Planning a holiday online – right from looking up information about the destination you want to visit to making your hotel and travel arrangements – is quite a breeze. While it’s no doubt easy, you still end up visiting multiple sites. TouristLink.com launched by GoTripIndia Pvt Ltd. plans to change this, by becoming a one stop destination catering to all your travel needs. 

The Journey
US-based Dr. David Urmann and Nagpur-based Jayesh Bagde first got together in 2006 to set up a company that dealt with Internet publishing, as well as consulted in e-commerce, SEO and the travel domain. Their exposure to the travel domain made them aware of the untapped potential. And as avid travellers themselve and with Dr. Urmann having authored several guidebooks, they were aware of what  travellers were looking for. They put this knowledge to good use and launched travel booking sites like visitUSA.com, travelaffiliatepro.com and hotelkhoj.com
      
As the business grew, from three members they went on to become a strong team with over sixty members. While the sites were a success, they sensed a gradual shift in the behavioural pattern of the consumer. People wanted something more than traditional booking engines; they were seeking advice, looking for reviews, comparing prices and packages, etc. On the other hand, their dealing with the travel business owners made them realize that they too were looking at platforms to interact with travellers at minimal costs. They put some thoughts on paper, which gradually took shape in the form of TouristLink.com, a social travel marketplace that aims to forge strong buyer-seller relationship based on trust. Launched in October 2011, the site is currently in public beta.

Challenges  
While they didn’t have to struggle like other startups, with substantial funding and a team already in place, the challenge for them was to be able to create an intuitive platform to serve the needs of the people. Jayesh agrees that their previous experience of being a startup did give them an edge. He says, “When we decided about TouristLink, we knew that we’ve finally found our calling. Being a startup we knew how to pivot and decide quickly. This helped us to adapt to the changing times and move ahead from being a traditional reservations system. It also helped us form the team perspective, as they could easily shift gears. While on the other hand, having an established revenue model did help us bootstrap for TouristLink, it also poses a challenge. As it translates into a fixed revenue model that depletes with time, and offers us no leverage when we might need to scale-up with our social platform.” They started out with a budget of Rs 1 crore and their present burn rate is US$ 20,000 per month. Currently they are bootstrapping, but they are looking for early stage investments.    

Looking at the popularity of featured deals, they are now planning to enable real-time bookings

Looking at the popularity of featured deals, they are now planning to enable real-time bookings

With initial funding taken care of, the biggest challenge for them was to get the features right—after all there are several travel sites out there and for TouristLink.com to make a mark, it needs features that will attract users. Positioning the site was crucial and this is where their past experience of this domain, as well as their own travel experiences came in handy. They also interacted with both sets of users, before finalizing on the features. What they observed was that the traditional travel engine is unidirectional, where the real identity of the seller remains hidden from the customer. What the customers were looking at was interaction with the seller, more customization, and a transparent deal. This is why they decided upon creating a social platform to facilitate interaction between the two and this they believe is one feature that will give them an edge over others. And since this platform is based on trust, they have in place stringent checks for every business provider, local ambassadors and a zero tolerance policy towards spammers.    

Features
On creating your profile on TouristLink.com, you will be recommended travel destinations, based on the preferences you have set. You can look-up a destination, and get information of the places worth visiting there, which is based on user rankings. Here you can also connect with local ambassadors, who are actually local experts and can answer your queries about that particular destination. An interesting feature is that if you opt for a group tour then you will not only be able to see who else is on the tour, but you can even connect with them. Also, you can connect with the trip leader and resolve queries you may have. If you don’t find a featured deal that meets your requirement, then you can also post your request, explaining your travel needs. This is an interesting feature, as it also caters to requests like pick-up from airport, local guide, translators, cab service, etc. Your request will be sent out to the travel agents on the site, who can then make offers. Apart, from this you can also interact with other travellers by adding them to your network. What they aim to do with TouristLink.com is to provide a seamless experience to the customers when it comes to travel.

While the concept has a tremendous potential, there are a few issues that need to be addressed. To begin with, there has to be better integration of search results. When we looked up picnic spots near Pune, for instance, the results were mixed up. When you think of a picnic, it’s more of a quick weekend getaway, the primary consideration being less travel time involved. The first suggestions for our query were places that required considerable travel time, while the more relevant ones were on later pages. Having pointed that out to Jayesh he acknowledged the problem and assured that it would be solved in a few days' time owing to the mapping of destinations, which is currently being undertaken. He explained that the search results that were displayed are based on what people liked.

Looking at the popularity of featured deals, they are now planning to enable real-time bookings

Looking at the popularity of featured deals, they are now planning to enable real-time bookings

Vision
Since its launch, the site has managed to attract more than ten thousand travelers and over two thousand travel businesses as members, from around the world. They are quite pleased with the initial response and Jayesh feels confident that as the number grows the site will offer more value, owing to the social nature of the site. From the business point of view, what has gained traction in the last couple of months has been the response to featured deals. Based on this, they plan to enable real-time bookings for a set of services. Their vision is to acquire 30% transactional business of global travel activities market by 2016. This they intend to achieve on the basis of their network in countries like Kenya, Philippines, USA, and Chile. What will also give them a further boost is the fact that TouristLink.com has been selected for the StartUp Chile global accelerator program.

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