A recent study by Euromonitor International analysts revealed that global mobile travel sales accounted for US$96 billion (S$130 billion) in 2014 and are expected to reach US$260 billion in 2019, making up 25 per cent of online travel bookings. The Asia-Pacific region is set to drive global growth, adding 1.7 billion smartphone connections, half the global total, by 2020.
Singapore-developed apps such as Justgola, CityButler and ButlerPad aim to provide research and booking services for vacation needs. And apps such as VoiceMap and TopoTogo are tapping into the tour guide market, a US$16-billion industry alone.
While the potential gains are skyhigh, the going is tough. High rent and manpower costs are a challenge to start-ups here, which often outsource the technical side of their Web and app development to firms in Vietnam and Thailand.
Competition is rife as technology companies vie to develop what they hope would be the mobile travel market leader. Yet, start-ups here say Singapore is an ideal entry point into the Asia-Pacific travel market, while also providing ample funding opportunities through Singapore venture capital firms such as Sugar Ventures and government organisations such as the Singapore Tourism Board.
The challenge now is to achieve the buzz word on every developer’s tongue: seamlessness.
Mr Teo Keng Chong, director of traveller experience at Sabre, a technology provider to the travel industry, says the future of apps is to make travel planning and booking far more efficient.
Sabre processes more than US$120 billion of estimated travel spending annually by connecting travel buyers and suppliers in more than 160 countries. One of its apps, TripCase, manages more than 30 million trips a year.
“We have to ask, are we using mobile technology to make the experience better? This is where opportunity lies – the ability to create a far more seamless and personalised experience, through a combination of mobile, new technologies and effective use of data,” he says.
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When exploring a new destination, it always helps to know a local, someone who can provide insight into a landmark or neighbourhood without the expense of a private guide or constraints of a group tour.
The sharing economy’s take on tour guides, VoiceMap (left) is an app which allows anyone passionate about his city to create and share a unique audio tour online. Users download the tours, which range from free to US$9.99 (S$13.49), to their smartphone and the offline app will automatically play the audio guide once the traveller reaches the tour’s starting point.
Each tour runs on geotags, an electronic tag which assigns a geographical location to media, commonly used with photos and videos or when posting to social sites such as Instagram. VoiceMap has attached the technology to audio recordings. Once the user reaches a designated point along the route, guided by an interactive map in the app, the audio will start to play.
South African co-founders Iain Manley and Lauren Edwards began developing VoiceMap with the help of Singapore-based capital fund Sugar Ventures, releasing the beta version of the app and website VoiceMap.me with tours in two cities, Singapore and Cape Town, in April 2014. VoiceMapnow offers almost 180 voice-guided tours in 55 cities around the world, narrated by everyone from journalists to historians, film-makers to politicians and everyday people excited about their hometown.
Tours include an exploration of Beijing’s disappearing hutongs (old alleyways) by journalist and Economist contributor Alec Ash. A tour of London’s West End read by actor Sir Ian McKellen, in partnership with the Society of London Theatre, is set to be published on the app later this month.
Anyone can design a tour with the help of an assigned VoiceMap editor. Contributors earn roughly 50 per cent from sales.
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Recognising the need for a family-friendly travel app which would help parents with the logistics of travel while also providing entertainment for children, TopoTogo was launched in December last year by Ms Carrie Nooten, 36, a French former journalist for Radio France International. She has lived in Singapore with her husband and two young children for seven years.
“When people have kids, lots of them give up on travel. They find it too hard to do all the necessary research. If you have a tailor-made tour for kids, then parents can enjoy the trip as well,” she says.
Named after the word “topography”, the art of mapping, the family version of the Singapore-focused offline app provides five curated trails around Singapore, led by a little Nonya protagonist named Lily. Each tour has an adults’ page, which includes an interactive map, lists of what to see on the trail, how to get there and a directory of restaurants and cafes along the way.
With a tap, travellers easily toggle to the children’s version for ages six to 12. The illustrated guide (above) includes 10 interactive screens and 150 stories about Singapore’s history, with details about life and culture in the city, such as why St Andrew’s Cathedral is painted white, what is a traveller’s tree and the use of a particular Peranakan dish.
The tours include a 50-minute audio guide voiced in English, Mandarin, French and Japanese by local journalists, including BBC World News presenter Sharanjit Leyl.
The app costs $5.98, or $18.90 with a handheld guide with trivia, stickers, games and a physical copy of a map. In the coming months, parents will be able to book transport and make reservations through the app and an adults’ guide, partially funded by the Singapore Tourism Board, will be launched.
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Launched in October last year, ButlerPad (left) is a virtual concierge designed to help hotels meet the needs of their guests.
No download is necessary. Hotel guests are linked to the app when they log into a participating hotel’s Wi-Fi, where a homepage displays all the hotel’s features and services. By tapping on the menu, guests can order room service, book a spa package, check important hotel information and search a curated list of nearby attractions and restaurants as well as make reservations through the app. Guests’ requests are sent to the relevant departments and they receive a confirmation of their order within minutes.
The app was created by Butler Tech, a group started in Bangkok in 2014 by Briton Mike Mazza, who moved the headquarters to Singapore in February last year.
The Radisson Blu and Dusit Thani Group of hotels and resorts in Bangkok as well as Far East Hospitality, Park Hotel Group and Amara Hotels & Resorts in Singapore have signed on to the app.
Dozens of new hotels are set to launch it in a few months, including the Naumi group of hotels in Singapore, Pullman Sukhumvit and Ambassador hotels in Bangkok and Katathani Collection of hotels in Phuket. A partnership with Guestline, a hotel management software company in Britain, will launch ButlerPad in 1,500 hotels there.
Last month, the company also launched CityButler, a free comprehensive guide to eight cities – including Bangkok, Melbourne and Singapore – linking users with the best bars, restaurants, transport services, shops, fitness classes, tour guides and spas in the city.
Destinations such as Hong Kong and Rome will be added in the coming months and the company aims to populate the app with 100 destinations in its first year. Now available for iOS and via the citybutler.co website; an Android version will be available later this month.
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Driven by the desire to take the tedium out of travel planning, four friends – Singaporean Rick Goh Siow Mong, 39; Vietnamese Donald Huynh, 34; and Tung Huynh, 27; and Malaysian Shum Mew Toong, 58 – created Justgola, a travel website and app (left) which generates itineraries based on travellers’ needs.
“Every time we travel, we need to perform the same routine: be inspired to travel to points of interest, search for information, select the attractions we like within our budget, then schedule the itinerary and purchase the travel plan. It is tedious and time-consuming. We thought, why not build a smart trip-planning application to help us plan, quote prices and book the trip easily?” says Mr Huynh.
Development for the initial website, then called Fiuzu.com, started in 2014. It was renamed Justgola last year. The free app was launched for Android last November and for iOS in January this year.
To use the app, travellers enter a destination and travel dates, tick their interests, such as culture, food and history, and their approximate budget a day. In a minute, the app generates the best itinerary to match the travellers’ interests, optimised to include the most efficient routes and transport options each day, with convenient rest stops and restaurants in between.
Travellers can customise the itinerary, adding or removing activities, or modify one of the dozen existing itineraries for each destination and book everything, from hotels to transport to activities, through the app.
Supported by a small technical team in Vietnam, the four members in Singapore are continually developing and refining the platforms.
In the final stages of securing angel investor funding, the app is live and already covers 80 destinations around the Asia-Pacific, including Siem Reap in Cambodia, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline ‘Finding app ways to travel’