Vacation is one of those things that’s exciting when mentioned, but once the rubber hits the road, becomes a nightmare of open guidebooks, hundreds of tabs, and an onslaught of recommendations from friends and family.
Luckily, Utrip in Seattle, Washington has ingeniously combined an expert network and artificial intelligence to bring personal and feasible itineraries to travelers. We recently sat down with founder, CEO, and visionary Gilad Berenstein to learn about his unique story.
A Fateful Trip
Gilad’s desire to enter the travel industry stemmed from his childhood experiences. In his younger years, he emigrated from Israel to the US with his family and as he said, “we got to take a number of trips. We often had long layovers in Europe, so we could spend one or two days checking out a new city in Europe every time we went back and forth from the US to Israel, or vice versa, and I got to see a bunch of places, and I think I totally developed a passion and love for travel and for Europe during that process.”
That love of travel led him to notice one big issue.
“I realized that everyone did the same thing: using books and websites and getting advice from friends and family and the people typically described trip planning in negative ways”.
A post-graduation trip to Europe became the tipping point. He explained, “we constantly felt like we had misinformation and holes in our itinerary and just all sorts of little hurdles and obstacles”. These issues manifested themselves in misinformation in a hotel location in Paris and a missed soccer game in Barcelona. Finally, in Rome, he said, “I was in a coffee shop and I was talking to a local who turned out to be a retired chef, and he had all sorts of amazing dinner recommendations for me and as a foodie, this was a dream come true because none of these recommendations were on any of the top ten lists on the web”.
After he got back, the obstacles he experienced in his trip to Europe and his travel experiences around friends and family became the basis for Utrip: improving travel information, personalizing trips, and giving unique recommendations curated by locals.
Utrip, catered for U
Utrip is a company that combines an expert network along with an AI platform to help personalize and plan travelers’ trip itineraries. The interface is composed of little buttons and sliders to demonstrate where your interests and focuses are. They range from “The First Timer” to “The Luxury Traveler”.
Creating Utrip wasn’t a smooth process. Gilad’s struggles were two-fold. First, “On the entrepreneurial side…I was a 23 year old entrepreneur and I was young and inexperienced”. Second, “the travel space is just giant…and…getting into such a complex and big industry is very challenging…There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands destinations around the world that people want to go to, and building that initial critical mass of destinations to make the platform useful was a big challenge”.
While looking at the second challenge, Gilad found a brilliant way to add more activities to each destination, keep them authentic, and ensure itineraries were customized for each traveler: the expert network.
The Expert Network
Gilad explained that “one of the things that is really important is our expert network”. Utrip reaches out to cultural organizations and professionals from a Native American art expert in Seattle to the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood so that they can get the best out of every destination. He points out that “instead of having to become a deep expert in every destination and every topic ourselves, we get to partner with the best people in every one of these cities.” This means that Utrip can focus more on building their platform, what they’re best at, and have the locals, the real professionals, focus on curating destinations and sightseeing.
Besides creating an expert network, another challenge was getting users. With a fledgling company, it’s easy to see why they would need users to test out the software and to help build a good reputation. Attracting users to the beta of the software was a difficult process though. Gilad used guerrilla marketing, a low-cost and grassroots style promotional method, to get a critical mass of travelers. The team went to all the possible places around the city to find people who could be potential travelers. Eventually, they managed to attract a diverse body of people from university students to members of an Italian wine society.
A Change in Model
The biggest change Utrip has made occurred in 2015. Gilad said, “what we found was that we had this really exciting business opportunity…where various businesses have wanted to license our platform: hotels, airlines, cruise lines, points of interest…to help their customers plan trips that are unique and personal”. He further explains that this shifted the business model “from a pure direct consumer model to a model that was really a business to business machine”. In this way, they’ve been able to reach more users for the software and keep it free for consumers who want to plan their trips.
Utrip’s vision for the future “stays the same”. Ultimately, they want to license the software to more companies to grow the user base for their unique AI interface.
“Go do it! The only way to succeed is to take one step at a time and to start from the beginning.”
Favorite City: Barcelona
Favorite Place: Park Güell
Opinion: I just think the view is so beautiful and Gaudí’s architecture is just so genius that it’s one of my favorite places to hang out to pass the Sunday
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Cover photo from “The Business Journals”