Ever been on holiday and started reaching for your smartphone to look something up, only to remember it’s stuck on airplane mode because you don’t want to get stung with roaming charges? Or wondered what’s cool to do around the Airbnb apartment you rented in an outlying district of Paris, and wasted ages on the Wi-Fi trying to track down a decent place for dinner?
What Now?! is an iOS app for travellers that offers a neat workaround for the roaming smartphone killjoy problem, while also giving a helping hand to steer you through the local knowledge gap. What Now Travel, the London-based startup behind the app — which is launching on stage today, here at Disrupt Europe 2013 — was founded last year. It began testing its ideas for an offline travel app on Barcelona, before moving on to a small private beta in London.
Next up it will be opening the app’s doors to the public — expect it on the App Store in a few weeks’ time — sticking with London for starters before expanding to support other popular tourist destinations. The ultimate vision is to offer a single app that can be your companion regardless of the city or location you’re travelling to. That approach sets it apart from travel rivals taking the ‘download an offline city guidebook’ route to tackle the same problem.
“When we roll this out successfully, you won’t need one separate app for London, one separate app for Paris, one separate app for Barcelona; it’ll be much more of a Google Maps idea — you open it up wherever you are, discover what you want to see whilst you’re on Wi-Fi, download the relevant information and then off you go,” says What Now Travel founder and CEO Tony Sandler. “That’s different to what anyone else is doing at the moment, especially for the travel community.”
How exactly does What Now Travel fix the roaming problem? By building an app that can function even when your iPhone is in airplane mode and far from a friendly Wi-Fi connection.
Sandler said the idea he came up with is to try to “simulate a live smartphone experience” — using some selective data pre-caching, coupled with a MapBox-powered, map-centric presentation that allows the user to search in and around their planned route (zooming in and out of the map) as if they were actually connected to the Internet. (With the user’s real-time location visible on the map, using the phone’s GPS and Wi-Fi data.)
He argues that What Now?!’s daily itinerary map-centric approach makes the experience significantly different to rivals such as Triposo, which also makes interactive offline travel guides but are again following a more well-worn guidebook-style format.
What Now?! does require users to be organised enough to load up the app before they set out for the day to plan what they want to do and see. And they will need a Wi-Fi connection at this point (so the service is dependent on having Wi-Fi where you’re staying or at least a local Wi-Fi-enabled cafe).
But helping tourists with sightseeing planning is a core part of What Now?!’s offering, and it’s partnering with third-party services to help power recommendations for stuff to do in a new area. Initial content partners include Foursquare, Yelp, Wikipedia and Facebook. These partners will vary by market/city, based on what’s relevant in each location, says Sandler.
“As a London local I might use TopTable for [restaurant bookings]. But in Spain the equivalent of TopTable is El Tenedor Restalo, in France it’s La Fourchette. And as a tourist you don’t necessarily know what these best local resources are,” he says, adding: “Think of us as an aggregator to start with. We have deals with people like Yelp and Foursquare to have offline access to their data.
“We’re not trying to compete and offer a review service – what we’re trying to do is take the information that already exists on these fantastic services but provide it in a way that people can use their smartphones as they would like to do back home but without paying for data roaming.”
Once a day plan has been created within What Now?!, the app then downloads all the relevant bits of info for the day — i.e. all the data that pertains to the planned sightseeing route and up to half a mile around it, to allow for a few spontaneous detours. The user can then log off Wi-Fi, knowing they are armed with a data snapshot relating to wherever they’re heading that day.
“We can help you discover interesting places that maybe you want to visit when you’re out and about and going from A to B. As a tourist you don’t care about finding the quickest route from A to B — you’re very happy to detour and find interesting stuff nearby. You just don’t know what the interesting stuff is,” he says.
“We even use a radar feature where we help people show you a five-minute walking vicinity around where you are. That allows you to say, okay that’s quite interesting – and you can zoom in and out and contextualise distance, and that kind of stuff. Think of it as a Google Maps+.”
What Now?! does not present the user with entirely static data, either. Although they can’t get real-time travel info such as bus arrivals/departures, the app could still suggest which bus number is needed in order to get to a particular location along the route, says Sandler.
“If we know you’re going from Old Street to the Tower of London, we can take the transit information along that route and allow you to see it – to start with, quite simplistically, but the premise is we’re simulating this kind of live smartphone experience that normally you’d have to pay for,” he adds.
The app plots about 10 recommendations for what to do in a particular area on the map view at a time, such as museums, art galleries and so on. These suggestions can vary based on context such as the weather or time of day. Users can also filter the view based on the type of outing they’re after — telling the app to only display places to eat, for instance, or just show sights.
“Because we’re doing this [pre-caching] with immediacy – we’re taking things in the morning for the day ahead — it allows us to be a bit smarter,” says Sandler. “Right now it’s just we’re using information from our partners [to generate the recommendations] — seeing what’s popular on these services and indexing accordingly.
“Going forward that’s a very different proposition because as you start to understand the user’s personal preferences, then you can start to be more clever with what you’re recommending.”
“That’s why the product’s called What Now?! It’s not called ‘roaming free’. It’s about the immediacy and spontaneity. That’s the area that we’re passionate about trying to solve,” he adds.
In essence, What Now?! is setting itself up as a pocket hotel concierge for the Airbnb generation — albeit, a concierge that comes out from behind the desk and follows you around on your day trip, continuing to provide helpful suggestions.
“The really exciting thing for us is the growth in Airbnb and their many clones, because it means two things: one it’s that travellers are starting to stay in slightly more residential neighbourhoods… [which aren’t well catered for by the likes of Lonely Planet],” says Sandler.
“And secondly these same people who are now staying in Airbnb-style accommodation no longer have access to hotel concierges yet they still want to book restaurants, theatre tickets, tours, etc. They have smart mobile devices but they’re not using them because of the high cost of roaming – and that’s where we come in to offer this solution.”
What Now Travel’s current business model is based on monetising through affiliate commissions — via partners such as TopTable. In future it may look to add tourist bodies to further expand its partner roster and affiliate pipeline.
Doubtless it will also be hoping to amass a wealth of useful data about its users’ travel-related preferences that could be monetised in other ways, too. To that end it will be giving people the option to save their daily itineraries — which they’ll also be able to share socially, giving it a viral marketing hook.
“If I think back to many of the trips I’ve done in my lifetime I don’t remember what I’ve done on a day-to-day basis, so just for my own personal motivation it would be fantastic to remember what you’ve done on a given day so this effectively becomes your offline travel discovery portal,” adds Sandler. “You give people the opportunity, the usefulness of going out and discovering things offline — but if they want to look back and see what they’ve done, then they can.”
What Now?! is iOS only for now — although Sandler points out it works well on iPod Touch and iPad Mini, as well as on iPhone. An Android version is planned for the future.
Q: How big is the file?
A: On the example I was showing you that’s coming up 35 to 40MB (to cover a large chunk of London)
Q: Does the information cover all of London or do you need to pick certain areas?
A: On our servers we’re going to have information for the whole of London. We’re starting in London because we need to finesse the product. The ultimate intention – with partners that we have with serviced like Yelp, Foursquare, MapBox, we’re working with Roam2Rio to aggregate transit — we can spread out and rollout out very quickly to other places
Q: How do you make this information specific to me?
A: Effectively because it’s all about planning your immediate next steps we can note things like the weather and the time of date. But there’s more to it than that. This could effectively become your offline travel portal – people want their travel journals. They want to remember what they did every day. And at that point you start becoming very clever — because… you learn what people like and dislike
Q: Foursquare knows what I like. If you’re just taking info from Foursquare I’m expecting a certain level of personalisation…
A: But if you want to use Foursquare you’d have to pay for roaming.
We don’t want to compete with Foursquare; they are our partners
Q: What if I want to go to several areas in a city?
A: Yes, this app is built for [that]… you download all the relevant points and off you go
Q: Do you have any info on the cost for info download (from your partners)?
A: We’ve been very fortunate in the partnerships that we have. They are keeping the CPOs much lower. There’s a lot of value in it for them.
Q: It’s a very interesting proposition. It’s a real pain point that they’re solving, and I have actually been thinking about something similar – so it’s an interesting product. Can you comment on your user acquisition strategy?
A: When we launch in London we’re going to focus on the pain points like sponsored Wi-Fi in airports and train stations. And places where travellers gather like hostels. We’re also going to do distribution partnerships with travel agencies. A lot of our activity is going to be focused on in destination – where travellers are.
Q: When can we see the app?
A: You’ll see the app in three weeks’ time