Tao Tao is a Co-founder and the COO of GetYourGuide, a travel booking platform specialised in experiences and activities that make tourists fall in love with the city they visit. A well travelled man himself, Tao has lived in China, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the USA, and Germany. He has now returned to and settled in Berlin, where the international kickass talent has expedited GetYourGuide’s growth in the competitive global travel industry.
According to Filip Felician Dames, founding partner of VC Cherry Ventures and Tao’s long-time friend, “Tao is an incredibly dedicated operator. You won’t find [him] at meaningless networking events. He wants to build a successful business and likes to stay focused. He’s also an extremely kind human being who puts a lot of focus on his company culture and the happiness of his employes. With Cherry we like to back the most ambitious founders that want to build European technology leaders. Both Tao and Johannes [Reck] are perfect examples for the type of founders we like to back with Cherry Ventures.“
We had the pleasure of chatting with Tao about the GetYourGuide journey, travel trends, and how he continues to grow and challenge himself. Here’s what we’ve learned.
1. Don't start a travel company
First of all, there are three industries Tao believes are very difficult to enter: food, fashion, and travel. As he puts it, these are “passion and frustration products,” meaning their success relies on the gratification of customers’ needs and expectations. Second, the travel industry is dominated by big players (think Booking.com, TUI, and AirBnB) with whom you’re competing on a global scale. That means navigating through an expensive and complex network of multiple regions, laws, languages, channels, currencies, and cultures all the while playing with and against industry giants who’ve got – let’s face it – more resources and an established reputation.
2. Say "yes" to opportunity
The original business model for GetYourGuide was a peer-to-peer ‘couchsurfing’-style platform connecting travellers to locals. With a large international group of university students using the product, one rafting company saw the opportunity in tapping into this network and offered GetYourGuide an invoice in exchange for exposure to their users.
Instead of resisting the offer the founders spotted the value in leaving the tours and experiences up to the professionals. Through serendipity, and a willingness to say “yes” to opportunity, GetYourGuide evolved form a peer-to-peer tour guide platform to a platform for professional experiences.
3. Listen to your customers
GetYourGuide spoke to customers to understand the product-market fit, and found that although users were booking local tour guides on the platform, this wasn’t the best source for historical facts and information. In a place like Jerusalem, for example, where the city is divided into separate quarters, a tourist sees more of the city than a local who never leaves his or her quarter. Travellers were missing the opportunity to learn as much as possible and get an authentic in-depth experience.
As Tao put it, it’s important to “combine your vision for the future with what the customers want.” GetYourGuide’s mission is to deliver incredible experiences and this meant adjusting the business model to curate professional and high-quality packages that customers truly value.
4. People don't always want what they say they want
Everyone claims they want activities that are “off the beaten path.” As much as they want to “take a dance class on a rooftop in Paris’ 11th arrondissement“, an Instagram photo with the Eiffel Tower in the background almost always comes first. The key is to offer people unique experiences, but still giving them the option to go the “traditional” route.
The key is to offer new spins on popular tourist spots (places that are usually overcrowded by tourists to the point of inaccessibility) and give people the opportunity to plan things in advance, skip the lines, and combat the over-tourism in a more intelligent and tech-enabled way.
5. Travel is mobile and spontaneous
With accommodation, you know what you need and you book it in advance. With experiences, it’s not as clear and thus recommendations have a strong influence over your trip. Therefore GetYourGuide puts a lot of emphasis on the curation of their offers based on data, and data says mobile is king. For example, they created an “Instagram tour” which very quickly became the #1 experience package in Bali.
Same-day bookings are also the result of the growing trend in mobile bookings. Now that the European Union is rid of roaming charges, over half of all activities are booked via mobile, and one in ten are booked within 24 hours prior.
What's next for Tao and GetYourGuide as they continue to scale globally?
We asked Tao how he continues to challenge himself, to which he responded, “I think the right question is: How do I keep up? When your business is growing in size year after year, just keeping your role is a promotion.”
Tao has a very strong sense of gratitude and responsibility to the opportunities that came and continue to come their way. What started as a small vision between two university students has grown into a bigger global mission. Tao’s vision is that in ten or twenty years time, when people travel, they do it with GetYourGuide – to share experiences with family and friends, and to learn and reach out to experience the rest of the world.