Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Beta launch of Tourdust

Finally, the time has come after the best part of a year and a half of midnight planning sessions (and trying to make decisions whilst feeding the kids) to announce the beta launch of Tourdust.  We’re inviting you to come kick the tyres at Tourdust.com and let us know what you think. It’s still early days, we only started building content in December (we’ve got 130 experiences online, we’re aiming for way, way more than that, ahem we have our work cut out ….) and we need to fix a few things here and there, but essentially we’re open for business.

So what is Tourdust?
Tourdust is all about discovering authentic travel experiences from passionate locals.  We want to become the leading global community site for the long tail of travel, to create this fantastic resource so that any independent traveller, wherever in the world they’re headed, can come to Tourdust and find a couple of awesome local gems that will be the highlight of their trip.  Think photo workshops with a professional photographer in beautiful Umbria, stunning eco tree-houses in private pristine forest in South Africa or birding and bushcraft on the Isle of Mull with Jeremy and his Landrover.  Whilst there is plenty of competition out there, no-one else is anywhere close to achieving this.

Tourdust - Making searching for travel ideas pleasurable
A quick search for your next holiday will undoubtedly lead you to a plethora of hideously designed aggregation sites whose priority is only search engine optimisation and getting you to click on an advert.  For some reason, despite the sheer volumes of brainpower over at Google towers, these crappy sites are still the ones at the top of your next Google search.  Travel is a fun & inspiring product, so when you decide on a rainy winter’s night to go online to check out ideas for your next holiday, why can’t it be a pleasure instead of something that leaves you feeling fuzzy and under-whelmed?  So we have put every effort into creating a site which is beautiful and dead simple to use.  Big pictures, loads of white space and a cracking user interface – big thanks to Cennydd & Paul over at Clearleft who truly are legends at this stuff and Max at New Bamboo the agile development gurus who built the nuts & bolts of the site.  They somehow managed to put up with our tinkering and interfering, something very few of my agency contacts have managed in the past…

Tourdust and the Long Tail
Tourdust is essentially a classic long tail business model.  The long tail is a term coined by Chris Anderson to describe the large collective market of small niche products.  It has been in the news recently as it’s been challenged by some new research basically claiming there is more money in selling millions of copies of Coldplay’s latest album (which is surprisingly good by the way) than from the combined sales of all the niche bands out there.  Our take on this debate is that long tail products can suffer when the sheer variety of choice online (and the frequent pain in sorting through it) means that most of us just follow the crowd and buy the popular items.  As we see it, the big challenge for the long tail is how to get it in front of paying customers looking as good as all those big budget products with teams of marketing spods behind them?  Some sites are doing a really nice job of this (check out etsy and bigcartel) but there are still a load of awful old travel directory sites somehow getting page views (I won’t name names).  With Tourdust, we have tried to take advantage of simple social tools (such as user generated content and social networking) and marry them with a great user experience and visual design to really bring the authentic long tail of travel to life.  

Tourdust and responsible travel
Clearly there is a responsible travel / fair trade angle to what we are trying to do here and we have thought long and hard about how much to amplify this.  On one hand you can jump on a fashionable bandwagon and benefit from the trend, on the other hand we don’t want people to think we are exclusively for the organic underwear brigade.  We’ve decided to focus on what we think is most important to travellers – which is having fantastic experiences on holiday.  We know that people are pursuing more authentic experiences on their holidays (even Mintel recognise this) but this is not about people wanting to be more green as much as it is about having memorable experiences which become stories for years to come.   People want stories to tell, not about a wine tour with a bus load of irritating tourists but about the great wine enthusiast who took you round the small vineyards in his 4x4, and took the time to share his passion for viticulture and the workings of a vineyard.  The fact that we are supporting local communities and economies by putting travellers directly in touch with authentic local businesses is really a happy side effect.  Ultimately the only way to get responsible travel mainstream is to make responsible choices as appealing if not more appealing than in their own right!

So what have we done differently with Tourdust?
We’re certainly not breaking any new ground with funky new applications, but we are concentrating on executing right with all the great tools that are already out there.  

We have tried to strike a delicate balance between commerce and community by welcoming the businesses themselves into the community with open arms.  After all, if we can give them the tools to easily chuck up some inspiring content and to tap into their existing networks of customers and fellow travel businesses, we can create long tail content that is compelling, inspiring and easy to find for customers.  With the economy headed the way it is, boy are we glad we didn’t go with that free advertising model….

We have tried to treat our suppliers and customers as intelligent individuals.  We want travellers to be able to get a sense for the personality and character of an operator or guide.  So we openly encourage operators to promote the name of their business, their contact details and link to their own website (no walled gardens!).  Sure, we may lose revenue as customers contact them directly, but then it’s our job to offer a better and safer experience so that if they do go to one of our supplier’s websites to find out more, they will want to come back to us to get in touch with them.  After all, they’re only going to go away and try and find them on Google anyway!

We have tried to be a little bit innovative with our enquiry / booking system.  Travel sites today seem to be totally polarised, they either rely on passing on plain old emails (which operators usually have to pay to reply to!) or complex booking systems.  Some larger sites are even a little devious, taking you through the rigmarole of extracting all of your personal details, a tidy little deposit and only then telling you its going to take a couple of days to check availability!  We know from our research that it would be asking a lot of the smaller operators to provide us with a feed of their availability for some kind of live booking system.  We are also aware that these are complex and personal products where some buyer / seller interaction is usually called for.    So we have built a Facebook message centre like system with some neat functionality to convert the conversation to a formal booking with online payment at the right time.  Simply put, there are no barriers to the traveller seeing something they like and quickly popping a message over and a conversation beginning.  After all wouldn’t you rather have a conversation with your guide before committing to a two day wilderness experience?

Who are our competition?
The online travel industry is a huge market but there is a lot of competition.  Much of the current innovation in the industry is around travel inspiration sites.  It seems the industry is barrelling head-long towards producing better and better travel writing and media, both professional and user contributed (Worldreviewer, Travelmuse and Matadortravel are good examples) but what you have is loads of good stories about places and things to do, yet when you actually want to book something, you’re stuck with the likes of Expedia which is fine for faceless hotels or trawling through the Google search listings for the decent stuff.  Basically the reader gets all hot under the collar and excited about that great rafting trip (that some traveller has painstakingly written up) and all they will find is a Google ad to some super- commercialised rafting outfit!

Admittedly, there is a swarm of new companies trying to tap the ‘experiences’ / adventure travel angle (viator, isango, adventurelink to name a few) but they are definitely headed more toward the larger operator / bus tours / large groups end of the market.

Of course, there are also some excellent sites pushing responsible travel (responsibletravel and yoursafeplanet for instance) who definitely do overlap with what we are trying to do and are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness of some of the negative impacts of tourism.

Finally there are a couple of really promising emerging sites that are a great way to find a local guide to look after you (leaplocal and ourexplorer), which are definitely complementary to what we are trying to do.

Did we forget to mention Tripadvisor?  With 250,000 properties on their database they are, shall we say, a not inconsiderable competition.   Primarily focused on accommodation they do have some experiences, I guess we just need to concentrate on really serving our niche well.

The exciting thing is there is so much potential to somehow open-web-ify (I just made that up) Tourdust and marry our content up with much of the above.  Definitely watch this space on that one.

The people 
Tourdust is a small and authentic business in its own right.  We (Anna and Ben Colclough - link to linked in) divvy up the daily running of the business and looking after our young kids.  We are now interchangeable to the extent that our kids get confused which of us is Mummy and which is Daddy.  We love travelling and were inspired to start Tourdust after having a wonderfully authentic experience in Mongolia (possibly a little too authentic… ask us one day).   Ultimately, we are incredibly jealous of all the people we have signed up to Tourdust, because they have this fantastic lifestyle taking people out mountain biking on some beautiful farm or some such and we’d really quite like to be doing the same ourselves one day.

With Tourdust we are taking a step closer.  Ben’s previous job was as International Marketing Director for premium cards at American Express and Anna headed up the day-to-day analysis, research and client management at Market Sentinel a social media consultancy.  We have collective experience at Unilever, L.E.K. strategy consultants and have had solid prior experience running businesses.  Also involved are Peter Sweetman, former European IT Director at BP and Stephen Natrass, former head of responsible travel at Exodus Travel.  We’re on the lookout for experienced mentors – so if you want to get involved and think you can add something please do get in touch. 

You might think we’re mad to be starting up a travel business at the heart of the direst economic situation since the great depression.  Unfortunately, unlike Peter Schiff, we didn’t really see that one coming.  Still there are some advantages, being your typical Internet business we are already well prepared for a low income in the early days, every cloud…!

Please, help us in anyway you can.  We’re trying to support lots of small businesses, we’re not trying to make a fortune out of it and we try to share out the niceness to suppliers, customers and competitors alike.  Is it possible to make a success out of a business whilst being nice to everyone?  We are going to try.

5 comments:

Ben Colclough said...

Alex Bainbridge has reviewed Tourdust at http://www.tourcms.com/blog/2009/01/08/tourdust-launches-can-they-hit-paydirt/

I've put a typically verbose and over-long reply to Alex in the comments.

'A Tuscan view.....from Umbria' said...

We seem to have lots in common Ben, small children and lack of foresight!

However, in the immortal words of Kevin Costner "If you build it, they will come!" I think your Tourdust site is great and wish you every success.
amanda

Celes said...

Hello Ben and Anna,
Kudoes to you for what you have launched. You are absolutely on the right track. As a small, niche learning adventure company in central Manitoba in Canada (at the heart of a national park and international biosphere reserve) focusing on providing..."programs for individuals and small groups that are customized, experiential, and educational", I have built a business model with about 50 local experience providers over the last 12 years. These are amazing people - artists, craftspeople, musicians, songwriters, chefs, and many more.

Are there some opportunities for us, as a local tour operator, to list and market some of our unique experiences? Is this a good fit, from your perspective?
How can we best provide products/experiences that are a fit for your anticipated clientele?
What are your clients looking for?
How can we do this in a smart and savvy way, using the web as our primary means of accessing niche markets?

To help you along the way, I offer you a few resources. I love your vision and where you are headed. It would be great to have a telephone call with you.

Some resources:
The Tourism Café - Canada's new online resource for the tourism industry about creating and marketing experiential tourism.
http://www.tourismcafe.ca

Experience Riding Mountain - my new blog about experiencing the Riding Mountain area. This is a collaborative blog and it will feature our many partners over the next few years.

Earth Rhythms - that's us. An experiential travel company. http://www.earthrhythms.ca

Experience PEI - a colleague of mine on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada has established a really wonderful experiential tourism company featuring some of the coolest experiences.
http://www.experiencepei.ca

I look forward to communicating with you and learning more.

Cheers
Celes Davar, President
Earth Rhythms, Inc.
celes.davar@earthrhythms.ca
1.204.848.4680
www.earthrhythms.ca

Celes said...

Have you seen this review of Tourdust?

Curious as to your perspectives about his observations...

http://www.tourcms.com/blog/2009/01/08/tourdust-launches-can-they-hit-paydirt/

Ben Colclough said...

@ Celes, I have just emailed you. EarthtRhythmes looks fantastic - look forward to talking soon. Thanks so much for the resources. My response to Alex is in the comments to his blog.
@ Amanda, Thanks so much. Although I always thought the quote came from Wayne's World.