Tech startups target tour guides, operators

Brothers Daniel (left) and Jonathan Yaffe founded AnyRoad, a website where travelers can search for and book tour guides and experiences.
Brothers Daniel (left) and Jonathan Yaffe founded AnyRoad, a website where travelers can search for and book tour guides and experiences.

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.

Point-of-sale solutions

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 reservation.”

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 business.

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 operator market.

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 quality tours.”

It’s not a sharing economy, said Yaffe, it’s an “enabling economy.”

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