How two IIT-B graduates are simplifying travel experience in Thailand with a chat-based personal assistant appSushil Reddy
With a vision to create the world’s first seamlessly connected ecosystem around travel, served to the user via a simple, intuitive chat-based interface, two IIT Bombay alumni, Ameya Sahasrabudhe and Rahul Singh started Ithaka. It aspires to be a free personal travel assistant for travellers. Currently, it serves Thailand and plans on expanding through South East Asia next. Based out of Mumbai, Ithaka helps travellers plan out their entire trip to Thailand, including flights, destinations, hotels and local activities.
Motivation to start Ithaka
After graduating from IITB, Ameya was placed as an engineer at on an oil rig. He found the work mundane and wanted to do something more useful.
After finishing up the project, Ameya quit his job and felt an inextinguishable thirst for travel. He initially taught high school physics in order to save money for his Ithaka journey. He says, “I backpacked across South East Asia for two and a half months: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. During my trip it dawned on me that this was all I really wanted to do: travel.”
Luckily for Ameya, his friend from IIT, Rahul, was just as passionate about travel. With the founders coming together for a common vision, Ithaka was born. They brainstormed ways to make travel simpler, and realised that every decision, from deciding a destination, and finding good flights/hotels, to activities to do, boils down to one thing only – verified, actionable information.
It was apparent that trusted travel information is hard to find, and to put it into context is even harder. Travellers, on average, spend 30+ hours Googling and scouring 22+ websites/blogs while planning, and still aren't 100 percent sure of their plan. So Ameya and Rahul decided to go ahead and launch an on-demand service to help people plan and execute their trips.
The Thailand logic
The founders say they chose Thailand initially as the travel destination because of it being one of the most popular destinations in SE Asia for travellers from India and abroad. Apart from being one of the most visited countries in the world, it is also the entry point to the famous Pancake backpacking trail, covering Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, usually in that order.
SE Asia receives 25 percent of the global tourism traffic with Bangkok being the second most visited city in the world. The founders say, “To put things in perspective, India as a whole received about seven million international tourists in 2013. Bangkok city alone received 16 million, while Thailand as a whole received 27 million. The difference is staggering. Moreover, it is far better for us to serve a smaller country like Thailand very well, than be mediocre in the whole of India. We want to own the SE Asian tourism market within the next couple of years. India is definitely on the cards. But it is very clear to us that we need to have more robust systems to do a good job in India – maybe sometime in 2017.”
Product and current traction
Ideation started early in 2015, and Ithaka went to market with its first product in July 2015, an online marketplace for local activities and experiences. When they saw the need for an on-demand product, they quickly pivoted to a chat-based travel planning app, also providing support when the traveller is in destination. People who are planning to travel to Thailand come to the Ithaka app - generally with a clean slate, but sometimes with a rough idea about what they want to do.
Next, the team works with the traveller to help plan out their entire trip. This is a key differentiator, Ithaka does not take preferences and spit out an itinerary. The founders say they believe in keeping the traveller intimately involved in the planning process, without the hassle of looking for information and over-thinking decisions.
The Ithaka app has more than 2,000 downloads since its launch in September 2015. With a business model involving monetisation in the travel verticals via commission, referral and fees, it is making early revenues with a few lakhs of transaction volume. Ameya adds, “We’ve covered bachelor trips, honeymoons, family holidays, solo backpacking and friends reunions and helped more than 700 travellers till now. We’ve noticed that our users are closely connected to us from the first contact to the very end of their trip, which is a good sign.”
Others in this space
There are a few related competitors to Ithaka. GoHeroGo is an Indian startup, a concierge to do flight searches, bookings etc.
Pana is an exclusive, luxury concierge, while Assist exists only for SF. There is also a 'talk with local' platform, Lola, started by Kayak Founder Paul English, brings the travel agent experience to chat.
On what differentiates Ithaka, Ameya reiterates, “We do not sell package tours. We help you plan an amazing trip for yourself, and are always one text away from anything you need in destination.”
Currently bootstrapped, Ithaka is gaining ground on the South East Asia belt after mastering Thailand. It is launching for Singapore in two weeks, and will be present at the Asia Aviation Festival in Singapore. By the end of 2016, team Ithaka envisions to cover the South East Asian loop – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos. With a current team size of seven, it plans to build a strong tech and design team, boost outreach via quality content and deeply engage with the global traveller community.
Check out Ithaka for more details