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Investor panel declares AI-driven era the ‘most exciting’ for travel industry investments

WiT investors panel

Leading investors at Singapore’s Web in Travel conference discuss the transformative impact of AI on travel investments, emphasizing the role of data and human insight.

SINGAPORE – A panel of leading investors agrees that it is one of the most exciting times in history for travel industry investors – and they say that AI is responsible for a new age of innovation.

Stephan Ekbergh, CEO, Travelstart, kicked off an investor panel at Singapore’s Web in Travel conference, proclaiming that “some of the most incredible stuff that’s going to happen in the next ten years is happening as we speak”. He noted that the last time the travel industry saw such a period of ground-breaking innovation was right after the 2008 financial crisis, via the launch of companies like Airbnb.

But what’s the formula for a successful pitch going forward, as tech accelerates, human talent becomes scarcer and capital gets more expensive? How are investors thinking of the brave, new world of travel investments… and what are they looking for?

Stephen Snyder, Managing Director, Operations & Partnerships at JetBlue Ventures, says it’s an uncertain time, but innovation in the industry is rife, “We don’t know what’s on the other side of this uncertainty, but it’s exciting for us. We’ve invested in 50-plus companies in sustainability and the connected travel experience, and we are so excited by the possibilities in AI. I don’t think the future of generative AI is about content generation – it’s about taking data and using it in a better way. I welcome the volume of ideas there are out there [around this]. However, it’s human insight, grit and experience that is even more interesting than the technology.”

Chris Hemmeter, Managing Director, Thayer Ventures, added, “For a long time, we were totally focused on b2b investing. But that’s fundamentally changed. More than half of young travelers are making their decisions and planning through channels other than travel search. That’s put a wedge of opportunity into the top of the travel value chain. There is great disruption in the way consumers will discover and book travel, creating an opportunity for OTAs to be radically disruptive.

“It’s a positive that this hype cycle is coinciding with a time of economic pressure, as it means we’re not seeing such an overwhelming mountain of businesses with no substance. The reality is that the fundamentals of building a business has never changed – we are looking for people solving big problems, and entrepreneurs that have the grit to get the job done.”

For Tina Di Cicco, Board Member of Manila Angel Investors Network and Co-Founder of Avaya Ventures, it’s the “best time for investors in decades. I’m seeing founders who are really engaged in profitability and growth – not just there for the show or the hype. Now is the perfect time for venture capitalists to look into AI businesses. However, businesses need to have a real proposition and must prove their value to get noticed. We scrutinize start-up founders’ ideas more now – it needs to scale.”

And as for AI-generated pitch decks… “I’ve seen ones where the research behind it is done by chat GPT. It can help you, but it’s the idea behind it, the USP, and the scalability that matters. ChatGPT can help founders express themselves, but the nitty-gritty of the business is where the rubber meets the rim.”

Louise Daley, Investor and Advisor, added, “People are fed up with the lack of service they’re getting from airlines, hotels and restaurants [and this creates opportunity for innovators]. However, good ideas are still hotly contested – and valuations are disparate. Investors need to consider how they differentiate between what they’re seeing and what might actually work – otherwise, you’ve just got someone different trying to solve the same problem. So, innovators need to differentiate and need to make it commercial, not just about the technology.”

Oscar Ramos, General Partner, SOSV/Managing Director, Orbit Startups, added, “We are in super interesting times right now. We’re seeing a willingness among companies to change and explore alternatives. Organizations are realizing they have to change, or they’ll be in trouble. So, they are moving forward faster. There are still many that are reluctant to change, but we will see more difference and gap between those that change and those that don’t. Also, consider the growing sustainability trend – this is a new criteria that’s not just about doing what you want to do [to make money]; it also needs to be sustainable.”

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Theodore is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of TravelDailyNews Media Network; his responsibilities include business development and planning for TravelDailyNews long-term opportunities.