There’s a reason the biggest hostel booking site hasn’t figured out how to connect the world’s 140 million-odd backpackers.
It’s because Hostelworld, which sold to private equity firm Hellman & Friedman in 2009 for several hundred million dollars, isn’t a startup anymore. The founders are gone, and dedicating resources and energy to social media and mobile hasn’t been a priority for the maturing company, which hosts listings from 25,000 properties.
Lucky for Hostelworld — not to mention backpackers everywhere – InBed.me is quickly building a solution. Today the New York-based company announced it raised a $1.2 million seed round from a global cast of travel industry vets to continue development of its social hostel booking site.
What’s more, InBed.me has actually partnered with Hostelworld, technically its competition, because Hostelworld’s own attempts at social have fallen so flat. (I’ve tried their system. It is clunky and a bit of a ghost town.) The partnership allows InBed.me to list Hostelworld’s 25,000 properties on its own site in addition to the 1,200 hostels the company has sourced on its own in Brazil.
In time, Hostelworld could integrate InBed.me’s social functions to its site. Or it could acquire InBed.me. For now, InNed.Me is still in building mode. It is set to emerge from beta mode with a redesign this week.
Currently InBed.me uses Facebook connect to help travelers who want to book hostels to find out who will be at the hostel while they’ll be there. They can connect, plan activities, and share advice. More importantly, they can book. InBed.me takes 10% — the industry standard — on each booking. When the booking is done through a listing provided by HostelWorld, they share the fee.
The next priority for InBed.me is a mobile app comparable to HotelTonight, the last minute hotel booking app, but for hostels. CEO and co-founder Diego Saez-Gil told me he sees an increasing number of backpackers traveling with smartphones and tablets, and they want the ability to make travel plans from their devices.
Last time I backpacked anywhere, I carried a clunky laptop that got the crap beaten out of it, and my travel mate carried a deactivated iPhone, which basically functioned as an iPod Touch. Each had their benefits, the portable, lightweight iPhone moreso. An iPad, from which I could have transacted, Skyped, and enjoyed entertainment on long bus rides, would have been ideal. I suspect tablets and smartphones will only increase in popularity among backpackers.
After mobile, InBed.me will incorporate future bookings, which tell other travelers where you’ll be staying without having to commit to the reservation. The company also has plans for a geo-location function, where travelers can opt into a Highlight-esque discovery mode. They can find other travelers who might want to meet or socialize, based on location.
Despite what I said about not using Highlight in my hometown, I can see the benefit of a function like this. You’re in a foreign country and you haven’t spoken English in a week. You haven’t had luck meeting people at your hostel, and you want a friend to go exploring with. Checking the app you used to book the hostel to see which other travelers are nearby seems like a natural move to make.
Traveling is inherently social and in the culture of backpacking, it’s amplified 1000-fold. You’re sharing a living space, a bathroom, even a bunk with these people. It makes sense that you’d like to get a sense of the type of people a certain hostel attracts, if not connect with those people directly, beforehand.
And even though most travelers have access to computers, shared or their own, and when they book in advance, they book online, they still use analog methods to choose where they stay. Almost everyone I encountered in South America schlepped around a tattered Lonely Planet hostel directory and a notebook filled with advice, email addresses, notes, names, places, tours, and ideas gathered from fellow travelers along the way. Advice and recommendations from friends are priceless, and it never ceased to amaze me that this stuff couldn’t exist in one easy to use place online, with booking attached.
Part of the problem is that hostels in some of the most popular backpacking regions in the world are only starting to come online. Saez-Gil estimates there are 50,000 hostels in the world, and he sees a huge opportunity to add new inventory in South America and Southeast Asia in particular. Right now, InBed.me has brand ambassadors working to bring hostels onto its system in Brazil. The company chose Brazil to begin testing the hostel on-boarding process, Saez-Gil said, because the Brazilian government is actually investing in the building of new hostels in anticipation of the city’s hosting the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.
Even though InBed.me is starting in Brazil, its roots are all over South America. Saez-Gil is Argentinean. He started the company in Chile. It’s headquartered in New York. The development team is in Colombia.
Saez-Gil was drawn to Chile by the country’s attractive capital program, Start-Up Chile. In it, the government provides $40,000 to startups, which they repay by fostering an entreprenuerial community in the country through events.
Start-Up Chile is particularly attractive to entrepreneurs from Argentina, where the culture of starting companies, building things and changing the world is strong. As a result, Start-Up Chile has imported many Argentinean founders. InBed.me is one example. Taggify, a contextual ad company, is another.
InBed.me graduated from Startup Chile and moved to New York, snagging a spot at General Assembly. (Following in its footsteps, Taggify has plans to move to New York as well.) The company has a staff of four here, which runs marketing and design, and its developer team of five is in Colombia.
The company’s investors are equally as global: The seed round included backing from Parisian venture firm Ventech, Quotidian Ventures based in New York, and Brazilian firm CAP Ventures. Participants include a list of industry vets and angel investors.
InBed.me is a site I wish existed, when I was traveling. That’s not to say there aren’t others working on this problem. Couchsurfing.org, which Pando’s intrepid traveler has experimented with, is the biggest I can think of. But as Trevor can attest, it’s a bit of a complicated interface. It’s also a time investment. There is an elaborate profile to fill out, and there are various levels of friending and vouching and commenting and messaging. Makes sense, as it’s different when you’re opening your home to a stranger. The time investment users make is equal to the money they save on a hostel. It’s a different kind of community. I appreciate that InBed.me uses Facebook connect for a lean, clean-looking user experience.
Other travel startups like Wanderfly, GogoBot, Trippy and Gtrot are social and beautifully designed. They’re often characterized as Pinterest for travel, and appropriately so: They focus on inspiration and not function. The difference — besides booking functionality, which they will all likely add once they hit critical mass — is that the backpackers that InBed.me targets probably don’t need inspiration. They wouldn’t have embarked on extended journeys around the world, if they weren’t already inspired to see it.