Asia Travel & Tech: Startups, Founders, Business Trends

These are some startup and tech company highlights from a travel conference I attended recently. Presenters came from web and marketing departments at Skyscanner, Google, Facebook, Tripadvisor, Tujia, Rome2Rio, KAYAK, AirBnb, JAL, and ANA. Below are quotes and insights about startups and product development that I found interesting. At the bottom is a list of successful web travel companies that may be good for digital nomads and remote work!

Travel’s big in North-East Asia, accounting for 163.3 million international tourist arrivals in 2014, according to the World Tourism Organisation 2015 report. In the past, travel may have been a closed industry with airlines, agents, and hospitality services as key players. The web and mobile technology have dramatically leveled the playing field, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to serve a booming tourism market for consumers and businesses.

Gengo, a translation service, is one of Japan’s startup success stories.

As a traveller, I often use Tripadvisor for reviews, Skyscanner to compare flights, and AirBnB to find alternative accommodation to suit my taste. All of them emerged in the digital world. Airbnb only started in 2008, and now has 1,500,000 listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries. There are even younger startups that have raised millions in investment capital from Silicon Valley (more info below).

Here are some things I found interesting. Treat it as an open diary and it’s not intended as a comprehensive survey of the travel e-commerce industry.

We have to respect our investors’ each and every penny.

— Melissa Yang, Tujia

Before this event, I hadn’t heard of Tujia, but Melissa Yang was the most inspiring speaker there. She was honest on stage and approachable and down to earth during breaks. People often cite China as an example of problematic IP rights, rule of law, and general lack of integrity in business products (i.e. the 2008 Chinese milk scandal). However, having worked in China before, I also believe that there are many leaders who have great work ethic and integrity. China does have examples of business savvy, visionary entrepreneurs, and this under-the-radar event showcased a great example.

Founded in 2011, Tujia is generally summarized as China’s AirBnB. However, their business began as B2B managing real estate for clients, before moving to B2C, and finally the C2C market. They built their brand by addressing the trust issue that clients had, both from the supply and demand side by managing real estate directly before building out the platform and placing their listings. Their current evolution into the AirBnB of China is a result of their opening up the platform for C2C users. They’ve raised 4 rounds of investing, with USD 455 Million funds, and are hailed as the latest Chinese unicorn.

Co-Founder Melissa Yang is a former executive of travel company Expedia and in Microsoft’s search engine division. She founded with Justin Luo who was co-president of a major Chinese real estate media company Sina Leju.

We must earn our customers, moment by moment. — Erika Nakayama, Google

Google is launching its Travel Assistant. Their travel services already include flight searches and automatic Google calendar updates.

She broke down micro-moments into the dream, plan, book, experience categories. Next, she showed how increasing searches were for destinations. Based on Google data, 78% of users did not have a specific airline in mind and 82% didn’t have a hotel brand in mind.

2015's most frequent searches for Japan

Erika Nakayama from Google noted that in the age of digital fragmentation, moments are thin-sliced. She demoed how Google increasingly made information visual (i.e. locations with images), which improved searches for locations. In addition, she showed the new features for Travel Assistant, such as integrated scheduling and transit suggestions. Its comprehensive features can be a serious challenge to many players currently tapping into micro services for travellers.

In a discussion panel on Korea’s rising e-commerce, startup, and travel industries, Debby Soo, Vice President APAC at KAYAK, discussed the challenges and opportunities of entering the North Asian market a few years after Skyscanner. She mentions that people often speak of Asia as one market when, they are, in reality, many markets. Hong Kong is different from China, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan.

The event also opened my eyes to the number of big players in parts of the industry such as real estate and accommodation. Sunny Chang from BnB Hero indicated that in the shifting accommodation and e-commerce landscape, each company has a different target market and unique value proposition that can be complimentary.

A great startup story: three years ago, Daily Hotel didn’t even make it to the final for WIT Travel’s startup pitches. Now, they are funded by Sequoia Capital and presenting on stage.

Yoshiharu Hoshino, President of Hoshino Resort Group after a panel presentation

Since family businesses are important in Japan and East Asia, WIT 2016 hosted an insightful panel discussion.

Yoshiharu Hoshino, President of Hoshino Resort Group notes, ‘65% inbound tourism in 5 prefectures, 80% in 10 prefectures.’ For many family ryokan businesses, even chains, have n0 inbound tourism and so the increasing inbound travel to Japan cannot have a successful trickle down until travellers venture to local areas. In addition, he noted the importance of maintaining quality for the domestic market, which comprises roughly 80% of accommodation sales.

Mr. Hoshino believes that family businesses can double profits in Japan more easily than changing large corporations. He was born in 1960 in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, and expanded his family business, the HOSHINOYA onsen and hotel brand beyond his hometown. It now has 32 locations throughout Japan.

IBM Watson in video demo interacting with a guest — Courtesy of IBM presentation

IBM demoed IBM Watson, the robot that will be the future assistant throughout the world. IBM Watson can people navigate Japan, do shopping, plan trips. It already has English and Japanese support.

Virtual reality may be the most humane technology to come out. — Morris Sim, Circos Brand Karma, CEO & Co-Founder
One of JAL’s features is automated check-in for people running late — Courtesy of JAL presentation

JAL showed how airlines can use leverage e-commerce to create services that cater to customers’ travel needs. Their use of e-commerce started in 1995 with a website, and online ticket sales since 1996. Since then, JAL (and ANA’s) services have extended to online check-in, packaged deals, taxi services, automated web drop offs at domestic airports. Their major domestic booking is 50%+ web-based and a registered user who is late to the airport can even get a ticket automatically upon arrival as they’re walking to the gate. That’s service!

The Chinese travel market was also a hot topic. China’s traveller behaviour is changing. They typically travel in May or October during the long holidays. They may no longer book package tours. Instead, they are looking increasingly at short-haul holiday destinations, and Japan is the #1 destination.

Trip Advisor sharing increased searches to places outside — Image courtesy of Trip Advisor Presentation

Trip Advisor shared data from March 2015 and 2016 on searches prefectures in Japan. I was happy to learn travellers were becoming more adventurous, as I feel the best places in Japan are the small towns few people have heard of. The greatest increases were Ishikawa and Ibaraki. Other places outside of Tokyo were Toyama, Tottori, Shimane, which I’ve already visited and loved. I have mixed feelings about growing popularity for places like Kanazawa, which is steeped in well-preserved history, comes with modern city amenities, and none of the Tokyo or Kyoto egos. For adventurers, the Hokurikyu Shinkansen goes from Tokyo to Kanazawa.

I am encouraged so many web companies big and small (including the startups that pitched) are aiming to serve travellers through immersive experiences and meaningful cultural exchanges. I am also happy to see most of these companies come from Asia, and if global have a deep appreciation for the diversity in the Asian markets. Too often in startup events, the focus of discussion shifts to comparing with Silicon Valley tech companies. This didn’t happen. Instead, the business of travel had a strong undertone of understanding customers and cultures.

Does this pique your curiosity? Check out the cool travel companies that attended the Web in Travel 2016 North Asia conference and hunt for job opportunities:

If you liked this post, check out my list of Startup Jobs in Asia.

Originally published at on June 6, 2016.

Thinking about the intersection of social justice and tech, with a LGBTQ and POC lense.

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