Online Travel Platform KimKim Brings Back The Travel Agent

Sometimes, there can be a little too much disruption. So goes the thesis of Joost Schreve, the former head of mobile for TripAdvisor, who left the company last November and started his own startup, KimKim, in December.

The nascent company — seed-funded with $1 million from investors, including NFX Guild — is catering to the presumably many people who no long want to plan their next vacation by scouring the web. Its simple, secret weapon? Good old-fashioned travel agents, who talk online with customers via a conversational interface.

We talked with Schreve earlier this morning to learn more about what he’s developing at his four-person, Palo Alto, Ca.-based company. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length.

TC: You seemingly left TripAdvisor — where you worked after selling it your startup in 2011 — expressly to start this new thing. What wasn’t TripAdvisor doing that you think you can?

JS: TripAdvisor and many sites like it have a lot of information, so users have to do a lot of filtering and comparing and it becomes a very painful process, especially for trips that are complex or longer. The average consumer goes to 38 different sites, according to an Expedia study, and they spend more than 10 hours [researching these more involved trips].

The difference between this painful process and a nice process is one person who is unbiased and can help you.

TC: We are talking, of course, of the long-maligned travel agent. But how do you convince people that these online agents are unbiased and not getting kickbacks for their recommendations? Wasn’t that part of the problem to begin with?

JS: People are free to double-check what else is out there and they should. The reason our early users like us is that we handpick experts who we know are good and objective. Like many marketplaces that have gone before us, as we scale, you’ll see user reviews; we’ll also be studying conversion rates and [tracking our Net Promoter score].

TC: How automated, or not, is this whole process right now?

JS: Right now, it’s a very manual process. We’re making a lot of magic happen via phone calls and so forth, but automating things is a big part of our road map. A mobile app is also a big part of the game plan. At TripAdvisor, I built our mobile app from scratch to [the point where it was used by 200 million users]. We’ve started on desktop because we wanted to launch quickly, and for big trip planning, desktop is a big part of that. But the mobile app we’re creating will enable people to have conversations [with our online travel agents] and have ongoing support and a lot of information and guidance once they’re on their trip.

TC: Who are you catering to, exactly? Will this service be in the financial reach of many or is this for people with a little more money to spend?

JS: We’ve taken bookings in the $1,000 to $6,000 range. From that point of view, we’re similar to how many travel companies operate (meaning KimKim takes commissions on hotel bookings and other trip-related events, keeping some for itself and sharing the rest with its agents). But these aren’t necessarily luxury experiences. Though $1,000 isn’t a small amount to pay us, they’re getting a lot of value in return.

TC: On what geographies are you currently focused?

JS: Right now, our network [of agents are] in Nepal and Croatia, two places where I’ve spent a lot of time, and we’re adding Japan and Iceland shortly. The reason we started that way is that I believe nailing a destination and creating a great experience takes time. We want to figure out our playbook without going global right out of the gate.

TC: How big do you think this opportunity is?

JS: I think it’s huge. We have four kids, and my wife and I have planned a ton of family vacations and complicated trips, and it’s a lonely process, searching for reviews.

We want you to find someone who is on the other side who cares about you and who’s going to help you through it.