Feedback requested: Can a digital solution create immediate cashflow?

March 20th, 2020

Alex Bainbridge

Many of my posts here are future looking and some would argue, as a result, not actionable. This one is different. We have seen in the last few weeks the largest call to action in the tours & activities industry since, well, forever!

I have been thinking through what a technology entrepreneur like me can do. Fundamentally its digital solutions.

Information & immediate help

First step was to deliver Tourmageddon. We have 14 people who have offered to help local tour operators and attractions and hundreds of 1:1 interactions have taken place (not all due to us, but many are). Beyond that we have collected and curated the best resources for immediate help and recovery and a growing set of national resources.

It is also the first and only (?) new cross industry collaboration aimed at industry recovery. Thank you Chris Torres & Pete Syme.

Thank you also to the Palisis Group who are stepping up to financially support the Tourmageddon project. They recently announced their 100 millionth sightseeing booking, 150,000 per day. I look forward to them doing 150,000 a day again soon.

Not bad progress for 5 days. But the next step is rescue. This, frankly, is not so simple. In fact its close to impossible. BUT before we give up, what could it be based on:

Requirements of a rescue plan

I have floated a few next steps via Twitter and LinkedIn comments, none of which we have actioned yet. I know this looks pretty crappy when I do that, giving false hope, but the early floating helps whittle down to something that may work which we can then spend more time investigating. Consider this additional kite flying, we are a long long way from a commercial vaccine, sadly.

Primary requirements

  • Must not be Noah’s Ark – has to have the potential to support everyone and everyone needs to be given the opportunity to be successful (e.g. just like social media). This does not mean the outcome is that everyone is saved, but you have to start with the concept that its theoretically possible. An alternative for example is to rescue one tour operator per city….. which is also possible (if anyone knows a friendly VC!)
  • Cashflow now – has to generate cashflow in the coming weeks, not “much later”
  • Include discoverability – tourists often don’t find local tour companies until they are in destination – as such the solution needs to handle that digital tourists don’t know yet who they want to assist.
  • Self-configure – no time to build a team – the local tour company has to be able to do this themselves
  • Max 7 days build – otherwise too late for cashflow centric solution, we have to go to bounce back instead

Secondary requirements

Ideal if met, but not critical if not

  • Tour guides – uses under utilised tour guides. If not, fine, help companies first, but good if we can
  • Head and long tail part of market – should support the largest tour companies (often bus operators) down to the smallest food tour companies and tour guides

Discarded ideas

Based on the requirements above, I have rejected:

Gift vouchers

Restaurants are doing this at scale right now. Pre-pay for a future restaurant meal, pay 75 USD and receive 100 USD credit for some future meal.

I don’t see how to make that work for tours & activities for two reasons:

  • Customers have to commit to a destination AND operator now – when we know that customers book tours & activities at the last minute. Not sure we can change behaviour this significantly, this quickly. May work for the multi-destination companies
  • When does a retailer release funds – my biz is a retailer (kind of) – when we retail something, we have to hold on to funds until its delivered. So at least for my biz, I can’t do gift certificates for a 3rd party and create cashflow for a tour operator now

Restaurants will find it easier to fall back to local (non-tourist) trade than tour & activity companies will. If you are dominated by local business already, gift certificates may work for you. Go for it!

There is a minor point that a gift certificate creates short term cashflow revenue (when booked supplier direct rather than via a retailer) but creates a long term liability. Pete Syme today, via Arival, said that yes the liability problem is a long term problem, but take the long term problem if it creates a short term cashflow solution. i.e may work supplier direct, but retailers can’t help here.

I do have a Fareharbor gift certificate sat in my inbox for redemption later this year from my local canoe company that I like to do. So I know this DOES exist, and works in normal times, I just am not sure its the basis of a wider rescue plan.

Bookings for 2021

Taking bookings for 2021 is the same problems above (for me as a retailer) as selling a gift certificate.

I can’t release money to a tour operator until the tour is delivered.

I can see a Reserve With Google based solution may work, where tour operators are paid directly by customers for future bookings….. but at least in my biz, I am not going to build that. I like competing with peer companies but will leave competing with Google to others 😉

Conclusion

We need a way to:

  • deliver a product now
  • that people pay for now
  • that can be consumed now
  • that makes money for tour operators now

Inspiration

Already this requirements list gives me concern. Anything to address this is extremely ambitious.

But there are green shoots of ideas that match the requirements above.

The two examples that I think are most interesting so far are Context Conversations and GetYourGuide Instagram Quiz (as it is Instagram video you need the Instagram app, not Instagram web!)

I watched this the other day – they got between 100-150 people live for an hour or so. Although British, I am not really target market for Harry Potter (!), but it was very well executed. Could quizzes generate cashflow if you are a smaller tour op? Hummm – not sure! But as a use for tour guides stuck in lockdown, a good example.

Context Conversations however is a much more commercial (and therefore cashflow generating) idea:

  • 3 tours currently
  • 35 USD
  • 90 minutes
  • zoom

As a tour company they specialise in having expert tour guides (as opposed to optimising for charisma). Do expert tour guides have a greater chance of creating desire to take a digital tour vs charismatic tour guides? Unknown.

A potential solution?

Ok – so Context Conversations works. But not everyone has the resources to build that. And if you did build that as an individual company, how would you be discovered?

What would a global Context Conversations look like – e.g. a Context Conversations online travel agent. Where consumers can come, find a destination they want to travel to vicariously, go on some digital tours from the comfort of their own home etc etc….

The last few days I have been speccing this up and refining with many conversations with startup founders and tour companies. Thank you:

  1. Central website
  2. People pay and book – e.g. 10 USD for 40 minutes
  3. Receive a zoom URL
  4. Tour guides deliver an experience
  5. Tour operator paid out immediately (tiny lag)
  6. Consumer ALSO receives a 50% off any future tour from that supplier, in the next 18 months (e.g. they have paid 10 USD for potentially a reasonable future saving)

Name could be TempTour – Temporary tour – and Tempter – tempt you to travel. Commercially my biz could take 20% commission. We could deliver this in 7 days over and above 2 years development on the core platform we already have (that is live, although ha, no bookings for last few weeks now, goodness).

The video service delivery is so that we can say this is the primary service and as such funds can be released when that is complete. (As opposed to buying a gift certificate when we can’t release funds until later delivery).

However

I have a number of problems with this. Although I speak to people who are enthusiastic, I am like, humm, not sold on the idea yet, even though its my idea! AND THIS IS WHY I NEED YOUR FEEDBACK. Should I build this? Yes or no?

My instincts say, build it and see what happens, its 7 days work, we are losing 12 weeks trading, what does pushing back other projects 7 days mean – pretty much nothing…..

Here are my challenges:

  • There are other companies working on similar solutions – that is FANTASTIC – means I don’t have to do it
  • If this was a good idea, we would have done it in peacetime – no one did, so it can’t be that good an idea really
  • Is the content going to be good enough? – in the last few years influencers have moved the overton window for what good video content looks like. Can tour guides match that overnight? I worry they cant. If we get influencers and content creators involved, that adds a dimension that is complex, considering travel lock downs and budgets
  • Are we offering an inferior service? – with restaurant gift vouchers, you know you are getting the same service as today, just delayed. With this concept, you get an inferior service. This worries me in terms of getting consumers excited about this
  • How do we create customer demand? And how do we sustain customer demand? I can see this being PR friendly and tour operators sending this to their customer databases – but after that? This will have a larger peak and dropoff than the virus
  • What is the price? Should we set the price or create a price marketplace?

Price is a key problem.

I think we have a disconnect between the price that a customer will pay for digital content vs what tour operators need to earn for minimum income.

e.g. say 10 USD, an EU tour operator may need 1000 of these to be sold a month to create 10,000 USD….  and that may, frankly, not be enough.

Context Conversations at 35 USD – would love to see their numbers.

Fundamentally there could be too big a gap here to bridge between what customers will pay, the number of transactions required, and what is needed to keep individual tour operators trading.

Summary

I think I might not do this project. BUT tell me. If you think, Alex, just do it, if it doesn’t work, we know you tried….. great.

My alternative is to build something else I am working on, tour delivery in a socially distanced world. Thats kind of an interesting problem too, but its a bounce back solution, not an immediate cash flow solution. Some people have told me to go straight to that.

Vote

Tell me – either in comments below – or in LinkedIn via comments below – what should I do? Will close this on Tuesday evening USA timezone. Fundamentally sat here with an OTA platform, a 20 year supplier supporting mindset, a sightseeing robot (announcing her will be another day!), and development time on our hands. WTF do we do to help? This was the best we came up with, it may not be enough.

Image: Flickr: Daniel Lamb

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Comments

5 responses to “Feedback requested: Can a digital solution create immediate cashflow?”

  1. Ryan Hanly says:

    I think Travello can build something that can help. We would need industry buy in. Would love to chat.

  2. Bruce Rosard says:

    Alex – we have known each other for a long time. I think I have a pretty good idea of your strengths and weaknesses (and you know mine). I have been having similar thoughts about this especially with all of the digital content out there from museums, zoos and other attractions.

    Put me on the side of very interested but skeptical it can work. I agree with Ryan that there needs to be great industry buy in and I think there could be a role for all of us to play here.

  3. Hi guys.
    We are working on VR/AR tours distribution channels on 360Stories.com.
    We have 30 destinations worldwide and around 1400 bookable tours.
    But all that we have done was for selling real tours with new channels.

    Right now we are thinking to build Virtual Reality Live Tours in 360 right from the website.
    Guides will be able to do group tours in 360 with Augmented storytelling.

    Let me know what do you think.
    Thanks
    Albert

  4. Alex – we’re rapidly looking at and developing an educational product in this space to help small to medium-sized operators. Let’s connect on this!

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