We see a lot of travel and tourism startups popping up around Asia these days. So many, in fact, that planning a trip can be overwhelming. While more competition results in better services at lower cost, sifting through every website and mobile app is tedious at best and intimidating at worst. As the occasional traveler, myself, I often just want to ask someone around me where to go, what to do, and how to get there.
This is where Beijing-based startup Grata comes in. Grata has developed a chat app, akin to WeChat, used to communicate directly with travel agents, tour guides, and hotel staff. Currently in beta, Grata is developing the app along with a suite of tools for people in the travel industry to recommend, book, and arrange transport to destinations. The destination content comes from location-based sites like Dianping, Yelp, Foursquare, and Google Maps.
Think of it as having a hotel concierge always available on your smartphone. Just send them a message asking for a good restaurant for a romantic date. The travel expert on the other end can give you suggestions with reviews, send you a map, make a reservation, and arrange a taxi from your current location. The mobile version on the staff side is still in alpha, but for now they can use a desktop version to see who you are, where you are, and past conversation history. Founder Andrew Schorr says this is much more efficient for both parties than making arrangements via telephone call.
Grata has so far partnered with 25 hotel brands including Marriot, Hilton, and IHG – relationships that Schorr made when working on a B2B SaaS platform for guest services. It’s up to the hotels how they want to offer Grata to customers, such as if the service will be limited to in-house guests. Right now the company only operates in San Francisco and Beijing. Schorr says the official launch will take place in early 2014. He says he chose two cities on opposite sides of the world because “the opportunity is bigger than just China.”
Grata is targeted at high-end leisure and business travelers, so don’t expect to see it at youth hostels anytime soon. Schorr says the O2O business model was inspired in part by Uber, the fancy car booking service taking off across major Asian cities, where both the driver and passenger communicate online to arrange an offline service.
Schorr cites three major trends to explain why now is the right time to launch Grata: smartphone adoption, mobile messaging (e.g. WeChat) growth, and increasing complexity in travel products and destinations. These all pushed Schorr and his team to create a humanized network for travelers. “I should be sharing that with you in a perfect medium, not over phone or email,” he says.
Grata plans to monetize using a B2B2C model, wherein the costs are passed to the hotels and travel agents, not to travelers. A freemium model is on the table. Clients can use the chat app for free, but pay a subscription for the recommendation and booking toolkits.
(Editing by Steven Millward)