Byway Uses AI to Provide Personalized Travel Plans

A lone entrepreneur, Cat Jones, initiated her travel enterprise just as COVID-19 was sweeping across Europe in early 2020. Fast forward to mid-2024, and her venture, Byway, which crafts curated travel packages, has secured an impressive £5.04 million (roughly $6.4 million) in an oversubscribed Series A funding round.

Jones’ intuition about the appeal of leisurely, eco-conscious journeys is proving accurate. Her company specializes in itineraries that eschew air travel, instead utilizing land and sea transport options like railways, coaches, and ships. This approach allows vacationers to savor landscapes and discover less frequented locales as they unwind. The business has experienced robust expansion, with revenue tripling annually and total trip sales exceeding 4,200, as Jones disclosed to TechCrunch.

The surge in this travel trend is partly fueled by heightened ecological awareness, prompting tourists to seek alternatives to flying. Concurrently, many iconic European urban hotspots – from the canals of Amsterdam to the historic streets of Rome – and even well-known holiday islands are grappling with the consequences of excessive tourism, leading to a less welcoming atmosphere for visitors as local populations contend with the fallout.

These dual trends were at the forefront of Jones’ mind as she sought a business concept after her start as an investor at the London-based startup accelerator Founders Factory. Her previous experience included a decade at digital adtech firm Unruly, where she ultimately served as global SVP for data on the executive team.

Her UK-headquartered venture now has a staff of 40. The recently secured Series A funding, spearheaded by Heartcore Capital with Eka Ventures and returning angel investors participating, will fuel geographic expansion. The company intends to grow its team, particularly in engineering, to bolster the development of its proprietary AI-driven trip planning technology.

Currently, the majority of Byway’s package holidays (approximately 60%) are booked online, utilizing the company’s proprietary trip-designing software, JourneyAI. The remaining 40% of sales are generated through a human-operated concierge service, where staff interact with potential customers to craft tailored trips. However, Jones is optimistic that their holiday-planner tool will increasingly handle more of the trip design process as it incorporates additional data sources and refines its AI-powered recommendations.

Strength and Sophistication Unite

Throughout her life, Jones has gravitated towards more leisurely and picturesque modes of travel. She regularly opted for ferry journeys to visit relatives in Ireland and has been a lifelong railway enthusiast who’s never felt the need to own an automobile. This personal preference allowed her to envision the potential for crafting “exquisite” land-based vacations. These trips would feature breathtaking landscapes and memorable travel experiences, such as the excitement of crossing waters by ferry, the awe-inspiring journeys on mountain railways, or the unhurried charm of overnight trains complete with dining carriages.

Journeys involving multiple stops via land-based transportation alter the rhythm of travel and foster a different kind of tourism that’s less environmentally damaging than air travel. These trips can also distribute economic benefits across a wider range of locations, helping to alleviate pressure on popular tourist destinations. However, planning such complex itineraries is challenging, which is why Byway’s AI tool is crucial for scaling this alternative package tour business model.

Regarding the functionality of Byway’s trip planner, Jones explains that it relies on a diverse array of information sources and contexts to construct packages. This includes transport schedules, pricing data, and details provided by the customers themselves. The AI also considers feedback from previous successful trips. Essentially, the system aims to match new customers with planned routes that have pleased similar travelers in the past.

To illustrate the level of detail and context that Byway manages, Jones provides an example: while a couple on holiday might find a late-night sleeper train appealing, a family with young children would likely be less enthusiastic about this option. She emphasized, “You have to be very responsive,” noting that most of the work in designing their tool involves navigating and categorizing the numerous “nuances” associated with travel preferences.

The tool offers flexibility in its usage. Travelers seeking inspiration can input basic information, such as their desired trip duration, and receive comprehensive holiday suggestions. These could range from a week-long exploration of the French countryside to a three-week European adventure extending to Turkey via Budapest and Vienna.

Alternatively, users can modify pre-designed itineraries featured on Byway’s website to better align with their preferences. The 60% rate of online bookings appears to validate both the AI’s ability to generate reasonable suggestions and the level of customization currently available.

The technology also addresses a significant challenge inherent to multi-stop journeys: the risk of disruption at any point, potentially hindering the entire trip. Jones explains that JourneyAI lowers this risk by incorporating resilience into its designs. The software includes fallback options, enabling it to offer alternatives should the original plan encounter difficulties.

Jones said, “We are still manually sorting disruption at the moment. But actually that’s something that, very soon — especially with this funding — we will be able to automate the vast majority of our disruption detection and automatic disruption replanning,” She continued saying, “So that we can alert people and say, ‘Look, your trip’s been disrupted here. Your train’s running a bit late, and you’re going to miss the connection. Here’s the reworked bit that we’ve done for you. And then, yeah, absolutely talk to us if you want to. But actually, if you’re just happy with that you can just accept it, and off we go.”

Byway establishes WhatsApp groups for its clients to provide additional safety nets. This creates a straightforward communication channel for travelers to reach out to the company during their journey, ensuring they never feel isolated when facing any issues.

“We’re selling a complete holiday, which means when the customer buys with us if there’s disruption, that’s on us. We fix it. We sort it — which makes it easy as a decision for the customer to purchase the trip,” she adds, emphasizing, “If something does go wrong, Byway is just going to ping me and say, ‘Okay, here’s the disruption, here’s what we’re doing about it. Go and get an ice cream from so and so while you’re waiting.’

“But it also, then, of course, gives us an added imperative with our technology — not just to design really delightful routes, but also to be designing routes that have a level of disruption resilience.”

Regarding transportation bookings, Jones explains that Byway typically interfaces with APIs offered by third-party aggregators, citing the Swedish startup All Aboard as an example. Similarly, the process of booking accommodations is treated as a standardized component. The company’s primary intellectual property lies in its journey planner tool.

“We’re a tour operator rather than an agent,” she emphasizes. “It allows us to buy at trade rates as a tour operator from accommodation and transport, which means we’re not looking at a very, very lean commission where every penny matters and you have to go direct in every case. It means that the focus of our tech can be on that really clever JourneyAI. That’s where we can spend most of our time doing something nobody’s ever done before.”

Precision Powered by Human Expertise 

Although most of Byway’s customers utilize its technological tool for trip planning and booking, a significant portion still prefers human assistance in organizing their vacations. Travelers with highly specific requirements may find that automated recommendations lack the necessary precision. Others simply value the personal touch of interacting with a human during the planning phase.

Nevertheless, Jones is optimistic about enhancing the AI’s responsiveness and increasing the percentage of trips booked through the automated system. When asked about the potential quality of AI recommendations, she responds with playful enthusiasm, “It could get just perfect!” She adds, “That’s what we’re investing in and why we’re raising the money.”

She continued, striking a more serious tone. “Actually, in most cases, the tech is doing a really superb job. But there is this 40% where we need people to do it because we cannot manage that yet.”

“You can get this general model where we have particular local nuances, but increasingly the more regions that we go into, the more local nuance the JourneyAI technology needs to have within it. But we are, kind of, in a place where we’re going, ‘Gosh, we understand it; we already know now that it needs this, and it needs this, and it needs this.’ And actually, our biggest problem is that we don’t have many developers. … So we’ve got this back-end roadmap for JourneyAI, but we haven’t got enough back-end tech people to run as quickly as we’d like at that roadmap, and then the same in the front end … Hence this fundraising.”

Jones also affirms that human input remains crucial in sourcing high-quality content to enhance AI’s recommendations. She explains that Byway’s product contact team collaborates with local “destination management organizations” to gather information. For areas where their knowledge is limited, the company engages local journalists to help construct what she describes as a “real data quality layer.”

“You can’t go to absolutely every place you could ever dream of with Byway, but the places that you can go — we have chosen those places for a reason,” she adds.

Meanwhile, as Byway prepares for geographical growth, its staff is occupied with more routine matters – notably, addressing regulatory challenges stemming from Brexit.

She explained that after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, the bond it holds no longer generalizes across Europe — which is why Byway has just established a base in the Netherlands. “We’re on a kind of regulatory journey right now. We have to have a European company in order to get a European bond that will protect our European customers. So essentially, that’s the next step … as soon as we have that, we can actually start marketing to Europe.”

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