Just as Airbnb and Uber have given homeowners and drivers
the tools to turn their apartments and cars into tech-fueled, profit-making
enterprises, a growing number of startups are working to do something similar
for tour guides and operators.
The difference is that while Airbnb and Uber have created an
entirely new category of entrepreneur, most tour guides and operators were
well-established businesses long before the sharing economy came along. What
this emerging crop of San Francisco-based tech companies is hoping to do is
provide them with better back-of-house technology solutions and improved
booking capabilities so they can bring their businesses into the 21st century.
“One of our initial aha! moments was when we were in Beijing
and wanted to go to the Great Wall,” recalled Daniel Yaffe, COO and co-founder
of AnyRoad, which just relaunched its website this month with tour products in
93 countries. “Everyone there told us to go to Badaling, and we didn’t want to,
because we had heard it’s like the Disneyland of the Great Wall. And we
thought: This is bizarre. There is no way everyone goes to Badaling.”
Finding Mr. Chu
Frustrated by their inability to find an insightful guide willing to take them off the
beaten track, Yaffe and his brother, AnyRoad CEO and co-founder Jonathan Yaffe,
persevered and ultimately found a guide known as Mr. Chu.
“He took us up to this amazing area of the Great Wall, and
we were basically by ourselves,” Daniel Yaffe recounted. “And what we realized
when we got back is that if we wanted to, we could never find Mr. Chu again.
There’s an infrastructure gap.”
That infrastructure gap is one that AnyRoad, which first
launched in 2012, is hoping to fill in a couple different ways.
First, it is working to provide Internet and mobile-booking
solutions to independent tour guides and companies around the world via its
AnyGuide product, which includes payment services, client communication tools,
invoice tools and website design options. AnyGuide is offered free of charge to
tour guides and tour companies.
Second is AnyRoad, the company’s consumer-facing website
where travelers can search for and book tour guides and experiences. The look
and feel of the website is very similar to that of Airbnb, featuring attractive
destination photos combined with intuitive search and booking tools.
It is on the consumer site that AnyRoad makes its money.
While the company does not charge guides for signing up with AnyGuide, it
charges them a 14% commission for bookings made via AnyRoad.
AnyGuide and AnyRoad work predominantly with professional
and licensed guides around the world, and the company has partnered with
governments, searched TripAdvisor and done its own research and development to
find guides and activities.
AnyRoad isn’t alone in its efforts to bridge the
infrastructure gap between tour guides and customers.
Xola is another such company, though it is strictly focused
on back-of-house technology for tour guides and activity providers. Xola offers
online and over-the-phone booking capabilities, scheduling tools, inventory
management and, perhaps most importantly, point-of-sale solutions.
“It’s a merchant-facing mobile solution,” said Xola founder
and CEO Scott Zimmerman. “The core of our business is in booking and
Xola launched in 2011 and in 2012 received a boost from the
Stanford-StartX Fund. Xola then raised $1.8 million through angel investors and
has signed on numerous tour companies to its subscription-based service.
It charges guides and operators between $99 and $899 per month depending on the
level and number of services.
Zimmerman said Xola does not compete with consumer-facing
brands like AnyRoad and the tour booking app Viator. Instead, the company
partners with Viator and TripAdvisor to connect its clients with
consumer-facing distribution channels, while focusing on the software side of
The guides and tour operators with whom Xola is doing
business are in some cases working with systems as rudimentary as pen and
paper, Zimmerman said, adding, “We are replacing 1982. It’s a patchwork of
software solutions that we’re replacing.”
One of his biggest challenges, he said, is persuading tour
guides and small operators to invest time and money in technology. But he said
that hurdle is quickly diminishing as they realize the necessity from a
business management point of view.
Being able to accept a growing selection of international
and tech-based payments, ranging from credit cards to PayPal to Apple Pay, is
one of the main tools many of these tech companies are hoping to put into the
hands of smaller tour guiding and activity outfits.
“Large companies can take credit card payments online and
bookings online, but independent guides don’t have that ability,” Yaffe said.
On the back-of-house side, companies like TourCMS, Rezdy,
Rezgo and Zaui have already entered the market, offering booking and software
solutions to tour operators.
There are countless consumer-facing tour booking companies,
as well, and a few that, like AnyRoad, do both: In addition to Viator and
AnyRoad, there are Peek and Triposo.
The online, independent tour guiding and activity market has
quickly become as crowded, noisy and fractured as the more traditional tour
But now that customers have plenty of ways to find and book
individual tours and activities online or on their smartphones, how do they
choose? How will they determine which are, in fact, quality tours?
Yaffe compared the process to OpenTable, a restaurant
reservation site. There are plenty of bad restaurants on OpenTable, said Yaffe.
And, “like OpenTable, there are guides who are not great guides, but we’re not
going to promote their tour.”
Based on customer feedback and the company’s research, he
said, “We’re able to hone in and focus on the tours that we know are the most
It’s not a sharing economy, said Yaffe, it’s an “enabling