The travel industry was one of the worst hit by the pandemic, but travel startups have proven resilient. Companies like TravelPerk and Omio are bouncing back with chunky new fundraises. And as consumers try to make up for lost holidays (“revenge travel”), founders are expressing quiet optimism about the future.
The same applies to early-stage startups like Germany-based Lambus, highlighted as a startup to watch in our latest Sifted Pro briefing on the sector. Lambus is an all-in-one travel platform that centralises aspects like planning, navigation, photo sharing and expense management into one app, with certain features available through a paid subscription.
We spoke to cofounder Hans Knöchel about how startups are outdoing incumbents by focusing on personalisation, changes in travel behaviour and how to land big partnerships when starting small.
Can startups step ahead of traditional travel providers in price and customer experience?
"90% of companies focus on the best user experience for booking hotels or flights, for example, but to do that, you have to be really good at funnelling customers onto your website and your affiliate partnerships — if you are not able to do that, you’re losing out to your competition. That’s why big players like Booking.com or Expedia are hyperfocused on reducing the time and friction between the initial Google search and final booking.
Many startups are taking a different approach. Rather than just optimising for search results, they’re thinking about the entire travel journey. With Lambus, we didn’t want to just create a platform for people to book something and then turn away, but engage them throughout their planning, travelling and even afterwards — essentially offering a personalised consultation for their trips.
We think the game in travel tech will be won around this personalisation, because if you offer something and the user churns right after, you have to fight over that same customer again the next time — rather than building lasting engagement with users that will compel them to return to your platform."
The pandemic changed how people travel. How can startups adapt?
We’re definitely seeing a lot more regional [ie. non-international] travelling, which became much more popular during the hard times of 2020 and 2021. For us, this meant a switch from supporting road trips around the world to those in users’ own countries.
To retain users whose travel plans changed, we also adjusted the content we provide on our discovery page, showing the greatest places to travel close to home rather than globally. We’re adapting these inspirational lists based on patterns of interest we observe in our users.
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Most startups aim to perfect one or a few components of travel. Your approach is to bundle them all. Why?
The idea came from my road trip experience in the US. The whole process was split into something like 12 different apps — Splitwise for travel expenses, Google Maps for waypoint planning, Dropbox for our documents, and so on. This was a few years ago, but I thought: this is so 90s, it can’t be real.
So I decided to build something that could eventually become the superapp for travelling, which you can download at the beginning of your trip, use throughout it and even come back to afterwards.
In the beginning, people told us that if we want to do so many things we won’t be able to do all of them well. But because our app focuses on engaging users beyond the booking process, we have strong retention and referrals which allows us to rely on product-led growth instead of us going out and doing a lot of selling. And that means that, as a technical CEO, I can dedicate most of my time to building features and applying the sheer engineering force that’s needed to develop something so ambitious.
How can young companies win partnerships with big names to turbocharge their products?
When we finalised our partnership with Omio, we only had around 60k users. Instead of focusing on numbers like that — which are quite small for bigger companies — we highlighted our long-term vision, which was to provide them with a funnel for customers they would otherwise struggle to acquire themselves.
In our case, we can provide higher booking volumes by referring groups of travellers, as well as returning visitors, from our platform directly to their selling point.
What can startups do to attract a critical mass onto their own platforms or apps?
Optimising our placement in the App and Play stores was a huge topic for us, because that’s really important when it comes to winning over customers in the early days. Beyond that, the reason we’ve grown so fast, despite having raised just over $1m in VC funding, is referrals.
One user recommends us to 2.5 friends on average. And that comes down to us engaging with them beyond the booking process via functional features like photo sharing, waypoint planning, packing lists — anything that takes the hassle out of the travel process.
Amelie Bahr is a senior intelligence analyst at Sifted.