Australia’s Travlr to Bring Travel-as-a-Service to U.S. Media Brands

Skift Take

Media brands that publish travel content are seeking enhanced monetization of their work and audiences. The story of one vendor serving them helps to highlight the questions that brands such as BBC and MTV face more generally.

(Editor’s note: Travel Tech Briefing is taking time off at year-end and will be back on Thursday, January 6. Thank you for being loyal readers. Here’s wishing you all the best in 2022.)

A small startup in Australia called Travlr poses a question. Could a modern approach to white-label and affiliate sales boost how publishers — such as news sites, TV brands, and guidebook companies — sell travel?

Travlr has signed up a handful of notable customers for its solution, aiming to appeal first to markets in Australia and New Zealand.

  • Stuff, which claims to be the most popular news site in New Zealand, tapped Travlr to build its Stuff Travel Bookings experience.
  • BBC Global News, the corporation’s international (advertising-based, ex-UK) division, used Travlr to create a Discover Beyond site selling travel.
  • Viacom’s MTV Australia tapped the startup to help build an MTV Travel e-commerce experience.
  • In October, the startup announced its pre-Series-B capital raise of about $4.8 million ($6.7 million Australian).
  • It will bring its solution to the U.S. market next year.

The backdrop is that many publishers and media companies face a problem. They inspire their audiences to book travel, but they seldom capture the commissions on purchased trips.

  • A news site or guidebook publisher, for example, might inspire a traveler to book a cycling trip thanks to the compelling content it creates.
  • But the consumer will go to Google to search the trip details. They will buy it elsewhere, either in parts or as a package.
  • This so-called attribution problem is hard to solve, though ad tech companies such as Sojern try to connect the dots.
  • So far, the fixes to help publishers and other organizations cut out some of the middlemen and collect more of the commissions have been imperfect.
  • White-label travel agencies have been around for decades. Many groups, such as Apple Travel Management, have long had units that have bundled vacation packages and then sold and serviced them on behalf of airlines and other companies. Apple Leisure Group runs Southwest Vacations, for instance.
  • Affiliate sales have also been around for decades. Companies such as Expedia’s Affiliate unit, Travelpayouts, or GetYourGuide typically place what are essentially ad display units on a publisher’s site. Travel offers in the widget or site link out to other resellers to complete the transaction. The blog or other publisher is later mailed a check for a small commission — if the link led to a booking.
  • White-label and affiliate models can sometimes give a disjointed, static, or junky experience for consumers. Some brands distrust the reporting on attribution from the resellers and suppliers.

Travlr is a white-labeled online travel agency. But unlike past versions, it easily lets a publisher customize some of the offers to boost purchase rates or to target niche audiences.

  • Publishers can create custom travel packages with Travlr’s platform. Travlr can then highlight the packages.
  • If a journalist writes an article about, say, a cycling trip around Lake Dunstan in New Zealand, the publisher can create a bookable itinerary via Travlr’s platform for sale under the publisher’s brand name. Example: Here on Stuff Travel.
  • Underneath the bespoke trips, there’s a booking engine for buying trips in the customary online way.
  • Let’s use the MTV Travel partnership as another example. When a consumer books a trip, Travlr is the merchant of record, though the consumer only sees the brand name MTV Travel.
  • If a problem arises, the consumer can ring a call center run by Travlr, where agents answer the phone under the name of MTV Travel.
  • “They take 100 percent of the profit of any bookings that are driven through our ecosystem,” said Simon te Hennepe, co-founder and CEO of Travlr. The startup charges a licensing fee to MTV for the tech and resources.
  • Customer data stays with the brand. If a user buys a trip through, say, Stuff Travel, they agree to provide their email address, for example, to Stuff. The publisher can then use that data for re-targeting and providing more personalized offerings.
  • “If our contract is canceled and we walk away, they still own the email address,” Hennepe said. That’s a big difference from the traditional models.
  • Travlr sources the content through Hero Travel, a vendor it holds a stake in. The vendor gives the startup connectivity to the so-called channel managers that aggregate demand, such as Australia-based SiteMinder, effectively through one API [application programming interface, or data exchange method] feed.

Travlr calls all of the above a “travel-as-a-service” model.

  • This name plays off the popularity of software-as-a-service businesses that sell access to cloud-based tools and enterprise applications via a subscription model. 
  • Travlr launched its first iteration in January 2019.
  • Bjorn Harvold appears to have been the first to write about “travel-as-a-service” in an article in 2019. Harvold is a co-founder of a company, which offers some similar functionality.
  • This year Moscow-based online travel agency OneTwoTrip has seen growth in its “travel-as-a-service” product called Forma. The platform lets banks, telecoms, and other companies sell travel to their customers, allowing those customers to earn cashback in the partner brand’s loyalty programs and to pay in installments.
  • L.E.K. Consulting has predicted that the travel-as-a-service model will evolve over time to “bring about expanded use of themed subscriptions and ‘clubs’ for booking travel.”
  • John Harvey, the former chief marketing officer of travel management giant Hogg Robinson (since acquired by American Express Global Business Travel) sees a variation of “travel-as-a-service” as an opportunity in corporate travel, too.

Travlr said its white-label travel agency improves engagement and conversion for publishers and other media brands.

  • Stuff Travel had about 95 percent of its platform revenue in the past year go from people who aren’t subscribers to its paid subscription product or who hadn’t created log-ins for free access to Stuff’s editorial content, Hennepe said. (Stuff’s paid membership gives readers access to Stuff’s premium news and entertainment content.)
  • A mix of search engine optimization and word of mouth brought these new users to Stuff Travel and Stuff as a whole. In other words, the travel sales were acquisition and re-engagement channels for the publisher.
  • Some other publishers see an opportunity in driving sales from their content. In an article, video, or other pieces of content, they might reference an amazing hotel. Up until now, they might link to the hotel’s own site or to an affiliate program. Now they will link to offers on their travel platform run by the startup.
  • A partnership with a tour operator could help with creating bespoke itineraries.
  • Underneath the bespoke trips, there’s a booking engine for buying trips in the customary online way.
  • Today the split in Australia is roughly 40 percent of the transactions coming from custom offers while the rest come from do-it-yourself trip bookings via the booking engine, which is similar to what one would find on most online travel agencies, Hennepe said.

Over time, destination management companies may cotton onto the model.

  • Tourism boards often run inspirational campaigns on publisher sites. But they can’t be sure if the campaigns lead to heads in beds in their regions. This is another type of attribution problem.
  • A tourism promotion site built using Travlr’s platform could directly connect the dots between a campaign and transactions.
  • In an example, one of Australia’s largest newspaper groups, Australian Community Media (ACM), has tapped Travlr to promote Fiji on its Explore Travel site. In theory, details about the effectiveness of different messaging and packages and the types of travelers who book them could be of value to Fiji’s tourism authorities.
  • Tourism boards could come to Travlr and say, ‘We want to do a campaign in, say, Canada for destination X,” Hennepe said. “We can activate extended reach because our media partners are obviously generating the profit from any of the spending. The media houses can give a campaign more exposure to their audiences because at the end of the funnel, they’re taking the profit.”
  • “The tourism board, meanwhile, can prove to its stakeholders what the return on investment was for their ad spending,” Hennepe said.
  • For more context, read Travel’s Creator Economy Resets for Next Boom by Skift’s Lebawit Lily Girma.

I’ve focused on Travlr because I feel its business model suggests that “help may be on the way” for editorial publishers and other brands.

  • I believe its model points out some interesting industry dynamics. You don’t need to feel you want to invest in the startup or expect it to become a billion-dollar technology company to learn from its story.
  • Unlike many travel startups, it addresses a real pain point that companies are willing to pay money to solve, and it has a large “addressable market” worldwide.
  • The startup’s story suggests a broader observation, too. Thanks to new technologies and business practices, non-endemic brands may have an easier time of getting into selling travel. Shifting industry dynamics could reshape the long-tail of travel reselling.
  • Perhaps one day we’ll see TikTok Travel. Given that 2021’s most-downloaded social video app has lots of travel inspiration, it may want to monetize the trip experiences that go viral.
  • Luxury Travel Hackers is a travel agency that debuted this year that focuses on addressing an “attribution problem” on social media platforms.
  • Let’s say you inspire someone to take a trip with your content on Instagram, TikTok or elsewhere, but you don’t get any commissions for trips booked. The startup has a workaround, and it emphasizes working with social media influencers, as do rival startups TrovaTrip and Thatch.
  • Expect more innovation in trying to monetize travel content online.