Ready for take off

When the three co-founders of digital travel management service Traveler Buddy were studying for their EMBA-Global in 2013, they felt in good company. Here was a group of people who loved travelling as much as they did. They’d be flying to London, New York and Hong Kong for their studies, and they’d still be plotting where to jet to for the weekend.

But what Juerg Kaufmann EMBAG2013, Philippe Graeppi EMBAG2013 and Sam Sena EMBAG2013 know is that level of travelling demands a high degree of efficiency to make time on the ground count. You need to keep your suitcase small. Pick the fastest lane for passport control. And know the best spots to pick up refreshments.

“I was based in Bermuda managing a retail group in the Caribbean when I was doing my EMBA-Global, and I clocked up a quarter of a million miles,” says Sena. “So there was this side of travel that we were all constantly exposed to. And when you have that much travel you’re trying to pull everything down to the bare essentials.”

Pain points

But there are still plenty of things that can catch even frequent travellers out. Graeppi, who clocks up more than 100,000 miles a year as an investment specialist for Credit Suisse, remembers rushing to the Swiss embassy in Singapore to get an emergency passport. He also knows the feeling of frantically searching his inbox for confirmation emails about his flight and hotel bookings and shuffling through reams of paper while on the move to find out his next meeting.

These are the painful realities of travelling and they’re bound to ring true for LBS alumni. But the one that really got Kaufmann was filling in immigration forms. Rummaging for your pen, your passport, your flight information, your hotel booking, just to hand-write some form. And who wants handwritten forms these days anyway?

Form filling

Kaufmann first voiced his insight at a class reunion in Jakarta in 2014. It was a workshop where people were encouraged to share their business ideas and Kaufmann’s pain at form filling struck a chord with his friend Graeppi who tested it out on others: “We asked 100 people in our network, including many of our LBS colleagues, and they all agreed that it was a pain and they’d be prepared to pay to avoid it,” he says.

“So then we took a step back and said how would you get the information needed to fill in these forms which made us think of the whole travel management process.”

A friend indeed

Traveler Buddy will work across mobile devices and online to bring all travel information into one place. Ahead of the trip it will make sure you have the visas and jabs you need and fill out the pre-loaded library of immigration documents. It will create an itinerary of flight details, hotel reservations, and meetings. When you arrive it will offer on-the-ground travel advice and restaurant recommendations. It will update information about flight cancellations or delays. And Traveler Buddy’s also looking at how to solve the nightmare of filling in corporate expenses based on photos of every receipt.

The traveller just needs to fill in an online profile then forward any confirmation emails to a central email address and the software will collate it all. Users can pay an annual fee of $8.99 or 99 cents per trip. There are at least four travel management tools on the market but Traveler Buddy has more features and with 1.1 billion international travellers, there’s plenty of business to go round.

The digital future

Just as digital is disrupting sectors like finance and retail, the Traveler Buddy team wants to challenge travel too. “I see a future of travelling where everything is paperless,” says Kaufmann. “You’ll simply use your smartphone or other device, and that’s it. And if something changes, you’ll get sent all the information. It’s a subtle thing we’re trying to revolutionise.”

One year on from writing their business plan they’ve self-funded a prototype put together by a full-time team of six developers and designers. Being able to click through the prototype and see their ideas come to life has been a big validation for Sena. “It’s given us something tangible to show to potential customers and investors, “ he says. “The great thing about LBS is that we’ve been exposed to some of the most current methodology of developing a new product and bringing it to the market in a very successful way.”

The team expects to launch on android and web in September and be ready for all devices in October. “When you’re developing app and web solutions you’re ready for market in a very short time,” adds Kaufmann.

The journey ahead

Traveler Buddy has an advisory board of three business leaders from the travel industry and ecommerce. And they’re opening their first funding round looking for $800,000 from investors, friends and family in return for 20 per cent equity.

In the meantime they’re talking to business partners, corporations and governments to develop their business. They think the data generated by the tool could be valuable for airlines, hotel chains and restaurants for targeted marketing. And national customs agencies are responsive to the idea of improving immigration forms. Traveler Buddy’s goal is to have all forms done before travelling so that by a QR code or barcode system you simply present your passport at customs, or do your identity check, and that’s it.

With Kaufmann based in Singapore, Graeppi in Zurich and Sena in New York, the Traveler Buddy team will have lots of opportunities to test their product and push the boundaries of digital travel.