Simplifying search: one startup on a mission to make the unnatural more natural
Many companies are trying to make search easier but one has its eye on all transport options. Pamela Whitby assesses its progress.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. We had to start somewhere and we are building country by country,” says Naran Shaam, the founder of GoEuro, which aims to be the travel portal that will unite all transport networks across Europe and make it much simpler to search and compare all modes of travel. Indeed, the site wants to be the first port of call for people to plan their door-to-door European travel. If growth in employees is the measure, then GoEuro, which launched in March this year, seems to be on the right track; it started five months ago with five employees, today it has 37.
To date, the company’s most comprehensive offering is in the UK where it says it is currently the only firm which allows travellers to find and compare journey prices and times using any transport means possible. In other words, if you want to fly from London to Edinburgh, GoEuro will search for and then compare trains, tubes, buses and flights and provide you with the most efficient options. This has, in part, been made easier by the fact that the UK has 21 different train companies in operation, unlike other European countries which tend to have rail monopolies. So access to data has been less of a problem.
The firm is also operational in Germany and has most recently launched officially in Spain. Looking ahead, GoEuro currently already has access to data from four additional countries (by this he means rail and bus inventory) and expects these to be operational by mid-2014. The timing of the integration, however, heavily depends on the partners in those countries; in other words it depends on what technology they have, how long it takes to clean up the data and to integrate that into GoEuro’s own system. Each country is around a two-month project. While intra-country travel is the initial focus, the longer term goal is to connect the dots between countries. After all European transport is not just the sum of its airports. Put in perspective: Europe has 500 airports but 50,000 train stations, and to get to the airport they could be coming from any one of these stations.
A big opportunity
“The integration process isn’t easy but it’s also a huge opportunity,” says Shaam. Unlike the airlines, there is a lack of standards for rail and coach data, which today can appear in many different formats – from an Excel spreadsheet to a PDF document or a sophisticated, high-tech system as used by one of the railways. This lack of standardised data in rail is a something that Loco2, which will go live with its UK service this week, too is trying to address (see EyeforTravel.com Nov 6, 2013 The great railway debate: why data is at the crux of every journey). Kate Andrews, Loco2’s co-founder described this as a major challenge; while it is possible for consumers to access the data from multiple airlines through one easy-to-use interface, the same is not true for trains. However, Andrews points out that this is changing as a result of the ‘open data movement’, which is calling for timetables to be made open to software engineers so that they can radically improve the customer rail booking experience. In addition, there have been legislative moves afoot in Europe – such as the 2007 Third Railway Package - which includes provisions to uphold passenger rights around access to price and timetable information.
While data is also one the biggest challenges for GoEuro, it is also where Shaam believes it can add the most value because “there is nothing like it today”. When searching for travel today, customers must, for example, first go to Skyscanner for a flight, but then to thetrainline.com to book a train. “The air industry has done a good job of standardising airport data but travel is beyond airports; people need get to their final destination by bus or train and that is what we are try to solve,” says Shaam.
It has taken GoEuro six months to develop its own in house proprietary technology to standardise and normalise all transport data formats. That is still a work in progress but is something that could benefit the industry. There is also the possibility for the firm to license it to others in travel, says Shaam, who strongly believes that any standardisation of data has to be a good thing for the industry. William Beckler, an analytics specialist and founder of Alltherooms.com, agrees. His focus is mainly hotels, where he believes there unique international identifier – a bit like in flights – would greatly benefit the Watch out for a more detailed interview with Beckler, who will be speaking at the Smart Analytics, New York 2014, on EyeforTravel.com next week.
Like Loco2, for GoEuro today it’s all about partnerships. For flights GoEuro has direct relationships (with EasyJet and AirBerlin), but it has also signed distribution agreements with Expedia, Opodo and fleuge.de for access to air inventory and National Express for buses. In the UK it has coverage of the entire rail network through RailEasy including Eurostar. In Germany, where the company is based, Deutsche Bahn is its rail partner and in Spain, the most recent addition, the website searches and analyses the main transportation modes including bus companies Alsa, Avanza, the national rail carrier RENFE, as well as all airlines serving Spain. GoEuro says it will allow you to access up to 41 airports, 3.277 bus stations and 1.619 train stations in Spain.
Looks aren’t everything
Usability of the site has been absolutely central to GoEuro’s strategy. Shaam is conscious that there has to be a balance between creating a beautiful user interface while at the same time delivering the information users are looking for in a simple easy-to-use format. After all the company’s promise is this: one search to find everything. “To achieve this we actively measure everything users click, we change the design, we do A/B testing to see how to improve conversions,” says Shaam, who says that as a young company there is still a lot they can learn.
Various international business angels stand behind GoEuro, such as Battery Ventures, Hasso Plattner Ventures, but also Dave Baggett from ITA software and Jeff Sagansky from Global Eagle Entertainment. Their support has meant the company was able to raise seed funding of $4 million last February. Will it be profitable? Well a lot depends on whether their proprietary technology delivers what it says on the box and is something that others wish to license.
Getting to grips with data is a major challenge for travel companies and EyeforTravel aims to help. This week we have Smart Analytics Europe, 2013 in Berlin and next year there is Smart Analytics New York (11-12 February) where William Beckler, founder of alltherooms.com will be speaking.