Travelers worldwide want to purchase and manage ground transport tickets digitally, same as they typically can for flights and hotels. The industry is finally starting to respond.
The ground transport sector is behind the times: Many bus and train companies operate without a modern ticketing or operations system, sometimes tracking sales on spreadsheets and often forcing customers to carry paper tickets.
There are multiple companies around the world that are working to bring the industry into the 21st century, some focused on the unique problems of their own regions and some approaching the issue with a global perspective.
Below are profiles of three companies that are working to help ground transport operators adopt more efficient digital sales and operations, which also makes a better experience for customers.
There are more than 200 bus operators in Kenya, and most of them only accept cash and track sales with pen and paper. Customers are forced to visit a booking office in person to purchase tickets.
BuuPass, a startup based in Nairobi, is working to change that in Kenya and beyond with software that can help operators track sales and sell tickets digitally.
“It was just a broken booking ecosystem, so we created a solution that solves issues on both sides,” said Sonia Kabra, BuuPass co-founder.
Before implementing software from BuuPass, some customers had been losing up to $3,000 each day because of manual tracking, Kabra said. One of the biggest pieces of positive feedback from operators is that they have been able to repair that cash leakage.
“They started making more revenue just because they had more visibility, so they were collecting what they actually were making,” Kabra said.
BuuPass provides software to 30 long-distance bus operators — typically those that provide trips between cities or countries — in Kenya and Uganda. It also works with the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway that started service in 2017.
Customers can book tickets for those operators through the BuuPass platform.
Kabra and co-founder Wyclife Omondi, a Kenya native, met while studying at Earlham College in Indiana. They won a student business competition for their idea, which gave them the funding to start a company in Kenya. They raised $1.3 million in pre-seed funding earlier this year.
The company started focused on Kenya, then Uganda, and now is looking to expand into other countries in East Africa, like Tanzania and Ethiopia.
“Our goal is to become a pan-African booking platform for customers to book so we become a continent-wide network of interconnected transport options, and we make it easier for customers to book their travel tickets.”
There is already a mobile and digital payments infrastructure established in Kenya, so BuuPass has been able to build upon that. The same infrastructure is not as established in many other African countries, so that will be a challenge as the company expands.
An end-to-end trip with existing technology usually requires travelers to make transactions through multiple platforms for a flight, airport transfers, a train, and whatever else they need.
Omio, a Berlin-based ground transport ticketing platform, is trying to simplify that process.
Online travel agencies like Booking.com are able to sell flights and hotels to travelers because they can easily access that data through third-party software systems. Such third-party systems don’t really exist yet for ground transport, which is why customers typically have to purchase those tickets through other means.
One of Omio’s main focuses now is filling that gap in the industry, providing ground transport data that it gathers through its core business: Omio enables digital ticketing for more than 1,000 transportation providers, primarily trains, buses, ferries, cars, and airport transfers, as well as some flights. Those providers are in 37 countries, primarily Europe, though the company is focused on expanding into the U.S. as well. Many of those companies had been tracking sales on scratchpads or using old in-house technology.
With those companies online, Omio is working to expand the sector of its business that licenses ground transport ticketing data to travel sellers like online travel agencies, enabling those companies to sell tickets for ground transport in addition to flights and hotels. Omio is currently partnering with Uber to trial how the service can be integrated.
“It is our licensing model where a lot of third parties use us today to power their ground transport booking, and that unit is scaling quite fast,” said Naren Shaam, Omio founder and CEO, during an interview earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Omio is still focused on growing its core business.
With cultural shifts that happened during the pandemic, Omio decided to focus its investments on projects including mobile technology, expanding inventory to include smaller areas in addition to cities, and capturing more leisure travelers as they choose to ride trains instead of airplanes.
“We basically cut almost all our projects across the company, and we doubled down on these three theses,” Shaam said.
Omio is well-funded — a total of $400 million to date — including an $80 million raise in 2022 and a $100 million raise in 2020 to support expansion in Europe and the U.S.
In 2022, the company completed more than 200 percent of the business it had done in 2019, he said. And he is projecting that number will grow another 60-70 percent this year.
Busbud has historically been only a marketplace where customers can book intercity ground transport, particularly in the Americas.
The Montreal-based company acquired a bus reservations and ticketing management software company last November, giving client operators access to a more modern system that enables mobile ticket sales and better operations management. It was in response to demand from clients, and the deal is already having promising results, said LP Maurice, CEO and co-founder of Busbud.
“Bus operators have been asking us for years to assist them with digital transformation,” Maurice said. “Travelers are demanding frictionless, digital, mobile-first experiences, and the industry struggled to keep up with the pace of demand.”
There were about 30 operators using the reservation software when Busbud acquired the company in November, and now there are more than 80, he said. And there’s more demand coming from small and large operators in the core markets of Canada, U.S., Mexico, Peru, Chile, and other Latin American countries.
Some Latin American countries had 10-15 percent of ticket volume from online sources in 2019, and that number has increased to about 20-25 percent in 2023, he said.
“The biggest opportunity within the travel industry for digital transformation is buses,” Maurice said. “We see it on both ends: on the traveler side and on the operator side.”
Larger operators have adopted the technology to help with more sophisticated challenges, such as interlining, online sales, and revenue management. But as more small and midsize operators have been looking to digitize operations and online sales, access to modern software is making it easier to do that as well.
“The change in how consumers want to buy is often the catalyst for operators to accelerate this digital transformation,” he said.
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Photo credit: Travelers can book Greyhound tickets through Omio. (Source: Greyhound) Greyhound / Greyhound