“We aspire to be like companies that are known for providing amazing customer service.” Wanderu’s Polina Raygorodskaya talks with WYSE Travel Confederation
Wanderu is a metasearch site making it much easier for travellers to plan and book intercity bus and rail trips. What did you find in the scheduled ground transportation realm when you first started Wanderu?
When we first started developing the concept for Wanderu, many people in the ground travel industry told us that an aggregate search platform for bus and train tickets would never be possible due to the lack of technology in the space. However, instead of discouraging us from proceeding with the project, we went on to build a universal system that could incorporate every single carrier’s ticketing platform in a reliable and user-friendly way. By accomplishing that, we not only proved that we knew what we were doing but we were also able to show potential partners the value of having their trips available to book on Wanderu.
Can you tell us something about the typical Wanderu user? Have there been any unexpected surprises seen in Wanderu booking behaviour?
Our core demographic is Millennials – students and young professionals between 16 and 34 years old – because they are the main group of people who travel by bus or train. Some of our most frequented routes right now include Los Angeles to Las Vegas and Houston to Austin, both of which are very popular among college students. Statistics show that more and more young people are opting out of driving in favor of alternative forms of transportation and, with airline tickets being quite pricey and requiring additional arrangements such as expensive commutes to and from the airport, bus and train travel has really taken off as the preferred way of travel for Millennials. However, our user base is much broader than that, as Wanderu is the ideal solution for anyone looking for an inexpensive and reliable way of getting where they need to go. You will be surprised how many people travel by bus and train on long-distance trips as well. New York to Miami and Chicago to Seattle are two very popular routes among Wanderu users.
OTAs and metasearch sites are the subjects of heated debates in the accommodation sector with regard to rate parity, commissions, direct bookings, monopoly power to dictate pricing, etc…have you faced similar issues with bus and rail players? Have you learned anything from the accommodation sector? Are there things that you think the accommodation sector could learn from Wanderu?
Our focus from day one has always been to grow the bus and train industry by making it easier for people to travel and find their perfect trip from door to door. The technology we built is unique to the industry in that it doesn’t just aggregate already available resources, but allows people to type in any address, city or point of interest and find the closest station to them, get transit directions to and from the station, and combine multiple providers (two buses, bus and a train, etc) to get people exactly where we want to go. As a result, a large portion of our sales for our partners are sales they could not get on their own. We work very closely with our partners and have very good relationships with them. In fact, many of our partners have actually added routes and schedules because of demand brought from our search. Therefore, we like to think that we are different from the other guys and our track record has proven it.
Wanderu is testing flight options alongside bus and rail options…what’s next for Wanderu? Do you see any potential to work with accommodation providers?
We are always expanding and adding new partners, routes and services. Our goal is not just to build the best bus and train travel search – something we are very well on our way to accomplishing – but to create a product that embraces all the different ways our generation travels. To do that, we are testing different ways to incorporate flights and accommodation options in our search results, so we can provide people with a one-stop booking platform where they can find everything they need to know to build the most efficient travel itinerary.
Which other industries do you look to for inspiration?
Our focus is on providing the best possible user experience for our customers from the moment they land on our webpage to buying a ticket and getting on the bus. We aspire to be like companies that are known for providing amazing customer service like Nordstrom and Uber. Our customers are our top priority.
Wanderu is currently focused on the North American market…are there any big differences you’ve found between the US and Canada? Are you entering the European market soon?
Our user base has been requesting for our presence in Europe and we are planning for our expansion launch before the end of the year. We already have some great partners in place in Europe and signing more carriers every week.
Has Boston been a good place to be for Wanderu and its development? Is there anything special about being there that has shaped the company so far?
When we started out five years ago, Boston was just beginning its transformation into the startup capital of the East Coast of the US, so we had the unique opportunity to be among the first companies to join different startup incubators that were setting up shop in the city. Those proved to be crucial for the initial success of Wanderu and we will forever be grateful to them, as they provided us with free office space and other much-needed resources for day-to-day operations, allowing us to use our own assets exclusively to scale our product and grow. Besides, Boston is the mecca for college students and one of the leading hubs for bus and train travel to numerous key destinations in the US and Canada, so being here has definitely helped us study and understand the needs of our core demographic.
How did you end up in the travel industry?
I have always felt passionate about travel and exploring new destinations. Before I started Wanderu, I had a fashion & lifestyle PR firm that was based in New York City but I would use every opportunity when I was free to travel to a different country or explore a part of the US that I had never been before. It was actually through my travels that I personally experienced the need for a service like Wanderu that puts all available bus and train travel options for a certain route in one place. I used to spend hours going to each individual carrier’s website looking up ticket options and manually comparing them to find the one that best fit my schedule. It was such an inefficient use of my time that I quickly came to the realization that things needed to change.
What’s your take on virtual reality and its implications for the travel industry?
I think virtual reality will be a game-changer when it comes to marketing in the travel industry. A lot of people decide where to travel based on reviews and suggestions from people who have already visited the destination they are considering. However, if virtual reality makes it possible to get a taste of a country, a city or a resort and “experience” it without physically being there, that will certainly open the door for new creative ways to attract potential travelers.
Have you ever stayed in youth hostels?
Yes, plenty of times. I like staying at hostels especially when I travel by myself because that way I get to meet fellow adventurers and get some useful tips on cool places to visit in the area.
You’ve been included in Forbes’ 30 under 30 list…what advice would you give to young women starting out in travel tech?
If you’re going into the entrepreneurship world, you have to be in it for the long run and be ready to roll with the punches because things won’t always work out the way you expect them to. Be ready to fail at certain things, but also learn from your experiences and improve. Tech is a field where people are valued based on their skills and ability to get the job done effectively and efficiently. At the end of the day, it is the work that you put out that matters. As long as you are bold, determined, hard-working and willing to learn on an ongoing basis, then there’s no reason not to thrive in this field.
Polina Raygorodskaya will be speaking at WYSTC 2016 during the session Online, but grounded: Developments in bus and rail travel on Wednesday, 21 September.