Newsmaker: New startup bridges tourism suppliers to Chinese travellers

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Wong Toon King, chairman, WEGOGO

NEW startup WEGOGO sees huge opportunity to connect tourism suppliers outside China, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, to sophisticated Chinese tourists via WeChat, the dominant social networking platform in China with 633 million users.

The venture is backed by a group of Singapore private investors led by Farsight Capital’s managing director Wong Toon King, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who has a track record with startups.

Raini Hamdi talks to Wong, chairman of WEGOGO, about the ‘social discovery AI travel platform’.

What’s the big idea?
The big idea is there is a huge number of Chinese travellers, over 100 million now and projected to grow to 200 million by 2020. Many of them, in particular the millennials, don’t even do group tours, but leapfrog straight to FIT and are very adventurous.

So we’ve built this platform to match travel suppliers to the new Chinese travellers (WEGOGO was launched to suppliers in Singapore recently). Most suppliers have caught on to the idea of a digital platform to attract clients, but they have not caught on to the need to serve Chinese travellers in their own way. In China, people use WeChat, not Facebook. Yet, suppliers are not even on WeChat. So the first step is to quickly get them (suppliers) on WeChat, then evolve to match suppliers and Chinese tourists effectively through a learning system based on AI technology.

(Editor’s Note: The latest Hurun Report shows WeChat as the top mobile phone function – 79 per cent – for Chinese millennial travellers.)

How quickly and easily can suppliers get a presence in China?
We’ve built the platform such that in less than two hours, you’ll have your own mobile website and presence in China. You’ll have the details of your company, product, pricing, promotions on a microsite and you can start selling as there’s payment gateway. (There is free language translation up to a certain number of words.)

We don’t repurpose your content or present your product. The platform enables you to be directly linked to the consumer. We’re the enabler.

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How are you going to attract the Chinese travellers?
In Q3, we will do a major launch to the Chinese audience, and we will activate media and other online channels to be our partners.

We will do a lot of video campaigns. We put the videos on WeChat; Chinese travellers can ‘like’ it, comment on it, so we are creating aspirational demand. It does not have to be expensive places. The first, Island Fever!, has just kicked off and showcases the laid-back nature and lifestyle of the Gili Islands in Indonesia. There are five videos of Gili, experiencing Beaches, Diving, Swimming with Turtles, Island-hopping and Underwater World, each with a local person.

We focus on people – the local hosts, the guides, etc – who make the experience possible. We are attracting the Chinese travellers with transformative stories. Today, they want more than just bragging rights to a destination. Travel is life-changing and self-learning for them.

What is the bigger goal you think WEGOGO can achieve?
Chinese travellers, in such huge numbers, are really going to transform the way we organise travel to suit them. But in return, as they learn about the world, they are going to be transformed. So we’re hoping that what we do will help them realise that, even for China, there are many things they need to preserve, sustain, by seeing what others are doing.

That’s why we want our hosts to share tips with them on how to care for the environment and how they would like travellers to interact with them, so we become a bridge that links and empowers both sides.

How many suppliers are you targeting?
We want to get our positioning right, so it’s not so much the number of suppliers but the quality. It’s about the creation of a community that can provide transformational experiences. The suppliers can be an activity provider, a certified home-dining experience, an accommodation provider, etc, and certain categories may jump if they have been under-served. If we have to put a number to it, probably 15,000 in three years’ time.

Do you verify them?
Yes, we have partners and groups of people who will verify, while the user-generated content will provide instant feedback to travellers.

How do you make your money?
Through a booking transaction fee.

Tell me about the AI part of WEGOGO.
AI is the next big trend in every sector. Everyone is trying to make sure their system is intelligent and learning. You can build an intelligent system initially by coding, but it stays somewhat static. AI enables the system to continue to learn over time. And it is possible to learn now because of the deluge of information – what you post, what you are doing are captured and these bits of information start to build a pattern for each person.

In the end, we are teaching this AI system to understand a person’s aspiration. Does he travel to escape, get inspired, be stress-free, to have time to bond with his family? And we’re focused only on the Chinese travellers as their mindset is different and it is a big enough market to apply the technology in the domain of travel.

Why did you decide to back WEGOGO?
Any venture is about people. We (the people in the startup) go back a long way. I believe in the team. Secondly, we’re talking about the entire China travel market; that’s huge. Thirdly, it’s an area I was trained in.

(Editor’s Note: The people in the startup include founder/CEO Mak Chee Wah, former CEO of Melioris International and CFO of SilkRoute Holdings which Wong set up; Richard Tan Boon Piew, co-founder/COO, who has 23 years experience in the IT industry; Yue Yew Hoong, co-founder/CFO, who was also with Melioris and SilkRoute; and Reene Ho, managing director of BrandStory Inc, who is strategic advisor of WEGOGO.)

Do you think with platforms such as yours, which connect travellers directly to suppliers, travel agents will die?
The whole industry is transforming. But I don’t see ourselves as a disruptor. Travel is so complex, so there must be intermediaries, that’s the lay of the land. Will there be more direct (sell), yes, but will there be others who need guidance? Absolutely.

In the case of Chinese millennials, they want more direct (buying), because they are so used to technology.

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