove that result and what influencers pushed it. Wanderfly have started the collection part through their 20 plus connections. But more is needed in areas of news, photos and activities. More importantly they need to work on a reasoning index. A method for describing the reasons behind the recommendation
  2. Distribution - with the revenue model for inspiration and discovery sites still under development and lagging the travel retail sector, finding a voice in the marketing noise of online travel is very hard for value of travel discovery and inspiration sites. This is no greater challenge for Wanderfly than any other site. Liu is aware of this - especially the challenges of search. To succeed in search Wanderfly will need to ensure that their aggregated landing pages are sufficient to meet the unique requirements of Google and can adjust to meet all the changes occurring the page rank algorithms. Liu told me in a follow up email that the longer term marketing plans are to focus on affiliate distribution through major deals and widget/link affiliate programs.
  3. Reasons for launch “notice a problem while we were trying to book a trip” - Kevin May of Tnooz and Rod Cuthbert of Viator have a theory (that I agree with) that any business founded in online travel because some people were trying to plan a trip and noticed that it was really hard and thought they should build something to make it easier….is doomed for failure because it is being built for a very small audience in mind (ie the founders). Wanderfly will be confronted with this challenge. To ensure that the product is designed with a large enough audience in mind.

Check out Wanderfly and let me know what you think.

1 comment:

Grayum_ian said...

Love the site, but two things-

Why flash? Every person I have spoken to that looked at the site asked the same thing.


Where is the .ca? My dad was looking to make a booking to Cuba but didn't know exactly when he wanted to go. I suggested trying Wanderfly but of course, being American, it was not included on the site. Small thing, but it's becoming a popular destination for Canadians.

oh yeah, and needs more inventory providers, that'd be awesome.