If you’ve ever just wanted to book a hotel room without talking to anyone, you’re not alone. Apparently, a lot of people don’t like talking to anyone when they book travel deals. And they don’t want to actually spend the time researching – they want the best deals to come to them.
Enter SnapTravel. The “half bot, half human” service uses messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, and SMS texting to sell great hotel deals. Despite a powerful human operation at its core, SnapTravel’s look and feel is that you’re not talking to anyone.
Speaking to Tech Daily, co-founder and CTO Henry Shi shared how SnapTravel got started, how it works, and the company’s vision to make travel as easy as talking to a trusted friend.
It all started with a landing page. Shi and his co-founders wanted to make a dent in the travel space while they were living in San Francisco. This was 2016, and travel marketplaces like Expedia dominated the travel world.
They didn’t want to take over Expedia, per se, but wanted to aggregate all the best deals in one place. Instead of getting tech heavy at the beginning, though, they just marketed the idea to see if anyone else wanted it.
Turns out, they did. But not in the way Shi was expecting.
“We realized that people, instead of coming to our website and using it, were emailing us,” said Shi.
One of the first examples came from a parent travelling to Florida with kids, wanting a place by the beach. Instead of looking through the great deals on the website, the traveller wanted things sent over messaging or email.
“So we thought if there’s… people who want to communicate over traditional messaging or emails, how do we take that in and make it more scalable?” Shi continued. “Nobody wants to call anybody. People just chat all day over [Facebook] Messenger, WhatsApp, SMS, etc. so we thought ‘how do we put those two together?’”
Shi and his co-founder decided to build a prototype to test this hypothesis. It started with an iMessage app, which Shi manually answered.
“People would message me and I would look at hotels [then] send pictures and links,” said Shi. “The crazy part was that people actually gave us their credit cards to book stuff.”
In SnapTravel’s first month and a half as a messaging-based business, it did around $10,000 in bookings. That’s when Shi and his team knew they had something. They raised a seed round, moved the company to Toronto from San Francisco, and have been scaling there ever since.
The evolution of SnapTravel
The company grew consistently – and quickly – for the following two years. The company raised millions of dollars on the back of a simple idea that people would be willing to book travel over messaging.
For users today, the experience is much more sleek than it was in 2016.
When you go to SnapTravel’s website, it looks like a travel search engine. You put in your city and your dates to find hotel deals. But instead of searching, it prompts you to enter your mobile number to text you deals. When the text arrives, it lets you know that you can text like a human – “I want a hotel with a pool” – and SnapTravel will do the rest. Once you’re happy with the offers it sends you, book it with them. That’s it.
Right now, SnapTravel only looks for hotel deals. It’s great for budget conscious travellers but also works for middle-to-high end travellers who don’t want to deal with calling anyone and prefer messaging. But hotels is not the only thing SnapTravel has in mind. Instead, said Shi, the company wants to become your full travel provider, making booking travel as easy as texting a trusted friend.
Talking about SnapTravel’s overall vision, Shi said that it’s “commerce should be as easy as chatting with a trusted friend,” explaining that a trusted friend knows your preferences and can make awesome recommendations for you.
With a trusted friend giving recommendations, “you don’t have to open eight different tabs, look at TripAdvisor reviews, look at hotel ratings, or look at pictures and compare prices.”
The big moments
When SnapTravel added NBA star Stephen Curry to their roster of investors, it was a huge publicity win for the company, which by then had done over $100 million in transactions on the platform.
But for Shi, the big moment for SnapTravel may not be until SnapTravel isn’t just in the travel business.
“This [conversational commerce model] could be extended for not just travel, but really anything [sold by] a traditional private human agent,” like insurance or cars.
“I think it’s leveraging that trusted conversational experience for messaging,” said Shi. “And we’re the leaders in that space.”