Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Interview with Kelly Tompkins, AdventureLink
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Last week, Altadena-based AdventureLink (www.adventurelink.com) announced that it raised a Series A funding round, for the firm's adventure travel reservation network. The round came from Anthem Venture Partners and the Mail Room Fund. We caught up with Kelly Tompkins, the firm's founder and CEO, to hear more about the firm.
Thanks for the interview. What's the new company all about?
Kelly Tompkins: AdventureLink is a reservation network, which allows consumers and agents to book adventure travel around the world. It's the last bastion for automation within the travel industry. It's an area which has been very segmented, a long tail situation where it has been difficult for adventure tour operators--mostly small, adventure tour operators--to tap into mainstream travel agencies. What we're doing, is replicating what cruise agencies did in the 80's and 90's with their reservation infrastructure--allowing traditional and online buyers to shop, compare, and book trips for the first time. It's also where the leisure industry is migrating to. People are demanding more and more experiential opportunities out of their leisure holidays. This has been fueled by the baby boom generation. It's the first year that baby boomers have been eligible for retirement benefits, and there are people with discretionary income, even in these economic conditions, who are demanding these experiences. People looking for an African safari, philanthropic opportunities, Doctors Without Borders, learning a second language, or going to a music festival for the first time, can connect with AdventureLink via any channel--whether that is a local travel agency, through a major online travel site, or through AdventureLink.com. We have affiliate partnerships, so that you can go and confidently book your trip of choice.
Why did you decide to startup up another travel site?
Kelly Tompkins: I have done six online travel companies. I personally enjoy traveling, and looking at the space from a technology automation perspective. I originally wrote the business plan for AdventureLink out of school in 1994, for a business class I took. I backburnered the concept until 2006, and in May of 2006 put the business together. My previous business, LeisureLink, was a precursor to AdventureLink, aggregating vacation rentals. I thought I could do that for adventure travel, even though it has a slightly more complex data set.
That's interesting that you had this planned in 1994--that's quite a while ago--didn't anyone try to do something like this in the meantime?
Kelly Tompkins: Yes, in 1998, there was Away.com, iExplore, and there was significant venture capital thrown at that segment. They all failed, because what they decided to do was be a single, standalone website. Their idea was to catch enough consumers to scale, but they didn't understand the cost of acquisition, of finding customers, marketing, and advertising. What AdventureLink allows us to do is cast a very wide net, to build distribution partners and tap into mainstream travel. We've developed a very advanced, voice-over-IP telephony network, which allows outside travel agents to do all of our customer service on commissions, which keeps our fixed costs down, and allows us to scale to thousands of inquiries a day.
Talk about your VoIP network?
Kelly Tompkins: It's ground breaking, actually. We've rolled this out to traditional agencies, which is Phase 1, through VAX Vacation Access, which is a site for agents booking vacation travel. Next, we'll roll out to online travel agencies. Our AdventureLink expert network allows consumers to connect, in real time, to an agent of choice. If ou're searching for an African safari, you might choose an agent who knows Botswana. You can see which agents specialize in that destination and activity, choose the activity, and enter your phone number, and your phone instantly rings. Your call is routed to the first available agency--anywhere in the globe--specializing in that destination and activity. We only use outside, accredited agents--which means they are working with us as an independent travel agent, accredited based on the destination and activities. We use the VoIP telephony to be able to connect the two--we know what you're looking for on the site, and match that with a database of agents and connect you. VoIP is a critical component for our phase 2 launch.
Given your experience in the travel market, what did you learn from your last venture, and how are you applying it here?
Kelly Tompkins: With each one of these startups, we learned a lot. I developed one of the first booking engines for Sabre's web reservation system, in 1996. I did the GetThere Internet travel network, which was a corporate airline booking engine. With my last project, LeisureLink, we were the leading distributor of vacation rentals. We learned a lot for each of those projects. What we've done here, is we've utilized very advanced crawler technology, which grabs content from thousands of adventure tour operators, and consolidates that into a database. That information is normalized, standardized, and when a tour operator changes content on their web site, it's automatically picked up on our system. It gives us a very high adoption rate with tour operators, as a result of the crawler. We have the largest database for booking these sorts of trips.
How connected are adventure tour operators to the Internet?
Kelly Tompkins: All of the have web sites, and all have their trips published on the web, which is fantastic. Even four or five years ago, they didn't have websites. Now, they have web sites, and it's relatively easy to crawl these sites and index and normalize their information in a database. For the most part, tour operators love it. They've been trying to access the mainstream for so long, and this tool finally allows them to do that. They don't have to pay a fee unless someone is booking through our network--so for the most part, they love it. There are a couple of big ones who have been a bit apprehensive, but they have been few and far between. Thousands of adventure travel operators love and support what we're doing. And, because of the economic conditions, there's been even more adoption from tour operators.
Speaking of the economy, how difficult was it to get funding given the economy?
Kelly Tompkins: It's a testament to the experience of the team, and not just me, but the rest of the team--for example, Michael Culhane, my President, was an African safari operator, booking African safaris in Glendale--and we've got a top notch engineering team. We were funded based on the strength of our team, and the concept, plus the partnerships we've been able to put into place. The underlying technology has two and a half years, and four and a half million dollars put into the platform.
Thanks for the interview, and good luck!