The second wave of Internet-era travel companies has captured the attention of venture capitalists.
In the last five years, travel companies have raised more than $1 billion in venture capital funding. That includes short-term rental startups, travel and tourism apps, marketplaces for “experiences” and other travel or hospitality tech platforms. Airbnb, a $38 billion company and an anomaly in the category, has raised $3 billion in that same time frame, according to PitchBook.
In the last few months alone, aspiring Concur-competitor TripActions and travel activities platform Klook entered the “unicorn” club with large venture rounds that valued both of the businesses at more than $1 billion. Meanwhile, luggage maker Away raised $50 million at a $400 million valuation and smaller startups in the space like Freebirds, IfOnly, KKDay, Duffel and RedDoorz all closed modest funding rounds.
“Something is really happening in the industry; something bigger than us,” TripActions co-founder Ariel Cohen said in a recent conversation with TechCrunch about his company’s $154 million Series C financing. “Different startups are identifying the opportunity here and the fact that companies want to make sure their employees are happy while they are on the go. That’s why you see investments in companies like Brex and like TripActions.”
Brex, though not classified as a travel startup, lets startup employees earn extra points on business travel with its corporate credit card for startups. It recently raised a $125 million Series C at a $1.1 billion valuation.
Global travel and tourism is one of the most valuable industries worth some $7 trillion. The online travel market, in particular, is expected to grow to $817 billion by 2020. VCs are hunting for tech-enabled startups poised to dominate that slice.
“You have a new wave of businesses where all of that digital infrastructure is set up, so the focus can be on things like efficiency, improved customer service, scale and growth — you have a ton of companies popping up catering to those needs,” Defy Partners co-founder Neil Sequeira told TechCrunch. Sequeira was a managing director at General Catalyst when the firm made its first investment in Airbnb.
On the other hand, you have a whole cohort of travel business founded amid the dot-com boom that are looking to technology startups for a much-needed infusion of innovation. Many of those larger companies have become active acquirers, fueling VC interest in the space. SAP Concur, for example, acquired the formerly VC-backed travel-booking startup Hipmunk in 2016. Before that, it bought travel planning company TripIt for $120 million, among others.
Expedia has gobbled up a number of travel brands too, like travel photography community Trover; Airbnb-competitor HomeAway, which it paid a whopping $3.9 billion for in 2015; and most recently, both Pillow and ApartmentJet.
Many of these acquisitions are for peanuts, which is far from ideal for a venture-funded company. And building a travel business is cash intensive, hence the $4.4 billion Airbnb has raised to date or even TripActions’ $236 million in total VC funding. To keep momentum in the space, companies need to be striking larger M&A deals.
It doesn’t help that many in and around the venture capital industry are predicting an imminent turn in the market. Travel companies, which are reliant upon a consumer’s tendency to spend excess cash, will be among the first sectors to be impacted by hostile economic conditions.
“If the market turns, people aren’t going to spend $10,000 on a trip to Zimbabwe,” Sequeira said, referencing companies like IfOnly, which sells curated experiences.
Travel startups should raise now while the market is hot. The conditions may not remain favorable for long.