Venture Investment Trends in the Travel Industry 2015

by Colin Gibbs + Skift Team - Oct 2015

Skift Research Take

A handful of major disruptive companies in travel and hospitality are enjoying sky-high valuations as they secure late-round funding, while an ever-increasing number of newer startups are vying for investment capital as they target more specific markets. Learn about the trends that are driving venture funding in travel, and what startups need to know as they vie to secure the capital necessary for their growth.

Report Overview

The year has seen the continuation of some major trends in venture capital funding for travel-industry businesses, including a focus on the sharing economy and the ever-increasing importance of mobile apps and websites. The market has also seen the emergence of newer developments such as the use of analytics to leverage big data and the rise of emerging markets.

It’s crucial that startups, established players and investors in the travel and hospitality industry understand these trends. This Skift Trends Report presents interviews with Henry Harteveldt of the Atmosphere Research Group and Abrar Ahmad of Travel Capitalist Ventures. It also includes a case study of Inspirato, a 4-year-old luxury vacation club, to highlight and analyze major developments in the travel industry over the last year.

This report examines developments in online travel including the growing stature of emerging markets, the ever-expanding sharing economy and increasing role mobile apps and websites are playing for consumers around the world. It also outlines insights and strategies for startups looking to raise money in a fast-changing marketplace.

Executive Summary

The year has seen the continuation of some major trends in venture capital funding for travel-industry businesses, including a focus on the sharing economy and the ever-increasing importance of mobile apps and websites. The market has also seen the emergence of newer developments such as the use of analytics to leverage big data and the rise of emerging markets.

It’s crucial that startups, established players and investors in the travel and hospitality industry understand these trends. This Skift Trends Report presents interviews with Henry Harteveldt of the Atmosphere Research Group and Abrar Ahmad of Travel Capitalist Ventures. It also includes a case study of Inspirato, a 4-year-old luxury vacation club, to highlight and analyze major developments in the travel industry over the last year.

This report examines developments in online travel including the growing stature of emerging markets, the ever-expanding sharing economy and increasing role mobile apps and websites are playing for consumers around the world. It also outlines insights and strategies for startups looking to raise money in a fast-changing marketplace.


If 2014 was the year investors made it rain in the travel industry, 2015 has brought a torrential storm. The largest 10 funding rounds through early September this year total roughly $8 billion, dwarfing the $2.2 billion that was raised in the top 10 rounds during the same period last year, according to a 2014 Skift report. Disruptive heavyweights such as Uber and Airbnb secured massive funding as they enjoyed skyrocketing valuations. Some lesser-known players from around the world continued to grow their businesses with solid mid-stage rounds. Countless newcomers also tapped angel investors, seed capital, crowdfunding or money from friends and family as they hope to gain a foothold. Other startups, of course, have quietly faded away.

Meanwhile, some major public travel companies saw their market caps rise relatively modestly – if they rose at all. As of mid-September, the Priceline Group’s market cap stands at $65.5 billion (up from $61 billion a year ago), Amadeus’s is $17.3 billion (up from $16.1 billion), and Expedia’s is $15.92 billion (up from $11 billion). However, the market cap for TripAdvisor – which has had a fairly tumultuous year on Wall Street — slid to $10.4 billion, down substantially from $14.2 billion at the same point last year.

Predictably, the gains of some of those public companies pale in comparison to the valuations of the most noteworthy private travel businesses. Uber has become the company that every startup strives to emulate as its valuation has grown from an estimated $17 billion in June 2014 to more than $50 billion following its most recent round of funding. Airbnb’s latest funding round pegs its valuation at $24 billion. Carl Icahn dubbed Lyft’s valuation of $2.5 billion “a tremendous bargain” when he bought a $100 million stake in the company in May. In China, Uber rival Didi Kuaidi raised $2.6 billion through July as it saw its valuation rise to $15 billion.

The industry is still waiting for a blockbuster exit, however. We’ve seen some major M&A activity – most notable, perhaps, is Expedia’s pending $1.3 billion acquisition of Orbitz – but 2015 has yet to produce a huge IPO by, or acquisition of, a travel startup. Many venture investors are clearly untroubled by this, and funding continues unabated. Indeed, CBI Insights estimated that travel was the fourth-best industry in 2014 for startups looking for an exit, although it’s far from clear that will be the case this year. A big exit from one or two of the latest wave of disruptors in travel could further open the funding spigot.

LargestTravel FundingRounds2015

What The Big Deals Tell Us

A closer look at the top funding rounds thus far this year reveals a few important developments. In addition to the overall increase in funding amounts compared to last year’s largest rounds, important trends include:

  • The sharing economy has arrived. The three largest funding rounds at this point last year were claimed by Uber, Airbnb and Lyft, respectively. Each of those companies closed even larger rounds this far this year. Meanwhile, two overseas companies that scored top funding rounds are also building businesses based on the sharing economy, and others – such as Didi Kuaidi, which operates taxi-hailing services in China — are competing directly with these new services. If you still harbor any doubts that the sharing economy is truly transformative, rid yourself of those thoughts now. The sharing economy is here to stay.
  • The latest wave of disruptive travel companies is maturing. The largest funding rounds to this point last year were dominated by mid- to late-stage investments, with no round later than Series D. Series E rounds have been commonplace among this year’s largest deals, however, and Uber secured a Series F round. (Additionally, Airbnb’s $1.5 billion private equity deal followed the company’s $475 million Series D round last year.) The maturing market suggests that we may see multiple high-dollar exits in the next year, whether through IPOs or M&A.
  • Emerging markets are ripe for disruptive travel companies. Six of the 10 companies that scored the largest funding rounds this year are headquartered in, and cater to, emerging markets including Brazil, China, India and Southeast Asia. This indicates not only that these geographic markets are embracing new technologies and business models, but that companies that truly understand those markets – by understanding the culture, speaking the language and having established business ties – have a significant leg up on outsiders.
  • Specialization is becoming crucial. Companies such as Uber and Airbnb have gained enormous traction quickly by using innovative business models to provide relatively general services to massive consumer segments. Those strategies will continue to be effective in specific geographic markets (particularly emerging markets) where such disruptive businesses have yet to have a major impact on legacy businesses. But as the world of digital travel evolves – and, particularly, as the sharing economy grows worldwide — startups will increasingly have to serve specific niches or develop innovative new business models to survive.
  • Mobile is a must. Mobile apps have played a key role for every company that secured a top-dollar round, regardless of whether they operate emerging markets – where smartphones are often the dominant online platform – or more mature regions. Like businesses in many other sectors, travel startups that don’t offer mobile apps and/or websites that make it easy for consumers to interact with them will almost surely fail. Mobile functionality was also a focal point of some major acquisitions, including Travelport’s $61 million buyout of Mobile Travel Technologies Ltd.

The Investors

Predictably, the number and variety of investors have grown over the last year as the travel market has grown and as a wave of startups has joined the field. The space has spawned a long list of angel investors as well as accelerators that focus exclusively on travel, including RunUpLabs and Start-Up Chile. Private equity firms are also actively involved in travel, and corporations are making big bets on the market: Microsoft, for instance, was involved in Uber’s Series F round, and The Priceline Group was the sole investor in Hotel Urbano’s Series E round. Other investors in travel include hedge funds such as Tiger Global Management, a New York-based firm that has participated in several of the largest rounds through early September this year, including GrabTaxi’s $350 million Series E round and the Series A and B rounds for ZO Rooms, which raised a combined $47 million.

Meanwhile, dozens of venture capital firms remain active in travel; some of which specialize in specific stages of a startup’s evolution and others that participate in the entire lifecycle. Established VCs active in travel include Accel Partners, Atlas Venture, Google Ventures, Institutional Venture Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Sequoia Capital, among many others.

And just as some overseas travel startups are making huge strides on their home turf, overseas investors are making their presence known in 2015. Major investors this year include Alibaba (the Chinese e-commerce company), China Investment Corporation, Rakuten (a Japanese tech company), SoftBank (a Japanese telecom) and Times Internet (the venture arm of The Times of India Group).

Venture Capital 101

Is Travel in Need of a Major Exit or Two?

Investment dollars continue to flow to travel startups at every stage of their evolution, but it’s unclear just how valuable even the biggest of these companies is. Whether through IPO or acquisition, a few big exits would go a long way toward keeping the spigot open, according to Brittany Laughlin, general manager of the Union Square Ventures Network.
“Yes, there are opportunities in mobile. But no, no I’m not investing in travel,” Laughlin wrote in a blog post earlier this year. “Even the smaller travel companies who have exited, they aren’t the 3x+ investors are looking for. The market is still out on what these companies are worth.”

It stands to reason that early investments in startups are riskier – and usually much smaller – than late-stage investments. A seed or angel investor might invest just a few thousand dollars for a stake in a business that has yet to establish commercial operations, although an initial seed round from an established VC firm often ranges from $250,000 to $1 million. At the other end of the spectrum, later-stage rounds are typically provided or established businesses that are 3 years old or older (although they may not yet be profitable). Later-stage funds are generally used to grow the business and perhaps to prepare for an IPO. Although some venture capital firms specialize in specific stages of growth, it’s common for a firm to participate in multiple funding rounds of a growing business.

Regardless of whether a firm focuses on a specific market, geography or growth stage, venture capitalists typically invest in a range of companies. Many startups fail – a 2013 study from Allmand Law pegged the failure rate for tech startups at 90% – but the common venture capital goal is to find an occasional big winner that more than offsets those that don’t survive. And for mid- to late-stage investors particularly, cashing in on those winners relatively quickly (through an exit) can be a top priority.

Savvy investors however often consider much more than just an eventual payday when considering which startups to back. They also factor in how their experience and connections can help each startup, and whether they’re a good cultural fit for each potential investment. Startups often take those same factors into account when deciding which backer(s) they hope to partner with.


Unique Opportunities, Unique Challenges

The rise of the sharing economy, among other factors, has created huge opportunities for travel startups, as evinced by the huge investment deals the space has seen this year. And major new opportunities will open up as more specialized, innovative companies begin to find audiences in markets around the world.

On the other hand, the travel market is already teeming with startups vying for a limited amount of investment capital. Differentiating themselves from the pack is already a difficult task for a young business. That hurdle may be less difficult for B2B companies that provide back-end services, for example, or analytics that can help travel companies run more efficiently. Consumer-facing businesses, though, might be particularly challenged to score venture capital.

The lack of M&A activity so far this year could also indicate that few deep-pocketed companies are eager to spend heavily to jump into (or further into) the travel market. Expedia acquired Travelocity for $280 million early this year, of course, and its acquisition of Orbitz is still pending. The Priceline Group, which spent $2.5 billion on acquisitions last year, may continue its spending spree later this year. But in North America, at least, the number of companies willing to spend the $500 million or much more to acquire a major travel business appears to be pretty small.


An Analyst’s View

Interview: Henry Harteveldt, Atmosphere Research Group

Henry Harteveldt is a noted travel industry and consumer analyst and researcher, and has been recognized by Skift as one of the top 30 movers and shakers in the online travel sector. The cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco, Harteveldt has also served as an analyst for Hudson Crossing and Forrester Research, and he appears frequently as a travel expert in major news outlets.

Skift spoke with Harteveldt about recent venture funding trends in the travel market, a lack of innovation among startups and what the near future may have in store. An edited portion of the interview follows:

How do venture capitalists view the travel industry from an investor’s point of view?

The venture firms are really looking for fast growth companies, and one of the challenges that travel has is that not all the companies are fast growth like retail or social media are. So it’s harder for companies to get the funding they want. I hear from enterprises that the venture-fund firms are looking for very large returns.

But it certainly doesn’t seem like funding has slowed over the last year or two. Would you agree?

I wouldn’t say it’s slowed, but I think the investors are being more particular. You’ve still got companies putting money into travel: mobile-based business are good, and companies that focus on specific niches – an audience niche or a business niche — continue to be attractive. And investors like investing in companies that are proven and, hopefully, have the opportunity for some sort of international expansion. We’re also seeing that that investments continue to be made outside the U.S. Asia remains very, very popular, and in Europe there’s money being invested.

What other factors are driving investments? What kinds of travel businesses are investors looking at?

We’re still seeing a lot of money go into digital plays, which could be mobile companies. Airlines have never been very popular for investors, and right now we are not seeing a lot of money going into airlines. But what we are seeing is investments in companies like Surf Air (a California business that offers unlimited flights for a monthly fee). The reason they like these companies is that they tend to sell subscriptions.
There’s a lot of interest going to markets where you don’t have a lot of established players, or where you’ve got a paid subscription with year-over-year growth in online consumers. Latin America is an area that has gotten a lot of interest recently.

Any other geographic markets that are attracting interest?

Some companies, some investors are looking at Japan. There’s been a lot of concern about the country gaining financial stability, but now I’m starting to hear from people that Japan is a market they’re considering exploring for investment. That doesn’t mean the businesses are there for them to invest in, though – the easy part is to explore, the hard part is finding the right companies to invest in.

Have you seen decreasing interest from investors in any specific geographic markets?

“There are a lot of companies out there that have mobile-based approaches; there are some interesting companies there. But for the most part it’s yawnsville out there; it’s really boring.”

— Henry Harteveldt, Co-Founder of Atmosphere Research Group

Up until the last year there was a lot of interest in Russia, but that has all but dried up. The conversations I’ve had about China started turning sometime this year in terms of, “Is it the right market for us to invest in? Is there really a solid economy there? What’s the growth like for non-Chinese companies?” But I am seeing interest in other parts of Asia such as Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as India.

We’ve seen an enormous number of startups enter the travel space, which must be difficult for potential investors. How many are copycats as opposed to true innovators?

There are far too many copycats out there. If I hear one more person say, “We’re the next Uber, or the next Airbnb,” I will scream. I’ve shut down so many entrepreneurs. When they say, “We’re going to do what company X isn’t,” well, there’s probably a reason company X isn’t doing that. They’ve been in business for a while. What I want to hear, and what I’m not hearing, is truly innovative approaches to helping travel companies sell a product or a service. There’s very little of that. There are a lot of companies out there that have mobile-based approaches; there are some interesting companies there. But for the most part it’s yawnsville out there; it’s really boring.

How do you expect venture investors to react to the market over the next year or two? Are there any specific sub-segments where you see growth?

I think VCs are going to become much more demanding. I think they’re already asking, “Is the economy going to remain this strong? When is the next economic softening?” The so-called big data area remains very interesting to investors. Companies like Wayblazer (which licenses an intelligent search discovery system to travel companies), that type of a product is one that intrigues investors because they can see the business benefit and it’s tough to replicate. And one area I’m hearing a lot about is destinations and activities. I think that is certainly an area poised for ongoing growth.

I think the hotel space is getting crowded in terms of the distribution landscape. The last one I saw come in that is really good is Stayful; otherwise I haven’t seen too much there. On the air side, the subscription-based niche airlines that are flying places the scheduled airlines generally are not is something I think is interesting. And I think companies that can help travel businesses become more mobile – that can get rid of the check-in desk or ticket counters (by enabling customers to use their phones for such tasks) – are interesting.

Ignoring the Naysayers

What Startups Can – and Can’t – Learn from Inspirato

Brent Handler concedes he had something of an advantage when he co-founded Inspirato in 2011: Nearly a decade earlier, he and two partners (including his brother) founded the destination club Exclusive Resorts, selling majority ownership to AOL co-founder Steve Case just two years later and staying on as president until 2009.

But that didn’t mean that getting a second company off the ground would be easy. Investors weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to back Inspirato, which grants members who pay a one-time initiation fee and annual dues access to luxury properties.

“We got a lot of no’s at the door,” Handler said of his first pitches for Inspirato, which is based in Denver. There was zero interest because venture capitalists don’t like the luxury segment; they don’t like the operational complexity. A lot of people just said no.”

Not that Inspirato’s business model is typical for a startup in the travel industry. Rather than serving as an online travel agency, hotel-room distributor or clearinghouse for stays at private residences, Inspirato rents its properties, employs housecleaners and other staff; it also books stays through its own distribution platform.

“Most people that are starting a company whose goal is to get venture-backed would not start a company like ours,” Handler said. “Ours is too capital-intensive. Most VCs don’t fund companies like ours.”

But persistence – and some early success in the marketplace – paid off. Inspirato has raised nearly $80 million through five rounds through eight investors, including a $20 million Series C round last year led by W Capital Partners and including existing investors Institutional Venture Partners and Millennial Technology Value Partners.

“My philosophy is that you can’t let no’s get in your way and slow you down.”

— Brent Handler, Co-Founder of Inspirato

Those funding deals weren’t just about the money, however. While capital is crucial for any startup, young companies seeking investments should also consider factors such as experience, connections and finding an investor whose vision aligns with the company’s.

“We worked very hard to find investors, partners, folks on our board we thought were good cultural fits for us,” Handler explained. “We were able to do that. It just comes down to process.”

Brent Handler

That strategy seems to be paying off for Inspirato. The company “is very, very close to cash-flow break-even,” Handler said, but it’s focused more on growth than on turning a profit. Inspirato isn’t actively seeking another round of funding, but may at some point to expand and market the business. And because Inspirato is still growing, he said, the company isn’t currently hunting for a deep-pocketed buyer or preparing for an IPO.

Handler knows his company’s path to success in raising capital isn’t one that can be easily duplicated: Not every founder already has one success story under his or her belt, and building a network of vacation homes isn’t something that can easily be bootstrapped. He also acknowledges that finding an angel or seed investor in an increasingly crowded market is likely more difficult now than it was when he began raising funds for Inspirato in 2010.

One key for startups, according to Handler, is to find an unserved or underserved market, then convince potential investors that you can tap that market better than anyone else. Even if that requires knocking on their doors more than once.

“My philosophy is that you can’t let no’s get in your way and slow you down,” Handler advised. “You have to point out the firms you think would be helpful, then you have to relentlessly stay in touch with them and make them understand why your business is important and valuable and growing.”

Tapping Emerging Markets

Interview: Abrar Ahmad, Travel Capitalist Ventures

Abrar Ahmad

Abrar Ahmad is a partner at Travel Capitalist Ventures, a multi-stage travel investment firm founded in 2010 and based in Newport Beach, California. Skift spoke with Ahmad about recent trends among travel startups in emerging markets and how newcomers can succeed both in the marketplace and in scoring investment capital.

As an investor, what’s your interest in travel?

I came from the travel industry, so it was a natural extension for me. Travel is something I’ve always had a passion for, and I see a need not just for capital but for knowledge.

Tell me more about that. What do the startups you talk to need aside from money?

I think people generally want capital that also knows the industry, but of course that’s few and far between, obviously. You can make that up between the investor and advisors, and there are investors who don’t know travel but who are smart enough to poke around and learn the industry.

What’s your advice for startups that are new to the travel industry?

The quality of travel companies that have people who come out of the travel industry is generally higher; that’s always a positive. There are entrepreneurs new to travel, who come through us, that are smart to get advisors from the industry, give them half a point or a point, a seat on the board. That can provide the lynchpin strength that will make or break a startup. They’ve got to have something that really resonates. I see a lot of travel business models that are copycat; they just don’t have the uniqueness that is going to resonate long-term.

Are there common strengths that are shared by successful startups in the markets you’re active in, or specific trends you’ve seen over the last year or two?

“There’s a resurgence of travel startups that are unique to the region, that play to the region and focus on the region.”

— Abrar Ahmad, Partner of Travel Capitalist Ventures

In terms of the Middle East I would say two years ago it was more copycat – “We are the ‘X’ of the Middle East”– but now they’re realizing that the handful of companies that have done well have native solutions, they know the native language. There’s a resurgence of travel startups that are unique to the region, that play to the region and focus on the region. Which we like.

Are there important cultural differences from region to region that startups and investors need to be aware of?

I think if you look at a place like India, there’s such a burgeoning middle class, there’s such demand — India finally has over the last few years developed an angel network, an institutional network, a system of funding, that has all the stages from angel all the way up to support entrepreneurship. That’s an area that’s really booming.

Gone are the days of the generalized Groupon models. Now startups are dealing with logistics, payments, things that in that part country you need to do well. You’re seeing a lot of really sustainable businesses, they’re getting really big funding. They’re tackling the problem long-term.

Within the Middle East, with the travel startups you’re seeing a lot of very specialized Arabic-language travel content. It’s not just sort of a travel guide out of the U.S. that has a site. These startups have content for Arabs by Arabs, in Arabic, and they’re getting lots of traction.

What about other factors? Do startups also need to understand the difference in cultures or technology from region to region?

I think South Africa is an area that there is a need, but the need is different. You have bandwidth constrictions. People pay per megabyte, so the usage is very different, and it skews toward high-income individuals. So you can’t, for example, have apps that require 100-megabyte updates.

I think the trend is really avoiding copying, putting lipstick on a pig in the diff part of the world. It’s about enterprises from the region who know buying patterns. In terms of how do Indians buy travel, it’s not husband and wife, it’s husband and wife and parents, then in-laws, kids, extended family….How do you make that purchasing decision easier?

What other factors come into play when you consider which startups to invest in?

Really it’s the personality fit with the entrepreneurs: How well do they listen to advice? There’s a delicate balance between that and letting the entrepreneur do what they need to do. We’re choosy, we’re not a volume shop.

Any other advice you have for startups hoping to secure funding?

In terms of getting funding, I would say push off funding as much as possible. The further along you are, if you have the right team, the right product and the right traction, every day the value is going up in a practical sense. If you just have an idea, even if you get funding you’re going to give up 30%, 35% from the start. Get some early traction and then seek funding.

Have your pitch down, know what space you’re in, know what makes you different, what the big deal about you is. Identify your pitch, your niche, but also identify what you’re not. Because travel startups get so lost in the cloud that you really have to do something different, not only in the minds of you as the startup but to the investor.

Insights and Strategies

The following are some best practices and strategy tips for startups seeking funding:

  • Find ways to differentiate yourself from the competition in an increasingly crowded market. The window for general sharing-economy services is all but closed in the U.S., so consider serving more niche markets with more specialized offerings.
  • Know the specific industry you’re hoping to gain a foothold in as well as you possibly can, and explain why your business is so valuable to that industry.
  • Consider launching in specific overseas markets, but only if you’re extremely familiar with the business and cultural nuances of each specific market.
  • While there are countless startups in travel hoping to reach consumers directly, the market for B2B offerings is less cutthroat. Startups that can help B2C players by providing valuable analytics services or a superior and innovative technological platform have a chance to gain traction relatively quickly.
  • Make mobile a priority. Consumer use of mobile apps and websites continues to soar, so it’s crucial that you make it easy for users to interact with your business on their phones.
  • Make your pitch to potential investors short, simple and clear. Use about 10 slides in your pitch decks, and illustrate the problems your startup solves and how it solves them.
  • Don’t take on an investor strictly because of the money unless absolutely necessary. Instead, consider what non-financial assets a potential investor brings to the table, including experience, connections and a shared vision.
  • Be persistent. When a potential investor says no, move on to the next potential investor. But keep in touch with the naysayers to keep them abreast of your company’s progress.

Further reading