At first glance, the marketplace for online travel bookings is like any other pool teaming with activity. Closer inspection, however, reveals it’s a whole lot more complicated to decipher.
The most ubiquitous players in the industry were the Expedias and Skyscanners – online travel agencies working directly with airlines to host their inventories. Then came the accommodation bookers; think Airbnb, booking.com, and hotels.com. A few years ago airlines and hotels, tired of having to give away a portion of their profits, threw themselves into the mix with their own websites. Last, but not wanting to be left with the least, are the traditional tour operators and travel agencies, attempting to stay relevant in a digital world by inching closer to their clientele online.
Amid all of this, in 2006, is when former Tourism Australia planner, and Yahoo!’s South East Asia product and development head, Ross Veitch, came to the realisation that the online travel booking marketplace needed to be simplified.
Having spent six years at one the internet’s first major search engine successes, Veitch’s ‘life after Yahoo!’ plan led him and former IHG Hotels e-commerce executive Craig Hewett, to found Bezurk in Singapore, with the aim to “help make travel search easier.”
The company’s proposition was an all-encompassing net: scour the entire spectrum of the online travel booking marketplace and carry results on a convenient and simple to use platform for customers to book their itineraries from. Called ‘meta-search’, the model was one “that didn’t exist outside of the US at the time,” says Veitch. “There was a clear opportunity to take it beyond the US.”
I realised that Mena consumers were travelling frequently and spending a lot per trip, but were poorly served in online booking options
Unfortunately, while the company’s name aptly described how convoluted the online space was becoming, market research proved ‘Bezurk’ wouldn’t get the company very far. “People had trouble remembering how to spell it… also if English isn’t your first language, as is the case for a large majority of our target audience, then it is difficult to remember at all because the word probably doesn’t mean anything to you,” he said in an earlier interview.
That wasn’t all that the young entrepreneur had to contend with. An early start in emerging markets should have meant first-mover advantage, but in an honest interview with WebinTravel last year, Veitch conceded “we moved there too early.”
“We thought they’d develop faster than they did, and we didn’t develop cash cows which could subsidise growth in other markets, like Skyscanner did. Maybe we should have started in Australia first and grown that into a cash cow,” he said.
Among the first things the company did was re-brand to Wego, a name which caught on much faster with customers. Then, after nearly a decade waiting in the shadows, Wego noticed visitor-to-booking conversions in the Middle East spike, from a pool that had grown by a factor of 10 compared to numbers from South East Asia. This prompted it to open its second headquarters in the Middle East, as well as launch the region’s first localised Arabic travel booking site.
“We were initially focused on the Asian markets. That changed in 2014, when I realised that Mena consumers were travelling frequently and spending a lot per trip, but were poorly served in online booking options.”
The timing was crucial, says Veitch: “When we first entered the Middle East about five years ago, no single brand was dedicated to online travel at such a scale in the region.” Fast forward to today and “Mena’s online travel space is experiencing a Cambrian explosion,” he says. So much so, that Veitch now believes the company is now finally “hitting its stride.”
In 2017, Wego recorded more than $500m in bookings. “This year we’re hoping to cross $1bn,” says Veitch. The most substantial, and growing, portion of that growth has come from the Middle East. “It’s a very important part of our business,” he says.
Backed by Middle East Venture Partners, as well as a reported $12m boost from the MBC Group, Wego has been scaling up rapidly in the region. Expanded marketing efforts, growing propensity to travel, as well as key events in the region have fuelled Wego’s growth.
Travel could be so much easier, cheaper, faster and just more pleasant if governments, and airports shared information better
In 2018, the company recorded a 16-fold increase in searches for itineraries in Russia from the region, on the back of the World Cup that took place in June. Partnerships with Gulf Air as well as Airbnb have also helped build its appeal, as has the fact that GCC currencies pegged to the dollar are making travelling abroad much more affordable, given that emerging markets currencies have faltered over the same period. “There really couldn’t be a better time to be a travel shopper [in the region],” says Veitch.
Wego today currently covers 95 percent of airlines in the Middle East and works with all 50 online travel agencies in the region. However, there is still plenty of room for the company to grow. “The Mena online travel market is still under-penetrated; only 30 percent of travel originating in the Mena region is booked online,” say Veitch.
Key obstacles toward realising that maximum potential remain problems that the Middle East has long contended with. An indisposition toward cashless transactions, and “the sheer amount of friction that visas and airport security add to the process of getting from A to B,” says Veitch. “Travel could be so much easier, cheaper, faster, and just more pleasant, if governments, airlines, and airports simply shared information better.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Veitch is letting the gas off Wego’s drive any time soon. The company’s product roadmap extends beyond 2020, with new product line extensions and features that will soon be ready to roll out. “I think Wego has the potential to be one of the largest travel companies in the world,” says Veitch confidently.
“And I want Wego to be the very first travel app users re-install each time they set up a new phone.”
Founded in 2006 by Ross Veitch, Craig Hewett and later Martin Symes who served as CEO until 2013
Dual-headquartered in Dubai and Singapore
Equity sharing agreements with MBC, MEVP, Tiger, Crescent, Square Peg Tested the first localised search engine with Arabic website in 2013, the year it entered the Middle East
Averages +16 million visitors per month
Wego is an online travel search engine that runs on what Veitch claims is the “only marketplace model” in the industry.
As new travel booking players enter the online space, they announce their results on Wego’s platform.
“Without Wego, if you wanted to compare all the products and deals available, you would need to visit dozens of websites or install several different travel apps. This is assuming you know which websites to look at,” says Veitch.
“Add onto that spending hours searching and comparing what you’ve found. With Wego, you can search the entire travel market with just one app.”
The biggest issue facing the online travel industry in the Middle East today is probably still online payments, says Veitch.
“The region’s credit card issuance rates are low and card transaction failure rates are high. That’s why bank-driven platforms such as SADAD and Knets are a step in the right direction, but they are still not universally accepted or simple to use as digital-only payment platforms such as China’s Alipay or WeChat Pay.
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