The travel industry has at least 10 young private companies that have each raised more than $500 million so far while continuing to seek an exit for their investors. That's a remarkable boom in travel startups compared with a decade ago.
In 2019, 10 travel startups — named below — brought their total funding to $500 million or more. Compare that with a decade ago: No travel startup seeking funds in 2009 had raised that much money.
Most of today’s best-funded startups aren’t profitable. So it’s likely that more travel industry people now work for money-losing companies than have at any point since the dot-com bubble burst around 2001.
What changed in fundraising over the decade? Record low inflation made it cheaper for investors to borrow funds, while bull markets drove up the prices of traditional assets and made alternative opportunities more appealing.
Another factor was that many investors came to believe that the best-funded startups will win by simply outspending their rivals and achieving a dominant market position.
Yet betting on any of these so-called unicorns — or companies with a value of at least $1 billion — isn’t for the faint of heart.
Exhibit A: Deem, a corporate travel startup, had raised as much as $536 million over a couple of decades. In 2019, car rental company Enterprise bought Deem. The private companies didn’t disclose the purchase price. Yet we feel sure the price didn’t fetch a spectacular return for investors. A hint came in a comparison of press statements before and after that suggested that privately held Enterprise paid only about $600 million.
Deem is just one example of a couple of broader truths. Fundraising is a separate skill from creating an enduringly profitable business. In other words, past fundraising performance is no guarantee of future results.
Here’s a look, below, at the 10 travel startups that have raised the most money over their lifetimes as of December 31, 2019, based on publicly available information.
San Francisco, California
Headline Investors: Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, Greylock Partners, General Atlantic, General Catalyst, and Y Combinator
The Pitch: Airbnb began by helping people list their places for rent online. The company has more recently been adding hotels, tours, and attractions to its list of bookable items. Expect a bigger push on hotels in 2020.
The Outlook: Airbnb said it plans to go public in 2020. After that happens, employees will be allowed to cash in their stock options. Some of them may use their windfalls to invest in new startups.
Headline Investors: SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund
The Pitch: Oyo started out as a budget hotel company. It now offers a variety of hospitality business models, such as premium vacation rentals.
The Outlook: In July 2019, the 25-year-old founder of Oyo, CEO Ritesh Agarwal, led a $2 billion share buyback in the company. Expect the startup to blow past its current count of about 1 million rooms under management. It will expand its deals with Ctrip and other agencies while laying off some workers to tame its widening losses. In mid-2019, Oyo dramatically changed its China business model, and the changes will continue in 2020.
Headline Investors: Trip.com Group, G Street Capital, GGV Capital, and All-Stars Investment
The Pitch: Tujia, founded in late 2011, helps Chinese travelers find short-term rental accommodation in China, not unlike Airbnb.
The Outlook: In 2017, Tujia raised a $300 million Series E investment round. In 2019, its major investor Ctrip replaced the company’s CEO and fine-tuned its strategy. In 2020, Tujia may opt for an initial public offering as a way to raise cash to compete with Airbnb (locally marketed as Aibiying).
Headline Investors: SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund
The Pitch: This online travel agency for sightseeing tours and experiences began by offering tours from operators. It has since been testing the marketing and design of tours under its brand name.
The Outlook: In April 2019, GetYourGuide raised a $484 million round. Its new branded tour business could shake up the sector, if it succeeds.
Headline Investors: TCV, Permira, Holtzbrinck Ventures, General Atlantic, Silver Lake, Ocean Link, and Daimler
The Pitch: FlixMobility, the parent company founded in 2011, said its FlixBus service is now the dominant long-distance bus carrier in Europe. It recently arrived in the U.S., providing marketing and ticketing services and partnering with regional franchise operators.
The Outlook: FlixMobility said it takes market share from millennial consumers who would otherwise use trains or private cars to travel. It won’t buy the U.S. carrier Greyhound. This year, it may expand its train service, FlixTrain, and dabble in car-pooling services too.
Headline Investors: Yunfeng Capital, Morningside Venture Capital, and Capital Today
The Pitch: Xiaozhu, launched in 2012, helps Chinese travelers find short-term rental accommodation in China and other countries. Unlike Airbnb, it often provides property owners with services, such as housekeeping and door locks powered by facial recognition.
The Outlook: In October 2018, Xiaozhu raised a $300 million round. In 2019, it added services like airport transfer and luggage delivery for guests. In 2020, it will likely need another round to sustain its growth.
Headline Investors: Silver Lake, Riverwood Capital, Level Equity, and NewSpring
The Pitch: Vacasa, founded in 2009, offers a full suite of management and marketing services for owners of vacation homes primarily in resort destinations.
The Outlook: In October 2019, Vacasa raised a $319 Series C round. Its purchase of Wyndham Vacation Rentals made it the largest U.S. player in its segment. Expect 2020 to be a year for digesting that acquisition.
Hong Kong, China
Headline Investors: SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital, Matrix, and TCV
The Pitch: Klook, founded in 2014, is an online travel agency mainly for sightseeing tours and experiences.
The Outlook: In April 2019, SoftBank invested in Klook at approximately the same time as it invested in the rival player GetYourGuide. This double-barreled injection of cash has raised speculation that the agencies may eventually merge.
Headline Investors: Tencent, General Atlantic, Qiming Venture Partners, and Yuantai Evergreen Investment Partners
The Pitch: Mafengwo, launched in 2010, helps Chinese travelers find recommendations from other travelers via user-generated content, not unlike TripAdvisor.
The Outlook: In May 2019, Mafengwo raised a $250 million Series E investment round. The company then faced accusations that some of its content is fake, which apparently depressed visits and revenue growth. Will it rebound? A recently signed technology deal with travel agency Tongcheng-Elong may help.
Headline Investors: Hillhouse Capital, Sequoia Capital, Expedia Group, and JD.com
The Pitch: Traveloka, founded in 2012, is primarily an online travel agency in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam.
The Outlook: Southeast Asia’s largest online travel startup keeps expanding into new products, such as offering consumers credit cards.
Some notes on our list: Many large startups are shy about revealing investment details. So some of these funding totals are approximate.
We excluded companies that focus on providing local and commuting services, rather than long-distance and intercity services. We left out all ridesharing services like Uber and carpooling services like BlaBlaCar. We kept off our list private equity rounds in hotel management companies, airlines, and cruise lines, and space tourism, as well as corporate rounds in subsidiary companies and all post-IPO rounds.
We also left out some niche categories of companies, such as the so-called “mobility” companies that offer private jets, flying taxis, and hyperloops.
We called out the names of a handful of “headline investors” based on their newsworthiness in our eyes. But the founders of these startups love all of their backers and aren’t responsible for the names we listed or left off.
Photo credit: This November 17, 2016, photo shows Airbnb Founders, from left to right, Nathan Blecharczyk (now chief strategy officer and chairman of Airbnb China), Joe Gebbia (now head of product development team Samara), and CEO Brian Chesky speak onstage at the Airbnb Open event in Los Angeles. Airbnb is the best-funded travel startup in the world as of late 2019. Mike Windle / Airbnb Newsroom