‘I built a travel data start-up because of a selfish desire to keep in touch’User role is=
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Andres Fabris earned a finance degree from the University of Texas at Austin in the hopes of working in the finance side of the IT industry. Instead, he has spent 23 years growing, then disrupting, the travel industry: leadership roles in Sabre, World Choice Travel and Travelocity prepared him to build a web-based travel proximity alert service that would allow him to stay in touch with his classmates after finishing graduate school. This became Traxo, which is now a rising star in travel data aggregation and itinerary intelligence analysis.
We joined the start-up founder in uncovering if – and how – his heritage informs this passion project. Here he shares with us in his own words:
I was born in Argentina, but I moved to the US as a boy. I grew up in a bilingual and bicultural household, and my oldest memories are of travelling back and forth to be with my relatives. I think that upbringing programmed me to be more open towards exploring new cultures and new mindsets. While that approach definitely applies to leisure travel, I brought some of that openness into my career.
After college, I wanted to pursue a finance role in a tech company. But I entered the travel industry in 1995 when Sabre – then still owned by American Airlines – offered me the role I wanted plus free flight benefits, which was a rare and compelling combination at the time. I quickly moved up the ranks in finance and product roles to become director of emerging business, corporate strategy and business development at Sabre, where I also returned to once I finished business school.
After a stint with World Choice Travel, I took on leadership posts in Travelocity.com, where my role was to establish and negotiate the company’s major distribution, content and technology partnerships. My career has been a happy accident, really. I didn’t know that the trajectory of my early decisions would bring me here!
Traxo began as a selfish desire to keep in touch with my graduate school classmates. I made amazing friends while pursuing an MBA degree at Harvard Business School. My closest friends hailed from all over the world – Argentina, Brazil and Spain. I knew I wanted to continue meeting with them in person after graduation.
In graduate school, I wrote a white paper about network effects, where I proposed an idea: a programme that would let people know where their friends or family would be going in the future. It would proactively tell users of everyone’s upcoming travel plans and alert them in advance of any future overlaps.
Then I thought, “Would it be possible to reliably know people’s locations?“ I soon realised that OTAs and travel suppliers were the only companies that knew people’s confirmed future locations, and I began working on a web-based social proximity alert using technology to detect trips from these travel sites.
I like to say that Traxo is a platform of assisted serendipity – you discover overlaps in travels with people you know and you meet with them at places neither of you live nor work in, but at the same time our technology makes sure that these meetings happen.
While we were doing so, we stumbled into a really elegant way to create a master itinerary or super-PNR consolidating travel data from multiple sources. Over time we combined social proximity, itinerary management, and loyalty dashboard functions into a single, customer-focused platform, which became Traxo. We started out with 10 sites, which grew into 40 sites, then 200, then 400 sites. The service was very consumer-focused as a result.
Sometime after our first five years – Traxo started in 2008, so it’s 10 years old now – SAP called. The third largest software company in the world wanted us to add our travel data into their corporate expense reports. Now we’d never done it before, but it made sense for us. We realised that corporations and their travel providers needed to have visibility into the trips made by their workforce.
So we entered a huge licensing agreement where SAP would use our aggregation engine tech to directly populate their expense reports with the data we had collected for the traveller. This led us to enhance our itinerary management and data aggregation tech. We came up with technology that automatically detects travel data as it passes through email inboxes and corporate email servers. To complete the transition from B2C into B2B, we proceeded to raise venture capital investment and set up a formal sales team.
Traxo provides the data that power the innovations that have become today’s buzzwords, like artificial intelligence and machine learning. However, our own products and processes don’t use any of them at this time. That said, I think that big data is still relevant in the travel industry today. Without data, there would be no way to introduce and improve on services and products that travellers need. Data is the foundational element that teaches these technologies to conform to a certain structure in order for them to be useful in the first place.
But I do have some caveats. It’s always been difficult to consolidate data because it’s stored in thousands of systems in different formats. Booking data is particularly fragmented, especially with the rise of metasearch and GDS. And now with the introduction of NDC, the distribution cost charge, and the strengthening power of supplier loyalty programmes, it’s bound to get even more challenging to gather all this travel data together.
I’m personally interested in cryptocurrency (I like bitcoin), blockchain and their synergy and applications. But they still have a lot of nascent potentials, and their application to the travel industry still needs to be developed. Regarding AR and VR, if done correctly, they should stimulate the occurrence of real travel, but I don’t believe they will ever substitute it. The joy of travel relies on being physically present; AR and VR only allow you to see it, but how do you sense it? How do you hear, smell, touch and taste a place you’ve never been in?
I once read that a person’s 10 fondest memories include marriage and the birth of a child in the top two spots; all the rest are related to travel.
Traxo has had a great 2 years. In 2016, TripAdvisor became a Traxo investor when we closed our US$5.2 million Series B funding round. Last year, we managed to raise US$725,510 in new equity funds. We also launched Traxo FILTER, a game-changer for companies flying blind when it comes to capturing and aggregating travel data, in 2017. It’s a compelling product because it helps track reservations and itineraries made by corporate travellers outside of OTAs and TMCs in real-time, without requiring employees to remember to take any action.
Our plans for 2018 include becoming fully profitable later this year. This year, business is projected to grow beyond 500% year-on-year. With the proceeds from our last round and some recent add-on investments, we’re looking to ramp up our sales and marketing efforts to a global level. This is because our selling and marketing are currently centred here in the US where we are based, even if our product is available worldwide.
We’re looking towards Europe and Asia, which we feel also have fragmented data but for reasons different from the US. Both regions have more independent hotels and smaller chains than we do, and they also have different attitudes towards booking and loyalty. Our team just finished a business trip to Europe last week, so our focus in the coming weeks would be to build our Europe-based data centre. We have also started working on our accreditation for GDPR compliance. We’ll make our way towards Asia in 2019.
To start-up founders and young travel entrepreneurs – I’m sorry, I know this is a complete reversal of position, but please: no more trip-planning start-ups! We’ve seen dozens of them in the last 10 years all mushroom and then land in the graveyard. If anything, start-ups should focus on other technologies, like traveller identification. Some innovations that particularly excite me are chat- and voice-activated applications and platforms like Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Home.
In our 10-year journey, I’ve learned that the process of creating a company is extremely rewarding. When you are able to consolidate compelling products, an amazing team, and strong investors and advisors together, it makes all the stress and hard work worth it. That said, I’ve discovered that it is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to play the long game and learn how to manage the psychological and emotional parts. You need to develop ways to modulate the highs and lows of the process because they are always on the extremes – very high or very low, nothing in-between – especially during the early years.
* This is part of a series called the Crush List, featuring the hottest startups in travel tech. Watch this space for more startups that are killing it this 2018!