Phocuswright 2016: Innovators, Innovators, Everywhere Innovators


Innovation is one of the core topics that Travel Daily Media will be covering in the Executive Village section of the publication and on our Game Changer radio program.  The Innovation portion of Phocuswright has long been my favorite part of the conference.  Listening to all of the presentations and truly distilling down the real innovation is not for the faint at heart, as companies of all sizes compete for one of travel’s most coveted innovation awards.

Phocuswright, under Philip Wolf’s leadership, pioneered the concept of showcasing innovators in our industry and bringing investors, incubators and future partners together and we are glad to see that it is still an integral part of the conference.  Before it was a separate track of the conference and a formal program at PhoCusWright, my first startup was one of the winners of the coveted Innovator of the Year.

The year was 2007 and LeisureLogix had just launched our game changing integrated road trip planning and booking tool on Travelocity.  Travel by car was (and still is) the primary mode of transportation in the US for both business and leisure travel, representing over 89% of all overnight trips.

We absolutely nailed the solution.  We had the dream executive team.  We raised $7m in capital (and $7m sounds like a lot, unless you need $10m to give you enough runway to turn cash flow positive.)  We won the coveted award.  But the hard work had just begun and unfortunately the story didn’t end well.  When we began our search for the next round of capital, the world was plunging into economic crisis.  Less than a year later, we completely closed the doors.  But like most entrepreneurs, that experience didn’t deter me and I’m now working on my 2nd technology company.

So, you now understand the “rest of the story” and why having the opportunity to write about the Innovation portion of Phocuswright is a unique honor for me personally.

At Phocuswright Innovation, early-stage, emerging and established companies compete to present their fresh ideas, new innovations and ground breaking products.  The [no more than] 10 minute presentations are made to members of the press, potential investors and industry colleagues, plus the pundits and the “usual suspects and rabble-rousers”, all of which were present at Monday night’s opening bash.  Great to see so many old friends!

On Monday, early stage startups participated in the Battleground.  The applicants had ten minutes each to demonstrate their innovations to a panel of sometimes ruthless and uncensored judges, and the cheers or jeers of a live audience of conference attendees. In the end, only the three most promising companies won the right to move on to be part of the Summit, where the three winners demonstrate their groundbreaking innovations on the main stage, surrounded by young companies with new innovations.

And the winners are?

Phocuswright Battleground Winner #1 – Airmule

At tonight’s Phocuswright Kickoff Bash hosted by AppsFlyer and SapientNitro, AirMule was one of three winners of what is lovingly referred to as the Battleground (or not so lovingly by the 21 companies that were not selected).  They now move on to the competition with the more established early stage firms and the big boys that believe they have the next big idea.


Airmule is a trusted community marketplace for anyone to affordably express ship worldwide with a traveler from a mobile phone or tablet.  The LA based company was founded by Rory Felton and Sean Yang.  The company has one seed investor, Young Song, founder and CEO of, who invested an undisclosed.  If the company kept to the Battleground rules, that amount was less than $1 million.

This is one of those “why didn’t I think of that” ideas.  Although I must admit, that lately I have been trying to determine whether I need a bigger suitcase, not trying to figure out how to sell excess space in my luggage to a third party.

I strongly suspect that everyone will “get it”, although some of us may not be eager to be called a “mule”.  I’m guessing that it is better than “nag.”  (couldn’t resist the A League of their Own reference).  The challenge here will be amassing a large enough community of travelers (they currently hover between 5,000 and 10,000 unique visitors a month) and shippers that are willing to use the Uber™ of shipping companies.  Ah well, like most opportunities, this is a problem that money can definitely solve.

Actually, I recently needed to send a package to my daughter who is a freshman at the University of Warsaw in Poland, but the cost of shipping it, even via the US Postal Service far exceeded the value of the items inside the package.  I wish I had known about Airmule.

Phocuswright Battleground Winner #2 – Beyond Pricing

It is fitting that I am writing this article from the comfort of the chaise lounge in my Airbnb living room.  My colleagues from Travel Daily Media USA and I decided that this would fit our needs much better than hotel rooms.  It ends up being cheaper all around, even including the UBER expenses of getting back and forth to the conference, plus, since we live in different cities, it is a great place to “meet”.

But what about being an Airbnb, VRBO or Flipkey host?  How do you decide how to price your condo, flat, house, etc.?

BeyondPricing has clearly decided that this is a niche that they want to own.  The company was founded by Andrew KitchellDavid Kelso and Ian McHenry.   They have been successful at their beyond pricinginitial fund raising and obviously convinced Phocuswright to make an exception to their Battleground funding rules.

They have raised $1.5m from 5 investors.  The lead was Resolute VC, and the other investors include Caffeinated Capital, QueensBridge Venture Partners, Social Leverage and Structure Capital.

BeyondPricing delivers dynamic price modeling, statistics, algorithm design, and real estate analytics. Their focus is on developing pricing software to help hosts & owners maximize the performance of their vacation rental properties.

Data driven pricing is not new.  The industry has focused deeply on revenue management for more than two decades.  What is different here is the accessibility of sophisticated analysis, driven by data, for the non-technical inventory owner.


Phocuswright Battleground Winner #3 – Stride Travel

I must admit, when I heard this product name, I tried to envision what it was all about.  I half expected it to be about walking tours.

stride travelI was pleasantly surprised to see a new reviews marketplace for all experiential pre-planned travel, including multi-day guided tours, adventure travel packages, and small ship & river cruises.   The site boasts the largest amount of content and reviews in this unique tour space.  It also has a very nice search filtering tool.

Stride has amassed its content from over 400 tour operators.  Their seed round closed in February of this year, for an undisclosed amount.  Stride is backed by travel & tech industry titans with investors including Adam Goldstein (Cofounder & CEO of Hipmunk), John Owen (Cofounder of JetBlue Airways), Baris Gultekin (Cofounder of Google Now) and TDG Ventures. Stride’s founding team have previously worked in leading travel startups and large companies including Viator, Intrepid, Zozi, Kayak, Starwood Hotels & Flight Network.

With that pedigree and what one would hope is the promise of future rounds of funding from the initial backers, I would say that the future for Stride should be very bright.  When my proverbial “ship” comes in, this is the site that I want to spend a lot of time on, so I am praying that they make it!!

The three Battleground winners move on to Tuesday’s Summit sessions, joining 21 other companies to duke it out for who will receive the coveted innovator awards.  The awards session will be held Tuesday at 630pm.  We will report the winners in tomorrow’s edition.

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