Despite Terry Jones entering the travel inspiration space with lots of smart-computing power, plenty of dollars and few illusions, success could be daunting. Is the technology remarkably better than those of competitors, and will the solutions be a priority for often-overwhelmed tourism boards and hotels?
Terry Jones, the founder and first CEO of Travelocity and the former chairman of Kayak, is wading into an arena, the travel inspiration sector, littered with carcasses.
PhoCusWright found that from 2005 to 2013 the travel inspiration startup sector, including social travel, trip-planning, discovery and guidebooks, was the second-largest category of travel startups created at nearly 200 entrants, but these inspiration-oriented startups were near the bottom of the heap — just slightly above the events and tours and activities category — in terms of average funding per company and funding for the sector as a whole.
Many travel inspiration startups have flamed out or failed because they were too far-removed from transactions or were doing things that dozens of other startups had already tried.
With all of his experience, Jones isn’t naive about the travel inspiration landscape and his startup, WayBlazer, co-founded with acting CEO Manoj Saxena, former general manager of IBM Watson and managing director of Entrepreneurs’ Fund IV, has several advantages over challenged predecessors.
WayBlazer will license and leverage the natural language and cognitive search capabilities of IBM Watson, an artificial intelligence supercomputer system, which took home $1 million in 2011 for beating Jeopardy champions at their own game, and right from the outset WayBlazer will focus on the business-to-business market instead of going direct to consumers.
Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau
The launch customer will be the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, although the technology isn’t yet live.
WayBlazer enables consumers to use natural language to search for things to do or flights, and then IBM Watson interprets the query, runs it through its database of computer-culled structured data, and WayBlazer provides a summary and several recommendations.
The more a consumer uses WayBlazer, the more the system understands the customer and can hone the recommendations, says Jones, who is the executive chairman of the company.
WayBlazer in its broad outlines has parallels to other semantic search startups, including Hopper, which still breathes but has been a boondoggle, and Desti, an SRI International spinoff that executed a soft landing into the hands of Nokia. Both Hopper and Desti initially focused on being consumer businesses, although both had potential on the B2B side, as well.
Jones says he has studied many of the travel inspiration startups, noting that “more than 100 guys in this space haven’t made it work.”
Different Than Predecessors?
He believes that WayBlazer’s IBM-licensed Watson computers are a “very unique technology” and, along with the B2B focus, this will contribute to giving WayBlazer “the potential to succeed.”
Jones plans an initial client focus on destination marketing organizations, and with the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, “our data plus their data,” along with providing improved search technology and “advice instead of (mere) links” will lead to a better user experience.
WayBlazer will also provide links to “commerce in a better way,” Jones argues.
Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt sees a lot of potential in WayBlazer.
“The prime benefit that I see in WayBlazer is about its potential to help travelers get closer to finding what’s right, rather than just what’s neat/interesting,” Harteveldt says.
“Its use of the IBM Watson cognitive intelligence computing will give it a massive, and perhaps unique, advantage in the marketplace,” Harteveldt says. “The ability to speedily ingest vast, disparate inputs and then recommend options based on what is best for the traveler is what will set WayBlazer apart.”
It won’t have utility just for tourism boards, Harteveldt argues.
“So sure, Austin will be able to help inspire me about what to do. But the way I see it, regardless of who uses it — a DMO, an airline, a hotel, a travel agency, etc. — a travel organization can take its extensive assortment of information (some of which may be proprietary, some of which may be third party) and help the traveler find what’s right for them,” he says.
“Add to this the level of confidence WayBlazer may be able to offer, and the traveler will feel less like they’re navigating a travel planning minefield and more like they’re following a clean path to a plan.”
The tourism board business model has traditionally been “write us and we will send you a book, and they were puzzled that no one is writing them for books,” Jones says.
These destination marketing organizations now want to provide recommendations and commerce for a wider range of stakeholders, including hotels, restaurants and attractions, he adds.
Jones says WayBlazer is also talking to airlines, hotels, car rental companies and travel magazine publishers about working with the travel startup.
WayBlazer’s business model may include Software as a Service, advertising, ecommerce and data syndication, Jones says.
The startup won’t have any trouble raising money despite the fact that it is entering a space that hasn’t attracted a lot of venture capital interest. WayBlazer has close ties with IBM, Jones is a special venture partner at General Catalyst Partners, and acting CEO Saxena’s Entrepreneurs’ Fund IV has been investing in cognitive computing.
Jones, 66, has no misgivings about getting involved in a startup at this stage in his life despite the fact that many entrepreneurs are a few decades younger.
The idea for WayBlazer was stirred when a senior IBM executive contacted Jones about IBM Watson and its cognitive computing, and they discussed possibilities in the travel vertical, Jones says.
“This idea intrigued me enough to say, ‘ya, I really want to be in it and start a company around it,'” Jones says.
Saxena left IBM last year and helped start three companies, including WayBlazer, based on IBM Watson computing.
In addition to the search technology, WayBlazer is also speaking with hotels about a second product, a mobile concierge, Jones says.
“We will discover more interesting things to do with this technology the more we do with it,” Jones says.
While WayBlazer is in discovery mode, a CEO search is under way. Acting CEO Saxena would step aside, Jones says.
Photo credit: Mike Rhodin (left), senior vice president, IBM Watson Group, and Terry Jones, founder of Travelocity and founding chairman of Kayak, get set to announce the launch of WayBlazer on October 7, 2014. Jon Simon / IBM