Monday, September 29, 2008

Our Explorer - pitching to be "the eBay" of tour guides

Recently a contact introduced me to Dave Cunningham the "Chief Exploring Officer" of Our Explorer. Our Explorer is an online market place for tour guides - not books, but physical people. Local accredited tour guides register for the service and build a profile page setting out their expertise and prices. Consumers come on the site, select a destination and then are provided with lists of guides that are experts in that location. Tours can be booked directly on the site. Guides have the capacity to lodge their professional qualifications. Fellow consumers can also leave testimonials in a classic eBay trust building activity. Our Explorer takes a 10% cut from the guides - no transaction fees for the consumer.

This is a great idea. I get the value proposition to consumers here. Giving consumers access to truly local guides - an alternative to just riding the generic tourist bus.

The biggest challenge that Dave and the others at Our Explorer have is that they are in the classic "Fax Machine" business paradox. The great fax machine problem was that everyone could see the benefit of a fax machine but is was useless unless their were lots of them. You would only buy a fax machine if the person you wanted to sent a fax to also bought one. In other words, in the early days of the fax machine you need to take a leap of faith that other people would buy one too. In the case of Our Explorer, the guides have to join first, taking a leap of faith that the customers will come. Our Explorer need a critical mass of guides to generate the customer interest. They need to generate that critical mass before the consumers were ready to book. It is not a chicken and egg story where you debate which came first - in this case lots of patient guides had to come first.

Cunningham thinks he is there. He claims to have cracked the 595 guide mark and adding 89 a month. I don't know if that is magic number to hit critical mass - but it sure is fantastic start. Lots of great potential here in affiliate marketing, especially if they can develop an API to feed this into the booking path of travel transaction sites.

If you are interested in a little more colour, below is an email interview exchange with Cunningham. What do you think about this business?

BOOT - Where did the idea for Our Explorer come from?

Cunningham -
it came from a trip in South America I did with another of the founders Anne McDonnell. We had the services of private tour guides in Peru, Bolivia and Mexico. The first thing we noticed was that the type of tour guide you got on the day was out of our control as the hotel or local travel agent just provided them. Perhaps there would be a personality clash, you may share nothing in common or the guide may be of poor quality. So we wished we could book private guides in advance. Second thing we researched while talking to the guides is they all just got business from travel agents, at 30% commission - I knew we could get them worldwide access to travellers on the web for lower cost. We agreed it was an opportunity to take commercial.

BOOT - Tell me more about the background of the founders

Cunningham -
Me [JPMorgan investment banking for 3 years, Founded a Chinese Real Estate company for 5 years. Overall Chief Exploring Officer] , Jean Liu [Expertise in Web Marketing for Chinese companies and now heads up the marketing efforts in China for OurExplorer - based in Shanghai. Ray Walsh [is a computer science graduate and leds the technical direction and strategy for the site development and growth] Anne McDonnell [Project manager in Investment Banking - Heads up the relationships with our suppliers - tour guide acquisition strategies]

BOOT - how hard is it to launch a destination, sign up guides?

Cunningham -
Getting the critical mass of 500 tour guides initially was very tough as when you ask the tour guide to register we have zero traffic to the site. But partnerships with several tourist guide organisations around the world really helped us to the 500 tour guide point. Now we get over 80 organically registering per month as the value OurExplorer give them is now clear.

BOOT - How much money have you raised and who from?

Cunningham -
the project has been financed internally by all the co-founders thus far. No external fund raising required as we believe in this project and the upside some much.

BOOT - What do you need to do to the product to take out of beta?

Cunningham -
OurExplorer needs to implement 5 more enhancement features e.g. improved messaging system and restructuring to increase conversion rates etc

BOOT - What's next?

Cunningham - OurExplorer goes live in Chinese to the high growth Chinese travel market at the end of October.

UPDATE - Joris of AKOPSO posted a comment below wondering about how Our Explorer goes about selecting guides and the need for official licences. The comment is below and here is Cunningham's (of Our Explorer) response sent to me by email.
As OurExplorer displays tour guides from all over the world it is sensitive that the specific licences and requirements for licences varies from country to country. Therefore when a tour guide registers their services on OurExplorer they upload their licence only when they feel it is appropriate and required for the specific tour they offer. Of course, a visiting client can request to see a licence copy from an OurExplorer tour guide at any time.


Anonymous said...

what is a FAX machine ?

Tim Hughes said...

nice one. As my six year old said to me a few months ago as I was taking him to see a movie. "Did you have movies back in the old days"

Anonymous said...

if the tour guides keep their availability calendars up to date and travellers can therefore rely on the availability - it should do really well.

Similar to requiring holiday houses to keep calendars updated.

also some mechanism for when guides have to cancel, where backup guides get the green light from the traveller.

I met Dave at a recent Traveltech conference. I think he’ll do well and as an Irishman he is blessed with the gift of the gab.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comparison with FAX machine. Quite true. People tend to use what's already in use by others. But there will always be the first ones. Only those good and useful would stay ang get popular.

Joris said...

Very interesting indeed, but this web site does not select guides with the official licence delivered by local organisation, so it is impossible to get into museums, castles and private sites. In the contrary our company "AKOPSO" offer dozens of guides all official and capable of taking you inside museums, castles and private sites throughout FRANCE.
Still mainly for professionnals we will shortly give access to individuals in 2009!
Hope lots of success to "OUREXPLORER" and to our own business "AKOPSO"!
A bientôt!

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