Rail is well overdue for online travel innovation. We are into the third decade of online travel yet it is still almost impossible to book online train tickets through the traditional online travel channels of OTAs and meta-search. [ side not - At least in the west it is. In India online rail is a booming sector]
At the PhoCusWright Innovation Summit Aaron Gowell Founder and CEO of SilverRail used the of billions and billions of dollars in annual rail ticket sales to convince the audience of the potential for online rail.
He claimed that rail was a $300bb a year global market and the fastest growing sector in travel. Maps filled the power point slides showing high speed lines being built across Europe and China. Billions and billions in infrastructure spend. There are clear examples of long distance rail beating the airline business. The channel tunnel has stolen 80% of the market share in the Paris to London route. Hundred's of billions in investment and sales of rail tickets yet still 60% of the tickets are booked at the station.
Gowell told us that the only agency channel making progress in selling rail was corporate agencies. But most of those agencies have to transfer the call to separate call centres. As a result of this and complexity Gowell claims that corporate agencies are only able to do 4 bookings per hour vs 20 per hour for flights.
SilverRail also convinced us that they are well placed as a company to take advantage. They have some big name backers who contributed to a $9.5million series A round including Sutter Hill Ventures, Accel Partners, GrandBanks Capital and Brook Ventures. Gowell told me after the presentation that he has about 8 months of money left but is not worried as the potential is so great that he is confident that a new round of raising was not a problem. On revenue SilverRail are taking a transaction clip from the supplier - much like a GDS or switch.
Within 2 minutes of his presentation I was convinced of the potential for online rail. Unfortunately Gowell used nine of his twelve minutes to convince us of the market potential. This was more time than needed and cut short the time available for him to show us the SilverRail Product. What we saw of the product was impressive but I was left feeling like I needed to see more to be certain they would not end up like Wandrian.
On the critics circle (American Idol style panel at the Summit) Jim Hornthal of Triporati put a number of very important challenges/questions to SilverRail which I then had a chance to ask Gallow during an interview after his presentation.
Jim said: I am not sure what we need rail sold through OTA people are comfortable booking through the supplier direct (like the Low Cost Carrier model).
Aaron responded: model has changed dramatically in the last two years. Suppliers now need and are asking for distribution. For example you can now get a train from Germany to the UK. This is not a product that can only be sold on the Deutchebahn website. 2 years ago it was a hard sell to suppliers but now they are looking for us.
Jim said: There is not commission in rail so not attractive to OTAs
Aaron responded: packaging. With so much of the air spend shifting to rail (ie London to Paris route) the OTAs need to add more transport options to facilitate their packaging sales. Make their money out of the hotel.
I am a believer on the timing and potential for online rail. SilverRail put on a great show and have a very impressive list of staff and backers but (as like many at the Summit) I was left wanting to see more of the product and less of the power point.
update - here is what Bootsnall had to say about SilverRail