This week’s musings, reflections and observations…

1.  I think that there is a lot of venture capital money chasing too many travel 2.0 start-ups.   In addition to travel deals discovery search engine voyig.com (which TravelDividends profiled in our May 18th blog post), add Nextstop.com, Dopplr.com, Tripsay.com, Plazes.com and OffbeatGuides.com to the list of the ‘next travel killer app’.  These five travel sites share several things in common, of which the most notable is that all are trying to become the next powerhouse online social travel guide.  They join existing players like industry leader tripadvisor.com and others like igougo.com and uptake.com in what is clearly a very lucrative but increasingly contested travel niche.

Nextstop.com is the brainchild of several ex-Googlers, Carl Sjogreen and Adrian Graham, who were on the Google project teams that developed Google Calendar (Sjogreen) and Google Groups, and Picassa (Graham) and Charles Lin, a classmate of Graham’s at Stanford University.   Sjogreen has been quoted in a number of business articles and interviews that the site grew out of his and his colleagues’ frustration in finding interesting things to do in unfamiliar places.

We took a quick tour of NextStop (which is still in beta), and found it rather easy to use.  If however you are looking for a comprehensive database of all things travel, NextStop is not the answer (or at least the current iteration isn’t).  What it is really good at though is providing the user with a rather thoroughly vetted list of places to visit, things to do and recommended restaurants to eat at, all codified in a personalized user-generated guidebook.  For a site that is founded on the principles of mixing social recommendations with search and adding its own ‘reputation system’, it’s a pretty cool site in our opinion.

Dopplr describes itself as a “service for smart travelers,” and that includes business as well as leisure travelers. This site aggregates the “collective intelligence – travel patterns, tips and advice of the world’s most frequent travelers” into a social atlas of sorts, enabling the users of the Dopplr network to provide, exchange or tap into ever-growing database of “tips on places to stay, eat or explore in destinations, cities and locales around the world.”  Dopplr, which operates out of headquarters in Helsinki, has been around for several years and can be accessed either via your computer or mobile phone.

TripSay.com, which uses the tag line that “Your friends are the best travel agent,” is a relative new entrant into the trip recommendation engine / travel social network fray, having launched its public beta site in the August 2008.  Also based in Finland, TripSay is designed to take the traveler’s personal preferences and interests into account, but instead of presenting generic information about the destination or activity that the traveler seeks, it leverages [the traveler's] network of friends as well as those with similar tastes”  and in combination with its “unique recommendation engine…proactively match destinations, places, sights, content, and activities to provide a better research experience and more importantly, a more pleasant, action-packed trip.”

Plazes.com, which was acquired by Nokia in June, 2008, takes a markedly different approach to other social travel networks as its business model is built on the notion that the user cares deeply about what other people important in their life “are up to’ and therefore want to know “what’s happening [to them] at different locations, as well as what their future [travel] plans” will be.  Posting information can be done on Plazes.com or by sending text messages via mobile phone, thus in that capacity, the service mirrors Twitter more so than other travel competitors.

OffbeatGuides, launched last summer by Technorati founder Dave Sifry, also operates on a different model than the other aforementioned sites in that it has more in common with traditional travel guidebooks (e.g., Fodor’s, Frommer’s Lonely Planet, etc).  However, because OffbeatGuides guides are crafted on the fly, unlike these and other print travel guide stalwarts, its guides are customizable and flexible.  After prompting users for their destination and the dates they’ll be visiting, the site scours the web, and by combining and filtering a variety of travel sources, will generate travel guides for nearly any city or regions anywhere in the world.

According to TechCrunch, “The site also has a leg up on traditional guides because it can include time-sensitive information like event listings and find activities based on your interests. Guides can be previewed in the browser for free, downloaded as a PDF for $10, or printed into a full-color guide and shipped within a few days for $25.”

But here’s the best news for travel affiliates: unlike the other sites I mention in this post, OffbeatGuides offers a travel affiliate program! So in that respect, OffbeatGuides.com joins TripAdvisor in realizing the strategic value and power that the affiliate channel can deliver thus helping to assure their ultimate commercial success, as well as the channel’s merits as an integral element of any travel company’s distribution strategy.

If I were to wager as to which of these upstarts will succeed or fail, my money would be on those that work with travel affiliates. How about you – who from among this crop of players do you think will make it to the finish line? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

2. Bloomberg.com had a terrific story, Bear Stearns to Algebra I Means Lost Dollars in Trickle-Down, in its online edition today.  In this compelling piece, author Peter Robison very aptly illustrates the devastating economic domino-effect that is wrought to adjacent (or dependent) industries when one industry sector has a meltdown.  Although the travel industry is not specifically mentioned, it is clear that much of the contraction in consumer travel consumption these past 10 months has been a direct result of the neutron bomb that exploded on Wall Street, Fleet Street and other financial capitals around the world.  I think Robinson’s piece should be required reading for everyone in the travel business – affiliate marketer, travel supplier and affiliate network executive alike.

3.  I also think everyone should take some time this Memorial Day to remember and honor the sacrifices that others made in the past to assure that today, we still live in a land where freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness still rings as loud as ever, and despite the economic travails, opportunities and success for those willing to work and sacrifice remain as a core truism of our society.   TravelDividends wishes each of you a most memorable Memorial Holiday!

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