The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Alex Tomlinson and Gregory Geny, co-founders of BeRightBack (BRB), an online travel platform based in London that offers surprise holiday packages on a subscription basis. Tomlinson, BRB’s chief product officer, and Geny, BRB’s chief executive officer, discussed how data can be useful to refine and improve the travel experience.
Eline Chivot: I suspect you are both travel enthusiasts. What experiences have led you to think life could be improved for travelers?
Alex Tomlinson: My background is in design and product. I graduated from Kingston University in 2010 with a BA in graphic design before starting my career at a small boutique branding agency in London. While there, I saw the team grow from four employees to 16, as we started working on large scale digital transformation work with FTSE 100 companies. During that time, my experience of early adult life was I believe fairly typical. I had been fortunate enough to travel a lot in my teens on family holidays, but now that I had to support myself—my wages were too low to effectively budget for travel. This meant that the first half of my twenties saw me traveling relatively little, and by the time I had the disposable income to travel, I no longer had the time to dedicate to searching and booking travel. I hacked this problem by giving money to friends to book travel for me, or jumping in on other people’s group trip plans, which meant there was very little overhead for me to participate.
Gregory Geny: I’ve worked in startups across multiple industries from travel to fitness and music. While working in the travel industry, helping smaller hoteliers to manage their inventory through the larger online travel agents (OTAs) and moving them away from paper booking to an online platform, I was a very active traveler in my early twenties. Originally from France, I prioritized travel, but always expected one of the big players in the industry to improve the customer experience of booking travel. Fast-forward 10 years, nothing has really changed. As new innovations in the travel space came along, all they did was further complicate the booking experience for customers—before there might have been three or four websites that you’d check to find your next break, now you’re dealing with a spreadsheet, and 50 tabs across all the different providers that you could engage with, and all the time customers spends researching their next trip, the cost of travel is rising—often stopping people from achieving their travel goals. This is what we set out to improve with BRB.
Chivot: I have read that BRB, text speak for “be right back,” is “the Netflix of travel.” Can you explain what that means? And why would millennials be interested in using BRB rather than other travel applications or websites?
Tomlinson and Geny: When we launched the business in late 2018 with my co-founder Greg, our thesis was that millennials had similar problems to mine. The travel industry has spent the last two decades focusing on budget as a message, making the experience of shopping on the likes of Skyscanner, Booking.com, and Expedia not dissimilar to sifting through a bargain bin trying to find a hidden gem. At the same time, we’ve seen millennials swayed by the convenience economy, spending more money than predecessors on private hire cars through the likes of Uber or takeaway meals via services like Deliveroo.
We wanted to bring the same element of convenience to travel, based on the thesis that a growing majority of the workforce is becoming more time-poor. None of our competitors make traveling regularly as easy or as budget friendly as us in the long term, as ultimately their goal is always to upsell you to higher room package, a luxury hotel, or maximize the margin from a singular experience with them. We are able to provide better value through a more loyal customer base. For example, Booking.com spent $1.6 billion in a single quarter on Google ads in 2018, and each time they make a sale, they are theoretically spending the same to acquire a customer for each trip. We, by contrast, only advertise to a customer once, with the goal of providing them multiple experiences that see them staying with us over a longer period of time.
After committing to a payment, users select their date of travel and type of trip across categories such as culture or beach. They can use various filters to refine their search, to then find out the details of their trip to a European destination, a month before travel. The subscription service costs £200 per person per trip, the concept being to spreading the cost of a trip across a series of payments: As soon as a trip is over, planning for the next one begins.
Chivot: What information do you collect about users, and what does that allow you to do? What kinds of insights and analytics do you generate, and which ones do you share with users?
Tomlinson and Geny: We currently gather first party data on our customers through a survey they take when signing up to BRB. This allows us to understand the kind of traveler they are and to group them with similar travelers, to maximize their experiences. This also allows us to use aggregated scores of their experiences to refine the selections for future customers like them—for example a person with profile Y travels to three cities with us and loves his or her first two trips, but the hotel in the third city isn’t quite to his or her taste—when a similar customer comes to us in the future, we can learn from that experience to optimize the next journey and select a different hotel.
Over time of course, we’d like to increase the data we gather on customers to include third party sources, but this will always be done in a way that provides clear and obvious value to our customers. For example, if you were to connect a Spotify account, we’d learn more about the genres of music you find interesting and be able to send you to hotspots for that music scene, rather than harvesting the data to sell ads. This is when we believe data is truly beneficial to customers, when it’s used for them and not for the companies they give it to.
The most surprising trend we’ve seen in our data to date is the shift in trend away from traveling for food experiences—toward the goal of sharing their experiences. Our most popular trip type is #4theGram, which sees customers sent to cities that look great through a camera lens. This of course chimes in with the growth of social media among the demographic we’re targeting, but seeing the stark reality of it being a motivator for travel is fascinating.
Chivot: How do you wish to improve BRB, and plan to further develop BRB’s services?
Tomlinson: Currently, BRB’s focus is on flights and hotels—but ultimately our vision is to provide the most seamless travel experience across the entire journey, whether that be the addition of car hire, or tailored experiences in destination. Of course we’re also looking at expanding to new territories across Europe as well—currently we’re only available to travelers in the UK.
Chivot: The more people will use your app, the more you will know about their travel habits. How do you preserve spontaneity?
Tomlinson and Geny: We think using data and insights can inherently surprise people. There are destinations all across Europe that people have heard of and want to visit—but the secondary destinations with less tourism can often offer better experiences. It also allows you to ride early trends—10 years ago, Croatia wasn’t at the top of everyone’s bucket list—but a couple of groundbreaking EDM festivals later and it’s one of the most popular destinations. Finding those hidden gems early allows us to send people to places before all of their friends start going, making them feel like trendsetters. Our goal at BRB isn’t to give everyone cookie cutter experiences, in fact we have the opportunity to open people’s eyes to destinations they would never have thought of and find their new favourite cities.
Outside of concierge services, true understanding and personalization for customers hasn’t really been done at scale in the travel industry. Most big travel providers offer a transactional experience that isn’t tailored to the customer, but to maximize profits, try buying a flight and not spend more than the cost shown before add-ons. By offering a traveler-first solution and democratizing the concierge experience to people with lower incomes, the use of data can enable tailored experiences at scale that were never possible before.