What I learned from launching a Travel marketplace
I launched cleantravel.org, a marketplace for sustainable tours, in 2017. I was energetic, optimistic and naturally naive.
Clean Travel is about fun, connection and contributing to the local communities you visit. I wanted cleantravel.org to showcase some of the most sustainable travel experiences on the planet.
I wanted an online home that brought that vision to life. Over 3 years later, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned.
There’s definitely more Don’ts than Do’s in this list. But as I meet more travel entrepreneurs through Tashi, I wanted to share my perspective on what I could have done better.
THE 3 QUESTIONS
When it comes to a marketplace, there are 3 BIG things you need to worry about:
- How to get Customers
- How to get and to manage Suppliers; and
- How to connect them (the tech)
THE MOST IMPORTANT element of this is ‘How to get Customers.’
Surprisingly ( 😐), I didn’t get this right away - I spent way too much time worrying about how to get suppliers and what technology platform to use.
It took me too long to realise that if you have customers, you’ll have no problem getting suppliers and when it comes to the tech, people didn’t really care how you connect them - they just want to go on awesome trips with great people.
For a travel marketplace, while tech is important, almost all marketplace offer the same features. It’s hard to differentiate yourself through your tech, so it won’t be why you succeed.
Engage a tech expert so that you have more time to spend on your Unique Selling Proposition (USP).
In online travel, competition is fierce - you’ll succeed because of your sales, marketing, brand, and distribution strategy and channels.
Airbnb is a lot of things, but they’re not a technology innovation.
They’re a pretty standard travel marketplace in how they operate.
They don’t use AI to magically match you with the best places, and as far as I’m aware, none of the transactions during my 6+ years as a super host have ever touched a blockchain. You search, book, pay and go.
They weren’t a supplier innovation; Couchsurfing was popular before them, spare rooms were listed on Craigslist, and there were already ton’s of private places to rent.
However, what they were was a customer innovation. They redefined what it means to travel, fostered a supportive community and built a super brand.
You can challenge them if you recognise this. Position your offering and messaging to address the segments and regions that Airbnb’s not addressing well or those they’ve left behind as they go more mainstream post IPO.
The lessons I learned building and launching a Travel Marketplace
(TRDL: When I first started cleantravel.org I spent all of my time manually managing my suppliers and building my tech, which meant that I wasn’t investing near enough time in sales.
The key to success will be sales, sales, sales! Minimise the time and resources you spend on anything that doesn’t bring your customers in the early days.
Now Clean Travel is powered by Tashi's travel marketplace software, and life's a lot easier 😃)
1. Focus on your strengths, outsource your weaknesses
I launched Cleantravel.org on WordPress (WP) and engaged a ‘team’ of poorly paid, barely interested developers in Vietnam via UpWork.
I spent hours learning how to navigate WP and its plug-ins to tell my team exactly what they needed to do. I had to figure out what I wanted to do, learn how it could be done, and then describe what I wanted in minute detail to the developers in Vietnam.
Then, when they inevitably misinterpreted my amateur instructions, we have to re-go over it again. It was exhausting.
As an example, I once spent a day (a DAY!) I spent figuring out how to get the header navigation bar on the website float as you scroll down the page.
While I felt a bit of satisfaction for achieving my tiny task, I had whittled away valuable time on a useless job that made absolutely no difference to Clean Travel’s success or otherwise. I was procrastinating, bad.
What I’d do differently
I’d launch with a bare-bones MVP like a Facebook group that validates the idea more before spending any $ or use someone like Tashi.
As a founder, time is precious. Every minute you’re spending on tech is time you’re not spending selling.
2. Automate when it’s needed. Until then, do it manually
I’m a systems orientated person. However, automation has a place and a time - and that’s not right when you start.
Do things that don’t scale and use mechanical turks before worrying about making everything scalable.
For example, I was obsessed with creating a peer to peer messaging system that guests and suppliers could book and talk to each other without any of my involvement.
As a fan of Tim Ferris’s 4 Hour work week, I was eager to take myself out of business. The problem?
There was no business to take me out of! I was obsessing about the wrong things, automating tasks that were non-existent and planning for hypothetical scenarios far in the future.
What I’d do differently
Paul Adam from YC said it best when he said, “Do things that don’t scale." I should have actively sought to answer all and any customer enquiries that came through so that (a) I could learn as much as I could about what brought them to Clean Travel and (b) so that I could give them customer service that blew their socks off.
I’d have left the automation and the peer to peer messaging system until I learned what the guest wanted and could better coach the partners on how to respond.
You can only properly automate when you know what the process is that should be automated. Don’t shy away from the hard work at the start.
1. To start, go 1 inch wide, 1 mile deep
I initially started with a group of local partners that I knew and trusted in South Asia. However, I soon started getting approached by more sustainable local tour operators that offered great experiences. I was flattered by their interest, so I agreed to bring them on board.
However, as the geographical breadth of partners widened, the depth of options in each region dramatically reduced. This meant that users were being offered a poor selection of options in each region and, therefore, a poor user experience.
What I'd do differently
On reflection, it's much better to start with a small core group of great partners in one or a few locations. Fifty amazing options in one area is much better than five average ones in 10 places.
We should have kept the partner group small and targeted until we had a business case for expanding into new regions - aka users asking for partners in alternative destinations.
Starting out, to be honest, I wasn't sure if I'd find enough great partners in enough places. But, over three years later, I can confidently say they're the world is exploding with amazing sustainable travel operators. We're not working with them all yet but watch this space. We will be soon.
2. Great travel listings take work
If you want to work with authentic local partners, be prepared to spend a lot of time curating their content and adding it to your system.
I wanted to work with local grassroots organisations that can provide authentic experiences that make a real difference so that Clean Travel guests can contribute to the communities they visit.
However, the type of person or organisation that fits that profile is also the type of person that tends to be operationally focused. They're not marketing-focused, they're not tech-savvy, and often they're not completely fluent in English.
The information we got from many operators was really poor. The tour descriptions were too short, the images blurry, and the additional information often non-existent.
This makes showcasing them hard, and you have to spend a lot of time asking follow up questions for extra info and ultimately completely writing their listings so that prospective clients will be motivated to book.
Also, because we didn't have the system to enable them to add it themselves, we had to spend a lot of time adding the listing for them, getting feedback, making updates manually.
What I'd do differently
Related to the above, if I'd worked with a smaller group of quality partners, we'd have had time to invest properly in making their listings really pop. Also, I'd look to outsource or automate the supplier onboarding as much as I could.
Every minute you're spending onboarding people or adding their content is time that you're not spending selling.
1. At the start, you're the brand
Starting out, one of your biggest assets is you. You're passionate about your startup, and you explode with energy whenever you're talking to potential customers, suppliers or partners.
One of the best things I ever did was share my background and motivations for starting Clean Travel on the 'Our Story' page.
I've only ever gotten great feedback, and it's opened so many doors that may have stayed shut otherwise.
Don't be afraid to tell people why you care because it'll help them trust you and overcome jacky tech problems or logistical issues that come up.
2. But, as soon as you can, make your partners the heroes.
At Clean Travel, we haven't done a good enough job of heroing our partners and clearly illustrating the impact a Clean Travel trip will have on the communities you visit.
Airbnb is excellent at this. Listen to any talk from Airbnb CEO Brian Cheski and count the number of times he says the word 'hosts' and how they influence what they do. He almost paints Airbnb as living in servitude to their hosts.
While this is mostly a PR spin, Airbnb never misses an opportunity to reinforce this message, and it's been reflected in their growth.
Another great example is our friends at NotonMap, whose Impact Stories paint a beautiful picture of how their homestays support rural villages.
3. Sales, sales, sales - and not just online
I spent way too much time figuring out the tech and sorting the suppliers and not near enough selling. Remember that you should seek other direct and indirect sales channels while you're launching an online marketplace.
The specifics of what you're offering may influence what you can do, but I'd strongly encourage you to look for complementary partnerships. These could be traditional travel agents, visitor centres, hotel concierges or high street travel agent offices.
Also, look for co-marketing opportunities with businesses outside tourism but whose target customer is the same as yours.
4. Make frenemies with other Online Travel Agents (OTAs)
Starting out, you'll want to get enough sales to make your initial group of suppliers happy and get them excited about working with you.
While you plan to grow your marketplace as the go-to place for customers, if you have some unique suppliers to you, aka they're not listed on other travel marketplaces, you should look at acting as their agent for other OTAs.
Listing them on other marketplaces is a great way of boosting your liquidity (cash). You won't make a lot of profit, but it'll generate cash flow to your suppliers, which will make them very happy!
You may also get a few guests coming back to your marketplace direct the next time they're booking a trip.
There are a few caveats to this approach. One, you need the supplier's permission, and second, the 3rd party marketplace should know that you're acting as an agent.
Lastly, I'm not recommending this as a long term strategy. You should view it as a way to kick start your transactions and cash flow and provide value to your suppliers in the early days.
I learned the lessons the hard way while launching Clean Travel so that you don't have to. The things I learned inspired me to co-found Tashi.
At Tashi, we offer a fast, flexible and scalable way to launch an advanced multi-vendor travel marketplace that's personalised to you, your suppliers and your clients.
It lets your sell accommodation, tours and extras, all in one and our advanced supplier extranet means that you can automate your supplier and guest management.
You can create, configure and launch your own travel marketplace for 1% of the cost and time of a custom build solution.
If you're thinking about launching your own travel marketplace, reach out to me on firstname.lastname@example.org - I'd love to connect!