Tapulous, one of the earliest, big mobile games makers for the iPhone, made its splash with Tap Tap Revenge, the first in a series of apps where users tapped on dropping balls in time with music — a formula that proved wildly successful and eventually resulted in the company getting bought by Disney in 2010 for reportedly $50 million. Now, one of the co-founders of Tapulous, the Australian Andrew Lacy, has hotfooted it to Paris to tackle something new: the online travel market, with the launch of ZapTravel, a semantic travel search engine.
The idea of ZapTravel is to do away with the need for all the extra “data entry” required by many travel sites today, from selecting calendar dates to entering destinations from pop-up menus and more. ZapTravel searches are based on what you type into a single window, with details “human” as what you’d type to a friend. For example, “I’d like to go to Stockholm.”
When you register, ZapTravel makes note of your location, so all searches are by default from there. You can also set other defaults around, say, how fancy/budget you’d like your accomodation to be. ZapTravel then creates discounted trips based on the information you have provided, offering flights and hotel options. It’s working with some 3,000 partners now to create those deals. With the longer-term emphasis on experiences as much as getting you from point A to B, it looks like the plan is to present more packages in the longer run (not just directing you to a cool city for food, but suggesting and booking a table at a top restaurant).
In that sense, ZapTravel is also trying to cater to users who are undecided about where they would like to go. Lacy says that since ZapTravel’s soft launch last week, one of the most popular search terms (go Internet go!) has been “sex,” to which ZapTravel’s engine “diligently returns dynamically constructed deals for nightlife destinations and places with lively atmosphere.” It also includes city guides, created by aggregating content from other sites like Frommers and locals enlisted by ZapTravel.
Lacy — who is a lawyer and MBA by training but coded half the site — describes ZapTravel as “a learning system.” He says that there is an ongoing mix of algorithmic processing, along with some human shaping. The platform’s “vocabulary” already has “3,000 destinations, 10,000 different reasons to go, and 15,000 events” to trigger search results, says Lacy.
“The more people use it and the more content we feed it, the better it is able to put together packages to match specific interests,” he says. Others on ZapTravel’s team include engineer Nicolas Martignole, who organizes the French Java conference Devoxx France, and used to build complex financial systems for Reuters; user experience specialist Olivier Desmoulins; and Mathieu Seguin. There is also a separate office for development in Eastern Europe, says Lacy.
Where games end and travel begins
ZapTravel and Tapulous couldn’t be more different — one mobile-first and created for pure entertainment, and the other launching first on desktop and focused on e-commerce and using new technology around semantic search to help complete travel transactions; one based in Palo Alto and the other anchored in Paris “because Europe is a much bigger market for travel in general.” But there are some threads between the two. In addition to the entrepreneur himself, there is the fact that both are trying to create markets for products that have yet to be established.
In the case of Tapulous, it was making iPhone apps before Apple had even officially moved into the space itself. ZapTravel, meanwhile, is hoping to establish itself as a semantic travel platform at a time when the playing field is still wide open.
But that is changing.
For one, services like Siri on the iPhone and Google Now on Android offer users quicker, less labor intensive ways of discovering new information; and that is whetting people’s appetite to have easier user experience everywhere. In addition, the ever-growing number of online travel options — why book an expensive, touristy hotel on Travelocity if you can stay in a cute loft with Airbnb? — will mean that those sites that make it easier to give you the right information stand to win your business.
On top of that, there has been some significant M&A in the space as the bigger players in online travel look to expand their features more to compete against others, with huge deals like Priceline’s acquisition of Kayak for $1.8 billion, Expedia’s majority stake in Trivago for $632 million, and also smaller startup plays like Tripadvisor buying Tiny Post last week.
Would-be competitors include Expedia, which is beta-testing a semantic search called YourVisit; and CheapAir, which is beta-testing “Easy Search” for semantic searches of flights. Among startups, there is Desti, the “personal travel assistant” spun out from Siri-creators Sri International. And Hopper, staffed up by a team that left Expedia that has raised $22 million for what also appears to be a semantic search app, but it is still in stealth mode.
ZapTravel will be trying to meet the market and exceed what others are already doing.
“The travel industry has a lot of poor quality experiences,” says Lacy. “I learned how to make beautiful products at Tapulous and that’s what i’m trying to do here.”
He says that plans for the mobile app will include the ability to enter search requests by voice as well as text. One area I’ve seen that will need room for improvement is its ability to deal with people who make typos (like me). This too is being worked on, says Lacy.
ZapTravel is currently bootstrapped but is in the process of raising an Angel round that it expects to close in the next few months.