Special Report: Travolution start-up summit

Special Report: Travolution start-up summit

More than 100 delegates gathered at IBM’s London headquarters last month. Juliet Dennis and Lee Hayhurst report

‘Female led ventures will combat male bias’

The investment community is still dominated by men and predominantly funds male‑led businesses, according to the female founder of a travel start‑up.

Merilee Karr, founder and chief executive of home letting specialist Under The Doormat, said she had not personally experienced a funding bias but claimed only around 6% to 10% of European funding was going into female-led businesses.

She said: “I cannot say I have ever felt an investor was not choosing to invest in my company because I was female but, like anything in this world, there is a lot of unconscious bias. The reality is that the investment community is predominantly male and they are investing in predominantly male‑led businesses.”

She is hopeful of change as more women set up their own businesses. Karr added: “The statistics don’t look good and I hope some of the female-led businesses will change that.”

Under The Doormat was set up three years ago and offers visitors to London stays in premium homes.

Karr was one of two female entrepreneurs running new travel businesses who presented at Travolution’s Start-Up Summit.

The other, Valerie Lopez, is co-founder and chief executive of Shoot My Travel, which pairs travellers with local professional photographers to capture special holidaymaker memories.

Meanwhile, Sn-ap founder Thomas Ableman said the most time-consuming aspect of setting up a business was securing funding.

But he said having investors involved was invaluable.

“The process of having investors has made my business better and made me better at running it,” he said. Sn-ap matches travellers who want to make long‑distance trips with family-owned coach operators.

Summit goes on a Culture Trip with founder

The summit heard from Doctor Kris Naudts, the founder of one of travel’s most-talked-about start-ups, Culture Trip.

The firm raised $80 million in series B funding this year after revealing plans to establish an OTA to sell flights and accommodation to readers of its content who intend to travel.

The firm, which now employs 200 people, recently moved into new offices near Bond Street and hired former Expedia and dnata Travel boss Andy Washington to head up its push into the travel agency sector.

Naudts, a former psychiatrist, told delegates about the firm’s struggles in its early days when it was constantly on the verge of running out of money and was based in a tiny office in the Elephant and Castle area of London. His break came when he raised $2 million from Silicon Valley investors.

To read the full article about Culture Trip’s rise from cramped offices in south London to securing $80 million investment, visit bit.ly/TravoCultureTrip

Culture Trip founder Doctor Kris Naudts will speak at the Travolution European Summit in London on September 26, where he will talk more about the firm’s approach to using content to inspire its users to travel. Early-bird tickets are available until July 31 for £299. Go to: bit.ly/TravoEuropeanSummit

Secret Escapes: from ‘sewer’ to $1bn sales target

Online luxury travel deals publisher Secret Escapes is targeting £1 billion in turnover within two years.

The target follows rapid growth by the business, which began as a start-up in 2010 before expanding internationally.

Co-founder Tom Valentine said: “We put £250,000 into the business to start with. We are now in 20 territories and we are competing with Google for staff.

“We are now on series D [fourth-round funding]. Our goal is to become a £1 billion business within the next couple of years.”

It’s a far cry from the early days of the business, which moved from co-founder Alex Saint’s kitchen table to a “horrible” basement in the offices of his former firm Dealchecker.

Valentine recalled: “We were selling incredible holidays to the Maldives out of what was effectively a sewer. We could not bring clients into the office so we spent half the day in cafes.”

Valentine, who began his career at eBay, said raising money was critical to the company’s early growth but admitted there was also “an element of luck” in coming to market at the right time.

In 2011, Secret Escapes raised around £800,000 in initial series A funding, which it spent mainly on digital marketing and acquiring customers.

Valentine said: “Over the course of time you become part of the customer’s travel process and make money after acquiring the customer. You have to invest upfront.”

The company later turned to TV advertising to expand and break into overseas markets.

By 2013, the business was employing 120 staff and facilitating £200 million worth of holiday bookings.

Valentine said he believed in a “testing culture” as a strategy for business success, but admitted the company had made mistakes by being “too short-termist”.

“Our mistakes have been convincing ourselves that a project is so important that we abandon having it test-based,” he said.

Small firms’ lack of use of tech is ‘astounding’

Start-up businesses have been urged to embrace new technology such as artificial intelligence.

Stewart Baird, chief executive of early-stage investment firm Stone Ventures, said the lack of technology used by small travel businesses was “astounding”.

Baird told the summit that consumers today wanted same-day suggestions for complicated, tailor-made enquiries.

He said: “I am still astounded in the travel sector by the lack of technology available to the smaller businesses. When we look, as consumers, we want to see availability on the same day.

“When you want to book a safari or a complex tailor-made holiday, you can wait three days – but I want that quote now.”

He claimed artificial intelligence could help change that.

Travelport regional managing director Paul Broughton agreed. He said: “Investing in this type of technology for us is important in driving that immediacy and personalisation for start-ups.”

More: Travolution European Summit early-bird tickets available

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