The cutting edge of travel technology

By Arnie Weissmann

Arnie WeissmannA handful of venture capitalists (VCs) watched and listened for nine hours as entrepreneurs, innovators and computer engineers demonstrated websites and enhancements they believe will change the face of travel.

Were the VCs getting a ground-level opportunity to invest in the next TripAdvisor, Kayak or Tripit? Or were they seeing FNACs, an acronym for “Feature, not a company”?

Joining the two dozen or so VCs watching the presentations was an audience of more than 1,300 other interested parties: potential competitors, service providers, journalists and industry suppliers.

The scene played out at the Travel Innovation Summit, held in Scottsdale, Ariz., last week during the annual PhoCusWright Conference. (PhoCusWright is owned by Northstar Travel Media, which publishes Travel Weekly.)

While the VCs needed to know the difference between an interesting idea and a sustainable, scalable business concept, the rest of the audience didn’t need to be as picky. Even a FNAC could provide an immediate solution to a problem, be a useful tool or simply offer practical insight into the future direction of technology and the industry.

For many in the audience, the websites and applications they were seeing could expand their range of services with no investment whatsoever. Following are the innovations I found most exciting and useful, and which could help any travel adviser, online or off, be more efficient or effective:

Rome2Rio.com: Most travel planners approach a trip by first looking for airports nearest a traveler’s home and destination. But there are times when the journey itself, or parts of it, can be an essential component of the trip. On Rome2Rio, a user can plug in two terminal points — perhapsGhent, Belgium, and the island of Capri, neither of which has an airport — and be presented with six travel routes that include cars, trains, planes, coaches and ferries in various combinations, ranked from shortest travel time to longest.

Rome2Rio’s database searches hundreds of providers’ schedules to return results in milliseconds, saving planners hours of laborious research.

TourWrist: This app, available for iPhone and Android, uploads panoramic photos (an option in iOS 6, Apple’s latest operating system) and brings them alive on a smartphone or tablet. As you move your device left-to-right and up-and-down, it’s as if you’re looking through a window into the world you had photographed. 

Travel advisers who document their own trips with this technology will wow their clients when showing off a destination or hotel.

Royal Caribbean International just licensed the software and will be making TourWrist imagery of its ships available in the future.

This is an exciting breakthrough in image display. Download the free TourWrist app for your smartphone or tablet, then go to http://wri.st/56118 to see a shot taken in the hall at the PhoCusWright event. (To get the full effect, do it on a tablet rather than on a phone.)

DealAngel.com: Do you want to find the absolute best and verifiably lowest rate on a hotel for a client? The founders of Deal-Angel initially developed software for the hospitality industry to help hoteliers find abnormally low rates in their systems that might have been loaded in by accident. Then they realized they could also use their algorithms to search consumer travel websites and find the lowest prices, many of which are not accidents but simply great deals.

It’s an improvement over other meta-search engines because its display is completely unbiased and transparent. At this point, it would have most utility to advisers who work on a fee basis rather than on commissions, since an agent booking through Deal-Angel wouldn’t get rewarded by the supplier or site. But anyone can use it to find which hotels are having fire sales on which dates.

For travelers with flexibility, another great feature of the site shows, at a glance, on which dates the rates are lowest in a given destination. The founders are working on various white-label options, including one for agents that would provide referral fees.

Here are some other very useful sites that made presentations:

  • KnowDelay.com predicts airline delays three days in advance with 90% accuracy.
  • Couchsurfing.com helps users find interesting people willing to meet travelers and share their culture.
  • MiniTime.com offers family-travel recommendations.
  • TripLingo.com is a great new translation app.

If the track record of presenters at past Innovation Summits is an indicator, not all of these companies will survive through 2013. But whether they’re sustainable businesses, FNACs or flashes-in-the-pan, my advice is to get these technologies while you can.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 

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