New Web Travel Tool Thinks Big Despite Downturn

Booking travel online may save time and money, but managing complex travel arrangements and multiple destinations can be a nightmare.

That’s why Silicon Valley start-up TripIt created its eponymous, free online service that organizes business and leisure travelers’ trip details into one master itinerary that’s sharable in social media, e-mail, print and is available via mobile.

The idea is to avoid the challenge of having to create and then lug around a complex travel itinerary — flights, hotel and car bookings and maps — wherever they go. And all it requires from users is to forward the service an e-mail with their trip confirmations.

TripIt works its magic by reading and semantically understanding the e-mails it receives from users. As a result, the service knows if it’s reading a travel confirmation from American Airlines on a Boeing 777 or a cruise on the Royal Caribbean. It parses the information and then contextually ties the data back to a specific user and trip, while adding relevant content, according to the company’s president and co-founder, Gregg Brockway.

Minneapolis-based traveler Jane Cracraft recently jumped on TripIt to organize her travel details for an upcoming journey through Germany, Holland and France. She booked travel on Orbitz and then e-mailed her travel confirmation to [email protected] TripIt seamlessly organized her itinerary, with maps, destination information and even restaurants.

“The site is pleasantly simple and easy to understand,” Cracraft told InternetNews.com. “I plan to use it for this trip; it seems like it will be fun to share my itinerary with the people I will be visiting.”

Cracraft isn’t alone in checking out the service: Brockway said that TripIt.com attracted 150,000 visitors in September 2008. He wouldn’t disclose the number of registered TripIt users nor the company’s current revenue.

But while TripIt may have a valuable offering — can it make a go of the travel business even in today’s climate?

TripIt’s business model depends on selling premium subscriptions, advertising and co-brands of its itinerary building services. TripIt also earns referral dollars from a “Trip Search” tab that provides a kickback to TripIt on any air, hotel or car rentals booked in its affiliate program search engine.

TripIt is on target to release some form of premium service for individuals, groups and companies in early 2009, according to Brockway. The service might push proactive travel alerts or help companies manage their travel compliance programs.

Additionally, TripIt is banking that is advertising model may prove interesting to advertisers. Already the company has attracted Courtyard by Marriott as a premium sponsor of TripIt’s new social media application for LinkedIn. The service enables users like Cracraft to share their travel information on popular professional social media site, which boasts more than 30 million users.

TripIt’s deep and detailed travel information on users may also woo advertisers attracted to the ability to finely target their messaging inside the TripIt-built itineraries, it said.

Yet present business conditions, with wide cutbacks in online advertising and a dip in travel, would normally be cause for worry for the company’s business model.

Luckily for TripIt, it’s among the fortunate Internet startups with money in the bank and commitment from its VC backers. The company is financed with $6.1 million in two rounds of VC funding from investors that include travel technology giant Sabre Holdings, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and European Founders Fund.

Due to roller-coaster market conditions, VCs are increasingly planning to hunker down to hold onto companies such as TripIt for longer than planned, said Emily Mendell, vice president of strategic affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based Nation Venture Capital Association.

“There is no IPO market right now,” Mendell said. “It could be another year before the IPO window opens.”

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While it may be able to rely on long-term support from its backers, TripIt has still made moves to keep up in these difficult times, cutting spending on marketing and advertising in favor of keeping the company small and focusing on continued technology development, it said.

One area where observers see a good deal of potential is in the site’s efforts to capitalize on the booming interest in social media.

For instance, analysts say that TripIt application’s being tied to LinkedIn is a winning combination for both. For TripIt, the exposure to LinkedIn may act as another lead generation tool to fatten up TripIt’s user base.

At the same time, LinkedIn gets another way of building ties among users. For instance, via TripIts application, LinkedIn colleagues can see upcoming and overlapping destination plans. In the professional world, this may spur impromptu meetings, before, during or after a conference in a destination city, Bob Offutt, an analyst with PhoCusWright, told InternetNews.com.

“If you have business colleagues in your destination city and one of them sees you coming in, it could be a catalyst for an unplanned meeting,” Offutt said.

Not everyone is as sold on the idea of TripIt. Forrester Research analyst Henry Hardeveldts said that it’s yet to be seen whether the company will reap the revenue benefits it expects.

“I’m waiting for TripIt to clarify their revenue model. While I do see lots of opportunity, I don’t see lots of action,” Hardeveldts said.

Still, TripIt is sticking to its guns. Brockway plans to keep the company lean and focused on delivering on the promise of its beta technology. “We’re basically focused on building out the project and service,” he said.

“All of the economic uncertainty and turmoil is and will continue to have a negative impact on the travel industry,” Brockway said. “We’re seeing leisure and business travel down and it will continue to be down for a while. But we’re still building TripIt and have a good amount of money in the bank.

“A year to 18 months from now, we’ll see what the world looks like. Hopefully the economic situation will have turned around,” he added.

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